Harriet Martineau

As a sociology student, have you ever noticed that all the founders of the discipline of sociology are “fathers”? You might wonder, were there no female sociologists who helped establish the subject in its early days?

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What did Martineau say in "Female Industry" (1859)?

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Give some examples of Martineau's involvement with feminist activism.

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When was Martineau born?

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Martineau became a breadwinner at the age of 27 when her family's textile business failed.

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Aside from writing for a Unitarian publication, what other forms of writing did Martineau publish?

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Alongside Martineau's outspoken arguments in favour of women's education, employment, and civil rights; she supported the ____ in the U.S., and distanced herself from her ____ in later life.


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List some of Martineau's most prominent studies.

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What was Martineau's most important contribution to sociology?

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Martineau was one of the first scholars of her time to include women and marginalised groups in her studies, bringing an early feminist perspective to issues such as:


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Why did Martineau travel to America, and what did she find?

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Martineau's translation of Auguste Comte’s core sociological work, Cours de Philosophie Positive, was not influential and ignored by Comte.

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  • Immunology
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  • Mo

What did Martineau say in "Female Industry" (1859)?

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  • + Add tag
  • Immunology
  • Cell Biology
  • Mo

Give some examples of Martineau's involvement with feminist activism.

Show Answer
  • + Add tag
  • Immunology
  • Cell Biology
  • Mo

When was Martineau born?

Show Answer
  • + Add tag
  • Immunology
  • Cell Biology
  • Mo

Martineau became a breadwinner at the age of 27 when her family's textile business failed.

Show Answer
  • + Add tag
  • Immunology
  • Cell Biology
  • Mo

Aside from writing for a Unitarian publication, what other forms of writing did Martineau publish?

Show Answer
  • + Add tag
  • Immunology
  • Cell Biology
  • Mo

Alongside Martineau's outspoken arguments in favour of women's education, employment, and civil rights; she supported the ____ in the U.S., and distanced herself from her ____ in later life.


Show Answer
  • + Add tag
  • Immunology
  • Cell Biology
  • Mo

List some of Martineau's most prominent studies.

Show Answer
  • + Add tag
  • Immunology
  • Cell Biology
  • Mo

What was Martineau's most important contribution to sociology?

Show Answer
  • + Add tag
  • Immunology
  • Cell Biology
  • Mo

Martineau was one of the first scholars of her time to include women and marginalised groups in her studies, bringing an early feminist perspective to issues such as:


Show Answer
  • + Add tag
  • Immunology
  • Cell Biology
  • Mo

Why did Martineau travel to America, and what did she find?

Show Answer
  • + Add tag
  • Immunology
  • Cell Biology
  • Mo

Martineau's translation of Auguste Comte’s core sociological work, Cours de Philosophie Positive, was not influential and ignored by Comte.

Show Answer

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Table of contents

    Well, the answer is yes, there were. One particular woman sociologist theorised about society and social conditions before Weber, Durkheim and even Marx!

    We will be looking at the life and works of Harriet Martineau.

    • We will first familiarise ourselves with Harriet Martineau's life and main ideas.
    • We will then go over a list of her contributions to sociology, including her famous works.
    • Afterwards, we will study some of her major theories.
    • Finally, we will examine her feminist theory and activism.

    Harriet Martineau's life

    Harriet Martineau (1802 – 1876) was an English writer, theorist, and journalist who is considered by many to be the “mother” of sociology. One of the first women to contribute to the sociological field, Martineau theorised about the patriarchal conditions of women in the 19th century, as well as major religious, social, and political institutions in society.

    Personal background

    Martineau was born and raised in Norwich to a religious Unitarian family. Although she and her sisters received an education like her brothers, Martineau, like most women at the time, was urged to focus on “feminine” interests such as domesticity instead of a career. However, she was always against this, choosing to write anonymously for a Unitarian publication as well as pursuing “proper” feminine activities such as needlework.

    Her father operated a textile business, but when this failed, Martineau, at the age of 27, defied convention and became the main breadwinner for her family through her own talent and affinity for writing.

    Career and legacy: Harriet Martineau's main ideas

    Martineau initially wrote for the same Unitarian publication, and gradually went on to publish very successful books on political economy, accounts of travels in America and the Middle East, political analyses on India and Ireland and even some novels.

    Martineau also made many journalistic contributions, including on the topic of women's rights, which she championed all her life. Among the most noteworthy of her sociological contributions were translations of key sociologist Auguste Comte's works.

    Martineau also took a number of controversial stances throughout her life. Alongside her outspoken arguments in favour of women's education, employment, and civil rights; she supported the abolition of slavery in the U.S. and distanced herself from her religious beliefs in later life. She also never married or had children. Despite all this, she knew and was supported by many influential figures, from Princess Victoria to Charles Dickens.

