Fuller, Margaret: General Commentary
MARGARET FULLER: GENERAL COMMENTARY
FRITZ FLEISCHMANN (ESSAY DATE 1987)
SOURCE: Fleischmann, Fritz. "Margaret Fuller, the Eternal Feminine, and the 'Liberties of the Republic'." In Women's Studies and Literature, edited by Fritz Fleischmann and Deborah Lucas Schneider, pp. 39-57. Erlangen, Germany: Palm & Enke, 1987.1
In the following excerpt, Fleischmann discusses some of the problems with Fuller's work that have frustrated literary scholars from Fuller's time to the present.
Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) is one of the most fascinating, but also one of the most frustrating texts in the literature of feminist thought, as generation after generation of critics has demonstrated. The reasons for this frustration are not clear. Is it the lack of feminist bravado, or moral uplift? (Fuller's friend Caroline Sturgis thought that it was "not a book to take to heart, and that is what a book upon woman should be" (Houghton MS, quoted from Chevigny 233). Is it Fuller's intellectuality, her erudition, that readers have found forbidding? Lydia Maria Child wrote in response to another Fuller book, Summer on the Lakes, "your house is too full; there is too much furniture for your rooms" (Houghton MS, quoted ibid.). Is it that the book misses the political point by not demanding the vote for women vociferously enough, as John Neal argued: "You might as well educate slaves—and still keep them in bondage"? (Houghton MS, quoted in Chevigny 235) Is it that, as Emerson remarked, Fuller's "pen was a non-conductor" and that, as V. L. Parrington and others in the 20th century have found, she was "in no sense an artist, scarcely a craftsman" (quoted in Robinson 84)?
While most of these charges can be refuted or explained, they represent a body of reaction to Fuller's book that points at a deeper irritation. A prominent school of Fuller criticism holds that Fuller's real vocation lay in abandoning "literature" for "history," self-centered pedantry for political action. Perhaps the best-known recent source is The Feminization of American Culture, in which Ann Douglas speaks of "the crippling narcissism of [Fuller's] transcendental years" (Douglas 340), albeit a narcissism that was "born of utter necessity and … that was somewhere intended to self-destruct, if only through its own excesses" (328). Douglas argues that Fuller's achievement lay precisely in shedding that narcissism for her "essential vision" that "was not literary, not metaphorical, but historical" (337).
A century before Douglas, in a text published posthumously in 1877, Harriet Martineau2 had put the matter even more drastically. Here is her well-know dictum about the "Conversations":
While Margaret Fuller and her adult pupils sat "gorgeously dressed," talking about Mars and Venus, Plato and Goethe, and fancying themselves the elect of the earth in intellect and refinement, the liberties of the republic were running out as fast as they could go, at a breach which another sort of elect persons were devoting themselves to repair: and my complaint against the "gorgeous" pedants was that they regarded their preservers as hewers of wood and drawers of water, and their work as a less vital one than the pedantic orations which were spoiling a set of well-meaning women in a pitiable way.
(Harriet Martineau's Autobiography, ed. Maria Weston Chapman [Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1877] 2: 381-82. Quoted from Chevigny 229.)
Unfortunately, the alleged opposition between a "literary" and a "historical" side or phase distorts both the complexity and the consistency of Fuller's development. What, for instance, are we to make of her remark to her students at the Greene Street School in Providence, Rhode Island, recorded in her student Evelina Metcalf's journal for December 18, 1838, that history "was a study peculiarly adapted to females"—that while "it was not to be expected that women would be good Astronomers or Geologists or Metaphysicians … they could and are expected to be good historians"? (Shuffelton 42) The fact is that while Fuller's involvement with social and political issues became increasingly overt, even dominant, towards the end of her life, her interest in history and politics was already fed by her childhood readings in Greek and Roman history, continued during her collaboration with her father on a history of the early American Republic, and infused her major works. Just as Fuller often frustrated contemporary reformers like Martineau for lack of fervor to adopt their cause, she has often frustrated modern feminists who feared that, as Christina Zwarg has phrased it, "her feminism was far too 'textual' in origin" and who therefore tended to focus "on her 'late' revolutionary career in Italy, because there at last she began to write 'history' and this made it possible to reclaim her as our proper 'feminist' foremother" (Zwarg 7).
In this paper, I intend to look at how Fuller approaches the notions of gender and history in a way that may account for the trouble she has always given certain readers, but that also shows her to be deeply concerned about the social and political issues that dominated the public discourse of her time. Choosing as my central text Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), the genesis of which spans the "transcendental" period in Fuller's life,3 I will endeavor to demonstrate how Fuller spins her mythological and romantic notion of the "eternal feminine" into a transcendental and political yarn which ties her securely to the "liberties of the republic."
The collective irritation of so many readers has to do with the method and the challenge of Woman. Fuller irritates because she challenges her friends and her American audience to think certain cherished premises through to their conclusions and to act on these conclusions. This double challenge has been splendidly laid out by David M. Robinson in a 1982 PMLA article. Woman, Robinson argues,
uses the central intellectual commitment of the transcendental movement, the belief in the possibility of "self-culture," or the continual spiritual growth of the soul, to diagnose, and prescribe a remedy for, the condition of women. The work thus stands as a translation of transcendental idealism into the social and political realm and as an exemplary bridge between romantic philosophy and social reform.
If "the development of a divine will or self," the end of self-culture, is denied to women, the "social sources of the denial" have to be addressed, and "transcendental moral idealism" finds itself challenged to engage in a "political commitment to feminism" to uphold its ideals. At the same time, however, the whole nation is challenged to live up to its "democratic heritage reinforced by the transcendental revolution" (Robinson 85, 86, 94, 96), a heritage endangered by slavery, imperialism, and other forms of self-betrayal. In the part of Woman added to "The Great Lawsuit" during its revision, Fuller writes:
last week brought news which threatens that a cause identical with the enfranchisement of Jews, Irish, women, ay, and of Americans in general, too, is in danger, for the choice of the people threatens to rivet the chains of slavery and the leprosy of sin permanently on this country, through the annexation of Texas!
