Friday, March 28, 2014

Maragaret Fuller: 19th Century Feminist

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature.

Margaret Fuller was, to quote Nathaniel Hawthorne, "the greatest, wisest, best woman of the age."  She was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1810.  Her father supervised her intense early education, and she was a child prodigy.  From a very young age "reading became a habit and a passion."  She could read Latin by age 6, and was steeped in classical and European languages and literature.  She was a lonely, bookish child, but her great learning and intelligence would make her an important American writer and activist.

As an adult, she became friends with prominent New England intellectuals, like Ralph Waldo Emerson.  She edited the Transcendentalist magazine The Dial from 1840-42.  In 1844, she was hired as critic for the New York Tribune, making her one of the first self-supporting American woman journalists.  In 1845, she published her most famous text Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which is one of the first truly feminist American texts, even before feminism was a cultural concept.

Woman in the Nineteenth Century is full of literary allusions, showing Fuller's breadth of learning and talent.  In it, she cites other important female writers who had spoken against the male-dominated culture in which they lived--writers like Mary Wolstonecraft and George Sand (the pen name of French novelist Amandine Aurore Lucile Dudevant) who "in breaking bonds became outlaws."  Fuller admires these women because they refused to fit into the confining gender roles of their society.  "Women like Sand will speak now, and cannot be silenced," she writes, "Their characters and their eloquence alike foretell an era when such as they shall easier learn to lead true lives."

Fuller seeks to inspire women to be their truest, fullest, and best selves, and not dependent on men for self-worth.  "I would have woman lay aside all thought, such as she habitually cherishes, of being taught and led by men…I would have her free from compromise, from complaisance, from helplessness, because I would have her good enough and strong enough to love one and all beings, from the fullness, not the poverty of being."

Fuller is not anti-men.  She believes men are as confined as women in their gender roles, the only difference being that men had more power in her society.  She envisions a new kind of male-female relationship: "partners in work and in life, sharing together, on equal terms, public and private interests."  She speaks of the great "fault of marriage" as it is often defined: "that the woman does belong to the man, instead of forming a whole with him."

While these ideas may seem ordinary to us, they were absolutely revolutionary in 19th century America, which was a very patriarchal society.  It was, to be sure, a man's world.  Fuller did not live a conventional life.  In 1846, she sailed for Europe to be a foreign correspondent for the Tribune, and even involved herself in the turbulence of Italian politics.  She died in a shipwreck on the voyage home from Europe in 1850, at age 40, leaving behind a legacy of radical, political, and literary writings that inspired future advocates of women's rights.


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