Topics in Gender

Gender: Topics of Interest

Childhood and Mrs. Martineau: A Complex Gender Model

On the outside, the family unit seems to reflect in form and function the ideals of the Victorian era — the father working, the mother tending to the duties of a housewife — though, from Martineau’s perspective, her mother was less nurturing than one might expect a mother to be. In “Mothering and Mesmerism in the Life of Harriet Martineau”, Diana Postlethwaite notes that, while poorly educated herself, Mrs. Martineau was nevertheless a believer in a classical education unfettered by a genderized society (590). While she encouraged all her children to attain for themselves an education in books and writing; she was simultaneously also a rigid enforcer of feminine aesthetics and ideals insomuch that such any education must never take precedence over the public display of attractive, womanly traits (590).

Postlethwaite notes that “[the] gendered model that Mrs. Martineau offered her daughter was complex” (590) and conveyed in a way that substituted maternal love for domestic pragmatism. It helped little that Martineau was far from her mother’s favourite, with criticism and coldness permeating most of Mrs. Martineau’s interactions with the child. While Martineau remained obedient on the outside, she claims her conscience was kept in “a state of perpetual torture”  (592) by the rebellion that was occurring within. Postlethwaite illustrates well, using the images of both sewing needle and pen, the conflict between Mrs. Martineau’s more formal domestic education and the classical education she encouraged Harriet to seek in private: while both items left Martineau well-equipped to earn in life, “[the] needle and the pen could not be held simultaneously.” (592)  This contradiction was full of inevitable conflict: on one hand, an encouragement to live, albeit quietly, outside of the gendered barriers of the Victorian era; on the other, a stern adherence must be made to satisfying the female ideal in a performative sense. This seed would sprout later in Martineau’s life, growing to overwhelm and consume her during a period that would find her languishing as an invalid.


Martineau was considered to be a feminist thinker, believing quite firmly in the ability of women to flourish outside of the restraints imposed upon them by Victorian society. As such, she advocated for equality between genders, most especially in terms of education. (243-246) Throughout her life, she employed her pen towards crafting a great many essays that argued in favour of women, though she preferred to distance herself from her gender so as to better argue her points. (Wallraven 100) Indeed, like so many other aspects of her life, her feminist threads were woven around cords of masculinity. In A Writing Halfway Between Theory and Fiction: Mediating Feminism from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century, Miriam Wallraven writes that “Martineau’s approach to feminism” was based in rational argumentation rather than passion, a strategy which both “lends her authority” (93) and prevents her views being addressed as either radical or as merely “personal complaints.” (93) Further, this strategy of employing a rational and objective voice in arguing allows for “disguising feminist intentions” (93) in masculine narratives and introducing feminist thought into works without drawing overt attention (and thus judgement) in the process of doing so.


Martineau was intensely prolific, writing “thirty five books and scores of essays” (Postlethwaite 583) on a wide variety of topics — political economy, gender roles, sociology — though the topics themselves were seen as unusual for the fairer sex. At the time, non-fiction were the realm of men and lighter, more feminine writing, such as works of romantic fiction, was expected of women. Despite these standards, Martineau eschewed the typical restraints of the gendered establishment and wrote as she pleased; as a consequence of her defiance, she garnered much praise in her lifetime for her style, wit and intellect, coming to be admired by both men and women alike. Her embrace of ‘masculine’ topics seems to reflect her overall rejection of the feminine/domestic extremes, instead preferring to embrace her individual potential in a rational manner that facilitated between her, her pen and her peers a higher grade of intellectual discourse. Her writing was often informed by her own life and struggles, with the themes of gender and disability being fairly consistent in such works such as Life in the Sick-Room, Deerbrook and Household Education.


Works Cited

  1. Postlethwaite, Diana. “Mothering and Mesmerism in the Life of Harriet Martineau.” Signs 14.3 (1989): 583-609. JSTOR. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
  2. Martineau, Harriet. Household Education. London: Bradbury and Evans, 1848. Project Gutenberg. Web. 1 Apr. 2014.
  3. Wallraven, Miriam. A Writing Halfway Between Theory and Fiction: Mediating Feminism from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2007. Print.

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