Black Lives Matter (Part 2)

These articles were originally posted on Gants Hill United Reformed Church’s blog in 2020.

This image has been doing the rounds on social media over the last couple of years. Each named person lived during times when skin colour was more important than intelligence and personality. Whilst racism is nowhere near as bad as it was half a century ago, many people with ethnic backgrounds still face adversity, particularly in the United States. This poster encourages those people to dream, lead, fight, think, build, speak, educate, believe and challenge like the many heroes of the past.

Fight Like Malcolm

Malcolm Stuart Little, or Malcolm X as he was better known, was an African American nationalist and civil rights activist. Malcolm was born on 19th May 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, to Baptist lay-preacher Earl Little and Louise Helen Little, who were both involved with the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). They taught their children to stand up for themselves and be proud of their heritage and black skin. Yet, the family were constantly targeted by the racist group, the Black Legion, forcing them to move twice, firstly to Wisconsin, then to Michigan.

Malcolm’s father died when he was only six years old. The official ruling was Earl had been involved in a streetcar accident, but Malcolm’s mother was certain it had been murder. In 1937, by which time Malcolm was 12, his mother suffered a mental breakdown and Malcolm and his siblings were separated and placed in foster care.

Malcolm did well at school but was deterred from going on to study law by a teacher who told him it was not a realistic career for a black man. As a result, Malcolm looked for jobs but never settled anywhere for long, eventually falling in with the wrong crowd in New York. For some time, Malcolm was involved with drugs, gambling, pimping and robbery until he was arrested for the latter in 1946.

While in prison, Malcolm was introduced to the Nation of Islam, a religious movement founded in 1930 that aimed to improve the lives of African Americans. On his release, Malcolm contacted the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, who helped him convert to Islam and encouraged him to join the movement. All members were instructed to leave their family names behind and replace them with the letter X. Malcolm was more than happy to leave the name “Little” behind, which had been given to his ancestors by a slavemaster. Thus, he became known as Malcolm X.

In 1953, Malcolm became the assistant minister at a temple in Detroit, where he proved to be a skilful speaker and encouraged many people to join the Nation of Islam. Amongst Malcolm’s recruits to the Nation of Islam was the boxer Cassius Clay, who adopted the Muslim name Muhammad Ali. The FBI opened a file on Malcolm after he declared himself a communist. His popularity amongst the movement’s members increased the FBI’s concerns.

Malcolm married Betty Sanders in 1958, who renamed herself Betty X after joining the Nation of Islam. They had six daughters who they named after notable Muslims: Attallah (Attila the Hun), Qubilah (Kublai Khan), Ilyasah (Elijah Muhammad), Gamilah Lumumba (Gamal Abdel Nasser and Patrice Lumumba), and twins: Malikah and Malaak, named after Malcolm, who took on the Muslim name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

Teaching the movement’s followers that all white people were bad, Malcolm made himself a public figure, turning up at police stations to protest the wrongful arrests of several black people. His comments on various issues were published in magazines or reported on radio and television. Topics included the Nation of Islam’s beliefs that black people were the original people of the world. They believed white people were devils, blacks were superior to whites, and the demise of the white race was imminent. These statements alarmed many people of all races, particularly followers of Martin Luther King Jr, who wanted blacks accepted as equal to whites.

Between 1962 and 1963, Malcolm began to reassess his involvement with the Nation of Islam. He began to disagree with some of Elijah Muhammad’s choices and disapproved of Muhammad’s involvement in extramarital affairs, which went against the movement’s teachings. By 1964, Malcolm believed the movement had gone as far as it could, and felt restricted by its rigid teachings. Although he wanted to remain a Muslim, Malcolm wanted to support other civil rights leaders, which Muhammad had actively discouraged.

After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm converted to Sunni Islam, which focused more on the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. Later that year, he took the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, where he met Muslims of “all colours, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans,” which made him realise there was not a superior race, but that everyone was equal.

Having completed his journey to Mecca, Malcolm visited several African countries where he gave many interviews and television appearances. Following this, he visited France and the United Kingdom, where he involved himself in national debates. On his return to the USA, he was invited to speak at various universities and public spaces, encouraging people to fight for their rights and support one another.

As time passed, Malcolm received many death threats, and not only from anti-black organisations. The Nation of Islam branded Malcolm a hypocrite and wished to “bump him off”. Despite warning many people of the threats against his life, no one was able to prevent gunmen from advancing on him during a speech. He was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm on 21st February 1965, having suffered 21 gunshot wounds. The assassins were identified as members of the Nation of Islam, but only Talmadge Hayer was convicted. Hayer refused to name the other men, and, to this day, they remain unknown. The case continues to intrigue people, and earlier this year (2020), Netflix aired the docuseries Who Killed Malcolm X? which launched a new investigation into the assassination.  

