Course:SOCI1110/Harriet Martineau

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Harriet martineau portrait.jpg
Harriet martineau portrait


Harriet Martineau was a historical, social theorist born in Norwich, England on June 12, 1802. She was one of the first female journalists and one of the first female sociologists. Martineau was a strong voice for women during the 19th century, as she was often critical of the inequality and injustice faced by girls and women. She was also an abolitionist, who felt strongly against the concept of slavery. Harriet Martineau died of bronchitis in her home in Ambleside, which she named "The Knoll" on June 27, 1876.

Early Life

Harriet Martineau was born as the 6th of 8 children in her parents' home in Norwich, England. Her Father was a textile manufacturer. Martineau's mother would be described by Harriet as a "domestic tyrant"(Yates, 1985). Martineau was a sick child due to her lack of milk as an infant. At a very young age, Martineau started to lose her sense of smell and taste slowly. She would also begin to lose her hearing which became so severe that she would employ the use of an ear trumpet. Growing up as a child, she was mostly taught by her brothers and sisters. The majority of her education would be through self-studying at home. University education was restricted to men only during this period but despite this, Martineau maintained her inquiring mind. At age 16 Harriet moved to Bristol to study at a school that her aunt ran. It was at this school that Harriet would learn the principles of literature that would continue to support her throughout the rest of her life.

Middle Life

In the 1820’s, Harriet's family had a hard time. With the death of Harriet's brother, father and failing family business, Martineau had to take care of her family by herself, when she was 27 years old. She started with needlework, but after a while, she began writing articles and sold a lot of them to the Monthly Repository. By 1829 she had decided to commit herself to her writing profession. Her first commissioned book, Illustrations of Political Economy, was a fictional tutorial intended to help the general public understand the ideas of Adam Smith. In 1832 Martineau moved to London, two years later in 1834 Martineau paid an extended visit to the United States. After Harriet had come back, she wrote two of her books "Society in America" 1837 and How to Observe Morals and Manners 1838. Between 1839 and 1845 Martineau was ill with a uterus tumor and had to stay indoors. Harriet had to move out of London to a peaceful location for her illness. She kept on writing many articles and a couple of books. After the return of her health, she traveled through Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in 1846.(Peterson, 2006)

Late Life

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. Harriet's most important contribution to sociology is the fact that Harriet translated and edited the Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte in 1853 (the first person to use the term sociology). Her volume was so highly acclaimed that Comte translated her rendition of his book back into French. Martineau’s early life in England and experiences helped to shape her ideas and drew her to writing and educating the public on issues that were of central concern. 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. She is often referred to as the mother of sociology. (E2BN, 2010)

Martineau developed a methodology for sociology which is still being used. Harriet created this method when she came to America. This methodology is best formed in her two works “How to Observe Morals and Manners” and “Society in America.” Martineau’s method was focused on the tradition of feminist sociology and had four major themes. The themes were: a focus on women’s lives and work, a gendered standpoint, an exploration of domination and inequality and differences among women and finally a commitment to changing the world. Martineau's theory still holds true today because they reflect an analysis of society that is still present because it focuses on the very basic way society functions. In the very basic function of society, we depend on the social norms and expected behaviors to shape our ideas and actions. These social norms allow a guideline for individuals to know how to reproduce morals and manners and be a functioning part of society. This theory is best given in Martineau’s writing “How to Observe Morals and Manners.” 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’. (Cole, 2016)

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 favor 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 1886me years after Harriet’s death. (McDonald,1998)


Harriet Martineau's last book was written in 1853. After that, she still kept on writing articles for the newspaper, and she wrote her autobiography. Since Harriet's health wasn't that good, she had a rough last five years. Eventually, Martineau got bronchitis and wasn't able to come back to good health again. She died of bronchitis in her home in Ambleside, on June 27, 1876.

Important events during her life

Martineau is born a year before the Napoleonic Wars started end is 15 years old when it ends. In 1807 Slavery was abolished in the British Empire. Feb 1811 the Prince of Wales becomes Prince Regent due to the King's insanity, the king died in 1820, and the Prince of Wales became real King George IV. On 26 Jun 1830 the reign of George IV ends, and the next day Wiliam IV becomes King of Great Britain. In Britain Victoria comes to the throne after the death of William IV 20 June 1837.

Building on a theory about geology by Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin develops a theory of evolutionary selection and specialization 1838. Vaccination for the poor is introduced in Britain June 1840. At a women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, a call is made for equal treatment of women and men under the law and voting rights for women 1848. Charles Darwin has been sitting on his Origin of the Species for 21 years. He has it published 1859. Abraham Lincoln takes office as the President of the United States. He tries to reassure southern states, announcing that he does not intend to interfere, directly or indirectly, with the institution of slavery 1861. Lincoln shot, dies next day. 1 Jan 1864. Civil Rights Act passed Sep 1st, 1875. (Smitha, 2005)

Works Cited/References