Harriet Martineau's Feminism

It is tempting to follow Martineau's own method and measure herfeminism against specific principles. For historical fairness,they should be principles that she herself endorsed. Yet thatwould not yield a full enough picture, for it is my intent toshow her contribution to later feminism, including that of ourtime, as well as to the efforts of her time. Thus, the criteriamust be both her own and ones that we still consider importanttoday, though we must be aware of the difference between thoseideas that were deliberately feminist on her part and the onesto which we in a later age have assigned feminist significance.

Martineau, herself a model of women's accomplishment for laterfeminists, was often a genuine promoter of other women. She wassensitive and conscious of efforts made by women on women's behalf,even though her tongue could sometimes be acid in gossip aboutsome women. Contemporary feminist scholars can note with appreciationthat in her Illustrations of Political Economy she repeatedlygave Mrs. Jane Marcet credit for the idea of her own work. Thoughshe raised her eyebrows at Mary Wollstonecraft's personal sexualbehavior and what she regarded as her romantic excesses, she fullyacknowledged Wollstonecraft as the first English public advocateof women's rights. Present at the dinner at which John StuartMill and Harriet Taylor met, she is reputed to have been one ofthe worst gossips about the long, devoted relationship Taylorand Mill maintained while Taylor was married to someone else. Yet she was supportive of their feminism. Although she was notvery tolerant of or informed about sexuality and unorthodox relationships,she was very supportive of work, education, political rights,and personal dignity for women; and she went a long way in supportingall manner of their manifestations. She came to be able to dothis by objectifying the actual women involved as she led theircauses.

In a leader in the London Daily News published June 28,1854, Harriet Martineau wrote that "the wife-beating whichhas excited so much attention for the last two or three years,and which we have endeavored to meet by express legislation, hasrevealed to alarmed thousands of us that the mistresses of tyrannicalmen have a great advantage over the wives in being able to freethemselves from their tyrant when they please. They can tellthe truth in court about the treatment they have undergone; forthey have nothing to fear from the vindictiveness of the brutewhen he comes out of gaol again." [12] This observationcame in response to a report of a parliamentary Commission onDivorce. A Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act was to pass in1857, and Martineau's support of it in the newspaper and her expressionof that support in terms of the easing of brutality against poorwomen are indications of her surprisingly foresighted feministoutlook. The new law only established a single court where therehad previously been three different jurisdictions to handle divorcecases and did not actually give women much relief, but Martineau'sargument is immensely important as an early feminist frameworkfor later criticism and campaigns. Long before the coining ofthe word "feminist" and thirty years before the beginningof an organized women's rights campaign in England, Harriet Martineauwas a wide-ranging, progressive, and thorough-going feminist innearly every sense in which that word is used today. [13] Embracingpractically every cause clearly in favor of women's advancementin her lifetime and taking up certain issues that were not sodefinitely identified as parts of the feminist fabric until the1960s and 1970s, Martineau was a giant among early feminists. An overview of Martineau's writings and the issues and campaignsshe fought for with her pen gives a contemporary reader both aprofile of the emergence of feminism in nineteenth-century Englandand America and a theoretical foundation for the feminist socialphilosophy still dominant today.

She was the first Englishwoman to make the analogy between theAmerican woman's lot and the slave's. [14] Publishing that claimin Society in America in the context of a full analysisof the situation of American women, she and her book receivedfar more attention, both positive and negative, for her abolitionistviews than for her feminism. Yet the book included a very astutechapter entitled "The Political Non-Existence of Women,"in which she claimed that the democratic principle was violatedby the denial of political participation to women. It was fromwomen that she had learned much that she knew about the UnitedStates, and she gave credit to these women for their achievementsand talents. At the same time she criticized the lack of authorityand choice for American women and the resulting servitude formany of them.

Martineau's position as a model for today's feminists or as aninspiration for female achievers is important. Alice S. Rossi'sinclusion of Martineau's chapter on women from Society in America in her selection of classic feminist statements, The FeministPapers ( 1973), indicates the current value of Martineau'sthought. In presenting her chapter from Martineau, Rossi especiallyrepresents Martineau as a forerunner of the discipline of sociology.