Ah! if this should take place, who will dare again to feel the throb of heavenly hope, as to the destiny of this country?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PARRINGTON ATTEMPTS TO EXPLAIN FULLER'S REPUTATION IN THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY: 1927
The written record that Margaret Fuller left is quite inadequate to explain her contemporary reputation. In no sense an artist, scarcely a competent craftsman, she wrote nothing that bears the mark of high distinction either in thought or style. Impatient of organization and inadequately disciplined, she threw off her work impulsively, not pausing to shape it to enduring form. Yet she was vastly talked about, and common report makes her out to have been an extraordinary woman who creatively influenced those with whom she came in contact. Like Alcott, her power lay in brilliant talk. Her quick mind seems to have been an electric current that stimulated other minds to activity, and created a vortex of speculation wherever she passed. Hungry for ideas, intellectually and emotionally vibrant, she caught her inspirations from obscure impulses of a nature thwarted and inhibited from normal unfolding; and in her sensitive oscillations she was often drawn away from polar principles to which she would later swing back. There was quite evidently a fundamental unrest within her, a conflict of impulses, that issued in dissatisfaction; and this contradiction was aggravated by intense emotions, which both quickened her mind and distorted it.
Parrington, Vernon Louis. Excerpt from "Margaret Fuller, Rebel." Reprinted in Critical Essays on Margaret Fuller, edited by Joel Myerson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.
While Robinson does an excellent job outlining the development of Fuller's "historical consciousness, growing out of her need to put self-culture into practice" (90), even he has problems with Fuller's method. By "method" I mean her approach to writing as discovery, as a way to isolate her ideas, place and test them in different contexts—historical, mythological, religious, pragmatic—, to resist closure as long as possible, to take back and qualify as soon as introduced, to emphasize the process of thinking rather than the completed thought, the process of growth rather than the finished product. Some critics have tried to describe this method as arising out of an oral tradition, or an example of the "potential angelic artistry implicit in Fuller's idea of Woman." "Put most positively," William J. Scheick writes, "Woman shares with other Transcendental works an acknowledgement of its oral heritage when it celebrates spontaneity, continuous inspiration, perpetual discovery, and improvisation" (Scheick 293). Most recently, Christina Zwarg has characterized Fuller's work "as a kind of object lesson in reading," marked by a "relentless effort to disrupt what might be called the tidy binary and hence hierarchizing structures of meaning with a disorderly third term" (Zwarg 12, 13).
All of this makes it hard to come to grips with this text, to pin it down; this is why paradoxes, contradictions, vague descriptions seem to remain and irritate. For instance, when Fuller defines the most successful form of marriage as a "pilgrimage towards a common shrine," even the patient Robinson wonders "[w]hether or not Fuller herself was entirely sure of what she meant here" (Robinson 92). But that isn't the point. Fuller writes to find out "what she means," rather than to expound what she means; and her method of writing is in full consonance with her purpose and her message. The message is transcendental: it is the destiny of Man" (by which she means "both man and woman") "to ascertain and fulfil the law of his being" (Woman 83); the purpose of Woman is then to deconstruct the metaphor of gender in this transcendental framework.
In the discussion to follow, I use the term "eternal feminine" not so much because of Fuller's Goethe scholarship (which figures prominently in her book), but because she uses that notion to launch a radical inquiry into the constitution of gender and gendered discourse, to ask in what degree the "feminine" or "masculine" is indeed eternal, constant, and how much of it is contingent, historical, changing, and changeable.
That Fuller's original interest in the question was autobiographical is well-documented. For much of her life, she thought of her gender as a problem. Just one famous journal entry from the Memoirs will have to suffice as an exemplary statement: "I love best to be a woman; but womanhood is at present too straitly-bounded to give me scope" (Memoirs 1: 297). More revealing for our present purpose are the semantic struggles with gender regularly undergone when her friends, or Fuller herself, attempt to describe her. Here is Frederic Henry Hedge's reminiscence of Fuller at the age of thirteen: her mind
was what in woman is generally called a masculine mind; that is, its action was determined by ideas rather than sentiments. And yet, with this masculine trait, she combined a woman's appreciation of the beautiful in sentiment and the beautiful in action. Her intellect was rather solid than graceful, yet no one was more alive to grace.
(Memoirs 1: 95)
Emerson writes, "She had a feeling that she ought to have been a man, and said of herself, 'A man's ambition with a woman's heart, is an evil lot.'" He quotes from a poem of hers, "To the Moon" :
"But if I steadfast gaze upon thy face,
A human secret, like my own, I trace;
For, through the woman's smile looks the male eye." (Memoirs 1: 229)
In response to George Sand's writing, Fuller confided to her journal in 1835, "I have always thought … that I would not write, like a woman, of love and hope and disappointment, but like a man, of the world of intellect and action. But now I am tempted …" (Higginson 188). In an un-dated statement on Sand, she writes, "I am astonished at her insight into the life of thought. She must know it through some man" (Memoirs 1: 247). In 1839, she remarks about the same writer, "She has genius, and a manly grasp of mind, but not a manly heart! Will there never be a being to combine a man's mind and woman's heart, and who yet finds life too rich to weep over?" (Houghton MS, quoted from Chevigny 58)
But half a decade later, in Woman, the personal has become the general, the political and the semantic question. Opening up a dialogue with Miranda, her thinly disguised self, Fuller introduces her as raised by a father "who cherished no sentimental reverence for woman, but a firm belief in the equality of the sexes" (101). Her inheritance was self-reliance. "A dignified sense of self-dependence was given as all her portion, and she found it a secure anchor. Herself securely anchored, her relations with others were established with equal security.…The world was free to her, and she lived freely in it" (102). Is it praise or condemnation, Miranda is asked, to call an exceptional woman "manly"? Miranda objects to the term: heroic qualities, she says, are always described as "manly," but "persistence and courage are the most womanly no less than the most manly qualities.…Let it not be said, wherever there is energy or creative genius, "She has a masculine mind""' (104).