After Malcolm’s death, Martin Luther King Jr got in touch with his wife, saying, “While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race.” Even those who were against Malcolm’s beliefs and ideas were shocked at his death.

Malcolm X has been described as one of the most influential African Americans in history. Although many did not approve of his tactics and beliefs, his actions stirred black communities into action to fight for the lives they deserved. As one biographer put it, Malcolm X “made clear the price that white America would have to pay if it did not accede to black America’s legitimate demands.”

Write like Maya

Maya Angelou was one of the most influential black poets of the 20th and early 21st century, writing on themes of racism, identity, family and travel. She was also a civil rights activist and worked with Martin Luther King Junior and Malcolm X. She was showered with awards and over 50 honorary degrees, but her life was not always plain sailing.

Born Marguerite Annie Johnson on 4th April 1928 in Missouri to Bailey and Vivian Johnson, Maya was given her nickname by her older brother, Bailey Jr. Unfortunately, her parents’ marriage was not a happy one, and they separated when she was three years old. Rather than take responsibility for his children, her father sent them to Arkansas to live with their grandmother, Annie Henderson. They remained there until Maya was seven when they moved home to live with their mother.

Sadly, living with their mother also meant living with their mother’s abusive boyfriend, who raped Maya when she was only eight years old. The man was arrested and locked up for one day but was murdered four days later, most likely by Maya’s uncles. The abuse greatly affected Maya, who became mute for five years, even after moving back in with her grandmother. Fortunately, her school teacher helped Maya to regain her voice whilst also feeding her passion for reading, introducing the young girl to authors who would influence her future career.

When Maya was 14, she rejoined her mother, who was then living in California. At 16, she became the first black female cable car conductor in San Francisco, where she worked whilst also attending school. Unfortunately, she got herself in trouble, and no more than three weeks after graduation, she gave birth to a baby boy, Clyde.

In 1951, Maya married a Greek electrician called Tosh Angelos, despite her mother’s disapproval. At that time, interracial marriages were unusual. Maya began taking dance lessons and dreamt of a career in a dance team. In an attempt to increase her prospects, Maya, Tosh and Clyde moved to New York for a year, where she studied African dance. For reasons unknown, in 1954, not long after returning to San Francisco, Maya’s marriage ended.

Having to fend for herself financially, Maya began dancing in local clubs, such as The Purple Onion, under her professional name, Maya Angelou. In 1954-5, she toured Europe by acting in the opera Porgy and Bess and, in 1957, wrote and recorded an album called Miss Calypso. In every country she visited, Maya made a point of learning the language, quickly becoming proficiently multilingual.

In 1959, African-American author John Oliver Killens encouraged Maya to focus on writing songs and poems rather than solely performing. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild and soon became a published author. The following year, she met Martin Luther King Jr and was inspired to organise a concert for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) called Cabaret for Freedom

Maya had a brief relationship with South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make and moved with him to Cairo in 1961 along with her son, who had renamed himself, Guy. The relationship only lasted a year, after which Maya moved to Ghana, where her son enrolled at university. While Guy was studying, Maya worked as a freelance writer for The African Review and Radio Ghana. 

Whilst living in Ghana, Maya met Malcolm X, who was touring Africa. He encouraged her to return to the USA in 1965 and help him set up the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Shortly after, Malcolm X was assassinated, and Maya, at a loss, moved to Hawaii, where her brother lived and refocused on her singing career. Not long after, she returned to Los Angeles to resume her writing career.

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr approached Maya for help organising a march. Tragically, in a similar fate to Malcolm X, King was assassinated on Maya’s 40th birthday. After a bout of depression, Maya resumed writing and published her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Initially, the publishers were unsure whether to publish the book, but it went on to become a bestseller, earning Maya international recognition. 

In 1972, Maya became the first black woman to write a screenplay, which was filmed in Sweden and released under the name Georgia, Georgia. She also wrote the soundtrack for the film. The following year, she married the Welsh carpenter Paul du Feu, who had once been married to the radical feminist Germaine Greer. For the next decade, Maya continued writing articles, screenplays, poems and books and became close friends with Oprah Winfrey. Unfortunately, her second marriage ended in divorce in 1981.

