Woman in the Nineteenth Century

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In 1855 the British novelist George Eliot favorably compared Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) to Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Eliot's comparison is an apt one since both works link the emancipatory rhetoric of their day to a consideration of woman's social role, making each an important document for the history of feminism in Britain and the United States.

Recognizing her indebtedness to Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller (1810–1850) subtly alludes to Vindication in Woman, though she is careful to distance herself from the political implications of Wollstonecraft's work in order to establish a less controversial argument for the social and cultural equality of women. While Fuller drew her authority from a wide range of writings and practices concerning women around the world, she was only partially successful in muting criticism of Woman. For just as the end of slavery did not purge prejudices restricting and sometimes imperiling the lives of many people in this country, so too support for full equality between men and women would take another century to gather effective momentum and force. Certainly people who resisted change in the normal view of women, like the New England editor and clergyman Orestes Brownson, went on to dismiss Fuller's work as misguided. Even so, Woman received sympathetic reviews from writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Lydia Maria Child, and the book sold briskly enough to have a pirated edition printed in England.

A revision of an earlier 1843 article, Woman in the Nineteenth Century is best understood as a work in progress, one of many provisional texts needed to widen the Enlightenment concept of emancipation in the aftermath of the American and French Revolutions. The Constitution of the United States is perhaps the primary political document of this sort, emerging as it did from a narrow understanding of the "universal" citizen (conceived as white and male) and slowly amended over time in an effort to align this abstract political subject with social justice. With its broad cultural focus, Fuller's Woman is closer in kind to works that were being written and revised by people like Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) and William Wells Brown (c. 1814–1884), two fugitive slaves eager to show how they were living at a still greater distance from the freedom so vital to the young nation's myth of equality. Though working in different genres (the essay, the slave narrative, and the novel) all three authors shared a belief that real change would emerge by enlarging perceptions of the social and cultural discriminations working daily against them. Early-twenty-first-century critics debate the effectiveness of this approach to reform, particularly as they review the complex legacy of Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811–1896) novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851–1852), the most famous, if sentimental, work of this kind. Yet it is important to remember that Fuller and others took seriously Thomas Jefferson's assertion that all men are created equal and labored throughout their careers to give palpable meaning to his famous rhetoric.

Douglass produced at least three versions of his autobiographical slave Narrative during his life, altering the tale over time (1845, 1855, 1881) as amendments to the Constitution gradually awarded black men political status. William Wells Brown revised and republished his novel Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (the fictional account of Thomas Jefferson's unacknowledged slave "family") many times (1853, 1860, 1864, 1867) as the conflicted meanings of the Civil War for African Americans became more evident. Because Fuller died in a tragic shipwreck in 1850, she never revised Woman again, though it is likely that the political and social climate in the second half of the nineteenth century would have inspired her to do so.

The publication of Woman is often viewed as a significant event from the early days of the woman's movement both here and in England. Indeed, during the 1870s the spirit of Fuller was sometimes conjured in spiritualist séances to give virtual guidance to the cause. Fuller encouraged this practice through both her early focus on the therapeutic efficacy of mesmerism and what in Woman she identifies as woman's "electrical" nature. There Fuller also makes productive use of one of the earliest case histories in the prehis-tory of psychoanalysis, Justinus Kerner's analysis of a German clairvoyant. Yet the people gathering at those later séances might have been surprised by the revised analysis of the woman's movement Fuller would have offered had she actually been among them, for she likely would have observed the gap between its political ideal and social reality by noting the movement's failure to include subaltern women who were not white and middle class.


Born in Massachusetts in 1810 to Timothy and Margaret Crane Fuller, Sarah Margaret received strong support from her parents: her mother's subtle influence, while typical of the day, served as an important counterbalance to her father's determination to educate his daughter as if she were a boy. The success of this parental dynamic early made Fuller aware of both the arbitrary nature and the potential authority of gender roles. Trained in ancient and modern languages, Fuller became one of this nation's first successful comparativists, learning as easily from Latin writers as from contemporary European authors, often translating a work to share her assessment of it with friends. Though aware of the excesses of her father's ambition, Fuller continued to value the motive behind his cultivation of her unorthodox training, as one of her vignettes in Woman (the conversation with Miranda) makes clear. Certainly Fuller realized that her unusual training enabled her to be taken seriously as a thinker by many prominent writers of the nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson and George Eliot among them.