Then what kind of mind does she have? Who makes up these categories?
The present definition of womanhood, says Fuller, comes from the male authors of "little treatises, intended to mark out with precision the limits of woman's sphere, and woman's mission, to prevent other than the rightful shepherd from climbing the wall, or the flock from using any chance to go astray" (96). If women are not sheep, what are they? Clearly, their relations to men cannot define them. In a series of passages dealing with the arguments for a traditional "woman's sphere," Fuller examines the allegation that men are "representing women fairly at present" (100). That argument is familiar: although women have no public voice, they are protected by the "virtual representation" of their menfolk, who will not treat them unfairly. As Fuller's contemporary John Neal had already pointed out, "virtual representation" of the American colonies in Parliament had been alleged by the English government to justify taxation without representation (Fleischmann 156); the absurdity of that claim was now acknowledged. Fuller, however, plays on the double meaning of "representation": Can men represent women fairly in their own minds, can they take a just view? No, she says, because their view is in turn limited by their relations with women: "the sentiment will vary according to the relations in which [they are] placed. The lover, the poet, the artist are likely to view her nobly. The father and the philosopher have some chance of liberality; the man of the world, the legislator for expediency, none" (100).
Men's perceptions are affected by the "relations" in which they stand. Women's whole identity, however, has been grounded in their "relations," and this notion Fuller sets out to dismantle in her book: "a being of infinite scope," she writes, "must not be treated with an exclusive view to any one relation" (146). Women must be allowed to develop fully; "they should not be considered complete, if beings of affection and habit alone" (146). In one of her excursions into Greek and Roman mythology, Fuller remarks that Diana, Minerva, and Vesta were "alike in this,—that each was self-sufficing" (111). She praises Goethe because he "aims at a pure self-subsistence" for women. All of his women characters, "though we see them in relations, we can think of as unrelated" (171). In her summary at the end of the book, Fuller divides "self-subsistence" into two subcategories: "self-reliance" and "self-impulse"; she predicts that "Woman, self-centred, would never be absorbed by any one relation; it would be only an experience to her as to man" (206). All of these terms—"self-centered," "self-reliant"—posit an identity for women that is marked by internal growth rather than external rule, an identity that is located in a self that only relies on God and may therefore approximate what Emerson in his essay "Self-Reliance" (1841) called "the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded" (Emerson 268). This identity, of course, is never complete, never closed, never static, but always growing, dynamic, in flux. In "The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women," the title of the original Dial essay which later became Woman, Fuller had located the conflict not between men and women, but between men, women, and their potential selves. In lamenting the loss of the original title due to certain "objections," she restated her intentions in her "Preface" to Woman :
I meant, by that title, to intimate the fact that, while it is the destiny of Man, in the course of the Ages, to ascertain and fulfil the law of his being, so that his life shall be seen, as a whole, to be that of an angel or messenger, the action of prejudices and passions, which attend, in the day, the growth of the individual, is continually obstructing the holy work that is to make the earth a part of heaven. By Man I mean both man and women: these are the two halves of one thought. I lay no especial stress on the welfare of either. I believe that the development of the one cannot be effected without that of the other. My highest wish is that this truth should be distinctly and rationally apprehended, and the conditions of life and freedom recognized as the same for the daughters and the sons of time; twin exponents of a divine thought.
… I solicit of women that they will lay it to heart to ascertain what is for them the liberty of law. It is for this, and not for any, the largest, extension of partial privileges that I seek.
For women to "ascertain what is for them the liberty of the law" requires certain consequences:
- a new regard for "the class contemptuously designated as old maids" (146). Fuller throws in old bachelors for good measure and remarks of the whole category of Aunts and Uncles that they, more than others, "are thrown upon themselves," where they must "find peace and incessant life" (147) or despair. But their task remains the same as everyone else's: "as the breaking of no bond ought to destroy a man, so ought the missing of none to hinder him from growing" (148). (In this phrase, "bond" plays a role analogous to "wealth" in Thoreau's famous sentence in the "Conclusion" to Walden: "We are often reminded that if there were bestowed on us the wealth of Croesus, our aims must still be the same, and our means essentially the same" [Thoreau 218].)
- A second consequence is that women, not men, must discover what is good for them; hence, they must lead themselves:
… I would have woman lay aside all thought … 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 fulness, not the poverty of being. Men, as at present instructed, will not help this work, because they are also under the slavery of habit. (164)
- A third consequence follows from the previous two, and it applies equally to women and men: "We must have units before we can have union," an Emersonian phrase (150) which Fuller paraphrases as follows: "Give the soul free course, let the organization, both of body and mind, be freely developed, and the being will be fit for any and every relation to which it may be called" (146).
"Units before union"—how can this self-centered unity, this wholeness, be achieved without reducing female identity to biological gender, or to the "functions"—mother, wife, cook, nurse, etc.—commonly associated with women? And how can one describe such an identity without constantly borrowing from a gendered vocabulary that has marked off the "non-feminine" as "masculine," and vice versa, in which the "masculine" functions as the norm and the "feminine" as the other? How can woman expand a restricted notion of femininity without constantly borrowing from masculine attributes, without encroaching on male territory, without using a masculine vocabulary?
In a paper published last year in Amerikastudien/American Studies, Jane Flax told us that "[t]he single most important advance in feminist theory is that the existence of gender has been problematized. Gender can no longer be treated as a simple 'natural fact'" (Flax 198). Defining gender as "relational" (both "a social relation and a relational category of analysis" , Flax describes the workings of gender in these terms:
Through gender relations two types of persons are created: males and females. Male and female are posited as exclusionary categories. One can be only one gender, never the other or both. The actual content of being a male or female and the rigidity of the categories themselves are highly variable across cultures and times. Nevertheless, gender relations as far as we have been able to understand them have been (more or less) relations of domination. That is, the totality of gender has been (more) defined and (imperfectly) controlled by one of its interrelated aspects—the male.
