Margaret Fuller is considered to be one of America's first women intellectuals. Her book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, published in 1845, is the most fundamental writing concerning women's rights since Mary Wollstonecraft's treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792).
An unconventionally independent woman of her time, Margaret Fuller was born in 1810 in Cambridgeport Massachusetts, to an upper-middle class family. Her father was her inflexible teacher, compelling her to learn to read at four years old and instructed her in Latin and Greek at six. Wanting to give her the same education a boy of her class would receive, he required her to repeat her lessons flawlessly without any hesitation. These recitations would occur often late at night after he returned home from work. She studied not only all the Greek and Roman Classic writers, but read Shakespeare and Cervantes before the age of ten and learned Italian, French and German. When she moved with her family to the countryside in Groton Massachusetts, Margaret Fuller immersed herself in reading, writing and tutoring her younger siblings. It was while she was in Groton that she translated Goethe's Torquato Tasso into English. In 1836 she met and was befriended by Ralph Waldo Emerson and was welcomed into his circle of friends. She taught school at Amos Bronson Alcott's school in Boston and later at the Greene Street School in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1837 she became a member of the Transcendentalist Club and in 1839 organized a series of "Conversations" for women in Boston.
These meetings were held in Emily Peabody's bookshop and the participants were mainly upper-middle class women who desired the opportunity to discuss and debate the condition of women in society. The conversations were popular and lasted for four years, up until the time Margaret Fuller moved to New York. From 1840 until 1842, Margaret Fuller became the first editor for the Dial, a transcendentalist quarterly journal. "The Great Lawsuit Man versus Men: Woman versus Women" was published in the Dial in 1843. The roots of the essay came from the conversations held in Boston and its thesis was elaborated into the book Woman in the Nineteenth Century which was published in July of 1844. Intended to be continuously revised throughout her lifetime, Margaret Fuller died before successive editions were completed.
Margaret Fuller accepted an offer made to her by Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune to work as a literary critic and later became its foreign correspondent. In Europe she met with many intellectuals of the day and traveled extensively in western Europe. In Italy, she found not only a spiritual home but also Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, who became her lover and then her husband. There is some debate as to whether the two of them were legally married but they lived together as a family when they were in Florence and together they had a child. Ossoli was a revolutionary and they participated in the 1848 revolution in Rome, but when the French returned the Pope to the city they fled to Florence. In 1850 Margaret Fuller, Giovanni Ossoli and their son set sail to return to the United States; tragically the three of them died in a shipwreck off Fire Island, New York.
Woman In the Nineteenth Century
Woman in the Nineteenth Century is not an easy book to read. Fuller herself admitted that "it requires too much culture in the reader to be quickly or extensively diffused." (1) Her friends and contemporaries were not charitable towards her style; Ralph Waldo Emerson, her best friend, averred, "Her pen is a non-conductor" (2) and Edgar Allan Poe accused her of willfully murdering the American language (3) . The modern lay-person nurtured on Strunk and White's (4) caveats of "precise and concise" struggles not to drown in Fuller's rambling erudite intertextuality. So it is not for the ease of straight forward prose one reads her book, but for the content.
Most women in the western hemisphere take for granted and some even belittle the independence they have gained in the past hundred and fifty years, but when Margaret Fuller compared the condition of women to slavery, it was not a preposterous exaggeration. Women had neither suffrage nor equality under the law, their property belonged to their husbands in many cases, divorce was practically impossible, and the guardianship of children was almost exclusively given to the fathers. Husbands tended to treat their wives at best as children and at worst as servants. Generally, middle and upper class women were not allowed careers and their education was not aimed to be on a par with their male counterparts. The double standard of sexuality and morality, albeit insidiously present today, was not even questioned as wrong.
These are the issues which Margaret Fuller strove to spotlight and denounce. Placing the equality of the sexes on a spiritual plane, she asserted that the relationship between men and women was out of harmony with God, therefore also short-changed men, by not having true partnerships. Echoing the lines in the Declaration of Independence "that all men are created equal" she argued that equality under the law should not be granted to women as a concession by man but as a God-given right. She shocked the public at the time by proclaiming that men have feminine qualities and women masculine ones. Margaret Fuller promoted the intellectual and spiritual development of women in order for them to realize their aspirations and capabilities. She condemned prostitution and refused to tolerate the claim that men were incapable of controlling their physical desires and that women must submit to their husbands. In an era without birth control, she advocated celibacy so women need not be dependent on men. Margaret Fuller was not a man hater, what she longed for was the possibility for women to develop and be enlightened and have men slide over and make space for women to be by his side. Above all, she desired each sex to "ascertain and fulfill the law of his being." (5)
It is not surprising that many of the men who reviewed her book when it was released, could not accept the idea of man and woman being equal, intellectually or emotionally, whereas the women intellectuals of her time received it favorably. Orestes Brownson did not attack Margaret Fuller's person, but her ideas. Convinced that the dominion of Earth was given to man and to man only by the Holy Spirit, he concluded her theories to be "pernicious" and not to be "countenanced." (6) Edgar Allan Poe acknowledged her genius but not her arguments; he felt that Margaret Fuller was an exception to the rule regarding women; therefore equating all women to herself was a mistake. (7) On the female side of reviewers, Margaret Fuller's friend, Lydia Marie Child, and George Sand gave warm reviews of the book.
Considering the revolutionary change in the status of women since Margaret Fuller wrote Women in the Nineteenth Century, modern reviewers are forced to spend a great deal of time explaining the book in its historical context. Then they tend to take a psychological avenue exploring the choice of words and style to discover and explain Margaret Fuller's lexical use. Margaret Vanderhaar Allen uses the famous "Let them be sea captains if they will!" (8) (underlining the fact that the author used the third person plural form rather than the first person single or plural form) to expound the theory that "the submissiveness bred into nineteenth century women" had not been exorcised from Margaret Fuller's being. (9) It seems odd that Ms. Allen doesn't consider the fact that no one of Margaret Fuller's class, male or female, would "aspire" to become a sea captain. Jeffrey Steele states that Margaret Fuller's intricate and digressive style is a reaction against her "father's pedagogical methods" which "demanded accuracy and clearness". (10) Notwithstanding the stylistic difficulties Woman in the Nineteenth Century creates, Margaret Fuller's book is a classic in feminist literature. She broke conventional rules by approaching subjects such as prostitution and the duality of the sexes. She argued for social justice and reform. Margaret Fuller, herself, is an example of what she wished all women could become. Teacher, intellectual, journalist, author, translator, revolutionary, Margaret Fuller was all of these, and not least to mention, an extraordinary woman.
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