Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) and Education

Social theorist, writer, political campaigner and cited as the first female sociologist.

Harriet MartineauI came across this remarkable woman in the biography of Charles Knight.

She wrote for the publications of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK see biographies on this website). Born in Norwich where her father was a manufacturer and her mother held very strong views on female propriety and behaviour. The family were of Huguenot decent and held Unitarian views. Harriet suffered ill health most of her life. She began to write from an early age for the Unitarian publication ‘the Monthly Repository’ but after the age of 27 she was able to move away from her mother’s influence and strict discipline and began to expand her writing to wider themes which she would continue to her death. Her first publications were focused on political and economic issues including a fictional tutorial on a number of key political economists such as Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo. Her publications soon gained recognition and wide acclaim winning a number of prizes from the Unitarian Association.

I will focus on her work in education but she was a prolific write and commentator on issues ranging from America, children, education, feminism, household education, marriage, race relations and religion. Her writings were both seminal and eclectic in nature and are still relevant today. After gaining success she moved to London where politicians and civil servants sought her advice on a wide range of issues both political and cultural. She also maintained a wide circle of friends including Charles Babbage, Henry Brougham, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Darwin, George Elliot, Charles Knight, Charles Lyell, Thomas Malthus and John Stuart Mill. She translated and condensed Auguste Comte’s six volume ‘Cours de Philosophie Positive’ into two volumes entitled ‘The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte’ – a version which Comte himself recommended to his students over his own!

Harriet Martineau displayed a great interest in education and wrote her first article on education at the age of 21. She argued education was a vital element throughout life and its universal implementation would contribute to a better society emphasising both the intellectual and physical aspects of early and lifelong education. Education would make people better employees, employers and parents. She also strongly advocated that employers should expect that prospective employees should have had educational opportunities prior to employment and that employers should provide appropriate industrial education for all their employees, a view which aligned with those of Robert Owen. A true visionary, she stressed the importance of lifelong learning, strongly advocating vocational education as well as intellectual training for all children from all classes of society. She was a passionate advocate for girls’ and women’s education emphasising skill acquisition for preparation for work and argued for the removal of all barriers to further and higher education and employment for women.
She was very supportive of:


  • A national system of education for the working class
  • Industrial training and a curriculum that included the 3 Rs, industrial and manual training
  • A more enlightened and freer curriculum in infant schools with less emphasis on rote learning and didacticism
  • The creation of working women’s colleges that would better prepare women for vocational occupations with better pay
  • The establishment of general education provision for women wishing to pursue self-improvement programmes
  • Reform of public schools’ endowments and charitable trusts
  • The extension of the remit for the Taunton Commission (1864-67) to include female education
  • She expressed her disapproval of:
  • The monitorial system and rote learning
  • The same tests for girls when they were required to spend a disproportionate time was spent on domestic subjects when compared with boys
  • Corporal punishment
  • Endowments that were exclusively for boys e.g. for entry to Christ’s Hospital
  • The public school system

As one can see her views, beliefs and opinions were truly challenging and insightful, reflecting the fragmented nature of Victorian society at the time and were seen by many at the time and even today as subversive. That they are seen as still relevant today reflects that many of fundamental issues are yet to be resolved. She was instrumental in creating the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women (SPEW-an unfortunate acronym which was helpfully changed later) after writing an article in the Edinburgh Review. She spent her later life in the Lake District where she taught at the local Mechanics’ Institution, a movement she greatly admired and supported. At one time she was an active member of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society.
Weiner Gaby. Umea University, Sweden. ‘Harriet Martineau on Education’. An excellent paper presented at Birmingham University on 18th October 2004.
Pichanick, Valerie. ‘Harriet Martineau, The Woman and Her Work, 1802-76’. University of Michigan Press.
Harriet Martineau work with Charkes Knight is described in ‘Charles Knight Educator, Publisher, Writer’ by Valerie Gray. ISBN-10: 0 7546 5219X. Ashgate. 2006.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>