In a survey of contemporary feminist theory, Flax finds that when
feminist discourse defines its problematic as "woman," it too ironically privileges the man as unproblematic or exempted from determination by gender relations. From the perspective of social relations, men and women are both prisoners of gender, although in highly differentiated but interrelated ways.
Feminist theory that intends to study gender as "a practical social relation" must undertake "a close examination of the meanings of male and female and the consequences of being assigned to one or the other gender within concrete social practices" (203).
This program, then, is twofold: (1) to examine "the meanings of male and female," and (2), to find out what being assigned a "male" or "female" label entails in actual practice.
Let us look at how Fuller handles this assignment in Women. We have already seen her critique of social practice: women are assigned a male-defined "sphere" that limits their growth. Early in the book, Fuller defines "male" and "female" as metaphorical principles that are somehow interdependent. In the already-quoted passage from the "Preface," she refers to "man and woman" as "the two halves of one thought" (83). A few pages later, the same metaphor occurs when we are told "that the idea of Man, however imperfectly brought out, has been far more so than that of Woman, that she, the other half of the same thought, the other chamber of the heart of life, needs now to take her turn in the full pulsation, and that improvement in the daughters will best aid in the reformation of the sons of this age" (90). It is worth noting that "improvement in the daughters" is to have a redemptive function. But what improvement is being sought, and what is the idea of Woman that must be more clearly "brought out?" Civil liberties for women, while important, cannot be the primary goal: "Here, as elsewhere, the gain of creation consists always in the growth of individual minds" (91). Women's minds, then, but not only they, should be "improved": "we welcome everything that tends to strengthen the fibre and develop the nature on more sides" (153). But what women want and need is not power, money, fame; their need "is for that which is the birthright of every being capable to receive it,—the freedom … of the universe, to use its means" (120). The only reason women ever aspire to what men have is because men "prevent them from finding out what is fit for themselves. Were they free, were they wise fully to develop the strength and beauty of woman; they would never wish to be men, or man-like" (120).
To discover what the idea of woman/Woman is, Fuller embarks on that extended series of excursions into history, literature, mythology, and religion that has made Woman famous and notorious, a "house full of furniture." She rejects the idea that woman is the victim of history, although she acknowledges the victimization of women as individuals. She discusses women as artists, rulers, divinities, or characters in literature not so much to create a female track record, a history of role models, as to look at them as manifestations of the idea of Woman in its many varieties. The idea transcends and survives actual social practices ("Whatever may have been the domestic manners of the ancients, the idea of woman was nobly manifested in their mythologies and poems" ), and it transcends national and individual differences (119). But this idea must necessarily have many different manifestations. Nature's variety is the model: "we must admit the same varieties that she admits" (135).
It is necessary to "bring out" the idea of Woman more fully because of the transcendental creed that "the highest ideal man can form of his own powers, is that which he is destined to attain. Whatever the soul knows how to seek, it cannot fail to obtain" (87). Therefore, if women are to approximate Universal Womanhood, they must listen to the poets and prophets of all ages who have obtained glimpses of that ideal. A second reason is the posited redemptive function. Taking her cue from the prominent role of women in the abolition movement, Fuller writes that
woman, if, by a sympathy as to outward condition she is led to aid the enfranchisement of the slave, must be no less so, by inward tendency, to favor measures which promise to bring the world more thoroughly and deeply into harmony with her nature.
This brings us back to our starting point: what is the "idea," the "nature," the "genius" of woman? Fuller's conventional language belies the intensity of her struggle to break up the boundaries of restrictive gender definition, a struggle which eventually leads her to separate what I have called the Eternal Feminine from actual women.
The growth of man is two-fold, masculine and feminine.
As far as these two methods can be distinguished they are so as
Energy and Harmony,
Intellect and Love.
Or by some such rude classification, for we have not language primitive and pure enough to express such ideas with precision. (201)
Fuller's language, in fact, sounds often enough like stereotyping:
The especial genius of woman I believe to be electrical in movement, intuitive in function, spiritual in tendency. She excels not so easily in classification, or re-creation, as in an instinctive seizure of causes, and a simple breathing out of what she receives that has the singleness of life, rather than the selecting and energizing of art.
By contrast, "the intellect, cold, is ever more masculine than feminine" and needs to be "warmed by emotion" (151-52). In a transcendental value system which privileges the "magnetic and intuitive" as the more fully human than the purely intellectual (Robinson 93), this seemingly restrictive and conventional categorization is reversed: "The electrical, the magnetic element in woman has not been fully brought out at any period. Every thing might be expected from it; she has far more of it than man" (Woman 152). Robinson puts Fuller's shift of emphasis in context:
While Emerson and his followers glorified reason over understanding and poetic intuition over calculating intellect, Fuller simply extended this argument by identifying exactly those more valued qualities as predominant in woman.… The culture of woman, therefore, fulfills perfectly the transcendental hopes for the progressive glorification of the race.
At this point, however, I part ways with Robinson, who argues that Fuller reverses her line of reasoning to stress the need for women's increased intellectual development. What I see instead is a consistent attempt to identify a program, a category (Keitel's terms) conventionally labelled as "feminine" but immediately removed to a level of abstraction that prevents its attribution to real women:4
… it is no more the order of nature that it should be incarnated pure in any form, than that the masculine energy should exist unmingled with it in any form.
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.
Between the category of the Eternal Feminine, at the highest remove, and the real women of the book's audience lies the level of mythology which allows Fuller to differentiate without being unduly restrictive. Robert D. Richardson has shown that Margaret Fuller's use of myth creates a point of leverage, a distant perspective from which she can approach the American scene with a nobler idea of woman (Richardson 178). In the Greek Pantheon, held up as a counter model to Jewish or Christian mythology, Fuller finds that, in Richardson's words, "the female principle had equal dignity with the male; it was not a secondary, male-derived, or fallen nature" (179). Sarah Sherman, who has studied the "resuscitation" of Greek goddesses in New England, finds a "highly self-conscious literary, even religious tradition" (63) that gave woman writers like Sarah Orne Jewett a vocabulary to talk about women. Sherman speculates that some of this interest may have been "kindled by Margaret Fuller's 1841 'Conversations on Mythology' " (64). Other connections with Fuller surface here, such as an 1869 Atlantic Monthly article on "The Greek Goddesses" by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who also happens to be the best 19th century biographer of Fuller. Higginson writes, "'In [Greek] temples the sexes stood equal, goddess was as sublime as god, priestess the peer of priest.…In Protestant Christian Churches, on the other hand, nothing feminine is left but the worshippers, and they indeed are feminine, three to one'" (quoted in Sherman 65).
