The Woman Who Thought Like a Man#1

Excerpt from Leaving the Cave: Evolutionary Naturalism in Social Scientific Thought (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996) by Pat Duffy Hutcheon

NOTE: Harriet Martineau was an early nineteenth-century novelist, journalist, social reformer, educator, children's writer, philosopher of naturalism, environmentalist, social scientist and pioneering feminist who published over fifty books and almost two thousand articles and newspaper columns. During her lifetime her influence spanned North America and Europe. Yet, a generation after her death in 1876 people scarcely recognized her name. This concluding section of the chapter on her life and work asks, "What happened?"

The most puzzling aspect of Harriet Martineau's achievement is the response of others to it. During her lifetime she was liked, admired and even adulated by many -- although the radical nature of her plainly articulated ideas aroused intermittent abuse and created numerous enemies. The odds against any woman rising to the heights of her obvious accomplishment were no doubt generally recognized and appreciated in that male-dominated era. After her death, however, the chorus of calumny directed at her work and reputation rose to fever pitch, continuing unabated until -- with the passage of time -- her name and contributions to knowledge were buried almost as deeply as the pain-wracked body.

What was going on here? We should perhaps begin at the beginning, with the obstacles faced by Martineau in her early years. As with all girls at that time, opportunities for formal study were virtually non-existent, while private study had to be pursued surreptitiously even in a relatively sophisticated middle-class Unitarian family such as the Martineaus. Harriet managed to acquire almost two years of precious schooling when she was allowed, because of a shortage of students, to accompany her brothers to a boys' school operated by the well-known Unitarian minister Lant Carpenter. After that she was on her own. She often spoke insightfully of the socialization into second-class citizenship to which she was subjected (although the term itself was yet to be coined). "I had no self respect," she recalled later, "and an unbounded need for approbation and affection. My capacity for jealousy was something frightful." At the age of eighteen she had to get up at five A.M. in order to have time to study. When the family finances crumbled no one (least of all, Harriet) questioned the expectation that she, as the single daughter, would be the one to assume responsibility for the mother and crippled younger sister -- as well as an alcoholic older brother. No one thought to chastise the mother for insisting that Harriet take on the routines and daily chores of a dutiful housekeeper and daughter, even though it meant that she could write only at night. No one wondered at the mother's refusal to allow her mature daughter to move to London, where she had a chance for regular proofreading.

During the early period of her career she had to deal with her mother's demands to live in circumstances more "fitting to their status". But there was no suggestion that the son, James, a Unitarian minister, -- or the two daughters married to doctors -- should share expenses. Martineau's later comment on this trying time when others were influencing her mother to pressure her into conformity was "It was my fixed resolution never to mortgage my brains." She felt compelled to write to her mother sometime later, "I fully expect that both you and I shall increasingly feel as if I did not discharge a daughter's duty, but we shall both remind ourselves that I am now as much a citizen of the world as any professional son of yours could be."

And what about Martineau's treatment by the publishing establishment? She seems to have been fairly treated by the editors of the Unitarian journal Monthly Repository which ran a number of her early essays. A little later, however, she encountered a religious publisher who appropriated her early stories and altered and used them with neither acknowledgement nor payment. This treatment was, in fact, sadly typical. She was to discover that she would invariably be resented and criticized for insisting on the same treatment as male writers. And there was much worse. When she finally found a publisher who expressed interest in her first major project on political economy, James Mill took it upon himself to advise strongly against it, claiming that her proposed method of explaining such complex matters to the general public in comprehensible terms could not possibly succeed. When her story on the approaching overpopulation problem was published, the reviews took the form of personal attacks involving her feminine attributes. When she began to write Society in America, her publisher presumed that he had the right to insist that she not mention the position of women. Later, a publisher refused to publish her novel Deerbrook when he found its characters and setting were merely middle-class. And the same man who subsequently brought out Darwin's revolutionary Origin of the Species broke his promise to publish Martineau's Eastern Life (a study of the evolution of major world religions) because of its unorthodoxy!

