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  • Cited by 2
  • Print publication year: 1999
  • Online publication date: March 2010

5 - Gendered observations: Harriet Martineau and the woman question


The career of Harriet Martineau is difficult to place in a feminist narrative of literary history. Although Martineau was a life-long advocate of women's rights, she disapproved of feminists who drew attention to their personal lives in their work. In her Autobiography, Martineau criticizes the feminist who “[violates] all good taste by her obtrusiveness in society … oppressing every body about her by her epicurean selfishness every day, while raising in print an eloquent cry on behalf of the oppressed.” Such selfish feminist activities, Martineau claimed, had the effect of drawing attention to the identity of the writer instead of furthering actions and ideas that would enable women to overcome confining social roles. For this reason, Martineau carefully avoided direct association with the feminist movement, preferring to campaign for women's rights as a behind-the-scenes journalist and power broker.

Because Martineau was less “visible” in pursuing her feminist agenda than activists such as Josephine Butler and Emily Davies, her work has received little attention in recent histories of Victorian feminism. The purpose of this chapter is not to “rescue” Martineau from this obscurity but to interrogate the notion of obscurity itself in the history of nineteenth-century feminism. Focusing on Martineau's early career in the 1820s and 1830s, I argue that she actively sought anonymity and objectivity in her work as a means of distancing her gender and identity from her writing. This enabled her to express a more “objective” perspective on women's issues and to communicate her ideas to a mixed-gender audience.