In Woman, as I have said, myth gives Fuller a non-restrictive way to differentiate: "There are two aspects of woman's nature, represented by the ancients as Muse and Minerva" (160). By the Muse she means "the unimpeded clearness of the intuitive powers which a perfectly truthful adherence to every admonition of the higher instincts would bring to a finely organized human being" (162). In "the present crisis" of American women, the preference must be given "to the Minerva side" (defined as a more intellectual form of womanhood in which woman "partakes" of the masculine ).
On the third, most specific ("lowest," if you like) level of discourse, Fuller talks about real women and men. Having identified an "eternal" idea of woman and having compared various manifestations in literature and mythology, Fuller creates a vision of social harmony in which gender as a rigid dividing line, as a ground for self-definition, has disappeared. "Relations" between men and women have lost their limiting function; the prison of gender is open. As for the social "functions," each is useful and good as long as it is not the sole ground for the self: "Penelope is no more meant for a baker or weaver solely, than Ulysses for a cattle-herd" (105).
If Fuller reconceptualizes gender as a relation, to use Jane Flax's terminology, it is a relation not of mutual blindness and imprisonment, but of recognition and emancipation. This enables her to disconnect gender from power or domination. For, as Flax reminds us, "In order to sustain domination, the interrelation and interdependence of one group upon another must be denied" (211).
Fuller puts these two "quotations" at the head of Woman (82).
"Frailty, they name is WOMAN."
"The Earth waits for her Queen."—then changes them to
Frailty, they name is MAN.
The Earth waits for its King.
She saw clearly that woman, kept in a position of weakness, could never become a queen, only a servant, her mate no king, only a master: "he could never reach his true proportions, while she remained in any wise shorn of hers" (202).
For Americans, the liberation of the Eternal Feminine from the prison of gender has far-reaching political implications. In the United States, that "spot, where humanity was, at last, to have a fair chance to know itself" (198), a time is approaching "[when] man and woman may regard one another as brother and sister" (203). David M. Robinson has characterized Fuller's perspective in Woman as "millenial," in line with some of the evangelical tendencies of her age. But, as he points out, "the thrust of [her] rhetoric is motivation for political change" (Robinson 95).
That Fuller cared very much about the "liberties of the republic" is amply evident in her book. One example is her growing sympathy with the anti-slavery struggle, which reflects not only the abolitionists' "appeal in behalf of woman," but also "a natural following out of principles" on Fuller's part (Woman 94). Another is her careful and poignant discussion of how political reforms are to be brought about. She contrasts Fourier's emphasis on institutional changes with Goethe's call for individual self-culture:
Fourier says, As the institutions, so the men! All follies are excusable and natural under bad institutions.
Goethe thinks, As the man, so the institutions! There is no excuse for ignorance and folly. A man can grow in any place, if he will.
Ay! but Goethe, bad institutions are prison walls and impure air that make him stupid, so that he does not will.
And thou, Fourier, do not expect to change mankind at once, or even in three generations.…If these attempts are made by unready men, they will fail.
Yet we prize the theory of Fourier no less than the profound suggestion of Goethe. Both are educating the age to a clearer consciousness of what man needs, what man can be, and better life must ensue.
The "better life" to "ensue," Fuller maintains, has now its best chance on the shores of the New World. Her faith in her country's destiny "to elucidate a great moral law, as Europe was to promote the mental culture of man" (92) pulls her disparate impulses together, affirming her conviction that both self-culture and political involvement are needed to promote the growth of the individual and the nation. The promise of that "better life" carries an obligation; it will only be fulfilled "if this land carry out the principles from which sprang our national life" (203).
- An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 34th Annual Convention of the German Association for American Studies, University of Bremen, June 10, 1987.
- On the Martineau-Fuller relationship and on Fuller's views on abolitionism, see Chevigny 210-223 and 228-230, and Kearns. Fuller's letter criticizing Society in America, which caused Martineau's lifelong displeasure, is now reprinted in Hudspeth 1: 307-310.
- Woman has three main sources: Fuller's earlier work on Goethe and German literature, her "Conversations" about mythology and art, and her involvement with Emerson and the Dial. Tracing those sources back enables us to see that the book's genesis stretches over a period of thirteen years. In 1832, Fuller began an intensive study of German with her friend James Freeman Clarke. Mastering the language in three months, she read Goethe, Schiller, Novalis, Tieck, Koerner, Richter, and other writers of the German romantic movement. Over the next decade, she became an acknowledged authority on German literature; her work from that period includes translations of Goethe's Tasso and numerous shorter pieces, Eckermann's Conversations with Goethe (publ. 1839), the Correspondence of Fraeulein Guenderode with Bettina von Arnim (publ. 1842), three major essays on Goethe, numerous articles on other German writers, and a projected (but never finished) biography of Goethe. Her "Conversations" in Boston and Cambridge began in the winter of 1839 and continued until 1844. Her friendship with Emerson started in 1836; her editor-ship of the Dial lasted from July, 1840 to July, 1842. It was there that her first version of Woman in the Nineteenth Century appeared in July, 1843 under the title "The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women." The revision of this text into Woman adds material but retains most of the original version. The Margaret Fuller of Woman in the Nineteenth Century, therefore, is still essentially the transcendental Fuller of 1843, Douglas's desperate narcissist and Martineau's "gorgeous pedant."