The contemptuous attitude of certain particularly influential males must have been galling to an independent and proud spirit like Martineau. She met James Mill after her thirty-four-book series on political economy had become a best seller. It was just before her departure to the United States. He asked, patronizingly, if she intended to become an expert on that country in two years. The personally abusive outburst following her resort to mesmerism was probably also motivated largely by sexism, as it was chiefly menopausal women who were using the treatment.

This is probably the place to discuss Martineau's health problems. She was an invalid for one-third of her life. Two other women of the period , the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Florence Nightingale (the great hospital reformer whose major work was published without her name on it) also wrote from their beds for many years. This raises questions about the seriousness with which female illnesses were dealt. It also forces one to consider the possibility that, for women, retiring to one's room may well have been the only way to ensure the kind of time and privacy required for concerted creative work.

Probably no autobiography before or since aroused the depth of outrage that greeted the publication of Martineau's two volumes on her life and work. She had meant it to be taken seriously, and exhibited neither false modesty nor a sufficiently acceptable "ladylike" reluctance to express strong opinions. She also had dared to write with authority on subjects thought to be the sole preserve of men. The opinions of her expressed by some of her contemporaries are revealing. Her publisher, John Murray, intending to commend her, said that she was masculine in a feminine way. John Stuart Mill, in rejecting one of her articles, criticized the style as being what one would expect of a woman writer who had "learnt to put good women's feelings into men's words, and to make small things look like great ones." (This represents a remarkable gap between precept and practice on the part of the author of The Subjection of Women!)

Martineau was scolded for her assertiveness, which was invariably read as conceit and arrogance. Yet, when she once tried writing under a male pseudonym she was accused of odd subterfuges that could only indicate a lack of self-confidence and an unwarranted belief that women were not taken seriously. Ralph Waldo Emerson thought her a masculine woman. Elizabeth Barrett Browning called her "the most manlike woman in three kingdoms." William Howett referred to her as "one of the finest examples of a masculine intellect in a female form which have distinguished the present age". Mrs. Oliphant considered her not much of a woman at all. Yet Charles Darwin was obviously entranced with her, and described how she tended to attract the brightest men in the country.

By far the worst outrage committed against Martineau during her lifetime, however, was what happened after the publication of a collaborative book entitled The Atkinson Letters, which comprised the correspondence between herself and a close friend, Henry Atkinson. The content was, of course, part of the problem, as it was the first time she frankly admitted to being an atheist. An amusing response was a letter to Atkinson (a virtually unknown figure compared to Martineau) advising him to publish something of his own at once "to repair the disadvantage of having let a woman speak under the same cover." Far from amusing, however, was the fact that leading the attackers was her favorite brother, James -- by then, a widely respected theologian -- who rushed into print with a personally insulting review. He wrote that "we remember nothing in literary history more melancholy than that Harriet Martineau should be prostrated at the feet of such a master, and should lay down at his bidding her early faith." This ignorance, on the part of her most beloved brother, of his accomplished sister's long-held ideas -- plus the implication that she could not possibly have come to any radical conclusion on her own -- seems unforgivable. A male biographer of recent times simply noted, "Whatever the motive for his attack he did it superbly".

The extremity and extent of the abuse heaped on Harriet Martineau seems inexplicable. She believed, along with John Stuart Mill, that a thinker must follow reason and evidence wherever it might lead. Yet she was almost universally condemned for demonstrating the very quality for which Mill was honored as a man of great intellectual integrity. Both John Stuart Mill and Martineau were inheritors of certain aspects of Hume's legacy, and they lived and wrote during the same period. Both rejected Bentham's physics of morality. Mill sought to build a philosophical system based on a combination of his father's utilitarianism, Hume's epistemology and Voltaire's idea of the sovereign individual. Martineau, while retaining the older Enlightenment notion of natural law, adopted Hume's premises about the social sources of morality and the significance of both biology and society for human behavior -- along with Hume's emphasis on the universality of cause and effect. Most of Martineau's insights survived to become the foundation stones of sociology, while Mill's concept of the supreme rights of the free-floating individual lies at the roots of modern libertarianism. On the face of it, there seems little reason for Martineau to have been ignored for over a century, while Mill was uncritically idolized. It seems we must look elsewhere for the real source and extent of the prejudice that she faced.

