In November 1841, John Stuart Mill wrote to Auguste Comte for the first time, expressing his admiration and launching one of the most remarkable exchanges of letters in the nineteenth century. One reason Mill was drawn to Comte was that he believed that positivism could fill the role once played by traditional religion. Yet shortly after their correspondence commenced, Mill suggested to Comte that he did not approve of his public anti- theological stance, which could alienate potential supporters, especially in England, where people feared atheism. Paying him no heed, Comte simply redoubled his attacks on traditional religions. Another source of tension arose soon after this disagreement. Comte insisted on the small size of women's brains, a position that infuriated Mill, who believed in women's equality. Mill's friend Harriet Taylor eventually nudged him into dropping his correspondence with the seeming misogynist (Pickering 1993– 2009, I: 522– 23, II: 71, 78, 82). And yet four brilliant English women were drawn to Comte's thought: Harriet Martineau, George Eliot, Annie Besant and Beatrice Webb. It was precisely Comte's atheism that spoke to these women, among the most important of the nineteenth century. As a scientific philosophy that maintained a strict morality, positivism helped alleviate their crises of religious faith, especially by appealing to their deep concern with duty, and enhanced their investigations of themselves and society.
Born in 1802 into a middle- class, manufacturing family, Harriet Martineau was given an excellent education by her strict parents, who wanted their children to be able to support themselves but did not give them much emotional warmth (Hoecker- Drysdale 2000, 66– 67). A sickly person who lacked the senses of smell and taste and lost her hearing at an early age, Martineau embraced their Unitarian religion, which boosted her selfesteem. She developed a strong sense of duty that was marked by Unitarianism's values of personal responsibility and activism and its promotion of moral principles, education and social welfare (Logan 2002, 12. 200; Lengermann and Niebrugge- Brantley 1998, 24, 30). The sixth of eight children, she was close to her brother, James, who became a Unitarian minister. One of his college friends, who was also a minister, was supposed to marry Harriet, but he died before the marriage date, somewhat to her relief.