Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Saturday, June 27, 2015

Harriet Martineau: "A Great Lion in London"

Harriet Martineau (died 27 June 1876)

Born on June 12 1802, Harriet Martineau was the daughter of Thomas Martineau and Elizabeth Rankin. Martineau's father was a manufacturer of textiles (the "Norwich staples" of "bombazine and camlet") and an importer of wine, her mother the daughter of a wholesale grocer and sugar refiner, based in Newcastle. Nothing about this family background marked Harriet Martineau out for the remarkable career she would make for herself--except for her family's progressive views on education. 

Harriet Martineau, 1834,
portrait by Richard Evans
Harriet Martineau was provided with the same education as her brothers, at least until the brothers went off to continue their education at the university level.

In 1823, Martineau would publish "On Female Education" in the Unitarian journal Monthly Repository describing this essential injustice--an article her brother James, studying to become a minister, praised.

And once he learned his sister was the author, he encouraged her to do more than point out the injustice: "Now, dear, leave it to the other women to make skirts and darn stockings, and you devote yourself to this." 

Martineau did indeed devote herself to "this"--and to much more. Although tempted by a marriage her father arranged, she ultimately rejected a domestic life. She continued to write for the Monthly Repository on a number of subjects before relocating to London.

There she wrote devotional works before turning her attention to topics much less "suitable" for women--she wrote on politics and economics, publishing Illustrations of Political Economy (1832–34), Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated (1833–34), and Illustrations of Taxation (1834). It was in 1834 that Charles Darwin, in Galapagos, received a letter from his sister noting that Martineau had become "a great Lion in London."

Martineau traveled to America in 1836 and published two works after that trip, Society in America (1837) and Retrospect of Western Travel (1838). In both she was highly critical of the way that the supposed democratic society operated. The chapter on women in Society in America--"Political Non-Existence of Women"--is particularly noteworthy: "One of the fundamental principles announced in the Declaration of Independence is, that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. How can the political condition of women be reconciled with this?"

In America, Martineau met with a number of important American abolitionists, and in addition to the two books on her trip, her 1839 essay in the Westminster Review, "The Martyr Age in the United States," focused on the abolitionist movement in the United States.

In her long writing career, Martineau published novels, children's stories, histories, an autobiographical account of illness and invalidism (Life in the Sickroom: Essays by an Invalid), books on education (Household Education, 1848) and gardening, and on philosophy (Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development, 1851), all the while continuing regular journalistic work (she contributed some 1600 articles just to the Daily News). She also traveled to the Middle East, publishing Eastern Life Past and Present (1848) and, a little closer to home, A Complete Guide to the English Lakes in 1855.

Although she suffered a number of disabilities and illnesses throughout her life, Martineau lived a relatively long and full life, dying in 1876 at the age of seventy-four.

Martineau is remembered today as a social activist and reformer, an economics and history writer, a journalist, and a feminist. In her now-classic anthology The Feminist Papers (1973), second-wave feminist and sociologist Alice S. Rossi had this to say about Harriet Martineau:
Crusty, garrulous, a prodigious writer, a forerunner of the discipline of sociology not yet born, Harriet Martineau stands as an early ardent defender of women's rights, the first woman sociologist, and a sympathetic observer of the social condition of women in a society that proclaimed freedom and justice for all but did not grant it to more than half its population.
You can read Martineau's "Political Non-Existence of Women" (in the first volume of Society in America) by clicking here. Another section, "Woman" (in the second volume of Society in America) is available here ("If a test of civilisation be sought, none can be so sure as the condition of that half of society over which the other half has power. . . . Tried by this test, the American civilisation appears to be of a lower order than might have been expected . . . . ")

Society in America and many other works by Martineau are available through Google Books; many are also accessible at Project Gutenberg or through a free Kindle download. Martineau also wrote an autobiography, published posthumously, but you may enjoy Deborah Anna Logan's The Hour and the Woman: Harriet Martineau's "Somewhat Remarkable" Life.

Bonus trivia: according to Christopher Wilson's article in The Telegraph, "The Benefits of a Feminist in the Family," Kate Middleton is a descendant of Harriet Martineau: "Harriet Martineau's father was Kate's great, great, great, great, great grandfather." Why so backwards, Mr. Wilson? Instead of focusing on Martineau's father for this genealogical link, why couldn't you put it in these terms:  "Kate Middleton's great great great great great grandmother Elizabeth Rankin Martineau"?