The problem may well be that the opinion setters and gatekeepers of her time were all men. People like her friend, Thomas Carlyle, could have a devastating influence by dropping comments such as "I admire this good lady's integrity and sincerity; her quick, sharp discernment to the depth it goes." [emphasis added] It was assumed that she could only spout the opinions of her betters. For example, merely because Henry Atkinson supported the popular theory of phrenology it was widely believed that she did too, even though she wrote carefully of her skepticism about it.

Her project on the political economy was derided by male intellectuals in spite of its overwhelmingly enthusiastic acceptance and use by politicians and ordinary citizens. Her pro-democracy study of the United States was ignored by academics who came after, while a contemporary book far less accurate and acute in its analyses -- the pro-autocracy Democracy in America of de Toqueville -- has become a classic. Her scholarly History of England was only grudgingly acknowledged. Of the typical press response to her work, a commentator wrote that "the major reviews tracked her progress with their usual mixture of respect tempered with amusement". A biographer, in noting her unmarried status, makes the strange statement that "she was far too self-centered to have made another person happy." How many single male intellectuals have been characterized this way?

Even her support of women's rights was damned with faint praise -- this time by a woman. "And though women might have wished the forerunner of their freedom to appear in a more gracious guise" she wrote. How many of the men who stood for human rights have had their contribution denigrated because they were lacking in grace? "Harriet Martineau," concluded another biographer, "was the perfect example of a limited intellect secure enough in its convictions to challenge its betters." This appears as a weird non sequitur, following quotations that would seem to indicate quite the opposite. A similarly incongruous comment, and one equally unwarranted by the context, was that, as always, her ideas were "not less fervent for being over-simple and parochial." The same prestigious biographer claimed that her writings represented an "oversimplified near-travesty of the best thought of the Enlightenment," while all of his references to her actual work would seem to prove otherwise. Pejorative expressions like "underlying the jargon" and "she sneered" (by letter!!!) abound in this influential biography.

In describing her translation of Comte's work, the above biographer admits that "Miss Martineau's style was admirably adapted to that task, whatever the deficiencies of her mind." And he concludes that "within her purpose...the book was adequate, no more." This seems doubly strange given the fact that Comte was so impressed with her condensation of his theories that he had it translated back into French and substituted for his own original work in the Positivist Library. One wonders what Harriet Martineau might have accomplished if her mind had not been so deficient!

Some have said that Martineau paved the way for Marx. Certainly a passion for justice and a commitment to the possibility of discovering immutable laws governing human nature and social change were common to both. But Martineau sought means of dispersing, rather than centralizing, economic and political power. She favored local cooperatives for ownership of property and for managing consumption, and thought that economic production and exchange should be freer rather than more centrally controlled. In fact, the cultural transformation that she inspired was to be slower and deeper than a mere surface disruption in the ownership of the means of production. Hers was a revolution not only in the values and attitudes determining our inner-most expectations about gender-and work-roles, but in the very way we perceive reality. And it was to be a long time in the making.

Interestingly, Martineau also predicted a prolonged struggle between the forces of despotism and democracy, with Russian and Asian cultures aligned against the West. However, as life ran down for her in Ambleside in 1876, it is highly unlikely that she would have associated that future conflict with the ideas of the intense German intellectual who was perhaps at that very moment burrowing away in the library of the British Museum.

1.  Pat Duffy Hutcheon, Humanist in Canada (Summer 1996), p.16-19.