It is tempting to follow Martineau's own method and measure her feminism against specific principles. For historical fairness, they should be principles that she herself endorsed. Yet that would not yield a full enough picture, for it is my intent to show her contribution to later feminism, including that of our time, as well as to the efforts of her time. Thus, the criteria must be both her own and ones that we still consider important today, though we must be aware of the difference between those ideas that were deliberately feminist on her part and the ones to which we in a later age have assigned feminist significance.
Martineau, herself a model of women's accomplishment for later feminists, was often a genuine promoter of other women. She was sensitive and conscious of efforts made by women on women's behalf, even though her tongue could sometimes be acid in gossip about some women. Contemporary feminist scholars can note with appreciation that in her Illustrations of Political Economy she repeatedly gave Mrs. Jane Marcet credit for the idea of her own work. Though she raised her eyebrows at Mary Wollstonecraft's personal sexual behavior and what she regarded as her romantic excesses, she fully acknowledged Wollstonecraft as the first English public advocate of women's rights. Present at the dinner at which John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor met, she is reputed to have been one of the worst gossips about the long, devoted relationship Taylor and Mill maintained while Taylor was married to someone else. Yet she was supportive of their feminism. Although she was not very tolerant of or informed about sexuality and unorthodox relationships, she was very supportive of work, education, political rights, and personal dignity for women; and she went a long way in supporting all manner of their manifestations. She came to be able to do this by objectifying the actual women involved as she led their causes.
In a leader in the London Daily News published June 28, 1854, Harriet Martineau wrote that "the wife-beating which has excited so much attention for the last two or three years, and which we have endeavored to meet by express legislation, has revealed to alarmed thousands of us that the mistresses of tyrannical men have a great advantage over the wives in being able to free themselves from their tyrant when they please. They can tell the truth in court about the treatment they have undergone; for they have nothing to fear from the vindictiveness of the brute when he comes out of gaol again."  This observation came in response to a report of a parliamentary Commission on Divorce. A Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act was to pass in 1857, and Martineau's support of it in the newspaper and her expression of that support in terms of the easing of brutality against poor women are indications of her surprisingly foresighted feminist outlook. The new law only established a single court where there had previously been three different jurisdictions to handle divorce cases and did not actually give women much relief, but Martineau's argument is immensely important as an early feminist framework for later criticism and campaigns. Long before the coining of the word "feminist" and thirty years before the beginning of an organized women's rights campaign in England, Harriet Martineau was a wide-ranging, progressive, and thorough-going feminist in nearly every sense in which that word is used today.  Embracing practically every cause clearly in favor of women's advancement in her lifetime and taking up certain issues that were not so definitely identified as parts of the feminist fabric until the 1960s and 1970s, Martineau was a giant among early feminists. An overview of Martineau's writings and the issues and campaigns she fought for with her pen gives a contemporary reader both a profile of the emergence of feminism in nineteenth-century England and America and a theoretical foundation for the feminist social philosophy still dominant today.
She was the first Englishwoman to make the analogy between the American woman's lot and the slave's.  Publishing that claim in Society in America in the context of a full analysis of the situation of American women, she and her book received far more attention, both positive and negative, for her abolitionist views than for her feminism. Yet the book included a very astute chapter entitled "The Political Non-Existence of Women," in which she claimed that the democratic principle was violated by the denial of political participation to women. It was from women that she had learned much that she knew about the United States, and she gave credit to these women for their achievements and talents. At the same time she criticized the lack of authority and choice for American women and the resulting servitude for many of them.
Martineau's position as a model for today's feminists or as an inspiration for female achievers is important. Alice S. Rossi's inclusion of Martineau's chapter on women from Society in America in her selection of classic feminist statements, The Feminist Papers ( 1973), indicates the current value of Martineau's thought. In presenting her chapter from Martineau, Rossi especially represents Martineau as a forerunner of the discipline of sociology.