Returning to the southern states, Maya accepted the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, becoming one of the first black women to be a full-time professor. She taught on a variety of themes that interested her, including philosophy, ethics, writing and theatre, but also continued to write.

In 1993, Maya Angelou recited one of her poems at the inauguration of Bill Clinton – the first poet to do so since John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. This televised event increased her fame across the world and earned her a Grammy Award. In 1996, she finally achieved her goal of directing a film (Down in the Delta) and, by 2002, she had published her 6th autobiography. 

Hillary Clinton, during her campaign for the Democratic Party 2008 presidential primaries, used Maya Angelou’s endorsement in her advertisements. After Obama won the primary, Maya gave him her full support. When Obama became the first African-American president, Maya said, “We are growing up beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism.”

Maya published her 7th and final autobiography in 2013 called Mom & Me & Mom, focusing on her relationship with her mother. The following year, on 28th May 2014, Maya passed away after her health deteriorated. Despite cancelling a few events, Maya Angelou was working and attended events until her death. Tributes flooded in as soon as the news was made public, and her first biography instantly became the number one bestseller on Amazon. A public funeral was held at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she had been a member for 30 years. 

As well as the Grammy Award for her poetry recital at Clinton’s inauguration, Maya Angelou received several awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, two more Grammys, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and over 50 honorary degrees. Although these were awarded for her talents, they were also a sign that she overcame her past and did not let racial inequalities stand in the way of her success.


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Unfinished Business: Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft – John Opie

Mary Wollstonecraft received a mention in the Unfinished Business exhibition held at the British Library for her publication, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In this book, Wollstonecraft argued women only appeared inferior to men because they did not receive the same education opportunities. She encouraged her readers to treat both men and women equally as rational beings.

Whilst the Library praised Wollstonecraft for her philosophy, it said nothing about who she was as a person, other than the obvious: Mary Shelley’s (1791-1851) mother. Her daughter indeed is the more famous of the two women, but we ought to remember Wollstonecraft as a person, a philosopher, an advocate of women’s rights and a writer, not just a mother.

Born to Elizabeth Dixon and Edward John Wollstonecraft on 27th April 1759 in Spitalfields, London, Mary had a comfortable life until her father lost his money through risky investments. The family relocated several times to cheaper locations, but they never had enough money to live comfortable lives. What little money they did have, her father spent on drink, often coming home in drunken rages. At night, Mary slept outside her mother’s door to protect her from the violent drunkard.

Wollstonecraft found solace through her friendship with Jane Arden (1758-1840), who she met while living in Yorkshire. The pair enjoyed reading and often attended lectures given by Arden’s father about science and philosophy. These intellectual opportunities inspired Wollstonecraft to think of and form ideas of her own. Another friend, Fanny Blood (1758-85), is credited with opening Wollstonecraft’s mind. They made plans to live together and support each other emotionally and financially, but reality got in the way of their dreams.

To escape her unhappy family home, Wollstonecraft found a position as a lady’s companion in 1778. Unfortunately, she did not get on well with the elderly widow and left two years later when her mother became seriously unwell. After Wollstonecraft’s mother passed away, she left the family home for the second time, moving in with Fanny Blood and her brother Lieutenant George Blood (1762-1844). To make a living, Wollstonecraft and her sisters Everina and Eliza attempted to help Fanny Blood set up a school and boarding house in Newington Green. The school failed to take off, and Fanny relocated to Portugal with her new husband Hugh Skeys. Wollstonecraft followed a few months later to care for her pregnant, but poorly friend. Sadly, Fanny passed away during childbirth.

Engraved frontispiece for the 1791 edition of Original Stories, by William Blake

After Fanny died in 1785, grief-stricken Wollstonecraft obtained a governess position for a family in Ireland. She did not get on well with the lady of the house, but the children adored her. Many of Wollstonecraft’s experiences as a governess made it into her children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life (1788), later republished with illustrations by William Blake. The stories describe the education of two fictional girls, Mary and Caroline. Rather than focus on Accademia, Wollstonecraft describes the girls’ moral and ethical education as they grow up to be mature adults. Around the same time, Wollstonecraft wrote the feminist novel Mary: A Fiction, loosely based on the death of Fanny Blood.

Although Wollstonecraft enjoyed teaching her Irish pupils, she lamented the lack of job opportunities for women in her position. After only a year of working as a governess, she decided to try a career as an author. Wollstonecraft moved to Southwark in London and, with the radical publisher Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), produced her first two books. To aid her writing career, Wollstonecraft learnt French and German, earning money by translating texts. She also wrote reviews of novels for the periodical Analytical Review.