Others could make such a claim for her relation to economics,though Martineau was a popularizer in that field, not an originalthinker. Although it would be much too extravagant to claim asignificant place for her as a fiction writer--her didactic tales,children's stories, and novel Deerbrook having small currentreadership--it is, nevertheless, important to note that she wrotea considerable amount of fiction. The most comprehensive "first"that Martineau accomplished as a woman was as a journalist, forbesides earning her living from her early thirties by writingnumerous popular books and many articles for major journals, shecontributed, as mentioned, over 1,600 editorials to the LondonDaily News on an enormous range of political and socialtopics during the 1850s and 1860S.

The historian Janet Courtney, writing in the 1930s about the Britishwomen's movement in the 1830s, believed Harriet Martineau to bethe leading feminist of the period. Courtney wrote, "Andwhen I found Harriet Martineau, the ablest of them all, announcingthat the best advocates of women's rights would be the successfulprofessional women and the 'substantially successful authoresses,'I recognized that she had put in a nutshell the whole truth aboutthe women's movement." [15]

Courtney believed that in the 1830s women and women's rights madegreat advances only to fall back under the influence of QueenVictoria and the Victorians. Though Martineau did not write thepassage Courtney selected until she wrote her Autobiographyin 1855, faith in individual women's accomplishments was a centralpoint of Martineau's feminism from the beginning.

The female role model idea is significant in Martineau's firstpublished piece, "Female Writers of Practical Divinity,"published in the Unitarian journal Monthly Repository in1822. The article opens,

I do not know whether it has been remarked by others as well asmyself, that some of the finest and most useful English workson the subject of Practical Divinity are by female authors. Isuppose it is owing to the peculiar susceptibility of the femalemind, and its consequent warmth of feeling, that its productions,when they are really valuable, find a more ready way to the heartthan those of the other sex; and it gives me great pleasure tosee women gifted with superior talents, applying those talentsto promote the cause of religion and virtue. [16]

In contradiction to her theme, however, she signed the article,"Discipulus," implying a male author, a practice shefollowed in pseudonym or textual voice off and on throughout hercareer in spite of the fame she gained in the 1830s writing inher own name.

She was to echo her first printed sentiment about women achieversas models in a piece written as an obituary for Florence Nightingalewhen Nightingale was believed to be dying after the Crimean War,but not published until 1910 when Nightingale actually died. Florence Nightingale was the woman of her time whom Martineauperhaps most greatly admired, and she wrote,

Florence Nightingale encountered opposition--from her own sexas much as the other; and she achieved, as the most natural thingin the world, and without the smallest sacrifice of her womanlyquality, what would beforehand have been declared a deed for afuture age.
She was no declaimer, but a housewifely woman; she talked little,and did great things. When other women see that there are thingsfor them to do, and train themselves to the work, they will getit done easily enough. There can never be a more unthought-ofand marvellous career before any working woman than Florence Nightingalehas achieved; and her success has opened a way to all others easierthan anyone had prepared for her. [17]

Education for women was another theme Martineau pursued all herlife. Her second published piece was on that topic. She waswell aware early that intellectual occupation was not consideredfitting for a girl, writing that "when I was young, it wasnot thought proper for young ladies to study very conspicuously;and especially with pen in hand. . . . and thus my first studiesin philosophy were carried on with great care and reserve."[18] Martineau's youthful writings suggested that women shouldbe educated in order to enhance their companionship with men andimprove their teaching of their own children, although she alwaysadvocated a rigorous course of study for girls, physical exercisefor girls as well as boys, and domestic arts for women in additionto the program followed by males. Her feminist consciousnessgrew, and in later life, she encouraged the idea of educationof women for its own sake and recommended a full program of advancedsubjects. As a public figure and in the press, she supportedthe establishment of the colleges for women in London, QueensCollege in Harley Street and the Ladies College in Bedford Square,of the first professional school of nursing at St. Thomas' Hospitalin London, and of women's medical education.