Others could make such a claim for her relation to economics, though Martineau was a popularizer in that field, not an original thinker. Although it would be much too extravagant to claim a significant place for her as a fiction writer--her didactic tales, children's stories, and novel Deerbrook having small current readership--it is, nevertheless, important to note that she wrote a considerable amount of fiction. The most comprehensive "first" that Martineau accomplished as a woman was as a journalist, for besides earning her living from her early thirties by writing numerous popular books and many articles for major journals, she contributed, as mentioned, over 1,600 editorials to the London Daily News on an enormous range of political and social topics during the 1850s and 1860S.
The historian Janet Courtney, writing in the 1930s about the British women's movement in the 1830s, believed Harriet Martineau to be the leading feminist of the period. Courtney wrote, "And when I found Harriet Martineau, the ablest of them all, announcing that the best advocates of women's rights would be the successful professional women and the 'substantially successful authoresses,' I recognized that she had put in a nutshell the whole truth about the women's movement." 
Courtney believed that in the 1830s women and women's rights made great advances only to fall back under the influence of Queen Victoria and the Victorians. Though Martineau did not write the passage Courtney selected until she wrote her Autobiography in 1855, faith in individual women's accomplishments was a central point of Martineau's feminism from the beginning.
The female role model idea is significant in Martineau's first published piece, "Female Writers of Practical Divinity," published in the Unitarian journal Monthly Repository in 1822. The article opens,
I do not know whether it has been remarked by others as well as myself, that some of the finest and most useful English works on the subject of Practical Divinity are by female authors. I suppose it is owing to the peculiar susceptibility of the female mind, and its consequent warmth of feeling, that its productions, when they are really valuable, find a more ready way to the heart than those of the other sex; and it gives me great pleasure to see women gifted with superior talents, applying those talents to promote the cause of religion and virtue. 
In contradiction to her theme, however, she signed the article, "Discipulus," implying a male author, a practice she followed in pseudonym or textual voice off and on throughout her career in spite of the fame she gained in the 1830s writing in her own name.
She was to echo her first printed sentiment about women achievers as models in a piece written as an obituary for Florence Nightingale when Nightingale was believed to be dying after the Crimean War, but not published until 1910 when Nightingale actually died. Florence Nightingale was the woman of her time whom Martineau perhaps most greatly admired, and she wrote,
Florence Nightingale encountered opposition--from her own sex as much as the other; and she achieved, as the most natural thing in the world, and without the smallest sacrifice of her womanly quality, what would beforehand have been declared a deed for a future age.
She was no declaimer, but a housewifely woman; she talked little, and did great things. When other women see that there are things for them to do, and train themselves to the work, they will get it done easily enough. There can never be a more unthought-of and marvellous career before any working woman than Florence Nightingale has achieved; and her success has opened a way to all others easier than anyone had prepared for her. 
Education for women was another theme Martineau pursued all her life. Her second published piece was on that topic. She was well aware early that intellectual occupation was not considered fitting for a girl, writing that "when I was young, it was not thought proper for young ladies to study very conspicuously; and especially with pen in hand. . . . and thus my first studies in philosophy were carried on with great care and reserve."  Martineau's youthful writings suggested that women should be educated in order to enhance their companionship with men and improve their teaching of their own children, although she always advocated a rigorous course of study for girls, physical exercise for girls as well as boys, and domestic arts for women in addition to the program followed by males. Her feminist consciousness grew, and in later life, she encouraged the idea of education of women for its own sake and recommended a full program of advanced subjects. As a public figure and in the press, she supported the establishment of the colleges for women in London, Queens College in Harley Street and the Ladies College in Bedford Square, of the first professional school of nursing at St. Thomas' Hospital in London, and of women's medical education.