Emerson (1803–1882) was a particularly close friend at the time of the writing of Woman. He met Fuller as he was finishing his famous essay Nature (1836). Fuller's obvious ability as an interlocutor, particularly her interest in German writers like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Novalis, whom Emerson previously had neglected, provided the basis for the strong intellectual bond that quickly developed between them. Fuller became an accomplished teacher soon after meeting Emerson, first working at Amos Bronson Alcott's progressive though controversial Temple School in Boston and then moving on to the Green Street School in Providence, where she experimented with a mix of pedagogical styles, tempering her father's harsher techniques with the student-focused approach of the Temple School. Although Fuller assumed these jobs out of necessity (her father died suddenly in 1835, leaving the family in financial need), her desire to write, coupled with her growing success as a translator, made a move into more independent projects a happier experience for her. Fuller continued throughout her career to sustain an interest in women's education, however, and her "Conversations," held in Elizabeth Peabody's famous Boston bookstore during the early 1840s, were seminars designed to enrich the substance and method of intellectual exchange both among women and between women and men. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a prominent leader of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention and later women's movement, was among the seminars' participants.

Emerson's journals are filled with comments about the work and influence of Margaret Fuller. First written after Fuller's untimely death in 1850, this notebook entry is later used by Emerson to describe significant attributes of the "hero" in his essay "Fate." In moving from private journal to public essay, the name "Margaret" is dropped from the passage.

A personal influence towers up in memory the only worthy force when we would gladly forget numbers or money or climate, gravitation & the rest of Fate. Margaret, wherever she came, fused people into society, & a glowing company was the result. When I think how few persons can do that feat for the intellectual class, I feel our squalid poverty.

Emerson, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson 11:449.

Emerson provided support and encouragement for Fuller's move beyond a limited teaching career, helping her to find publishers for her translations of Johann Eckermann's Conversations with Goethe, in the Last Years of His Life (1839) and Bettine Arnim's Günderode (1842). He also strongly supported her years as editor of The Dial (1840–1842), the periodical that published poetry and criticism of transcendentalists like Henry David Thoreau, Amos Bronson Alcott, Elizabeth Peabody, Theodore Parker, and George Ripley. After two years Emerson replaced Fuller as editor, and under his watch Fuller published the earlier draft of Woman as "The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men; Woman versus Women." Emerson reported to Fuller that even Thoreau, "who will never like anything," found praise for the essay, calling it "rich extempore writing, talking with pen in hand." Emerson added his own support by noting that it will "teach us to revise our habits of thinking on this head" (Stern, pp. xii–xiii).


When she revised her 1843 Dial essay for its independent publication as Woman, Fuller added a preface and lengthy appendix and extended large sections of her argument. Many of these changes were the product of her intervening visit to the Midwest and Great Lakes region, an account of which Fuller published in her travel narrative Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (1844). There Fuller brought a unique range of concerns to bear on her encounter with both pioneer women and Native Americans. In adapting to the exigencies of both, Fuller's thinking about the rhetoric of equality assumed a still more sophisticated character. If Fuller took with her to the Midwest a naive sense of the progressive myth of democracy, the misfires of Manifest Destiny gave her pause, helping her to revise some of her basic assumptions about feminism. At the time that she composed Summer, the prevailing sense of the majority culture was that Native Americans would "vanish" from the family of humans. Seeing the great damage to their world as she moved across the landscape, Fuller understood the apparent sense of this view. Yet her own frustration with another "fatal" discourse—particularly the argument that prostitution is an inevitable product of civilization—made her consider the subtle contradictions at work in the narrative of the "vanishing American," allowing her to mark its uncanny parallel to restrictive narratives about women throughout history.

In her preface to Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Fuller comments on the change in her title from her first draft, noting her preference for "The Great Lawsuit" even as she acknowledges the efficacy of the new title. Fuller's revision reflects her growing realization that her first essay depended on a flawed progressive discourse. Still, the lawsuit imagined in her earlier title was conceived not as an adversarial encounter between men and women but as a struggle between the ideal and realized understandings of both "man" and "woman." Such subtle rhetorical moves are typical of Fuller's approach, for she is determined to show that "no age was left entirely without a witness of the equality of the sexes in function, duty and hope" (p. 157). That is, she seeks to show that there are historic precedents for the ideal of equality between men and women, making such claims appear more deeply conservative than radical. But in another sense Fuller means to draw her reader into a consideration of the "passions and prejudices" that continue to keep larger democratic ideals from unfolding in practice.

