Margaret Fuller: The Roots of American Feminism
Margaret Fuller was indeed one of the originators of America feminism, both from the point of view of providing an intellectual foundation and also providing a pragmatic approach towards gaining equality. She succeeded in combining many “male ideas”, such as Emerson’s transcendentalism with a particularly feminist viewpoint (Chevigny, 1993). Her tragic death in a shipwreck at the age of forty means that much of what she might have done will be lost forever, but within a relatively short period of time she provided an inspiration and a framework for future feminist thought.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Fuller’s upbringing was that her father, Thomas Fuller, who was a lawyer and well-known politician, gave her a strict and rigorous Classical education (Chevigny, 2003). In many ways she was educated as a man, and thus grew up believing that she had the right to everything that a man saw as his natural inheritance.
Fuller’s early intellectual work involved her relationship with the transcendental movement of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She edited the journal of the movement, called The Dial for the first two years of its existence in 1840-42. Most importantly, Fuller started to publish essays that attempted to “feminize” what is often seen as Emerson’s strictly masculine paradigm of “self-reliance” (Mehren, 1996). Fuller did not reject masculine ideas, but rather adapted them to her feminist viewpoint. She suggested that while men and women may well both possess this self-reliance, based upon the divine will, they also possessed very strong female energies as well. Hers was not an exclusionary form of feminism, but rather one that attempted to include all human beings as equals.
By the mid 1840’s, Fuller was starting to organize discussion groups aimed specifically at women. They discussed matters as varying as art, education, mythology and women’s rights. These groups were revolutionary in two ways. First, the very idea that women would want to get together and discuss such matters was rather unique for the time. Second, the sheer range and intellectual rigor of the discussions put them on an equal footing with much of what Emerson was doing.
The groups became a focus for many people interested in women’s rights, and number of ideas were developed during what were termed, somewhat ironically perhaps, as “conversations” (Fuller, 1992). Fuller was perhaps commenting on the fact that women were not meant to have intellectual debates, but rather gentile ‘conversations’. So it was conversations that they had, but hardly of a gentile nature. Many of the ideas that surfaced and were explored within these meetings were eventually gathered together and published by Fuller within her major and seminal work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). In this book she suggested that women needed to be independent, and also that the unequal relationships between the genders that not only existed, but which were seen as an inviolable order of things, should in fact be transformed.
In many ways this book can be seen as the foundation stone for all future feminist activity, both of an intellectual and practical variety, from the time it was written up to the present day. Indeed, the idea of the equality of the sexes and equal rights for women within every walk of life is still being debated within America today.
Fuller was well-known both for her sense of humor and also for her tendency to fall back upon the manner in which women were traditionally treated as she grew up. Thus the male habit of holding doors open for women was not anathema to her as might be expected. In one famous conversation she was said to have stated that “if you ask me what offices women may fill, I reply – any . . . I do not care what case you put – let them be sea captains if you will.” (Mehren, 1996). Her close friend and yet energetic debater over many feminist points, Horace Greeley is said to have shouted loudly, “let them be sea captains if you will” whenever Fuller would wait demurely for a door to be opened for her. This incident reveals an intellectual self-confidence and willingness to make fun of herself that is often lost within many highly political people today. Fuller was a feminist and yet also an intellectual – and she liked to play with ideas as intellectuals everywhere have done for millennia.
Yet within the humor lay a deeply grounded purpose, one that was based upon long reflection upon the world. Take a passage from Woman in the Nineteenth Century:
Male and female represent two sides of the great
radical dualism. But in fact they are perpetually
passing into one another, Fluid hardens to solid,
solid rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine
man, there is no purely feminine woman.
Hers was thus an inclusive view of the world. She did not seek to replace one hierarchy with another: thus she did not wish to place women above men as men had been placed above women for so long. She genuinely saw the two as equals and indeed, not really as opposites, but rather as tow sides constantly “flowing” into one another. There was also a sensuality and acceptance of sexuality within the work of Margaret Fuller that was perhaps revolutionary for its time, and has been somewhat lost in more recent years within feminism.
Fuller did not blame men for looking down on women, asshe saw it as a result of the society they lived within rather than any innate malice:
When not one man, in the million, shall I say? no, not in the hundred million, can rise above the belief that Woman was made for Man, — when such traits as these are daily forced upon the attention, can we feel that Man will always do justice to the interests of Woman? Can we think that he takes a sufficiently discerning and religious view of her office and destiny ever to do her justice, except when prompted by sentiment — accidentally or transiently?