Wollstonecraft in 1790–91 – John Opie

By attending dinners with Johnson, Wollstonecraft met many radical celebutantes, including the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). Attracted by his genius, Wollstonecraft began an affair with Fuseli, knowing full well he was already married. When Fuseli’s wife learnt of the relationship, he broke it off with Wollstonecraft, who fled to France to avoid humiliation. Around this time, she wrote the political pamphlet A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) in response to the critique of the French Revolution written by Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729-97). Initially, Wollstonecraft published the argument anonymously but a second edition revealed her name, making her famous overnight.

Unlike Burke, who supported the French royal family, Wollstonecraft believed the French Revolution to be a “glorious chance to obtain more virtue and happiness than hitherto blessed our globe.” Burke called the women of the revolution “furies from hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women”, to which Wollstonecraft responded, “you mean women who gained a livelihood by selling vegetables or fish, who never had any advantages of education.”

Wollstonecraft followed her pamphlet, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, with an 87,000-word booklet about women’s rights to education. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792) is one of the first books about feminism published in the 18th century. Wollstonecraft believed women should receive an education that befitted their social class because society often expected women to educate their children. She argued that women were not possessions or property, but human beings with the same rights and needs as men. Wollstonecraft called for equality in particular areas, but some traditional stereotypes continued to cloud her judgement in other spheres.

Against advice, Wollstonecraft moved to Paris in December 1792, where she witnessed first-hand the French Revolution. She witnessed the trial of Louis XVI (1754-93) before the National Assembly and, despite supporting the revolution, found “tears flow[ing] insensibly from my eyes, when I saw Louis sitting, with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach going to meet death, where so many of his race have triumphed.” Shortly after the king’s execution on 21st January 1793, France declared war on Britain. Fearfully, Wollstonecraft attempted to travel to Switzerland, who denied her entry.

Wollstonecraft’s support of the revolution did little to protect her in war-torn Paris. The French forbade all foreigners from leaving the country and kept them under police surveillance. They also needed to apply for a residency permit, which involved producing six statements from French citizens to prove their loyalty. Some of Wollstonecraft’s friends in France lost their heads for supporting the Girondins rather than the Jacobins, who were currently in power. Having shared similar sentiments to her friends, Wollstonecraft feared for her life.

During the Reign of Terror, foreigners tended to band together, which is how Wollstonecraft met the American businessman Gilbert Imlay (1754-1828). Despite dismissing sexual relationships in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft fell in love with Imlay. Sleeping with Imlay out of wedlock challenged conventional practices concerning marriage, yet their relationship proved to be Wollstonecraft’ saving grace from the guillotine. Wollstonecraft refused to bow down to Jacobin-rule, which denied women equal rights to men. This put her under suspicion, and her family back home in Britain feared she would lose her head. By October 1793, the Girondin leaders were dead, and their followers were the next targets of the government. To protect her from arrest, Imlay claimed to the authorities that he had married her, making Wollstonecraft an American citizen.

“It is impossible for you to have any idea of the impression the sad scenes I have been a witness to have left on my mind … death and misery, in every shape of terrour, haunts this devoted country—I certainly am glad that I came to France, because I never could have had else a just opinion of the most extraordinary event that has ever been recorded.”

Mary Wollstonecraft in a letter to her sister, Everina

On 14th May 1794, Wollstonecraft gave birth to a baby girl, named Frances “Fanny” (1794-1816) after her late friend Fanny Blood. Imlay initially adored his daughter but soon got bored of domestic life and left, promising Wollstonecraft he would eventually return. In his absence, Wollstonecraft wrote An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, which she sent to London for publication. Imlay never returned.

The Jacobins fell in July 1794, but life remained difficult for Wollstonecraft. A harsh winter plagued the continent; rivers froze over, preventing deliveries of much-needed coal and food. Many people died from starvation in the French capital, but Wollstonecraft managed to survive, holding on to hope that Imlay would return. After the winter thawed, Wollstonecraft left France for England, arriving in April 1795.

In London, Wollstonecraft located the missing Imlay who made it clear their relationship had ended. In her distress, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide, but Imlay saved her. Mistaking his actions for affection, Wollstonecraft travelled to Scandinavia on his behalf to conduct business negotiations. She believed Imlay would be pleased with her and wish to rekindle their romance. Taking her daughter Fanny with her, Wollstonecraft embarked on a hazardous trip across northern Europe, which she recorded in Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, published in 1796. The book of twenty-five letters inspired many poets and writers, such as William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834).

