Never heard of Margaret Fuller? You’re not alone.
In 1855, five years after her untimely death, famed English novelist George Eliot noted in The Leader that Margaret’s book Woman in the Nineteenth Century had been “unduly thrust into the background.”
The first work of American feminism should not have been thrust into the background and it’s beyond time to bring the work and its writer back to light.
Sarah Margaret Fuller was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1810. Her father Timothy Fuller, disappointed his first child was a girl, decided to educate her as a boy. Despite knowing she would not be allowed entry into his alma mater Harvard University, he determined to school her in the classics.
As a teen, Margaret (she dropped the Sarah early on) navigated toward adults and educated young men for connection and conversation. With apparent difficulty establishing peer female friendships, Timothy worried he had made an error. Would his daughter be able to exist within the confines of the women’s sphere? Would she be suitable for marriage? Frantic, he enrolled her in a couple of finishing schools, but to no avail. Margaret, amidst criticism and ridicule, was to live her life out of bounds.
Thanks, Timothy for leveling the field and Margaret, for not squandering the opportunity. The remarkable life Margaret led and the words she spoke and penned raised awareness to women’s position in the United States and propelled a well-supported and well-articulated case for change.
Published in 1845, Woman in the Nineteenth Century urges equality for women. This book, radical for its time, was by all accounts a best seller, both at home and abroad.
Examining excerpts from Women in the Nineteenth Century provides insight to Margaret’s forceful voice and conviction.
With the antislavery movement gaining steam and the subject of liberty cracked open, the rights of women more easily made their way into daily discourse.
It should be remarked that, as the principle of liberty is better understood, and more nobly interpreted, a broader protest is made on behalf of Woman. As men become aware that few men have had a fair chance, they are inclined to say that no women have had a fair chance (24).
Potential change aroused fear in those who felt the status quo was being challenged and those who stood to lose something. Margaret relayed a sample of the “questions proposed and discussed at present”:
“Now you must be trying to break up family union, to take my wife away from the cradle and the kitchen-hearth to vote at polls, and preach from a pulpit? Of course, if she does such things, she cannot attend to those of her own sphere. She is happy enough as she is. She has more leisure than I have, – every means of improvement, every indulgence.”
“Have you asked her whether she was satisfied with these indulgences?”
“No, but I know she is. She is too amiable to desire what would make me unhappy, and too judicious to wish to step beyond the sphere of her sex. I will never consent to have our peace disturbed by any such discussions.”
“’Consent – you?’ it is not consent from you that is in question – it is assent from your wife.”
“Am not I the head of my house?”
“You are not the head of your wife. God has given her a mind of her own.”
“I am the head, and she the heart.”
“God grant you play true to one another, then! I suppose I am grateful that you did not say she was only the hand…”(30).
Not one to shy away from taboo territory, Margaret tackled prostitution and its devastating impact on women and implored women to look after one another, to lift each other up.
I refer to the degradation of a large portion of women into the sold and polluted slaves of men, and the daring of which the legislator and man of the world lifts his head beneath the heavens, and says, “This must be; it cannot be helped; it is a necessary accompaniment of civilization.”
O wretched men, your sin is its own punishment! You have lost the world in losing yourselves. Who ruins another has admitted the worm to the root of his own tree, and the fuller ye fill the cup of evil, the deeper must be your own bitter draught…(132).
I would urge upon those women who have not yet considered this subject to do so. Do not forget the unfortunates who dare not cross your guarded way. If it does not suit you to act with those who have organized measures of reform, then hold not yourself excused from acting in private. Seek out these degraded women, give them tender sympathy, counsel, employment. Take the place of mothers, such as might have saved them originally (147).
We only ask of men to remove arbitrary barriers. Some would like to do more. But I believe it needs that Woman show herself in her native dignity, to teach them how to aid her; their minds are so encumbered by tradition (172).
In a world with strict division between male and female, masculinity and femininity, and one proclaimed weaker than the other, Margaret voiced an uncommon view.
Male and female represent the 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, no purely feminine woman (116).
Margaret understood that inequity between the sexes did not serve men well either.
It may be said that Man does not have his fair play either; his energies are repressed and distorted by the interposition of artificial obstacles. Ay, but he himself has put them there; they have grown out of his own imperfections…As every Man is of Woman born, she has slow but sure means of redress; yet the sooner a general justness of thought makes smooth the path, the better(49).
Acquainted with Mary Wollstonecraft’s life and work, as well as George Sands’, who she was later to meet in Europe, Margaret could readily relate to their status as outlaws.
Mary Wolstonecraft [sic], like Madame Dudevant (commonly known as George Sand) in our day, was a woman whose existence better proved the need of some new interpretation of Woman’s Rights than anything she wrote. Such beings as these, rich in genius, of most tender sympathies, capable of high virtue and a chastened harmony, ought not to find themselves, by birth, in a place so narrow, that in breaking bonds, they become outlaws…
They find their way, at last, to light and air, but the world will not take off the brand it has set upon them (75).
But women like Sand will speak now and cannot be silenced; their characters and their eloquence alike foretell an era when such as they shall easier learn to lead true lives (77).
Margaret called for women’s self-reliance and independence as a means to true fulfillment.
Union is only possible to those who are units. To be fit for relations in time, souls, whether Man or Woman, must be able to do without them in spirit…It is therefore that 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 (120).Women must leave off asking them [men] and being influenced by them, but retire within themselves, and explore the ground-work of life till they find their peculiar secret. Then, when they come forth again, renovated and baptized, they will know how to turn all dross to gold, and will be rich and free though they live in a hut, tranquil if in a crowd (121).
A strong proponent of education for girls and women, Margaret stated:
A house is no home unless it contain food and fire for the mind as well as for the body…For human beings are not so constituted that they can live without expansion. If they do not get it in one way, they must in another, or perish (36).
Margaret advocated women’s access to occupations outside of the domestic sphere and most importantly, that they have choices.
But if you ask me what offices they may fill, I reply – any. I do not care what case you put; let them be sea-captains, if you will. I do not doubt there are women well fitted for such an office…I think women need, especially at this juncture, a much greater range of occupation than they have, to rouse their latent powers.
I have no doubt, however, that a large proportion of women would give themselves to the same employments as now, because there are circumstances that must lead them…The difference would be that all need not be constrained to employments for which some are unfit (175).
Ultimately, Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century was a call to action, heard by many.
We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man. Were this done, and a slight temporary fermentation allowed to subside, we should see crystallizations more pure and of more various beauty. We believe the divine energy would pervade nature to a degree unknown in the history of former ages, and that no discordant collision, but a ravishing harmony of the spheres, would ensue.
I have urged upon the sex self-subsistence in its two forms of self-reliance and self-impulse, because I believe them to be the needed means of the present juncture.
I have urged on Woman independence of Man, not that I do not think the sexes mutually needed by one another, but because in Woman this fact has led to an excessive devotion, which has cooled love, degraded marriage, and prevented either sex from being what it should be to itself or the other (175).
These are but some of the proclamations Margaret set forth in her powerful work that mightily fanned the flames of the women’s movement in the mid-1800s.
Edgar Allan Poe, a fellow journalist and critic, stated that Woman in the Nineteenth Century was, “a book which few women in the country could have written, and no woman in the country would have published, with the exception of Miss Fuller” (Von Mehren 225).
Yes, Mr. Poe, you are correct. Margaret Fuller was not afraid to speak her mind and the truth. Margaret Fuller is a #NastyWomanWriter.
©Maria Dintino 2017
Fuller, Margaret. Woman in the Nineteenth Century. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971.
Von Mehren, Joan. Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller.Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.