History's HEROES? 1802 - 1876

Harriet Martineau

Her world
  • Society and the new middle class

    Harriet MartineauHarriet Martineau lived at a time when the modern intellectual world was just beginning. She was typical of a small group of intellectuals who wanted to change society and bring about a more equal world. This group belonged to the middle class of Georgian and Victorian society.

    The Growth of a New Middle Class
    At this period, the middle classes were growing enormously. The expansion of trade and industry was creating vast new wealth; Harriet herself was the daughter of a factory owner. Although he ended up leaving very little money to his family after his death, in his lifetime his family had lived comfortably.

    Banks, Shops and Local Government
    It was not just the number of factory owners that grew: bankers, stockbrokers, railway managers, shipping officials, retailing supervisors - all these and more now earned good incomes and had disposable wealth. The expansion of business was accompanied by the growth of government. Before the Victorian era, the government was run by ministers with tiny staffs to help them. As society became more complex and the demands of government grew, the civil service and local government expanded hugely. The professional civil servant became a common figure, especially in London, and local government officials also increased in numbers.

    Whilst many poor children still did not benefit from learning to read and write (education did not become compulsory until 1870), the 19th century saw a huge increase in the numbers of comfortably-off, well-educated families.  All eight Martineau children had a good education. The three sons went to university, a source of anger to Harriet as women were not allowed the benefit of a university education.

    Leisure and Literature
    Harriet's friends had the necessary income and leisure time to pursue their literary careers, without too much worry about where the next meal was coming from. In this, Harriet herself was an exception. She needed to earn a living, at least in the beginning; but people like Darwin and the Huxleys and the McAulleys had no such worries. However, not having the safety net of a comfortable income helped to drive Harriet into breaking the mould set for women of the day and gave her the strength and determination to carry on in the face of indifference and opposition.

    Having the money and the leisure to look at the world around them, the Victorian middle and upper classes became aware of the plight of many people less fortunate and well off than themselves. Many began to involve themselves in actively working to improve conditions for various poorer sections of society. From charitable giving to setting up voluntary societies, from putting pressure on the governments of the day to actively taking part in protest movements, the Victorian middle classes were the first to take up the banner of social justice and welfare reform in any co-ordinated way. The writers and intellectuals, like Harriet Martineau, used their skills to popularise causes and mobilise public opinion in ways that resulted in a huge variety of reforms. 



  • Making a living in the Victorian world

    Harriet MartineauFor the urban poor and for men, women and children, work was often to be found labouring in the new factories. Many working-class girls and women were also employed in domestic service.  Middle-class men had never had such a wide choice of careers. For middle class women, however, things were very different.  A woman's role was still seen as that of a wife and mother and, for women who did not marry, career opportunities were very limited.

    Career Opportunities
    Whilst men could find work as vicars, lawyers and in the military, as well as bankers, stockbrokers, civil servants and local government workers, engineers, doctors, the colonial service and much more, the main possibilities for women were teaching and, its close relative, being a governess.

    Opportunities through Writing
    Harriet Martineau could not take up teaching because of her hearing disorder and, for a girl of her temperament, being a governess would probably have been a disaster. So writing was a logical choice, although early on in her career Harriet supplemented her earnings through doing sewing and embroidery for others.

    A Market for Knowledge and Literature
    Thankfully, the market for books and pamphlets was large. With no television or radio for entertainment, novels and non-fiction articles and books on a wide range of subjects were very popular. However, the frequent rejection slips received by such women as the Brontes shows that, even so, it was not an easy profession to get into - especially for women; some decided to use male pseudonyms in order to be taken seriously. 

    Harriet's Books
    Harriet Martineau's books (more than 50 in number), her many thousands of articles (she wrote regularly for newspapers and journals) and her letters show the diversity of her interests and the wide range of her abilities: 

