The Echoes of the Mind (119-2) Harriet Martineau

Harriet Martineau

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.’ ~ Harriet Martineau

Englishwoman Harriet Martineau (1802–1876) was the first female sociologist. She began by translating Comte’s work from French to English. Before Marx or Weber, Martineau examined social class and how it affected society and the people in it.

Laws and customs may be creative of vice; and should be therefore perpetually under process of observation and correction: but laws and customs cannot be creative of virtue: they may encourage and help to preserve it; but they cannot originate it. ~ Harriet Martineau

To Martineau, the degree to which a society may be considered civilized is judged by the conditions in which its people live. Theoretical ideals are no measure of how civilized a society is if they do not apply to all its members.

Understandably, for a freethinking woman of her time, Martineau considered the subservience of women comparable to slavery. She opposed both. Martineau highlighted the hypocrisy of a society that prided itself on liberty while practicing oppression.

Men who pass most comfortably through this world are those who possess good digestions and hard hearts. ~ Harriet Martineau

In exhibiting her brilliance, Martineau wrote on political economy, sociology, and manners, as well as being a novelist. Her early writing on economics and taxation gained her national notoriety and funded her tour of the United States in 1834–1836.

Martineau’s outspokenness on social issues earned her death threats while traveling the southern United States. Her subsequent book, Society in America (1837), pointed out the hypocrisy of a country where supposedly all were created equal, yet women had no real rights.

Martineau also found fault with the free enterprise system she found there, which allowed the unfettered pursuit of profit while running roughshod over others’ rights. She felt that democracy could not be preserved unless private property was abolished.

The civilisation and the morals of the Americans fall far below their own principles. ~ Harriet Martineau

Martineau was prescient in this regard. American democracy has long been corrupted by the wealthy elite who readily purchase political power. By the end of the 19th century, the US government had become thoroughly plutocratic: an evolution of excess unchecked to the present day.