On her return to London, Wollstonecraft realised there was no hope for her relationship with Imlay. She wrote a letter to Imlay saying, “Let my wrongs sleep with me! Soon, very soon, shall I be at peace. When you receive this, my burning head will be cold … I shall plunge into the Thames where there is the least chance of my being snatched from the death I seek. God bless you! May you never know by experience what you have made me endure. Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasure, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude.” Fortunately, a passing stranger pulled Wollstonecraft out of the Thames, saving her life.

William Godwin – James Northcote,

For some time, Wollstonecraft focused her attentions on her daughter Fanny until she felt able to return to the literary circle. Through her publisher, Wollstonecraft met the novelist and critic William Godwin (1756-1836) who said of her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.” Godwin did, indeed, fall in love with Wollstonecraft and she soon fell pregnant. Godwin and Wollstonecraft married on 29th March 1797 so that their child would be legitimate. Godwin also adopted Fanny, who believed him to be her real father until she learnt otherwise nine years later. 

The Godwin’s moved to Somers Town in North West London where they spent a few months in a happy, stable relationship. Godwin rented a nearby apartment, so that both he and Wollstonecraft could focus on their work without distraction. Heavily pregnant, Wollstonecraft had little opportunity to complete any of her writings.

On 30th August 1797, Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter Mary (1797-1851), the future Mary Shelley. Initially, all went well, but the placenta had torn during the delivery, causing an infection. Wollstonecraft lay in agony for over a week, passing away from septicaemia on 10th September. Speaking of her death, Godwin wrote “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.” He expressed his grief through his publication Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which went into great detail about his wife’s life and personality. The book received a lot of criticism from those who thought wrong of Godwin to expose her unladylike qualities. This was not Godwin’s intention; he wished to celebrate the life of a woman who had overcome hardships to become a successful author.

Unfortunately, Godwin’s memoirs ruined Wollstonecraft’s reputation, and her work fell out of favour. Satirists mocked her ideas, and some writers used her as an example to teach their readers a moral lesson. On the other hand, one writer respected Wollstonecraft and used several of her views in her novels. Although she never mentioned Wollstonecraft by name, Jane Austen (1775-1817) respected her opinions and scholars have found comparable traits in Austen’s characters. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet speaks of female accomplishments, and Sense and Sensibility contains similar themes to Wollstonecraft’s novel Mary. Mansfield Park draws attention to the treatment of women in society, and Anne Eliot, in Persuasion, is better qualified to look after the family estate than her father.

As feminism movements developed, Wollstonecraft’s popularity began to grow once more. Authors, such as Virginia Woolf (1888-1941), openly declared their respect for Wollstonecraft’s ideas. Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), claimed Wollstonecraft as the foremother of the struggle for the vote. By the 1960s, Wollstonecraft’s books were back on the shelves, and many women have found comfort in her writing. The former Muslim author Ayaan Hirsi Ali (b.1969) wrote she felt “inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering feminist thinker who told women they had the same ability to reason as men did and deserved the same rights.”

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London

Over time, plaques have appeared on or near buildings where Wollstonecraft once lived. This year, British artist Maggi Hambling (b.1945) unveiled a statue of Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London. This is Hambling’s second sculpture to appear in London, the other being A Conversation with Oscar Wilde near Trafalgar Square, but this latest addition has caused controversy. 

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft features a naked female figure emerging from “a swirling mingle of female forms”. On the plinth, an inscription quotes Wollstonecraft: “I do not wish women to have power over men but over themselves.” Hambling intended the female figure to represent all women, but many critics assumed it to be a likeness of Wollstonecraft. They were critical of its nudity, including pubic hair, but Hambling maintained she wanted to move away from the traditional depiction of the female body and produce something more realistic instead. “Statues in historic costume look like they belong to history because of their clothes. It’s crucial that she is ‘now’.”

Wollstonecraft will soon feature in the library of Trinity College Dublin, which, until now, has been home to forty busts of literary men. Wollstonecraft is one of four women to join the marble collection. The other women are the scientist Rosalind Franklin (1920-58), the dramatist Augusta Gregory (1852-1932), and the mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815-52). They were chosen from a list of 500 pioneering women.

Gradually, Mary Wollstonecraft’s work is gaining more popularity than her unsavoury reputation at the time of her death. She is more than Mary Shelley’s mother; she is a woman who dared to speak out against gender stereotypes and equality. She is the first of many women to start the ball rolling for women’s rights, and for that, we should be eternally grateful.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur

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Unfinished Business – Harriet Martineau

“The progression or emancipation of any class … takes place through the efforts of individuals of that class. All women should inform themselves of the condition of their sex, and of their own position.”