    • The Woman Question - Her first published article 'On Female Education', when she was 21, was printed anonymously. In it Harriet argued that the 'inferiority' of women's intellect was a result of lack of education, and the expectations of others (society) about women and their roles. Throughout her life, Harriet continued in this belief and devoted much time and many articles and books to the Woman Question. She returns to this theme even in her sociological works': such works as 'How to Observe Morals and Manners' (1838).
    • Religion - During her early years, Harriet was a very devout Unitarian and much of her early work reflects this, for example, 'Devotional Exercises and Addresses, Prayers and Hymns' (1823) as well as many articles for a Unitarian Monthly Repository. Some years later after a visit to the Middle East 1846, Harriet wrote a book examining the Egyptian, Hebrew, Christian and Mohameddan faiths called 'Eastern Life, Present and Past' (1848). 
    • Works to explain difficult ideas - Harriet's first real success came with a series of stories, 'Illustrations of Political Economy' 1832-34, in which she explained various difficult economic ideas in an easy-to-read style, thus popularising them across a wide audience. In these stories, she also attacked slavery - on economic as well as moral grounds. These books became enormously popular and brought Harriet fame and wealth. She added another series called 'Illustrations of Taxation' and four more supporting the Poor Law reforms. 
    • Novels - Her most famous novel is 'Deerbrook' (1839), a three-volume domestic novel focussing on middle-class life in the fictional village of Deerbrook. Though slated by some reviewers, it was read with pleasure by such people as George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell. 
    • Studies of societies - Harriet wrote a wide range of material about studying societies as well as using her ideas and methods to actually do so. 'How to Observe Morals and Manners' (1838), outlines her ideas for what is needed to study society effectively, and the aspects of society that should be looked at (most of which were not investigated prior to that time) i.e. the least-powerful, children, servants and women. She used her ideas in a three-volume book that came out of her  journey to and around America, 'Theory and Practice of Society in America' (1837). She followed this with 'A Retrospect of Western Travel' which was more of a travelogue than the previous book.
    • She also wrote children's books, simplified translations of the work of others, and wrote her autobiography.

  • A world of new ideas

    MesmerismVictorians have gone down in history as religious and straight-laced. Compared with previous periods, however, it was a free thinking and radical era. After all, it was during this time that Darwin, Marx and Freud wrote - the thinkers who would shape the 20th century world of ideas more than any other people.

    It was a time when people felt free to question the faiths passed down to them by their elders. One of the interesting trends of the period was the rising popularity of Unitarianism. This was the branch of Christianity to which Harriet Martineau's family belonged. They believed in rational inquiry and rejected the divinity of Jesus Christ, and scholars have noted that it provided a stepping stone, for many people, from faith to scepticism, and even atheism, as in Harriet Marineau's case.

    The Social Sciences
    Sociology did not even have its name at the time when Harriet wrote her book about how to study societies: 'How to Observe Morals and Manners' (1838). People had begun to be interested in looking at other societies, but they tended only to look at the overall structures and to compare them with their own society.  Harriet believed that to get to the heart of understanding a society, one needed have a method and study all aspects, including how society treated the less-powerful, such as children, servants and women and how institutions related to individuals. More people took an interest in the theory of studying societies and, in 1839, Auguste Comte wrote his rambling 'Cours de Philosophie Positive' which introduced the term 'sociology' and also produced a methodology. It was a very difficult book to read, until translated and revised by Harriet Marineau - when it became popular in Britain as well as France. These early thinkers were followed by Durkheim, Weber and Marx, who are still studied today.

    The Natural Sciences
    The natural sciences became very popular throughout the Victorian era.  Darwin's famous voyages on the Beagle, in the 1830s, and his subsequent publishing of his observations sparked an interest, for many middle- and upper-class Victorians, in travel, collecting species and natural observation. Then, in 1859, Darwin published 'On the Origin of Species' which was the beginning of the theory of evolution and all the sciences that have sprung from it. Harriet Martineau embraced this new theory with interest, especially as it fitted so well with her growing atheism, though Darwin himself was not an atheist.

    The Beginnings of the Women's Movement
    The Victorian era saw the beginnings of the movement for equal rights for women. Harriet was one of the first women to address the 'Woman Question', as it was called, in her writings. There were a growing number of women writers and intellectuals who were not happy with the social and legal restrictions on women at the time. With other women and men who believed in equal rights, Harriet campaigned for university education for women and was successful with the establishment of Queen's College in London in 1848: the first women's college. Along with colleagues throughout this time, she called for women's right to work, equal rights for wives in marriage, repeal of laws that discriminated against women and she was signatory to one of the first petitions for votes for women, that went to Parliament in 1866. 

    The Weird and Wonderful
    There was also a fascination with the weird and the wonderful. Famous figures of the day, such as Arthur Canon Doyle, became involved with spiritualism. Clairvoyance and mesmerism were also popular but were still held, by most, to be weird. Some of these movements would almost disappear, but others, such as mesmerism (hypnotism), would gain value in the modern world. It was a subject in which Harriet was very interested and had first-hand experience: her pain and discomfort seeming to disappear completely after a course of mesmerism. 