    Even though much of Martineau's work was specific to Victorian society and social conditions, and although her contributions are overlooked even now, she was and continues to be a critical figure in the social sciences.

    Harriet Martineau, sketched portrait of Harriet Martineau, StudySmarterHarriet Martineau was a pioneer amongst female sociologists and scholars. Wikimedia Commons

    Harriet Martineau's contributions to sociology: famous works

    Below you can find some of Martineau's most important and widely discussed works:

    1. Illustrations of Political Economy (1834)

    2. Society in America (1837)

    3. Retrospect of Western Travel (1838)

    4. Deerbrook (1839)

    5. Household Education (1848)

    6. Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development (1851)

    7. The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte (1853) (Translation)

    What are some of Harriet Martineau's theories?

    Perhaps Martineau’s greatest service to the academic discipline of sociology was instilling the idea that the study of society must extend to every facet of society. This included studying political, religious and social institutions that were deeply ingrained and unquestioned.

    She argued that by doing this, one could discover how and why inequality operated, particularly the unequal positions of women in society. Martineau was one of the first scholars of her time to include women and marginalised groups in her studies, bringing an early feminist perspective to issues such as:

    • marriage

    • children

    • the home

    • religious life

    • race relations

    Martineau often analysed a society based on how its people's morals actually translated to the social, economic, and political relations within society. For example, she travelled to America to study how its new democracy operated but was dismayed by the contrast between the American values of freedom and equality and how it treated women and enslaved people.

    The impact of her translation and condensation of Auguste Comte’s core sociological work, Cours de Philosophie Positive, cannot be overstated. Her English rendition of the French text helped introduce and popularise sociology to the English-speaking world and was so well-written that Comte himself recommended her version of the text over his own.

    Additionally, her book How to Observe Morals and Manners (1838) provided the first-known guide to using what would later become known as sociological research methods.

    Let's now take a closer look at Martineau's contributions to early feminist theory and activism.

    Harriet Martineau: feminist theory and activism

    As mentioned, Martineau was one of the first social theorists of the Victorian age who introduced women's issues into her writings. She believed that the mid-19th century was a transformative period for society, politics, and religion; and argued that women should also transition to being full contributing and participating members of society.

    In “On Female Education” (1823), one of the essays she published anonymously in the Unitarian magazine Monthly Repository, Martineau made a case for girls' higher education to develop their full potential.

    She became even more concerned with women's oppression after she travelled to the U.S. In Society in America (1837), she wrote a chapter titled “The Political Non-existence of Women”, positing that women were basically treated as slaves in the country. Martineau also asserted that young middle-class women should rise above the standards of propriety they are held to and become financially independent in her article “Female Industry” (1859), published in The Edinburgh Review. Through her writing, Martineau implored women to overcome patriarchal restraints imposed by men.

    Along with her feminist theory and observations, Martineau was also involved with women's rights activism. She organised a campaign for female employment, supported women's suffrage, and was an outspoken critic of the Contagious Diseases Acts, which allowed police to arrest women thought to carry venereal disease.

    Harriet Martineau, vintage protest banner with Votes for Women written on it, StudySmarterOne of Martineau's lifelong passions was the empowerment of women in the public sphere. Unsplash.com

    Harriet Martineau - Key takeaways

    • Harriet Martineau was an English writer, theorist, and journalist who is considered by many to be the “mother” of sociology.
    • One of the first women to contribute to the sociological field, Martineau theorised about the conditions of women in Victorian society, as well a wide range of political, religious, and social institutions.
    • Martineau instilled the idea that the study of society, sociology, must extend to every facet of society, including women and marginalised groups.
    • Martineau's translation and condensation of Auguste Comte’s core sociological work helped introduce and popularise sociology to the English-speaking world. She also wrote the first book on sociological research methods.

    • Along with her feminist theory and observations, Martineau was also involved with women's rights activism.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Harriet Martineau

    What was Harriet Martineau's contribution to sociology? 

    Harriet Martineau made significant contributions to sociology, such as including the issue of women's rights and translating Comte's sociological work to English. 

    What is Harriet Martineau's theory? 

    Harriet Martineau theorised about a range of subjects, from political economy to women's disenfranchisement. 

    Why is Harriet Martineau the mother of sociology? 

    Harriet Martineau is considered the “mother” of sociology, both because of her own contributions to early sociology and because she popularised the discipline in the English-speaking world. 

    How did Harriet Martineau view society? 

    Harriet Martineau observed and wrote about the inequalities and oppression in society, but also believed that it could be transformed. 

    What influenced Harriet Martineau? 

    Early on, Harriet Martineau was influenced by her Unitarian religious beliefs and supported the Whig political party in the UK. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When was Martineau born?

    Martineau became a breadwinner at the age of 27 when her family's textile business failed.

    Martineau's translation of Auguste Comte’s core sociological work, Cours de Philosophie Positive, was not influential and ignored by Comte.

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