(Fuller, 1845) (emphasis added)
She believed in a genuine partnership between men and women, “What woman needs is not as a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely, and unimpeded to unfold such powers as were given her when we left our common home” (Fuller, 1992).
She also had radical views of the Capitalist system that was growing up rapidly around her during her life. In one famous remark she stated that “men for sake of getting a living forget to live” (Fuller, 1848). While a cynic might suggest that this was all very well coming from a woman who was born into a family in which she would never have had to work had she not chosen to, there is a genuine sorrow for a world obsessed with the work ethic within her words. She believed that both men and women should be free of the bonds that kept them shackled – both to the old gender hierarchies of the past and also the need to constantly work to make a living.
Fuller also believed strongly in education, something which is perhaps not surprising considering her own educated upbringing and the fact that she worked as a teacher for several years in her young womanhood. She wrote in a letter that “if you have knowledge, let others light their candles by it” (Fuller, 1848), suggesting perhaps an oddly traditional view of education. Those who had knowledge, and obviously she included herself within that number, are compelled to share that with the world and to allow others to share within it. There is something almost of the religious fervency within these words, a trait that occurs throughout her work. Margaret Fuller obviously believed absolutely in what she was saying and what she wrote. She was utterly sincere, while possessing the self-confidence to allow others to differ with her without bearing a grudge.
In what turned out to be the last few years of her life, Fuller moved from writing about the equality of life that a female should have to actually living it. Thus in 1846 she was sent by the New York Tribune to Europe to act as a foreign correspondent: a position almost unheard of for a woman at the time. While in Europe she interviewed many of the most controversial and well known intellectuals and writers of the time such as George Sand. Sand, well-known for dressing (and acting) as a man while apparently preserving a great female attraction to all the men she met, was something of a disappointment to Fuller (Fuller, 1988). Fuller thought that feminism should be more than simply putting on male clothes and acting as a man. She believed strongly that a profound change was coming to Europe, one that would subsume the kind of superficial rebellion represented by George Sand and her ilk.
Fuller married the Italian revolutionary Giovanni Ossoli in 1847, and acted as a nurse in the war of rebellion that was designed to create a Roman Republic in 1849. This attempt having failed, Fuller, her husband and her infant son traveled back to America but were caught in a storm off of Fire Island and drowned. None of their bodies were ever recovered. The fact that Fuller got married and had a child illustrates the inclusive nature of her feminism. In one comment, when asked what she thought of marriage, she said, “in order that she may be able to give her hand with dignity, she must be able to stand alone” (Fuller, 1992). The sense that a woman should love a man, yet should have much more than that is found within “It is a vulgar error that love, a love, to woman is her whole existence; she is also born for Truth and Love in their universal energy.” (Fuller, 1992)
To conclude, Margaret Fuller’s life was a relatively short one and she appears to have only just started to move into her full intellectual maturity when she died at the age of 40. yet she left behind writings and a book that can be seen as the foundation of American feminism, and indeed feminism the world over. She not only wrote about feminism in a theoretical sense, in the last years of her life she actually lived an independent life as well – taking on the supposedly “male” role of the foreign correspondent and putting her life at considerable risk. Her marriage to an Italian revolutionary, their flight from the failed war of independence and tragic deaths within miles of America have led to a mythology growing up around Fuller. This is perhaps inevitable, but unfortunate. The actual details of her life and work are extraordinary enough not to need the embellishment and removal form the ordinary that is involved with myth.
The house in which Margaret Fuller was born and raised in Cambridge Massachusetts is now a charity. It has been “a settlement house for over a century . . . it has provided critical information and services to immigrants to successfully integrate into American culture” (margaretfuller, 2007). It is not only a center of learning but also of practical help and pragmatic influence within the community. It thus reflects the legacy of Margaret Fuller perfectly.
Chevigny, Bell. The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller’s Life and Writings. Northeastern University Press, New York: 1993.
Fuller, Margaret. Steele, Jeffrey. The Essential Margaret Fuller. Rutgers University Press, New York: 1992.
—————-. Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Boston: 1845.
—————-. Letters of Margaret Fuller, 1848-49. Cornell University Press, New York: 1988.
Mehren, Joan Von. Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller. University of Massachusetts Press, Boston: 1996.