Concern for those same prejudices were at the heart of much reforming effort during this period, and the push for a better realization of democratic principles assumed a variety of forms throughout the volatile decade of the 1840s. Until this moment Fuller had restricted her reformist ambitions to feminist concerns, but the growing ranks of the abolitionist movement and the fervor among many of her New England friends for experimental or utopian communities began to push Fuller into bolder theoretical territory. It is often said that her relationship with Emerson kept her from experimenting with the communal living project at Brook Farm, and there is strong evidence to support this idea. At the same time, Emerson's support of her intellectual ambition helped Fuller to become more proficient than her transcendentalist friends in the critiques of value being produced by thinkers from both Europe and the United States. Thus, for example, when the doctrines of the French utopian Charles Fourier became central to the Brook Farm experiment, Fuller began reading his work in French and discovering within his elaborate plan for social harmony a strong emphasis on the limited role of women in society. This association cannot be emphasized enough, since Fourier is credited with coining the word "feminism" ( feminisme), and his criticism of the isolated household and traditional marriage challenged Fuller to revise the way that she talked about this vital social bond. With Fourier's help, Fuller found a more effective way to critique the prevailing middle-class idea that there should be separate spheres of activity for both men and women.

Fuller revised "The Great Lawsuit" into Woman at an important time in her career and during an exciting moment in the decade. Horace Greeley, the newspaper editor of the New-York Daily Tribune, was impressed by the argument in Summer on the Lakes and hired Fuller to begin in 1845 to write regularly for his newspaper. The same year that Woman was published with Greeley's help, Fuller reviewed the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in the Tribune and translated there news about Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx from a piece in the German immigrant newspaper Deutsche Schnellpost. Fuller's association with the Tribune continued until her death in 1850 and included a wide range of articles, among them book and theater reviews, translations from French and German newspapers, and social commentary on issues such as health, prison reform, and treatment of the insane as well as an important correspondence from Europe, particularly reports relating her experience and observation of the Italian Revolution of 1848.

Fuller's writing after Woman displays her range across a spectrum of social and cultural concerns, for in her reviews she became nearly as comfortable with the plastic forms of popular culture as with the highbrow aesthetic of Goethe and Beethoven. Indeed, a review of Fuller's Tribune writing aptly reveals the myriad issues occupying both liberal and more radical reformers during the years leading to the fractious decade of the 1850s. Her interest in the revolutionary and socialist movements of Europe took sharper focus while she was writing for Greeley, and many have argued that this tendency could only flourish beyond the influence of self-reliant writers like Emerson. But Emerson's continuing support remained important to Fuller, who remembered how he had earlier helped her to break many traditional restraints. And it was Emerson who described Fuller as "our citizen of the world by quite special diploma" in his letter of introduction for her successful trip to England, France, and Italy (Stern, p. xxxvi). Emerson's description could not have been more apt, as people befriending Fuller (the French novelist George Sand, the Italian social critic Giuseppe Mazzini, and the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz) went on to agree.


A compendium of ideas about women gathered from a wide range of texts, Fuller's Woman gives equal attention to events and people both humble and famous. For some readers the organization of Woman appears an indiscriminate assembly of facts where an account of Greek mythology can hold equal status with a passage from John Quincy Adams, Maria Edgeworth, or a foreign newspaper extolling the obscure political party "Las Exaltados" (which Fuller cannot resist changing to "Las Exaltadas"). And while nothing can prepare the modern reader for the unique nature of Fuller's presentation of her material, the early-twenty-first-century student familiar with the Internet can be impressed by the fact that Fuller's quick associative mind was her only "search" engine. Fuller herself complained that the work required "too much culture in the reader to be quickly or extensively diffused" (Letters 3:352). Yet her audacious decision to use the idea of woman as an index for thinking through social relations over time is one now recognized as central to sophisticated trends in modern criticism. And of course such a method is fundamental to the discipline of women's studies. Fuller's writing depends upon a fluid movement between fable and history, poetry and fact, for she feels compelled to draw from, and elaborate upon, realms of experience not yet properly legitimized for the women of her day.

