Harriet Martineau

Being that March is Women’s History Month, I leafed through my book The Underside of History by Elise Boulding. I did one of those exercises where you open the book to any page and whatever catches your eye first, you go with it. My finger landed on a photo of Harriet Martineau. I had never heard of her before which isn’t surprising as most of women’s history did not land in our history books.

According to Wikipedia, Harriet was born on June 12, 1802 and died on June 27, 1876. Wikipedia states that she “was an English social theorist often seen as the first female sociologist. She wrote from a sociological, holistic, religious and feminine” perspective. She earned enough money to support herself and, as you can imagine, that was rare for a woman writer (or any profession occupied by a woman) in those times.

Martineau advised “a focus on all [society’s] aspects, including key political, religious, and social institutions.” She thoroughly reviewed the status of women as being under men. The novelist, Margaret Oliphant, called her “a born lecturer and politician… less distinctively affected by her sex than perhaps any other, male or female, of her generation.” The young Princess Victoria appreciated Harriet’s work and invited her to her coronation in 1838.

In the years 1834-1836, Martineau traveled to the United States to study the political economy and the moral structure of the young nation.  She took a strong stand with the Abolitionists against slavery. While in the United States, she observed the stance on education for girls and women. She wrote about her findings in a few books, two of which are:  Society in America (1837) and Retrospect of western Travel (1838).

“The publication of Harriet Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy (in nine volumes) found public success…By 1834, the monthly sales . . . had reached 10,000 in a decade in which a sale of 2,000 or 3,000 copies of a work of fiction was considered highly successful.”

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I’ve wondered about this before and it bears repeating now–if women had grown up learning about the amazing women who preceded us, we might have developed a better esteem of ourselves. When students are taught that it was mostly men who made history worth telling, then women recede into the back pages of history, playing a subservient less distinct role as influencers of humanity unfolding. Boys grow up thinking that they have more value and girls less impact on positive evolutionary changes.

If I had known about, say Harriet Martineau, I might have understood that as a writer, there are many possibilities for me. I might have grown up knowing that I wasn’t limited, by virtue of my gender, to what I could accomplish in the world. The spirit of adventure, curiosity and daring that Harriet lived might have opened other doors for me. I might have realized that I could oppose the conventions of what a woman could do as Harriet did. Noting that Harriet is only one of many women who slipped through history unannounced, I can only wonder what other astonishing women once lived.

She didn’t seem to doubt that the world was her oyster. Standing outside the constraints of her culture, gender and times, Harriet showed great courage in spite of ridicule for being a single woman, having a contrary opinion and some physical infirmities. She affirmed her right to be and to become. There was a period of five years where she retreated from society to heal a very large and painful ovarian cyst. When she recovered, she returned to pursue her public life with vigor.

An excerpt from Harriet Martineau’s writing:

“The intellect of women is confined by an unjustifiable restriction of… education… As women have none of the objects in life for which an enlarged education is considered requisite, the education is not given… The choice is to either be ‘ill-educated, passive, and subservient, or well-educated, vigorous, and free only upon sufferance.”