Harriet Martineau, the daughter of a textile manufacturer from Norwich, was born on 12th June 1802. Thomas and Elizabeth Martineau were Unitarians and held progressive views on the education of girls. The three girls received a similar education to their three brothers. However, where the boys were sent away to university, the girls were expected to stay at home.
Harriet thought this was very unfair and in 1823 the Unitarian journal, Monthly Repository, published her anonymous article, On Female Education. Her brother James Martineau praised it, and when he discovered that his sister was the author, said: "Now, dear, leave it to the other women to make skirts and darn stockings, and you devote yourself to this."
Harriet's father attempted to arrange for her to marry John Hugh Worthington. After some hesitation she accepted but later she changed her mind. Instead of marriage, Harriet continued writing articles for the Monthly Repository. After the death of her father in 1829, Harriet moved to London where William Fox, the editor of the journal, paid her a small wage.
As well as articles for the Monthly Repository, Harriet Martineau began to write religious books such as Devotional Exercises for the Use of Young Persons (1826) and Addresses fir the Use of Families (1826). Martineau then turned to the ambitious project of writing books on politics and economics for the ordinary reader. The material was presented as a series of stories and revealed both her passion for social reform and the influence of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Her book Illustrations of Political Economy (1832) was a great success and brought her financial independence. This book was followed by another bestseller, Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated (1834).
Now a wealthy woman, Harriet Martineau, decided to spend the next two years travelling in the USA. On her return she published Society in America (1837). The book was mainly a critique of America's failure to live up to its democratic principles. Martineau was especially concerned about the treatment of women and called one chapter The Political Non-existence of Women. She claimed that women were treated like slaves. They were both "given indulgence rather than justice". Martineau argued for an improvement in women's education, so that "marriage need not be their only object in life."
In 1839 Martineau had her first novel, Deerbrook, published. This was followed by The Hour and the Man (1840) based on the life of the slave leader, Toussaint L'Ouverture. The Playfellow, a volume of children's stories, was published in 1841.
Harriet Martineau moved to the Lake District in 1845 where she built herself a house near Ambleside. Her next major publication was The History of the Peace (1849) a history of England between 1816 and 1846. This was followed by Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development (1851). The book created a sensation as it was a complete rejection of religious belief. The publication of the book ended her friendship with her brother, James Martineau, who was now a leading figure in the Unitarian Church.
In 1852 Harriet Martineau joined the staff of the Daily News. Over the next sixteen years she wrote over 1600 articles for the newspaper. Martineau also wrote articles on the employment of women for the Edinburgh Review and state education for girls in the Cornhill Magazine. In 1866 she joined with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Emily Davies, Dorothea Beale and Francis Mary Buss to present a petition asking Parliament to grant women the vote. She also wrote articles in favour of women being allowed to enter the medical profession.
In 1869 Martineau began writing articles for the Daily News attacking the Contagious Diseases Acts. These acts had been introduced in the 1860s in an attempt to reduce venereal disease in the armed forces. Martineau objected in principal to laws that only applied to women. Under the terms of these acts, the police could arrest women they believed were prostitutes and could then insist that they had a medical examination. She helped form the National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act. Later Josephine Butler was to become the leading figure in this organisation, but she admitted that it was Martineau who got the campaign going.
Martineau had always suffered from poor health. Between 1839 and 1844 she had been forced to live as a complete invalid. Although she recovered, by the 1870s she had to bring an end to the number of meetings and demonstrations she was attending. Harriet Martineau continued to write pamphlets and articles on women's rights until her death from bronchitis on 27th June 1876.