- I am paraphrasing the following passage from Evelyne Keitel's 1983 essay, "Frauen, Texte, Theorie": "If one posits a specifically feminine not as an empty category or as a program but attributes it to real women, it appears objectified, attainable, and deprived of its revolutionary character. If, in the discussion about a female aesthetic, the feminine were made into an absolute, these discussions could no longer fulfill their function as the instrument of a comprehensive cultural criticism" (Keitel 840; translation mine).
Chevigny, Bell Gale. The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller's Life and Writings. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1976.
Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. New York: Avon, 1978.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Lectures. New York: Library of America, 1983.
Flax, Jane. "Gender as a Problem: In and For Feminist Theory." Amerikastudien/American Studies 31 (Fall 1986): 193-213.
Fleischmann, Fritz. A Right View of the Subject: Feminism in the Works of Charles Brockden Brown and John Neal. Erlanger Studien 47. Erlangen: Palm & Enke, 1983.
Fuller, Margaret. Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli. [Ed. R. W. Emerson, W. H. Channing, and J. F. Clarke.] 2 vols. Boston: Phillips, Sampson and Co., 1852.
——. Margaret Fuller: Essays on Life and Letters. Ed. Joel Myerson. New Haven, Ct.: College and University Press, 1978. [All citations from Woman in the Nineteenth Century refer to this edition.]
——. The Letters of Margaret Fuller. Ed. Robert Hudspeth. Vol. I: 1839-41. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983.
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Margaret Fuller Ossoli. American Men and Women of Letters Series. New York: Chelsea House, 1981.
Kearns, Francis E. "Margaret Fuller and the Abolition Movement." Journal of the History of Ideas 25 (1964): 120-127.
Keitel, Evelyne. "Frauen, Texte, Theorie. Aspekte eines problematischen Verhaeltnisses." Das Argument 142 (1983): 830-841.
Richardson, Robert D., Jr. "Margaret Fuller and Myth." Prospects 4 (1979): 168-84.
Robinson, David M. "Margaret Fuller and the Transcendental Ethos: Woman in the Nineteenth Century." PMLA 97 (1982): 83-98.
Scheick, William J. "The Angelic Ministry of Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century." Essays in Literature 11.2 (Fall 1984): 293-98.
Sherman, Sarah W. "Victorians and the Matriarchal Mythology: A Source for Mrs. Todd." Colby Library Quarterly 22.1 (March 1986): 63-74.
Shuffelton, Frank. "Margaret Fuller at the Greene Street School: The Journal of Evelina Metcalf." Studies in the American Renaissance 1985: 29-46.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Civil Disobedience. Ed. Owen Thomas. New York: Norton, 1966.
Zwarg, Christina L. "The Impact of Post-Modernist Criticism on American Literature." 20 pp. Presented at the 1987 NEMLA Spring Conference. I wish to thank Professor Zwarg for sending me a copy of her paper and for permission to quote from it.
CYNTHIA J. DAVIS (ESSAY DATE 2000)
SOURCE: Davis, Cynthia J. "What 'Speaks in Us': Margaret Fuller, Woman's Rights, and Human Nature." In Margaret Fuller's Cultural Critique: Her Age and Legacy, edited by Fritz Fleischmann, pp. 43-54. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.
In the following excerpt, Davis explores Fuller's relationship to the organized women's suffrage movement.
Speaking at a Woman's Rights Conference held in Worcester, Massachusetts, only weeks after Margaret Fuller Ossoli drowned off Fire Island, suffragist Paulina Wright Davis invoked this tragedy as more than mere personal loss. As Davis shared with the women there gathered, "To [Fuller] I, at least, had hoped to confide the leadership of this movement. It can never be known if she would have accepted it; the desire had been expressed to her by letter" (qtd. in Flexner 346). Yet another letter, this one dated some seventeen years later, provides additional evidence of Fuller's importance to the first wave of feminist movement: in 1867, a young suffragist named Mary Livermore confided to Susan B. Anthony that "I have always believed in the ballot for woman at some future time—always, since reading Margaret Fuller's 'Woman in the Nineteenth Century,' which set me to thinking a quarter of a century ago" (Stanton et al. 2: 921). Livermore's debt to Fuller was so great that she would base her suffrage lecture, "What shall we do with our Daughters?" on ideas culled from Woman in the Nineteenth Century. And in perhaps the most indelible tribute, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Cage dedicated their monumental History of Woman Suffrage to nineteen women, among them Margaret Fuller, "Whose Earnest Lives and Fearless Words, in Demanding Political Rights for Women, have been, in the Preparation of these Pages, a Constant Inspiration to The Editors."
The genealogical connection between Fuller and the woman's rights movement is both extensive and underexplored. Bell Gale Chevigny maintains,
In a sense, it is remarkable that Fuller became a feminist at all. Certainly identification with other women did not come easily to her. In the absence of a movement, criticism of other women was the natural recourse of a woman seeking to break out of the limited world her sisters seemed to accept, and this was accentuated in Fuller's case by her goals of unlimited self-development. To defend herself from discouragement, Fuller cultivated in private her sense of exceptionality and presented herself publicly as a woman of singular destiny. Her feminism never eradicated these habits.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
KOLODNY DESCRIBES FULLER'S CRITICAL NEGLECT.
To read Fuller today is to be impressed anew with the sheer revolutionary daring of her attempt both to question existing gender hierarchies and to disrupt accepted sexual practices. Unfortunately, the potential impact of her arguments was long ago obscured amid the reluctance of critics seriously to analyze the even greater daring of her rhetorical strategies. As a result, when the second wave of feminist theorists in the United States began to call for a pluralistic discourse that was both collaborative and noncoercive, they showed no awareness that Fuller had earlier responded to that same challenge.
Kolodny, Annette. Excerpt from "Inventing a Feminist Discourse: Rhetoric and Resistance in Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century." New Literary History 25, no. 2 (spring 1994): 355-82. Copyright 1994 by Annette Kolodny. All rights reserved.
