Judy Waters: Anticipating #MeToo, local writer took on sexual exploitation
Breaking silence one book, one essay at a time, an English feminist called out sexual exploitation in a much earlier chapter of American democracy. Her unconventional voice found warm welcome in the Berkshires and sometimes rocked the boat in U.S. politics.
Enter Harriet Martineau of Norwich England, daughter of Unitarians. Educated at home, she endured illness and hearing loss, wrote prolifically, and by 1830 reached literary fame in a male dominated world. Crossing the Atlantic to Berkshire County, Martineau raised some friendly eyebrows when, rather than take a carriage, she preferred to walk from Stockbridge to Lenox, as she described in her book "Society in America."
Born in 1802, sometimes called the "first woman sociologist," activist and journalist, Martineau wrote on gender, racial, and wealth inequality before the term "sexual harassment" existed. When women had few rights and slavery persisted, Martineau wanted to witness American democracy firsthand. After five weeks at sea, arriving in New York, her trip proved to hold unknown risks.
Met with slaves, owners
In Stockbridge, she boarded peacefully for $2 a week at a hilltop farmhouse, the "air palace," owned by a local widow who treated her like family. Watching the "blue mazy" Housatonic, she visited Pittsfield and Lenox. From literacy practices to winter weather, she observed life among Stockbridgians, citing details in "New England Farmhouse," 1837.
In Virginia, Georgia and Alabama, she visited plantations, met with slave owners and with slaves. She recorded atrocities and sexual mores of plantation life, chose the word "harem" to describe exploitation of slave women by plantation owners. Slave owners' wives were placated, "lived in another reality," Martineau said, adding that family and culture were poisoned by the slavery system. Writing with surprising candor in "Morals of Economy," her work brought criticism, praise and sometimes scorn ("Society in America").
Through her autobiography, Martineau described friendship with renown Berkshire writer Catharine Sedgwick. The two authors conversed and walked along the Housatonic River in 1835, as the question of secession arose. Sedgwick stepped back from the path: "Dissolution of the union — why the union is sacred and must be preserved at all costs." Abolition was the divisive and complex issue of the day and Martineau would soon struggle with it as a non-American.
Away from the Housatonic, by October 1835, violence broke out in Boston, threatening abolitionist publisher William Lloyd Garrison. Being an outsider, preferring to remain neutral, Martineau painstakingly wavered on outward support for abolitionists. When finally asked to go public, she saw risk. Torn, but compelled by conviction, she decided to align with the Boston Female Anti- Slavery Society and became a key speaker (yale.edu). For this she was a target of hate speech, called "unwomanly" and physically threatened.
"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?" Martineau asked. Not silenced, she went on to publish widely on her American experience.
"A woman once lived in Massachusetts whose name ought to be preserved in all histories of the state" wrote Martineau of Elizabeth Freeman, a freed slave who questioned slavery laws in a landmark case involving the Sedgwick family. Today, the Berkshires' Elizabeth Freeman Center, a refuge for victims of sexual and domestic violence, offers advocacy and training, its online newsletter citing MeToo founder Tarana Burke.
Made waves, blazed trail
In 1835, for Martineau, speaking out meant risk but also finding common ground. A relatively new tool to be assessed over time, in 2017 social media allowed victims of all ages and backgrounds to find common ground years after an assault or harassment incident. As described in an Eagle report on Adams-Cheshire Regional School District allegations (Eagle, Sept.16) it can take sexual assault victims decades to come forward and even longer for justice to emerge around incidents once secreted and "hushed."
Harriet Martineau stands with historic authors who came to the Berkshires, shaped thought, ideas, sought truth. Through her "social medium" of books she made waves, created her own trans-Atlantic storm, taking on tough, uncomfortable issues. Breaking silence, she helped mark a century's long path from which *MeToo emerged. Controversial for the 19th century Martineau's "Society in America" is located at Berkshire Athenaeum's local history department.
Judy Waters is a Pittsfield native and former Richmond resident.
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