Work for women was also a frequent theme. Martineau made a strong argument--amazing for the time--in favor of equal pay for equal work. Hers was not the literal argument still heard today that women should be paid the same amount of money for exactly the same jobs as men but was much stronger, insisting that equivalent labor deserves equal pay. She made it most forcefully, in fact, on behalf of the dairy-maids whose job of milking the cows twice daily, straining the milk, preparing cheese, and churning butter had formerly been exclusively a female occupation. She wrote that "such work as this ought at least to be paid as well as the equivalent work of men; indeed, in the dairy farms of the west of England the same labour of milking the kine is now very generally performed by men, and the Dorset milkmaid, tripping along with her pail, is, we fear, becoming a myth." 
In her writings on women's work Martineau repeatedly expressed a concern for health as well as pay. She wrote in several pieces of the degeneration of stamina and mental well-being experienced by governesses and servant women because of the crushing demands of their employers: "The physician says that, on the female side of the lunatic asylums, the largest class, but one, of the insane are maids of all work (the other being governesses). The causes are obvious enough: want of sufficient sleep from late and early hours, unremitting fatigue and hurry, and, even more than these, anxiety about the future from the smallness of the wages."  If not the insane asylum, then the workhouse followed for many of these women, for they did not earn enough to save for their old age. But it was better wages and the obligation of good advice from their employers on savings pensions for themselves that Martineau advocated. Ever the laissez-faire economist, she did not envision a social scheme for retirement benefits.
For middle-class married women, Martineau advocated improved household management skills exemplified in learning expert cookery. The teaching of such skills as cookery could also become an occupation. These women need not be housebound, though, for many of them were already engaged alongside their husbands, brothers, and fathers in shopkeeping, crafts, small manufacturing, and the deskwork, especially accounting, that went with such employment. Martineau believed that such women should be encouraged to be more active in these pursuits, but that they would be much more useful if they were taught sufficient arithmetic to manage sales and accounting effectively. Though she did not propose wide-scale female ownership of businesses in preference to men and typically discussed female shopkeeping as though husbands were in charge, she did encourage single women to learn business skills and widows to learn to manage their inherited shops to avoid having to remarry so quickly. She spoke of nursing and medicine as newly opened occupations that should be attractive to middle-class women and predicted that scientists, artists, and writers would emerge from among educated women.
When Harriet Martineau was fifty-two, she wrote to all her correspondents asking them to address her henceforth as "Mrs.," but her request had nothing to do with marriage. It was an acknowledgment that greater respect was carried by the title "Mrs." than "Miss" and an assertion that she was entitled to such respect. This was resonant with the original meaning of the word "mistress," of which "Mrs." was first an abbreviation, a word that meant female authority in the household and had nothing to do with marital status. That meaning was largely gone by the end of the eighteenth century, but a few distinguished nineteenth-century single women like Martineau attempted to renew it, showing a sensitivity to the dignity conveyed by a title. Their attempts came from the same impulse that pressed feminists of the 1970s to introduce "Ms." as a general title by which a woman might be addressed whatever her marital status.
Martineau was outspoken about the degradation and limits imposed on women by marriage, but she was understandably ambivalent in some of her statements and contradictory in some of her behavior having to do with marriage. In her time and place where marriage was so definitively normative for women, the wonder is that she was at times so piercingly critical of marriage in general, not that most of the time she fostered and approved of specific marriages between people she knew. This too is more consistent with contemporary feminists' views of the disabilities of marriage than with those of Martineau's own time.
This contradiction is vividly seen in two illustrations. In the "Memorials," Maria Weston Chapman reports the memory one of Harriet Martineau's oldest friends had of Martineau's deep regret at the marriage of a young lady friend. She related that Martineau said that marriage "would deprive her of larger opportunities of usefulness to the world."  Yet in 1854 she was apparently very happy to sponsor the wedding for her maid from her house at Ambleside. She wrote, refusing an invitation received from a Mrs. Barkworth: "Many thanks for your invitation; but the intended bridegroom will be here on Sunday, and I am engaged every day till after the wedding. My house, hands, heart and time will be very full till it is over." 