  • Travelling to the New World

    Map of America Harriet Martineau was one of many well-known people who visited the USA in the 1830s and 40s  to observe and report on what was still seen as an exotic place, with its strange fauna and flora and new form of democracy.

    Accounts of America
    These visitors often wrote accounts of their journeys. Whereas many European visitors derided the Americans and saw their society as vulgar, Harriet Marineau was, on the whole, an admirer. She covered over 10,000 miles during her travels, saw natural wonders and observed social institutions, prisons, schools, asylums and fashionable resorts. Harriet's easy sense of humour and her eager sympathy for things American made her many friends. She found herself popular and her hosts eager to please; important citizens took her into their homes.  Already well known for her writing, journalists followed her wherever she went. One issue, however, that did concern her was slavery.

    America and Slavery
    After the revolutionary era, the question of slavery was left to the individual states to legislate. In the North, where there were few slave holders; the institution had petered out. In the South, it had not only survived but was thriving, due to the profitability of the cotton and sugar plantations. In the South, emancipation was resisted by the slave owners who insisted that freeing the enslaved people would lead to race wars. There was also a high level of prejudice and many people feared the mixing of the races.

    A popular movement, both in the North and South of the country, was colonisation, which proposed ridding the country of slavery by removing all of the black people, starting with those who were already free. In the early days it had been supported by abolitionists, who saw it as an answer to the prejudice that the freed slaves would face. However, many members of the The American Colonization Society were also racist, fearing assimilation into white society. A colony was founded in Liberia (which eventually gained independence). Harriet felt contempt for the notion of colonization. She felt it illustrated the moral blindness of a nation that accepted slavery and felt the notion promoted race hatred. She was pleased that the Abolitionists had come to see it for what she felt it was: a fraud.

    In England, the Abolition Movement had seen the ending of the slave trade in 1807 and, on July 26th, 1833, the Abolition of Slavery Bill abolished slavery throughout the colonies, to take effect in August 1834. In America, however, slavery continued. The fledgling American Abolition Society, that formed in 1833, had close links with the British Abolitionists. In America however, the Abolitionists suffered a ferocious backlash, with abuse and even threats of lynch mobs. This rise in anti-abolition feeling was happening just at the time when Harriet was visiting the United States.

    Harriet's Response to Slavery in America
    When Harriet Martineau sailed into America on 19th September 1834, she had never come into direct contact with slavery.  Harriet detested slavery and had written against it in the fourth of the Illustrations series - 'Demerara'. She travelled widely in the South of the United States. She never hid her views but, as long as she did not speak out publicly, as a visitor her opinion was tolerated. However, in Boston she was invited by the Ladies Anti Slavery Society to make a statement. In this statement, Harriet found herself preaching against the evils of slavery and calling for its abolition. She stated that slavery was inconsistent with the law of god and described it as an utter abomination. 

    After her declaration, newspapers in Boston and elsewhere printed negative reports and Harriet was sent abusive and threatening letters. A planned return visit to the Ohio Valley and Missouri had to be cancelled as it was no longer safe for her to travel there. However, as Harriet herself pointed out, the abuse she suffered was mild compared with that which the enslaved people and abolitionists had to face every day. She felt that the very desperation of the measures taken to defend slavery - congressional gags, the lynch mobs, the suppression of speech and press - was proof of the weakness of the institution.  

    Friendships Made
    Harriet became firm friends with two of the American abolitionists, Maria Weston Chapman and William Lloyd Garrison and, after her visit, took every opportunity to promote the cause of abolition. Maria Weston Chapman later commissioned a statue in Harriet's memory. Harriet's voice, as well as arousing anger and confrontation, must also have been helpful to the cause which would, however, win only after a bloody Civil War. 

    Women and Democracy
    Harriet was also disappointed about the treatment of America's women - females were pampered and flattered yet deprived an education. Worse still, they were prevented from voting or taking part in politics. In her book she tore to shreds the arguments used to justify this and felt that under democratic principles, NO citizen could be denied the vote without their acquiescence.

    General Opinion of America
    Despite her dislike of slavery and the treatment of women, Harriet's overall view of America was positive, there was much she admired.  She wrote two books based on her experiences in America, 'Society in America' and 'Retrospective of Western Travel'. She focussed on American democracy, which she admired. She said "I am more democratic than ever, since I have seen what democracy is". She liked the energy in the country and the frank manner of the people.