Harriet Martineau

The British Library displays a banner of Harriet Martineau’s portrait and a brief description as part of their Unfinished Business exhibition. Focusing on women’s rights, the library reveals Martineau, a British author, was the fore-mother of sociology. Her works were widely read in her day but have since fallen off the radar. Martineau wrote from a feminine perspective at a time when it was rare for a woman to express her opinion so publicly. Not only that, she earned enough money from her works to support herself entirely, a rare feat for a Victorian woman.

Born on 12th June 1802 in Norwich, Harriet Martineau, the sixth of eight children, grew up in the vicinity of Octagon Chapel where her father, Thomas (1764-1826), was deacon. The Martineau family was of French Huguenot descent and were prominent Unitarians. Harriet’s grandfather, David Martineau II (1726-68), purchased the Bracondale Woods near Norwich in 1793 where he built a “handsome mansion with pleasure grounds delightfully laid out”. His fifth son, Thomas, was Harriet’s father.

Thomas Martineau married Elizabeth Rankin (1772-1848), the daughter of a grocer, and had their first daughter in 1794. Named after her mother, Elizabeth (1794-1850) married Dr Thomas Greenhow (1792-1881). The Daily Telegraph recently reported that if Greenhow were alive today, he would have “led the fight against Covid 19”. Through the marriage of their daughter Frances (1820-92) to Francis Lupton (1813-84), they are related to the present Duchess of Cambridge (b.1982).

Harriet’s eldest brother Thomas (1795-1824) became a surgeon, founding an eye infirmary, which is now part of Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. Another brother, Robert (1798-1870), became the Mayor of Birmingham in 1846, but it was with her younger brother James (1805-1900) that Harriet felt closest. James was a religious philosopher who Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) regarded as “the mastermind of all the remarkable company with whom he engaged.” Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98) maintained James was “beyond question the greatest of living thinkers”.

Few records about Harriet’s childhood survive other than what she mentioned in her later writings. Her mother supposedly lacked affection for her children and abandoned them to wet nurses. Harriet expressed this lack of nurture in her book Household Education (1848), although their relationship improved later in life. Elizabeth wished her daughters to have a conservative education. Whilst she desired them to read well, anything unfeminine, including writing, was strictly forbidden. Nonetheless, her daughters flourished academically and Harriet’s sister Rachel opened a Unitarian Academy, attended by ancestors of Hollywood actress Helena Bonham Carter (b.1966). 

At a young age, Martineau started to lose some of her senses, beginning with taste and smell, then hearing. By adulthood, she was profoundly deaf and required an ear trumpet, an old form of hearing aid. Determined not to let her disabilities get the better of her, Martineau went against her mother’s wishes and started to write anonymously for the Monthly Repository, a Unitarian periodical concerned with the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and the reform of the Church of England. These articles led to the publication of Martineau’s first book in 1823, Devotional Exercises and Addresses, Prayers and Hymns.

In 1826, Martineau’s father passed away. His grave rests in Rosary Cemetery, the first non-denominational burial ground in the United Kingdom. His textile business, which none of his children seemed particularly keen to run, began to suffer, eventually closing in 1829. Martineau, then 27 years old, went against traditional gender roles to make a living for her family. She began to publish articles in the Monthly Repository under her real name, earning her a salary and three prizes from the Unitarian Association. These accolades helped to establish her as a freelance writer. 

Although she never wished death upon either of her parents, Martineau admitted the resulting failure of her father’s business was “one of the best things that ever happened to us”. Until then, Martineau going to work was not an option, and she felt she was vegetating at home rather than living. Whilst her brothers were earning, they had families of their own and could not afford to provide for their mothers and sisters as well. Financial responsibility fell to Martineau, which, ironically, gave Martineau her long-desired freedom.

At the beginning of the 1830s, Martineau received her first book commission. Martineau wrote Illustrations of Political Economy, published in 1832, as a work of fiction intended to help readers understand the capitalist ideas of ”The Father of Economics” Adam Smith (1723-90). The publisher, assuming it would not sell well on account of her gender, only printed 1500 copies. Very soon, the public demanded more copies and the book eventually surpassed the sales of works by Charles Dickens (1812-70).

Illustrations of Political Economy was an international success, spreading Smith’s visions of a free-market throughout the British Empire. At the publisher’s request, Martineau wrote a series of fictional tutorials about other political economists, including James Mill (1773-1836), the father of the philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-73); Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832); and David Ricardo (1772-1823). Martineau also wrote about her thoughts on population control, inspired by the economist of demography Thomas Malthus (1766-1834).

