Biography of Harriet Martineau

A Self-Taught Expert in Political Economic Theory

Harriet Martineau was the first woman sociologist.
Illustration of Harriet Martineau, mid-nineteenth century. Stock Montage/Getty Images

Born in 1802 in England, Harriet Martineau is considered to be one of the earliest sociologists, a self-taught expert in political economic theory who wrote prolifically throughout her career about the relationship between politics, economics, morals, and social life. Her intellectual work was grounded in a staunchly moral perspective that was influenced by her Unitarian faith (although she would later become an atheist). She spoke out against slavery and was fiercely critical as well of the inequality and injustice faced by girls, women, and the working poor.

As one of the first women journalists of the era, she also worked as a translator, speechwriter, and novelist. Her acclaimed fiction invited readers to consider the pressing social issues of the day.  She was known for her keen ability to explain complicated ideas in an easy-to-understand manner, presenting many of her theories about politics, economics, and society in the form of appealing and accessible stories.

Early Life 

Harriet Martineau was born in 1802 in Norwich, England. She was the sixth of eight children born to Elizabeth Rankin and Thomas Martineau. Thomas owned a textile mill, and Elizabeth was the daughter of a sugar refiner and grocer, making the family economically stable and wealthier than most British families at the time.

The Martineaus were descendants of French Huguenots who fled Catholic France for Protestant England. They were practicing Unitarians and instilled the importance of education and critical thinking in all of their children. However, Elizabeth was also a strict believer in traditional gender roles, so while the Martineau boys went to college, the girls did not and were expected to learn domestic work instead. This would prove to be a formative life experience for Harriet, who bucked all traditional gender expectations and wrote extensively about gender inequality.

Self-Education, Intellectual Development, and Work

Martineau was a voracious reader from a young age, was well read in Thomas Malthus by the time she was 15, and had already become a political economist at that age, by her own recollection. She wrote and published her first written work, “On Female Education,” in 1821 as an anonymous author. This piece was a critique of her own educational experience and how it was formally stopped when she reached adulthood.

When her father’s business failed in 1829, she decided to earn a living for her family and became a working writer. She wrote for the Monthly Repository, a Unitarian publication, and published her first commissioned volume, Illustrations of Political Economy, funded by publisher Charles Fox, in 1832. These illustrations were a monthly series that ran for two years, in which Martineau critiqued the politics and economic practices of the day by presenting illustrated tellings of the ideas of Malthus, John Stuart MillDavid Ricardo, and Adam Smith. The series was designed as a tutorial for the general reading audience.

Martineau won prizes for some of her essays, and the series sold more copies than did the work of Dickens at the time. Martineau argued that tariffs in early American society only benefited the rich and hurt the working classes both in the U.S. and in Britain. She also advocated for the Whig Poor Law reforms, which shifted assistance to the British poor from cash donations to the workhouse model.

In her early years as a writer, she advocated for free market economic principles in keeping with the philosophy of Adam Smith. Later in her career, however, she advocated for government action to stem inequality and injustice, and is remembered by some as a social reformer due to her belief in the progressive evolution of society.

Martineau broke with Unitarianism in 1831 and adopted the philosophical position of freethinking, whose adherents seek truth based on reason, logic, and empiricism, rather the dictates of authority figures, tradition, or religious dogma. This shift resonates with her reverence for August Comte's positivistic sociology and her belief in progress.

In 1832 Martineau moved to London, where she circulated among leading British intellectuals and writers, including Malthus, Mill, George EliotElizabeth Barrett Browning, and Thomas Carlyle. From there she continued to write her political economy series until 1834.

