Sorry, I’m not sorry

One of my artist friends recently posted a sketch of this phrase on Instagram: “I’m not sorry for not replying sooner.” The caption explains that it’s part of a project for a series about “women who are no longer apologizing about things they shouldn’t be apologizing for in the first place.” Having just read some of Harriet Martineau’s work, I found this fascinating. While there were 246 likes (a high number in comparison with her other posts), the comments were particularly striking—and all by women. “I still struggle with this everyday,” wrote one woman; “PREACH” said another,” and several women started to list all the things they are not sorry for: “I’m not sorry for walking in the same door as someone else, I’m not sorry my kid pushed your kid, etc.”

While Martineau is not directly apologetic in this way—I think she might be appalled at that suggestion—her attitude about writing itself does relate. Women that constantly apologize and Harriet Martineau both feel the need to consider the needs/wants of others carefully…but they simultaneously fail to consider their own needs/wants. It is as if acting on behalf of someone else is valid, but doing anything out of one’s own wishes is not.

Several of Liddle’s points illustrate the way Martineau tried to suppress any sort of “self-interest” in terms of her writing. Though his article convincingly argues that Martineau conformed to journalism conventions of her time, it also suggests that Martineau consistently did not see her own needs/ wants as a sufficient impetus for writing. He argues that her writing projects will only be taken “from necessity, or at the direction of….others,” that she wanted to appear “entire[ly] innocent of professional calculation or strategy,” and that she consistently reported “an enthusiastic reception” about her work as a reason to continue writing (51-55). Liddle’s assertion that the factual information does not support her “Authoress’s Tale”—and his assertion that critics have largely overlooked these discrepancies—makes sense. She needed reasons other than her own desires to be a writer, and so she embellished her tale of becoming an author.

It is unsurprising, then, that some of these same points also appear in the introduction to her Autobiography. Instead of explaining that she simply wanted to write an autobiography, Martineau frames it entirely in terms of others’ wants/ desires. She explains that the completion of her own autobiography “is one of her duties” and further explains that “for thirteen or fourteen years it has been more or less a weight on her mind” (34). She also emphasizes the sacrificial nature of this work through suggesting that though “there ha[d] been no lack of encouragement or instigation” on the part of her friends, her own health issues had prevented her from finishing.

And “On Women’s Education” has some of the same thrust. Though Martineau gives several compelling reasons for women to be educated, their own desire for knowledge isn’t among them. Instead she makes the strongest argument possible from a male perspective: that women will be better companions to men, that women will perform daily tasks more effectively, and that Christian humility is part of education. The form of the essay itself—a list of possible objections followed by lengthy responses—suggests that she expected it to be controversial. She does not mention what education has done for her personally, and though she does group herself with women at a few points, she also uses the universal “we” to include herself with her assumedly male readers.

It is not surprising that Martineau’s gender affected how she thought about her work, not that she felt the need to dismiss her own needs/ wants in terms of her writing. But it is fascinating how widespread such a mindset still is—at least to an extent—among women. We are no longer arguing about the benefits of women being educated, but some of us do feel the need to constantly apologize, even if we don’t need to.

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