Harriet Martineau's achievements
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- She made economic and social ideas and options understandable to the ordinary people. - Harriet had the gift of explaining difficult ideas, often by creating interesting stories as settings for the concepts (as in her 'Illustrations of Political Economy'). Her short stories became very popular and helped to spread the understanding of the economic options and social ideas emerging from the industrial revolution. For example, Harriet took Comte's rambling, difficult book and translated it into English, using her own sociological understanding to pull his ideas together and make them much easier to understand. It was so good that Comte had it translated back into French and used it with his own students. Without Harriet's work, Comte may well never have received the recognition he still has today.
- She developed a methodology for studying societies which has been used by sociologists ever since. - She is often referred to as the mother of sociology. In her book, 'How to Observe Morals and Manners' (1838), Harriet outlines her ideas that, when studying society, all its aspects should be looked at, including social class, religion, domestic relations (including treatment of children, servants and women) and how individuals and society's institutions interact. This was a much more in-depth and wide-ranging approach than had been used before. This was an important insight, and laid down one of the main foundations of modern sociology. She also translated the writings of Auguste Comte (the first person to use the term sociology).
- Harriet was one of the first Victorian women to write about the 'Woman Question', women's roles and rights in society. - A life-long feminist, in her writings she campaigned actively for education for all women to equal that of men, that employment should be open to women and they should be able to pursue careers as they chose, that women should be allowed to vote, that they should own their own property - not to have it passed to husbands if they married - and to have laws and practices discriminating against women abolished. She remained active in the Women's Suffrage movement until her death and was often a lone voice on the 'Woman Question'.
- Harriet was an outspoken critic of slavery and campaigned against it throughout her life. - Because of her belief in social justice, Harriet was always against slavery. Her visit to America brought her into contact with a society whose economy, in large areas, still depended on slavery. She spoke out against it throughout her time there and wrote, on her return, that slavery made a mockery of the American ideal of freedom. She wrote a book entitled 'The Martyr Age of the United States', which gave details of women's involvement in the American Anti-Slavery Society. At this stage, the Abolition movement was still small and weak in America, and her voice must have added weight to their arguments. Her writings on slavery, which include 'The Hour and the Man' about Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Haitian revolution, have been credited with swaying the British public in favour of the American Civil War and, through her articles, she almost single-handedly kept the question of slavery in America in the public eye.
- She helped to form the National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act. - Horrified by this legislation, Harriet was the first to bring it to public attention through her writings.This Act had been designed to reduce sexually transmitted disease in the armed forces. Because it was felt demeaning to soldiers to require them to undergo medical examination, it gave the police power to arrest any woman they thought might be a prostitute and keep her imprisoned until she had undergone a humiliating medical examination to determine whether she was carrying a venereal disease. If found to have one, she was detained in a locked 'hospital'. The Act was eventually repealed in 1886, some years after Harriet's death.
- She proposed very radical, at that time, views on education. - In her writings about education, she advocated that treating children kindly and with affection, rather than using commands and expecting obedience, would promote better education. She also advocated state education for all girls as well as boys. She firmly believed that the difference in achievements between women and men were a result of lack of education for females. These views did not make her popular with much of Victorian, male dominated society, and may be one of the reasons that this well-known and influential woman was forgotten within a generation of her death.
- She promoted many ideas that were ahead of their time. - Harriet did not just communicate other people's ideas, she had plenty of ideas of her own, some of which brought her trouble and lost her friends. This is because they were ahead of their times - sometimes, so far ahead that it is only in recent years that they have become widely accepted. Hypnotism, for example, is now used by the NHS; but, until quite recently, it was regarded as an unscientific, not to say loony, practice. Atheism, on the other hand, is a position held openly and widely on religious matters, and has been for a long time; her theory that the evolution of religion would lead in the end to worldwide atheism was very much in line with Marxist thinking which became popular in the 20th century.
- She was one of the first practising woman journalists in England. - Journalism provided Harriet Martineau with a unique opportunity to promote causes she believed in and to prove women had a voice worth listening to. Daily newspapers in Victorian Britain, from the 1850s onwards, sought to adopt a more accessible writing style which aimed to entertain as well as to inform. This was very much Harriet’s style. Harriet contributed to: Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, Chambers Journal, Penny Magazine, Westminster Review, Edinburgh Review, Dickens' Household Words, People's Journal, The Leader, Macmillan's Magazine, The Cornhill Magazine and Once a Week. She contributed to American journals: Atlantic Monthly and National Anti-Slavery Standard (NASS). She also wrote for the Daily News supplying, between 1852 and 1866, 1,642 leaders (Webb 1959). Her articles examined such diverse topics as Australian emigration, social class, slavery, religion, suicide, national character, domestic relations, women’s status, criminology, and interrelations between institutions and individuals, education, public health, war, political, legal and prison reform.