Work for women was also a frequent theme. Martineau made a strongargument--amazing for the time--in favor of equal pay for equalwork. Hers was not the literal argument still heard today thatwomen should be paid the same amount of money for exactly thesame jobs as men but was much stronger, insisting that equivalentlabor deserves equal pay. She made it most forcefully, in fact,on behalf of the dairy-maids whose job of milking the cows twicedaily, straining the milk, preparing cheese, and churning butterhad formerly been exclusively a female occupation. She wrotethat "such work as this ought at least to be paid as wellas the equivalent work of men; indeed, in the dairy farms of thewest of England the same labour of milking the kine is now verygenerally performed by men, and the Dorset milkmaid, trippingalong with her pail, is, we fear, becoming a myth." [19]

In her writings on women's work Martineau repeatedly expresseda concern for health as well as pay. She wrote in several piecesof the degeneration of stamina and mental well-being experiencedby governesses and servant women because of the crushing demandsof their employers: "The physician says that, on the femaleside of the lunatic asylums, the largest class, but one, of theinsane are maids of all work (the other being governesses). Thecauses are obvious enough: want of sufficient sleep from lateand early hours, unremitting fatigue and hurry, and, even morethan these, anxiety about the future from the smallness of thewages." [20] If not the insane asylum, then the workhousefollowed for many of these women, for they did not earn enoughto save for their old age. But it was better wages and the obligationof good advice from their employers on savings pensions for themselvesthat Martineau advocated. Ever the laissez-faire economist, shedid not envision a social scheme for retirement benefits.

For middle-class married women, Martineau advocated improved householdmanagement skills exemplified in learning expert cookery. Theteaching of such skills as cookery could also become an occupation. These women need not be housebound, though, for many of themwere already engaged alongside their husbands, brothers, and fathersin shopkeeping, crafts, small manufacturing, and the deskwork,especially accounting, that went with such employment. Martineaubelieved that such women should be encouraged to be more activein these pursuits, but that they would be much more useful ifthey were taught sufficient arithmetic to manage sales and accountingeffectively. Though she did not propose wide-scale female ownershipof businesses in preference to men and typically discussed femaleshopkeeping as though husbands were in charge, she did encouragesingle women to learn business skills and widows to learn to managetheir inherited shops to avoid having to remarry so quickly. She spoke of nursing and medicine as newly opened occupationsthat should be attractive to middle-class women and predictedthat scientists, artists, and writers would emerge from amongeducated women.

When Harriet Martineau was fifty-two, she wrote to all her correspondentsasking them to address her henceforth as "Mrs.," buther request had nothing to do with marriage. It was an acknowledgmentthat greater respect was carried by the title "Mrs."than "Miss" and an assertion that she was entitled tosuch respect. This was resonant with the original meaning ofthe word "mistress," of which "Mrs." was firstan abbreviation, a word that meant female authority in the householdand had nothing to do with marital status. That meaning was largelygone by the end of the eighteenth century, but a few distinguishednineteenth-century single women like Martineau attempted to renewit, showing a sensitivity to the dignity conveyed by a title. Their attempts came from the same impulse that pressed feministsof the 1970s to introduce "Ms." as a general title bywhich a woman might be addressed whatever her marital status.

Martineau was outspoken about the degradation and limits imposedon women by marriage, but she was understandably ambivalent insome of her statements and contradictory in some of her behaviorhaving to do with marriage. In her time and place where marriagewas so definitively normative for women, the wonder is that shewas at times so piercingly critical of marriage in general, notthat most of the time she fostered and approved of specific marriagesbetween people she knew. This too is more consistent with contemporaryfeminists' views of the disabilities of marriage than with thoseof Martineau's own time.