Perhaps most provocative is Fuller's sense of time's complexity in Woman, for she refuses there to assume a progressive narrative form. Like the historian Mary Beard, who a hundred years later would write Woman as Force in History (1946), Fuller makes the counterintuitive suggestion that equality between men and women may have been more fully conceptualized both at particular moments in the past and in the history of other cultures around the world. In understanding how a narrow or prejudiced view of the past can be as limiting as prejudice against unfamiliar habits and cultures of the present, Fuller initiates a series of questions that continue to vex the discipline of history itself. If history is, as Thomas Carlyle then insisted, the biography of great men, what is the place of women in that record? If by history one means merely biography, the fate of women is not much improved, for as Fuller observes, great women rarely had biographers. Fuller's innovation lies in moving beyond the call for a series of biographical recoveries to her experiment with a heterogeneous narrative structure. That structure depends upon a gender shift in temporality, moving history itself to the threshold of a more synchronous, or anthropological, understanding of culture.

For this reason, Fuller interrupts the flow of her critical narrative in Woman with a variety of fictional vignettes and staged conversations. In so doing she recognizes the performative nature not only of gender roles but also of the critical enterprise itself. Those readers unfamiliar with Goethe or Fourier, for example, are given an opportunity to see, through the dramatic renderings framing her discussion of both authors, how "vaguely" yet unfairly the equality of women with men is "proposed and discussed" among contemporaries (p. 19). Fuller's sense of her unevenly educated audience fosters this method; as in her famous Boston seminars, such appeals to common experience allow men and women to think again about their behavior in the company of others. This technique is one that Harriet Beecher Stowe went on to adapt in Uncle Tom's Cabin, where she interrupts the flow of her narrative to provoke a personal response in her reader. Like Stowe, Fuller assumes that frustration over the scene will goad her audience to action. Unlike Stowe, however, Fuller hopes that her reader will also go on to explore the literature and criticism about women that she alternately supplies, enlisting them more deeply in the work of critical thought.

Critics have noted how both racial and class considerations are insufficiently explored in Fuller's early writing, and one must acknowledge that Fuller began her career working with a "liberal" but limited understanding of women in society. For example, she never wrote directly about the factory workers made famous by the Lowell Offering (though one can detect the influence of Woman in the 1845 work that Sarah Bagley published in the Voice of Industry, the paper supporting the earliest labor union among women). Yet in revising her Dial essay Fuller began to recover from these lapses when she added stories about women like the Indian translator "Malinche" and when she shames politicians claiming to spare women the "hardship" of political life by reminding them of the women enslaved and working in the fields. And it is typical of Fuller's shifting critical sense that in her revisions she inquires if the founding national myth of equality is "the bloom of healthy blood or a false pigment artfully laid on?" (p. 17). Fuller's figurative language provokes her reader to associate the performance of gender roles with twinning dramas of the day: the politics of equality and the counterfeit of blackface minstrelsy. Fuller's latter analogy is merely suggestive, however, because in 1844 she has been exposed only indirectly to this increasingly popular and problematic dramatic form. Indeed, even the more explicit abolitionist sentiments that appear through her revisions of "The Great Lawsuit" reveal Fuller's relatively late commitment to the antislavery cause. At the same time, such fleeting but acute references show her vigilant receptivity to the broader social implications of her feminism. It is not surprising to discover her reviewing the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass within months of her move to New York.


Perhaps it is best to view all of Fuller's work as a series of revisions on the theme of emancipation. Such an approach allows one to see a continuity of reception and change throughout her career. It also allows one to consider how a provisional work like Woman provides insight into a mind actively engaged with the shifting complexities of social reform. Thus a reader noting how Fuller establishes sex and gender as categories deserving separate consideration in her Tribune work can also discover this turn of mind taking root in Woman. There, in her discussion of marriage, for example, Fuller makes an impassioned plea for the "despised auxiliaries" of men and women who choose not to live normal domestic lives. That Fuller refers not only to the category of "bachelor" and "old maid" in her comments about "mental and moral Ismaelites" (p. 85) is not lost on a writer as adept as Herman Melville, whose fiction and poetry often broaches the possibility of queer social relations.