But as Chevigny also acknowledges, Fuller would gradually hearken the call to uplift not only herself but women as a group, perhaps nowhere more evidenced than in the "Conversations" she held for women beginning in November 1839 and continuing for roughly five winters. While these loosely structured discussions, mostly centered around the nature of women's inherent destiny and how best to fulfill it, bolstered Fuller's own confidence in her powers of expression and intellect, their benefit to the women attendees seems to have been the more profound (cf. Chevigny 210-15). For instance, among the some forty or so women who eventually attended these "Conversations" was the young Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who would go on to future prominence as one of the leaders of the woman suffrage movement. Stanton's one winter with Fuller was enough to compel her to deem these Cambridge Conversations in retrospect "A Vindication of Woman's Right to think" (Stanton et al. 1: 801).
Our dating of the nineteenth-century suffrage movement from the now-famous conference in Seneca Falls in 1848 often obscures the fact that Margaret Fuller (whose major works were all published by 1845) was clearly considered by many nineteenth-century women as the sine qua non of the woman's rights movement. Had she lived beyond 1850, might Fuller have directed women's struggle for equality in directions other than those it traveled without her guidance? And for all the early suffragists' acknowledged indebtedness to Fuller, is this a debt that was ever honorably paid? Did the suffrage movement of the nineteenth century, not to mention its resurgence as a second wave of feminist movement in the latter half of the twentieth, define its terms and strategies in ways that truly honor Fuller's legacy? These two questions provide the impetus behind the ensuing assessment of Fuller's vision of "woman in the nineteenth century" and her contributions to the feminist movement.
In our own day, divergent critical views have tended either to strengthen or unravel the ties that bind Fuller and the organized suffrage campaign inaugurated while Fuller was in Italy. On the one hand, Ann Douglas, in The Feminization of American Culture, divorces Fuller from the women around her and their Declaration of Sentiments, whether these be fictional or nonfictional manifestoes. On the other, Sandra M. Gustafson, in an article in American Quarterly, argues for a continuity between these sentiments and Fuller's own rhetoric. Fuller's concern with sincerity and lack of artifice in both spoken and written word—a concern that is central to a sentimental tradition—impelled her, in Gustafson's words, to use "sentimental ideals to justify antisentimental forms" (50).
Gustafson focuses on Fuller's search for an appropriate degendered rhetorical form. It is beyond the scope of her project to consider what I believe to be Fuller's more radical aim: her attempt in Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) to displace a more traditional emphasis on deeply gendered corporeal forms. In other words, in Woman Fuller not only degendered rhetoric, she degendered bodies, and this was a radical thing to do, even within a feminist tradition. Thus when Gustafson claims that Fuller is dedicated "to an integral female self and its adequate expression" (39), I believe she wrongly and retroactively genders Fuller's famously neuter "sovereign self." But neither would I agree with Ann Douglas when she argues that "Fuller's life can be viewed as an effort to find what she called her 'sovereign self' by disavowing … the realm of 'feminine' fantasy for the realm of 'masculine' reality" (262). Instead I would suggest, contra both Douglas and Gustafson, that in the final analysis Fuller dis-avowed both femininity and masculinity for an identity that transcended or at least incorporated both. Thus when Gustafson claims that for Fuller, "women and men, writing and speech are all invested with material forms" (54), she assigns Fuller's understandings of masculinity and femininity a materiality that I believe is nowhere evidenced in Woman.
It is, precisely, this resistance to materiality—the abstract nature of Fuller's representations of masculinity and particularly femininity—that intrigues me here. Up against a culture that was increasingly medicalizing and essentializing woman's nature and even against an emergent woman's rights movement that would ultimately ground woman's rights in natural rights and in woman's special nature, Fuller's failure precisely to locate gender identity within the body renders unstable and unnatural a gendered dichotomy that would, alas, become increasingly stable and natural after her death. In fact, in Fuller's Woman, an abstract generic "soul" displaces concrete gendered essences as that which is contained within bodies, whether male or female. The net effect of this is that in Woman, Fuller unites far more than she divides men and women. While Fuller's emphasis on soul may be directly attributed to Transcendentalism rather than to some radical feminism, the fact that it is after all a woman arguing for the disembodied, transparent I(ball?) pushes Transcendentalism's potential radicalism into territories where no beard nor bard had gone before.
Indeed, it is possible that, since woman more closely approximates what Fuller deems the "singleness of life" (115), woman more closely approximates the "I." Herein may lie the explanation for why Fuller, herself a woman, resists splitting that I into its gendered pronouns—into he/she, or even into those other objectifying dichotomies me/you, or us/them. Illustrating this is the essay upon which Woman is based, "The Great Lawsuit" (1843), wherein the opposing sides are not Man v. Woman, but Man v. Men, Woman v. Women—with Fuller arguing on behalf of the former "abstraction" (that is, on behalf of "Man" and "Woman"). She thus disavows not only the specific and flawed bodies implicit in terms like "men" and "women," but also the ideology that assigns such divisions weight and substance. Fuller's understanding of the category "Man" as an abstraction is made clearer in her preface to Woman, where she writes, "By Man I mean both man and woman, the two halves of one thought" (xiii). Some fifty years after Fuller wrote Woman, Kate Chopin's Edna Pontellier—an avid reader of Emerson's "Self-Reliance" as was Fuller—would graphically demonstrate the limits of Transcendentalism when its proponent found herself constrained by a desired and desiring female body. Writing at midcentury, Fuller did not see that body as necessarily constraining in part because she refused to see it as necessarily female. Ideally, this unwillingness to specify a distinctly "female" body should have paved the way for other women in the nineteenth century to posit transcendence as a collective goal. That is, if Fuller's arguments had meant as much to them as the suffragists whom I quoted at the beginning of this paper suggest, these women would have sought a transcendence that comes not from seeking, à la the Transcendentalists, a unity of the soul with Nature, but rather, à la Fuller, a liberating of the soul from nature—in the sense of biology, corporeality, the too, too sullied female flesh.