As well as writing these Illustrations, Martineau continued producing articles for the Monthly Repository, where her work caught the eye of the editor Reverend William Fox (1786-1864). The Unitarian minister of South Place Chapel, in Finsbury, London, invited Martineau to London to join his circle of progressive thinkers. On her first visit, Fox introduced her to Erasmus Alvey Darwin (1804-81), the brother of Charles Darwin (1809-82), who proved to be a vital connection.

Around 1832, Martineau moved to London and became a regular attendee of meetings held by Fox. Her social circle instantly grew to include well-known writers and thinkers, such as Malthus, John Stuart Mill, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) and Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). Later, she made the acquaintance of Dickens, Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), Charlotte Brontë (1816-55) and George Eliot (1819-80). Yet, Martineau kept in close contact with her younger brother James, who assisted her with the Illustrations series. She also penned four stories expressing her support for the Whig Poor Law reforms.

Charles Darwin, while exploring the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean, received a copy of Martineau’s Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated and Illustrations of Taxation from his sisters. They described Martineau as a “great Lion” and encouraged Darwin to read her books in his spare time. By this time, Martineau’s popularity had spread to the United States, which spurred her trip to the country in 1834 where she met with former President James Madison (1751-1836).

Martineau received a mixed reception in the US. As a strong supporter of abolitionism, she angered many Americans who remained against the movement. Martineau likewise supported women’s rights, which also caused controversy. On visiting some of the very few girls’ schools in the country, she expressed her anger at the “unjustifiable restriction of education.” In comparison to the educational opportunities for boys, girls had limited choices. On her return to England, Martineau wrote, “The choice is to either be ill-educated, passive, and subservient, or well-educated, vigorous, and free only upon sufferance.”

Martineau’s return to London coincided with the completion of Charles Darwin’s expedition. In 1836, Darwin went to stay with his brother Erasmus who spent much of his time “driving out Miss Martineau”. Rumours that Erasmus and Martineau were an item unsettled Darwin who believed his brother would not survive a marriage to “so philosophical & energetic a lady”. Their father Robert (1766-1848) also had concerns that Martineau was too politically minded, despite sharing her Unitarian and Whig views.

On the other hand, Charles Darwin enjoyed discussing ideas with Martineau, commenting that “She is a wonderful woman”. While writing her book Society in America, Martineau discussed both the social and natural aspects of the country with Darwin. In a letter to his sisters, Darwin remarked: “She was very agreeable and managed to talk on a most wonderful number of subjects.” Princess Victoria (1819-1901) was also a fan of Martineau’s work and invited Martineau to her coronation in 1838.

Deerbrock

Fears of a marriage between Martineau and Erasmus came to nought after Martineau fell ill during a tour of Europe. Rather than return to London, she moved to Tynemouth near Newcastle to be near her brother. Martineau explored the fateful romance in her novel Deerbrook (1838), which features a failed love affair between a physician and his sister-in-law. Fortunately, Martineau and Erasmus remained on good terms, writing to each other frequently.

Doctors diagnosed Martineau with a uterine tumour, which confined her mostly to her home. She received frequent visits from her brother-in-law Dr Greenhow, who helped to relieve some of her symptoms. Unable to walk or stand well, Martineau’s mother cared for her until they found a suitable nurse. Not only did Martineau suffer physically, both from the tumour and deafness, she found herself in the position she had campaigned against, enacting the social constraints of women.

To assert her independence, albeit, with the help of a nurse, Martineau moved to Mrs Halliday’s boarding-house on 16th March 1840, where she resided for five years. The building later became a guest house, renamed “Martineau Guest House” in her honour. Whilst living there, Martineau continued to write, particularly about her illness. Life in the Sickroom: Essays by an Invalid, published in 1844, is an autobiographical work that explores Martineau’s thoughts during her confinement. She dedicated the book to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, declaring it was “an outpouring of feeling to an idealised female alter ego, both professional writer and professional invalid- and utterly unlike the women in her own family”.

Despite her weakened state, Martineau took control of her situation. She often disagreed with doctors and told them what to do, rather than the other way around. Many readers of Life in the Sickroom declared Martineau mentally unwell, presuming her sickness had addled her mind. They were also concerned about the unfeminine hobbies Martineau took up, for instance, astronomy, although it was not only the stars she looked at through her telescope.