This contradiction is vividly seen in two illustrations. In the"Memorials," Maria Weston Chapman reports the memoryone of Harriet Martineau's oldest friends had of Martineau's deepregret at the marriage of a young lady friend. She related thatMartineau said that marriage "would deprive her of largeropportunities of usefulness to the world." [21] Yet in 1854she was apparently very happy to sponsor the wedding for her maidfrom her house at Ambleside. She wrote, refusing an invitationreceived from a Mrs. Barkworth: "Many thanks for your invitation;but the intended bridegroom will be here on Sunday, and I am engagedevery day till after the wedding. My house, hands, heart andtime will be very full till it is over." [22]

More enigmatic is her approval of Margaret Fuller's marriage toCount Ossoli during the last years of Fuller's life. Given heropinion that marriage would "deprive [one young woman] oflarger opportunities of usefulness," it is striking to findMartineau writing of "that remarkable regeneration whichtransformed her [Fuller] from the dreaming and haughty pedantinto the true woman. In a few months more she had loved and married;and how interesting and beautiful was the closing period of herlife, when husband and child concentrated the power and affectionswhich had so long run to waste in intellectual and moral eccentricity."[23] This is a rather severe judgment of Fuller, for althoughMartineau claims to have been her friend, twice in the Autobiography she sharply criticizes the American woman. She is resentfulthat Fuller negatively criticized Society in America forits emphasis on the abolition of American slavery. [24] She wasalso stung by a report from London that Fuller had called her"commonplace" after a visit as her houseguest at TheKnoll. [25] Though near in age and occupation, and even in high-strungtemperament, Martineau and Fuller were opposites philosophically,Martineau the rationalist, Fuller the romantic, Martineau thepositivist, Fuller the transcendentalist. It is no wonder thatthey finally did not get along with each other. This evidencemakes me wonder if Martineau was not being spiteful rather thantruthful about the value of marriage for Margaret Fuller.

On marriage in theory, Martineau wrote in How to Observe Moralsand Manners: " The traveller everywhere finds womentreated as the inferior party in a compact in which both partieshave an equal interest. Any agreement thus formed is imperfect,and is liable to disturbance; and the danger is great in proportionto the degradation of the supposed weaker party. The degree ofthe degradation of woman is as good a test as the moralist canadopt for ascertaining the state of domestic morals in any country." And "It is a matter of course that women who are furnishedwith but one object,--marriage--must be as unfit for anythingwhen their aim is accomplished as if they had never any objectat all. They are no more equal to the task of education thanto that of governing the state; and, if any unexpected turn ofadversity befals them, they have no resource but a convent, orsome other charitable provision." [26] Her observationsof marriage were confirmed by letters she received from Englishwomendescribing the "intolerable oppression" of women underlaw and custom in England. [27]

Martineau published theoretical considerations of political equalityfor women several times between 1837 and 1851. All were aboutwomen in American society; and all were very positive. But onlyonce, in a passage in her Autobiography, did she addressat its most abstract level what was typically called in her daythe woman question, and on that occasion she is atypically negative. The tone of that piece suggests that women will come to havepolitical rights if women will be worthy of them. Most othertimes she was far more willing to indict the political systemfor excluding women.

The woman's suffrage campaign did not really get under way untilthe late 1860s when Martineau's health w as failing. However,she had written in 1855, "I have no vote at elections, thoughI am a tax-paying housekeeper and responsible citizen; and I regardthe disability as an absurdity, seeing that I have for a longcourse of years influenced public affairs to an extent not professedor attempted by many men." [28]

She went on in that passage, however, to disclaim any intentionof agitating over suffrage, believing that women would have avote in time. The vote was clearly simply one among many women'sissues for her, not the central, singular driving focus for women'srights that it came to be in both England and America after herdeath. Nevertheless, she readily signed the petition for women'ssuffrage that John Stuart Mill presented to Parliament in 1866. She admired Mill and believed him to be an effective supporterof women's rights, but adding her name to those of the 1,498 otherwomen on the petition was not a strong gesture. Her convictionof the rightness of the principle of the vote for women, incidentally,was not shared by the ruling Queen Victoria, still mourning deeplyfor her husband, then dead for five years, nor by the most admiredwoman in England at the time and Martineau's friend, FlorenceNightingale. [29]