More enigmatic is her approval of Margaret Fuller's marriage to Count Ossoli during the last years of Fuller's life. Given her opinion that marriage would "deprive [one young woman] of larger opportunities of usefulness," it is striking to find Martineau writing of "that remarkable regeneration which transformed her [Fuller] from the dreaming and haughty pedant into the true woman. In a few months more she had loved and married; and how interesting and beautiful was the closing period of her life, when husband and child concentrated the power and affections which had so long run to waste in intellectual and moral eccentricity."  This is a rather severe judgment of Fuller, for although Martineau claims to have been her friend, twice in the Autobiography she sharply criticizes the American woman. She is resentful that Fuller negatively criticized Society in America for its emphasis on the abolition of American slavery.  She was also stung by a report from London that Fuller had called her "commonplace" after a visit as her houseguest at The Knoll.  Though near in age and occupation, and even in high-strung temperament, Martineau and Fuller were opposites philosophically, Martineau the rationalist, Fuller the romantic, Martineau the positivist, Fuller the transcendentalist. It is no wonder that they finally did not get along with each other. This evidence makes me wonder if Martineau was not being spiteful rather than truthful about the value of marriage for Margaret Fuller.
On marriage in theory, Martineau wrote in How to Observe Morals and Manners: " The traveller everywhere finds women treated as the inferior party in a compact in which both parties have an equal interest. Any agreement thus formed is imperfect, and is liable to disturbance; and the danger is great in proportion to the degradation of the supposed weaker party. The degree of the degradation of woman is as good a test as the moralist can adopt for ascertaining the state of domestic morals in any country." And "It is a matter of course that women who are furnished with but one object,--marriage--must be as unfit for anything when their aim is accomplished as if they had never any object at all. They are no more equal to the task of education than to that of governing the state; and, if any unexpected turn of adversity befals them, they have no resource but a convent, or some other charitable provision."  Her observations of marriage were confirmed by letters she received from Englishwomen describing the "intolerable oppression" of women under law and custom in England. 
Martineau published theoretical considerations of political equality for women several times between 1837 and 1851. All were about women in American society; and all were very positive. But only once, in a passage in her Autobiography, did she address at its most abstract level what was typically called in her day the woman question, and on that occasion she is atypically negative. The tone of that piece suggests that women will come to have political rights if women will be worthy of them. Most other times she was far more willing to indict the political system for excluding women.
The woman's suffrage campaign did not really get under way until the late 1860s when Martineau's health w as failing. However, she had written in 1855, "I have no vote at elections, though I am a tax-paying housekeeper and responsible citizen; and I regard the disability as an absurdity, seeing that I have for a long course of years influenced public affairs to an extent not professed or attempted by many men." 
She went on in that passage, however, to disclaim any intention of agitating over suffrage, believing that women would have a vote in time. The vote was clearly simply one among many women's issues for her, not the central, singular driving focus for women's rights that it came to be in both England and America after her death. Nevertheless, she readily signed the petition for women's suffrage that John Stuart Mill presented to Parliament in 1866. She admired Mill and believed him to be an effective supporter of women's rights, but adding her name to those of the 1,498 other women on the petition was not a strong gesture. Her conviction of the rightness of the principle of the vote for women, incidentally, was not shared by the ruling Queen Victoria, still mourning deeply for her husband, then dead for five years, nor by the most admired woman in England at the time and Martineau's friend, Florence Nightingale. 
Martineau's final act of political activism in her old age was on behalf of women and again in the service of a campaign led by another, the campaign of the Ladies' National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts led by Josephine Butler. This time a thoroughly feminist organization was launched. It was liberal and even patronizing in the sense that it consisted of "respectable" women working for "fallen" women. Nevertheless, this movement was radical in the sense that the women involved realized that all women were potentially incriminated by laws that identified prostitutes too vaguely and punished women but not men for acts of prostitution.
Martineau was invigorated by writing publicly for this campaign, which provided an appropriate finale for a distinguished career as journalist, thinker, and feminist.