HUMN 240
Group Presentation
Harriet Martineau’s “The Person”
Sections: Woman; Marriage


-       Very popular author; very successful despite being deaf since childhood and having various illnesses throughout her life.

-       Became well-known after “Illustrations of Political Economy” and “Illustrations of Taxation,” two series of stories that interpreted classical economics and explained it in layman’s terms.

-       Politics included a thorough attention to women and women’s rights. Was aware of her own womanhood and the limitations it imposed on her.

-       After a two-year visit to the U.S., wrote “Society in America,” having made the connection between slaves in America and the state of women in Europe. Became an advocate for abolition of slavery.

-       “The Person” is an excerpt from “Society in America.”

-       Drew many contrasts between the rights and freedoms women should have versus their actual condition; a number of these were contrasts between her own life and the life of the average American woman.

-       Parents were Unitarians who had progressive thoughts on the education of girls. Martineau was much more educated than the average woman of her time.

-       Was “necessarianist” in her philosophy, which saw education as the salvation of society. Was into Locke’s naturalism (doctrine that scientific laws are sufficient to account for all phenomena). She was also interested in Comte’s positivism (metaphysical questions are unanswerable and the only kind of knowledge is scientific).


-       Similar to Sor Juana in that both had a woman who was more educated than most females of her day. While Sor Juana supported the concept of giving more credit to women’s intellect, it wasn’t a central aspect of her writings. On the other hand, the basis of much of Martineau’s philosophy and arguments dealt with the inequality of women. However, Martineau was Unitarian (some believe atheist).

-       Can be related to Locke; Martineau was also a supporter of naturalistic philosophy. Also like Locke, she was very anti-slavery. She’d been introduced to his writings at 15.


-       “If a test of civilization be sought, none can be so sure as the condition of that half of society over which the other half has power.” (147) The “test of civilization” refers to how well that civilization protects minorities. She is saying that the acid test is how do those who are in power treat those who are not? A wicked society oppresses them, and a moral society respects them.

-       “There is no country in the world where there is so much boasting of the ‘chivalrous’ treatment she enjoys….In short, indulgence is given her as a substitute for justice.” (147) There is a saying about people who live in a gilded cage; they are given luxury but they are imprisoned.

-       Compared supposed morals to actual behavior. The Declaration of Independence express the idea of equality, but both slavery and the treatment of women show a shortcoming of the expressed morals. “Is it to be understood that the principles of the Declaration of Independence bear no relation to half of the human race? If so, what is the ground of the limitation? If not so, how is the restricted and dependent state of women to be reconciled with the proclamation that “all are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?” (162)

-       Said that women are made to believe that marriage is the only thing of real importance in a woman’s life—and that they are taught to pretend they don’t think so.

-       Said that the morals of women are crushed. Said that in America, “the whole apparatus of public opinion is brought to bear offensively upon individuals among women who exercise freedom of mind in deciding upon what duty is, and the methods by which it is to be pursued” (149). Basically she says that women are denied ethical independence (form their own ethical judgments); they can hold opinions, but are not allowed to act on them.

“MARRIAGE” [by paragraph]

-       Par. 1: Says marriage in America seems like it is more fair and less worrisome than it is in other countries. Marriage can never be fully successful “while the one sex overbears the other” (151). Marriage is better than it is in Europe, but it will remain imperfect so long as women continue to be “ill-educated, passive, and subservient” (152).

-       Par. 2: Marriage is different throughout various parts of the U.S. Women in America have the right to hold property, especially in the south, where the husband and wife get half of the property each. (Marriage is seen as the fundamental unit of productive work; the income belongs to both of them.)

-       Par. 3: The rules in the south copy the old Saxon law that gives a wife half her husband’s earnings. Spain, France, Italy and Germany give the same rights and it is English laws fail to honor the rights of the woman. The faults of that English law are copied by Massachusetts.

-       Par. 4: Divorce in England is so difficult for women that people use it as a means to defraud others, and it drives them to unfaithfulness to their spouse. Because it is so difficult, only the rich can afford it in England. In the U.S., it is much more easy to obtain.

-       Par. 5: Divorce in some states is almost as rigid as it is in England; in other states, cruelty, which is grounds for divorce in any state, is so broad a term that almost anyone can get a divorce with relative ease. Because “cruelty” is so broad a term, it is almost never cited as the reason for a divorce. (A more modern term to explain broadly defined cruelty is “irreconcilable differences” or “we grew apart.”) Broadened more so that many states have “no-fault divorce.”

-       Par. 6: The only proper role which legislation has in relation to marriage is in relation to property and its equitable distribution between the husband and wife and the children. It has no value in attempting to regulate morality.

-       Pars. 7/8: One would hope that marriage in America is more a marriage of equality in love, but it is beginning to take on some of the corruption of Europe, in that it is becoming a means of ensuring financial safety.

-       Par. 9: “The unavoidable consequence of such a mode of marrying is, that the sanctity of marriage is impaired, and that vice succeeds. Any one must see at a glance that if men and women marry those whom they do not love, they must love those whom they do not marry.” (154) Saying that if you marry for money you have almost certainly set yourself up for infidelity.

-       Par. 10: “Laws and customs may be creative of vice; and should be therefore perpetually under process of observation and correction: but laws and customs cannot be creative of virtue: they may encouraged and help to preserve it; but they cannot originate it.” (155) Means that laws created with vice are made to take advantage of others. Laws can’t create virtue because they can’t stop a person from wanting to take advantage of others, but they can be created either to take advantage of others or to restrain those who would.

“Women, especially, should be allowed the use and benefit of whatever native strength their Maker has seen fit to give them. It is essential to the virtue of society that they should be allowed the freest moral action, unfettered by ignorance, and unintimidated by authority: for it is unquestioned and unquestionable that if women were not weak, men could not be wicked: that if women were bravely pure, there must be an end to the dastardly tyranny of licentiousness.” (155) Saying that her basic principle is that if people are better educated and less imprisoned, they’ll make better decisions and are less likely to get into trouble.