Travels Within the United States

When the series was completed, Martineau traveled to the U.S. to study the young nation’s political economy and moral structure, much as Alexis de Tocqueville had done. While there, she became acquainted with Transcendentalists and abolitionists, and with those involved in education for girls and woman. She later published Society in America, Retrospect of Western Travel, and How to Observe Morals and Manners—considered her first publication based on sociological research—in which she not only criticized the state of education for women but also expressed her support for the abolition of slavery due to its immorality and economic inefficiency as well as its impact on the working classes in the U.S. and in Britain. As an abolitionist, Martineau sold embroidery in order to donate to the cause and also worked as the English correspondent for the American Anti-Slavery Standard through the end of the American Civil War.

Contributions to Sociology

Martineau’s key contribution to the field of sociology was her assertion that when studying society, one must focus on all aspects of it. She emphasized the importance of examining political, religious, and social institutions. By studying society in this way, she felt, one could deduce why inequality existed, particularly that faced by girls and women. In her writings, she brought an early feminist perspective to bear on issues such as race relations, religious life, marriage, children, and home (she herself never married or had children).

Her social theoretical perspective was often focused on the moral stance of a populace and how it did or did not correspond to the social, economic, and political relations of its society. Martineau measured progress in society by three standards: the status of those who hold the least power in society, popular views of authority and autonomy, and access to resources that allow the realization of autonomy and moral action.

She won numerous awards for her writing and though controversial, was a rare example of a successful and popular working woman writer of the Victorian era. She published over 50 books and over 2,000 articles in her lifetime. Her translation into English and revision of Auguste Comte’s foundational sociological text, Cours de Philosophie Positive, was received so well by readers and by Comte himself that he had Martineau’s English version translated back to French.

Period of Illness and Impact on Her Work

Between 1839 and 1845, Martineau became housebound due to a uterine tumor. She moved out of London to a more peaceful location for the duration of her illness. She continued to write extensively during this time but due to her recent experiences shifted her focus to medical topics. She published Life in the Sickroom, which challenged the domination/submission relationship between doctors and their patients—and was viciously criticized by the medical establishment for doing so.

Travels in North Africa and the Middle East

In 1846, her health restored, Martineau embarked on a tour of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. She focused her analytic lens on religious ideas and customs and observed that religious doctrine was increasingly vague as it evolved. This led her to conclude, in her written work based on this trip—Eastern Life, Present and Pastthat humanity was evolving toward atheism, which she framed as rational, positivist progress. The atheistic nature of her later writing, as well as her advocacy for mesmerism, which she believed cured her tumor and the other ailments she had suffered, caused deep divisions between her and some of her friends.

Later Years and Death

In her later years, Martineau contributed to the Daily News and the radical leftist Westminster Review. She remained politically active, advocating for women’s rights during the 1850s and '60s. She supported the Married Women’s Property Bill, the licensing of prostitution and legal regulation of customers, and women’s suffrage.

She died in 1876 near Ambleside, Westmorland, in England, and her autobiography was published posthumously in 1877.

Martineau's Legacy

Martineau’s sweeping contributions to social thought are more often than not overlooked within the canon of classical sociological theory, though her work was widely lauded in its day, and preceded that of Émile Durkheim and Max Weber.

Founded in 1994 by Unitarians in Norwich and with support from Manchester College, Oxford, The Martineau Society in England holds an annual conference in her honor. Much of her written work is in the public domain and available for free at the Online Library of Liberty, and many of her letters are available to the public via the British National Archives.

Selected Bibliography

  • Illustrations of Taxation, 5 volumes, published by Charles Fox, 1832-4
  • Illustrations of Political Economy, 9 volumes, published by Charles Fox, 1832-4
  • Society in America, 3 volumes, Saunders and Otley, 1837
  • Retrospect of Western Travel, Saunders and Otley, 1838
  • How to Observe Morals and Manners, Charles Knights and Co., 1838
  • Deerbrook, London, 1839
  • Life in the Sickroom, 1844
  • Eastern Life, Present and Past, 3 volumes, Edward Moxon, 1848
  • Household Education, 1848
  • The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, 2 volumes, 1853
  • Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, 2 volumes, posthumous publication, 1877