  • Coping with a disability, & the woman question

    Ear TrumpetsFrom the age of 12, Harriet Martineau started to go deaf.  As a single woman having to earn a living, she also came across many of the prejudices women faced at the time.

    Coping with Deafness
    In Georgian and Victorian times there was little knowledge about causes of deafness and few aids other than an ear trumpet (a tube with a cup at one end that amplified sound). Fortunately, Harriet's deafness occurred after she had already learned to speak and communicate; this meant she did not suffer from being thought dull or inattentive, which was how many deaf children were seen at the time. For a while, in her teens, she resisted using an ear trumpet; however, after a period of adjustment she became not only a deaf woman but also a highly skilled one. She found the novelty of the ear trumpet could help to break the ice with strangers  This did not mean that being deaf had no impact on her: she once wrote that she preferred solitude as she suffered less "when mistress of my whole force, & can do most when my trumpet lies still for weeks together."  

    The Woman Question
    For most of the 19th century, women could not attend university and the jobs open to them were very limited. If a woman married, everything she owned, inherited or earned belonged solely to her husband. All of these issues were of deep concern to Harriet Martineau and other women such as Barbara Bodichon and Josephine Butler.

    The Vote
    During the 19th century, the right to vote was extended in the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884 allowing more men to vote. Women were denied the right to vote, yet many, just like the men, were rate-payers and all were subject to the same laws of the land. By the mid 19th century, there was a growing sense of injustice and groups of women joined together to campaign for the vote - they were known as Suffragists. The first woman to campaign for female suffrage was Anne Knight (1786-1862), who founded the Female Political Association in 1847. By the late 19th century, Suffragist groups existed all over the country.

    Petitioning Parliament
    The first petition asking for votes for women was presented to parliament by Henry Hunt MP, on behalf of a Mary Smith, on 3rd August 1832 - the year of the Great Reform Act. In 1866, Elizabeth Garrett and Emily Davies took a second petition to parliament. They asked the apple-seller to hide the huge petition under her stall while they waited. She agreed, but insisted the ladies unroll it a little so that she could add her own signature. John Stuart Mill MP presented it to the House of Commons where it was defeated by 196 votes to 73. One signature on the document was that of Harriet Martineau. Between 1870 and 1884, debates on women's suffrage took place almost every year in parliament.  As the 19th century drew to a close, frustrated at the lack of progress, a more militant campaign was beginning.

    Harriet Martineau and the Woman Question
    Harriet did not just sign petitions but was one of the first women to write extensively on 'the Woman Question' in the many papers and journals to which she contributed. She continued this campaign to the end of her life. One of the last issues that she raised was that of the Contagious Diseases Acts, an issue that would unite women of all classes.

    The Contagious Diseases Acts
    These Acts in the 1860s (1864, 1866, 1869) saw the first widespread female revolt and a 20-year campaign. They were an attempt by the British government to reduce sexually transmitted diseases amongst the armed forces. A woman suspected of prostitution could be forced to receive a compulsory medical examination. No warrant or evidence against the women was required, just the suspicion or say-so of others, leaving women open to abuse. If the examination revealed disease, the woman would be confined to a locked hospital until she was pronounced "clean".  The Acts applied to towns where there was a military presence, although the intention was to eventually include all of Britain. One thing the Contagious Diseases Acts did not include was examining the male clients. If the young girl signed papers agreeing to an examination, this was seen as her acknowledgement that she was a prostitute. If the girl refused, she could be held in prison for months. The examinations were often brutal and badly carried out, with dirty equipment.

    Resistance to the Acts  
    Harriet Martineau first raised the issue. For years, she wrote articles in the Daily News attacking the Acts. As Harriet was elderly and in weak health, the campaign was taken up by Josephine Butler who founded the Ladies' National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts.  The campaign moved the debate from its usual focus on vice to one of a citizen's rights and pointed out the double standards. Middle-class and upper-class women came to identify with their working-class counterparts. Protest letters were signed by prominent women, including Harriet Martineau and Florence Nightingale. As well as the victims, they encouraged working-class men whose wives and daughters were being victimised, to join the campaign. The Association provided legal aid for women arrested for refusing examinations. The women demanded open court trials and cried out appeals to Queen Victoria when convicted. Supporters were widespread: the Quakers, prostitutes, the Salvation Army, liberals, working-class men and women and feminists. Finally in 1884, the Contagious Diseases Acts were suspended.

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