Martineau's final act of political activism in her old age wason behalf of women and again in the service of a campaign ledby another, the campaign of the Ladies' National Association forthe Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts led by Josephine Butler. This time a thoroughly feminist organization was launched. Itwas liberal and even patronizing in the sense that it consistedof "respectable" women working for "fallen"women. Nevertheless, this movement was radical in the sense thatthe women involved realized that all women were potentially incriminatedby laws that identified prostitutes too vaguely and punished womenbut not men for acts of prostitution.

Martineau was invigorated by writing publicly for this campaign,which provided an appropriate finale for a distinguished careeras journalist, thinker, and feminist.


The selections in this book were chosen to give a full view ofthe ways in which Harriet Martineau wrote about women and aboutthose feminist issues, both historical and contemporary, thatshe addressed. Often she wrote several pieces on the same topic,and I usually picked the shortest one if it gave the completescope of her argument. To choose from her many biographical workson women, I used two criteria: that a particularly feminist pointwas made and that the biographee v as herself notable. To myknowledge, the pieces on American women, Irish women, and thewomen in the harems in Cairo and Damascus are the only ones shewrote in a deliberately social mode about women in groups. Iwanted to show how she attended to feminist material and developedfeminist theory throughout her lifetime, so I chose material fromdifferent periods of her writing. Since my purpose was solelyto develop the idea that over forty years Martineau fostered feministcauses and structured feminist theory in a great many works, Iexcluded from the selections printed here passages that were notdirectly about women. I have left nearly all of Martineau's spelling,punctuation, and phrasing as they were in the original source,even though occasionally one looks like a printer's error or agrammatical oversight. I have assumed that the reader's interestwill be primarily on the topic of women, so I have kept to a minimum,interesting though it is, commentary or notes on the surroundinghistorical background or incidental figures in Martineau's texts.


12. Leader 2 beginning "Divorce and Matrimonial Causes,"p. 4.

13. Alice S. Rossi, in The Feminist Papers (New York:Columbia University Press, 1973), p. xiii, says that the word"feminism" was first used in print in a book reviewin the Athenaeum on April 27, 1895.

14. Martineau, Society in America, Lipset ed., pp. 126,292. Sarah Grimke made the same analogy the same year, in herLetters to the Congregational Clergy, which shows that the analogywas being made in the abolitionist circles in which they bothmoved in the United States. Although Grimke and Martineau didnot meet, the Grimke sisters, like Martineau, were welcomed andsponsored by Maria Weston Chapman when they first went to Boston,the year after Martineau's departure. Most of the chapter "PoliticalNon-Existence of Women" as it originally appeared in Societyin America (London: Saunders & Otley, 1837, vol. 1, pp.148-154) is reprinted as the first selection in Section IV.

15. The Adventurous Thirties: A Chapter in the Women's Movement(London: Oxford University Press, Humphrey Milford, 1933), p.1.

16. Monthly Repository 17 (October 1822): 593.

17. The obituary from which this passage is taken forms the closingselection of Section V.

18. Autobiography, vol. I, pp. 77-78.

19. "Female Industry," Edinburgh Review 222(April 1859): 300.

20. Ibid., p. 307.

21. Autobiography, vol. 2, p. 157.

22. Harriet Martineau, manuscript letter to Mrs. Barkworth, n.d.,n.p. Ashcombe Collection, 1917, Fitzwilliam Museum Library, Cambridge,England.

23. Autobiography, vol. 1, p. 518

24. Ibid., pp. 380-381.

25. Ibid., p. 518.

26. For more from this passage, see the first selection in SectionII.

27. Autobiography, vol. 1, p. 406

28. Ibid., p. 303.

29. Doris Mary Stenton, The English Woman in History (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1957), p. 344.

From Gayle Graham Yates, (Ed.)., Harriet Martineau on Women.New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1985, pp. 16-27.

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