One could argue that it is the process of revision itself that Fuller best models for others, though few are as adept as Fuller in distinguishing between mere repetition of a thought or feeling and its successful reformulation. Fuller's easy transition from the writing of ancient authors to contemporary Indian rituals suggests the fugue of temporalities that are contained for her within the present. Such an approach opens an exciting set of possibilities for rethinking the procedural nature of social reform. Her title Woman in the Nineteenth Century itself inscribes something of this temporal compression, for it simultaneously marks the present and projects the future by summoning a latency of meaning across temporal and cultural boundaries.

A cosmopolitan critic and translator, Fuller was well prepared to explore the concept of freedom being transformed by the cultural and commercial traffic of the Atlantic Ocean. Woman both contributes to and analyzes this transformation, challenging many in the process to rethink the "ways" of the world. The poet Walt Whitman is said to have pasted a page from one of Fuller's essays on his wall for inspiration. When writing about the woman's movement, Fuller's voice seems to flow through the words of Frederick Douglass. However perversely, heroines from the novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne act out some of the themes of Fuller's work. What Henry James calls the "Fuller Ghost" (he was only seven when she died in 1850) haunts his fictional depiction of women crossing the same Atlantic Ocean so fatal to Fuller's life and his own. In their work, as in their lives, Edith Wharton, Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, and Julia Ward Howe are each indebted to this woman from the nineteenth century. And it was a devastated Emerson who tried three different ways to deal with Fuller's untimely death: he contributed to the 1852 Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, he agreed to lecture before the Boston Woman's Rights Convention in 1855, and he made Fuller the spectral heroine of his famous essay "Fate" (1852, 1860). None of these efforts satisfied him, however, as one sees when he observes in his journal that a book about Fuller would have to trace an "essential line of American history" (The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson 11:258). That freedom is not inevitable proves too traumatic a realization for Emerson. But like many another, Emerson learned from Fuller how labor-intensive freedom's "fate" can be, constituting, as it forever does, a work in progress.

See alsoEducation; Female Authorship; Feminism; Philosophy; Reform; Rhetoric; Seneca Falls Convention; Suffrage; Transcendentalism; Utopian Communities


Primary Works

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals and MiscellaneousNotebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 16 vols. Edited by William H. Gilman et al. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960–1982.

Fuller, Margaret. The Letters of Margaret Fuller. 6 vols. Edited by Robert N. Hudspeth. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983–1995.

Fuller, Margaret. Margaret Fuller: Essays on American Life and Letters. Edited by Joel Myerson. New Haven, Conn.: College and University Press, 1978.

Fuller, Margaret. Summer on the Lakes in 1843. 1844. Edited by Susan Belasco Smith. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Fuller, Margaret. Woman in the Nineteenth Century. 1845. Edited by Larry J. Reynolds. Norton critical edition. New York: Norton, 1998.

Secondary Works

Berlant, Lauren. "The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Notes on Diva Citizenship." In her The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship. Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press, 1997.

Butler, Judith, and Joan W. Scott. Feminists Theorize the Political. New York and London: Routledge, 1992.

Capper, Charles. Margaret Fuller: An American RomanticLife. Vol. 1, The Private Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Chevigny, Bell Gale, ed. The Woman and the Myth: MargaretFuller's Life and Writings. Rev. and expanded ed. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1994.

Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. New York: Knopf, 1977.

Ellison, Julie. Delicate Subjects: Romanticism, Gender, and the Ethics of Understanding. Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Kolodny, Annette. "Inventing a Feminist Discourse: Rhetoric and Resistance in Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century." New Literary History 25 (1994): 355–382.

Machor, James L. Readers in History: Nineteenth-CenturyAmerican Literature and the Contexts of Response. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Showalter, Elaine. "Miranda and Cassandra: The Discourse of the Feminist Intellectual." In Tradition and the Talents of Women, edited by Florence Howe. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "Can the Subaltern Speak?" In her Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Stern, Madeleine B. "Introduction." In Woman in theNineteenth Century, edited by Joel Myerson. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1980.

Wiegman, Robyn. "The Alchemy of Disloyalty." In her American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender. Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press, 1995.

Wood, Mary E. "'With Ready Eye': Margaret Fuller and Lesbianism in Nineteenth-Century Literature." American Literature 65 (March 1993): 1–18.

Zwarg, Christina. Feminist Conversations: Fuller, Emerson, and the Play of Reading. Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Christina Zwarg

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