“When I look forth in the morning, the whole land may be sheeted with glittering snow, while the myrtle-green sea swells and tumbles… there is none of the deadness of winter in the landscape; no leafless trees, no locking up with ice; and the air comes in through my open upper sash brisk, but sun-warmed. The robins twitter and hop in my flower-boxes… And at night, what a heaven! What an expanse of stars above, appearing more steadfast, the more the Northern Lights dart and quiver!”

Harriet Martineau, Life in the Sickroom, 1844

In 1844, Martineau’s health improved with the help of a new form of alternative medicine called mesmerism, named after the German doctor Franz Mesmer (1743-1815). Also known as animal magnetism, the treatment is a “loosely grouped set of practices in which one person influenced another through a variety of personal actions, or through the direct influence of one mind on another mind. Mesmerism was designed to make invisible forces augment the mental powers of the mesmeric object.” (Alison Winter, 1995) Martineau recorded her progress in a series of sixteen letters, which she eventually published under the title Letters on Mesmerism

In her new-found health, Martineau designed a house called The Knoll, which she oversaw the construction of in Ambleside, Lake District. Although she spent most of her later life in this house, she lived with her elderly mother in Birmingham during 1846. After this, Martineau set off on a tour of Egypt, Palestine and Syria, which inspired her book Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848). In her writing, Martineau established a connection between the ancient beliefs of the Egyptians with 19th-century Christian beliefs. Once again, she caused controversy with many readers branding her an infidel.

As well as her book about the Eastern world, Martineau published Household Education in 1848, expressing her disdain for the lack of female academia. Although she agreed that motherhood and domesticity were worthy virtues, they did not prevent a woman from receiving a well-rounded education. Martineau proposed that young girls should receive the same schooling as boys, but if they chose to become a housewife, that was their decision rather than command and obedience. 

Eager to change the ways schools taught, Martineau conducted lectures at local schools for both children and their parents. She told them of her trip to America and the Middle East, as well as focusing on British history. The publisher Charles Knight (1791-1873) encouraged Martineau to convert her lectures into books, resulting in The History of the Thirty Years’ Peace, 1816–1846.

Martineau’s lectures and books spread to other topics, earning her the reputation of a “progressive” woman. Most of the subjects she tackled were not expected of a woman, making her appear to have a masculine nature. One of her books, A Complete Guide to the English Lakes, replaced William Wordsworth’s (1770-1850) guide of the Lake District and remained popular for over 25 years. She also become a regular contributor for the Daily News and the Westminster Review.

Despite coming from a strict religious family, Martineau’s ideas bordered on atheism, causing irreparable rifts between her family and some friends. This was principally a result of the spiritual practice of mesmerism, which she credited for her “cure”, although medical doctors had different theories. Not only did her uterine tumour no longer cause her any problems, but Martineau also found it easier to cope with her deafness and lack of taste and smell. Unfortunately, her good health did not last for long; she received a heart disease diagnosis in 1855.

Concerned that she would not live long, Martineau hastily wrote her final autobiography, instructing her publisher to print it after her death. As it turned out, she need not have rushed. Meanwhile, she involved herself with political activism, particularly the Married Women’s Property Bill and women’s suffrage.

In 1859, Erasmus Darwin sent Martineau a copy of his brother’s book On the Origin of Species, which she thoroughly enjoyed. It was one of the first books about the world that did not have a theological premise. Having gushed about what a great book it was, Martineau wrote, “In the present state of the religious world, Secularism ought to flourish. What an amount of sin and woe might and would then be extinguished.” Unfortunately, this opinion pushed her even further away from her profoundly religious brother James. 

Throughout the 1860s, Martineau signed petitions for women’s suffrage and continued to write her controversial books. Despite her poor health, she lived to the age of 74, passing away on 27th June 1876 after a bout of bronchitis. Although she lived in Ambleside, her burial took place in Birmingham alongside her mother in Key Hill Cemetery. The publication of her autobiography went ahead the following year.

Over time, Martineau’s books fell out of favour as the increasing number of women fighting for equal rights overshadowed them. Only recently has her work resurfaced in debates about the founder of sociology. Some praise Martineau for being the first sociologist to study issues related to women, such as marriage and children. She also taught that society must include all religions, races, cultures and politics.

Naturally, sociology has developed considerably since Harriet Martineau’s time, but there is clear evidence she pointed sociologists in the right direction. It is thanks to radical women like Martineau that Britain has seen so many changes concerning gender equality. Harriet Martineau features on the Reformers memorial at Kensal Green Cemetery amongst the likes of William Morris (1834-96), John Ruskin (1819-1900) and other radical thinkers.


Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley

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