Fuller, in fact, explicitly distinguishes a woman's gender from her nature at a time when the two were fast becoming synonymous: hence in Woman she contends that "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 …" (38, emphasis added). Here, the freedom and lack of impediments she believes to be guaranteed any soul are conferred upon woman precisely by identifying her as soul versus the traditional identification of woman with (or as) body. Fuller's treatise provides women with a loophole of retreat from the increasingly essentialized and pathologized woman's nature (even, rightly or wrongly, from their sexual nature—hence Fuller's emphasis on celibacy contra Edna Pontellier). It thus provides them with a means of escape from their confinement in woman's sphere, in a "woman's place" where and when that confinement is based on the penalty of biology.
This is not to say that Fuller didn't often subscribe to rather conservative notions of masculine and feminine traits and capabilities: many of her arguments for ending women's oppression are grounded in traditional views of women as the gentler, purer, more spiritual sex. Not infrequently, she laments her own "femality"—especially to the extent it proved a hindrance to her writing—and endows men with more daring, genius, and resolve. For instance, in the reading notes she took about George Sand, Fuller exclaimed:
I am astonished at her insight into the life of thought. She must know it through some man. Women, under any circumstances, can scarce do more than dip the foot in this broad and deep river; they have not strength to contend with the current … when it comes to interrogating God, the universe, the soul, and, above all, trying to live above their own hearts, they dart down to their own nests like so many larks.
(M Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli 1: 295)
When Fuller did confront the limitations of the female body, it was typically to acknowledge their status as encumbrance, as delineating the very difference that she strove to eradicate or at least transcend. In her less hopeful moments, she seems inclined to reinscribe the male-mind/female-body split: "the very outline [sic, CJD] of the feminine form were yielding," she laments, "and we could not associate them with a prominent self-conscious state of the faculties" (qtd. in Russell 43). There were even times when she grew despondent about the consequences of extant gender differences. As she remarked bitterly in Life Without and Life Within, "Woman is the flower, man the bee. She sighs out melodious fragrance, and invites the winged laborer. He drains her cup, and carries off the honey. She dies on the stalk; he returns to the hive, well fed, and praised as an active member of the community" (Chevigny 279).
But intriguingly, this debased and debasing femininity—as her remarks about Sand illustrate—is not for Fuller associated with the "body" per se so much as it is specifically associated with the "heart." While she still identifies masculinity with the "mind," this replacement of "body" with "heart" in the traditional male/female, mind/body dichotomies is significant. For the fact that both organs—mind and heart—can be contained within one body (any body) parallels Fuller's belief—a not uncommon one in the circles in which she traveled—that there were masculine and feminine currents in each woman or man. As Fuller herself put it in a journal entry: "The Woman in me kneels and weeps in tender rapture; the Man in me rushes forth, but only to be baffled.…Yet the time will come, when, from the union of this tragic king and queen, shall be born a radiant sovereign self" (M 2: 136). Or, perhaps more pertinently, as she contends in Woman : "Male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But in fact, they are perpetually, passing into one another.…There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman" (115-16); "It is no more the order of nature that [femininity] should be incarnated pure in any form, than that the masculine energy should exist unmingled with it in any form" (115).
Divorcing gendered traits from gendered forms, what Fuller works toward here is not so much androgyny—the blending of masculine and feminine into a sort of third amorphous gender—as simultaneity, not one melded sex but both at once, and more. That this is so is evidenced by the emblem that she chooses to represent her utopian view of a post-dichotomous world: in lieu of gendered binaries, Fuller offers up a "zodiac of the busts of gods and goddesses, arranged in pairs … [where] male and female heads are distinct in expression, but equal in beauty, strength, and calmness.…Could the thought thus expressed be lived out, there would be nothing more to be desired. There would be unison in variety, congeniality in difference" (55). Fuller here turns the boundary line that ideologically divides the genders on its side, transforming it into a continuum on which every body ranges between the masculine and feminine poles. But even this is not entirely correct. For throughout most of Woman, Fuller displaces the conventional gendered poles of male and female, and in their place positions (generic) Man at one end and the Divinity that is the perfect soul in all of us at the other. She thus unites all Men (that is, all people) in their striving toward one common desire and destiny—to shed the body and become soul: "all soul is the same" (115), she claims; "there is but one law for souls" (37).
While according to Fuller all of us can and will eventually become souls, because we are still (abstract) Men and not yet souls, we are still male and female. However, as I have suggested, Fuller believes that we can be both these things at once. Or, at the very least, she believes she can be both male and female at once. She writes: "I have been always wishing to call myself into the arms of some other nature.… This was womanish, I own. I am not yet a man" (qtd. in Russell 29-30). "Not yet a man" implies that she is and can move toward manliness despite her self-proclaimed womanishness—and thus that this possibility may indeed be open to every body, regardless of sex.
Fuller's emphasis on synchronicity, variety, and continuation—on "not yet"—highlights a concept central to Fuller's notion of gender identity: temporality. As Fuller puts it herself in a journal entry: "I love best to be a woman; but womanhood is at present too straitly-bounded to give me scope. At hours, I live truly as a woman; at others, I should stifle" (M 1: 297). Being a woman—what many would presume to be an ontological fact—may be a state she "loves best," but for Fuller in the present moment it is too confining. With her qualifying clause Fuller suggests that she (and perhaps others) can somehow choose to "be" other than a woman—to transcend ontology—at certain moments. This is borne out by her claim in her next sentence that "at hours" she lives as a woman—which would suggest, however implausibly, that at other hours she does not.
In thus emphasizing the constitutive temporality of gender identity—living "as a woman" suggests subversively that womanhood is a metaphorical rather than an ontological state—Fuller anticipates theories of gender popularized in our own day by feminist theorists, most notably by Denise Riley. Riley's "Am I That Name?": Feminism and the Category of "Women" in History, written some 140 years after Woman, echoes Fuller in contending that no human subject is ever inter-pellated by a single dominant ideology (such as gender) all the time. There are moments, Riley stipulates in accordance with Fuller, when females are not "women," when "women" do not think of themselves nor are hailed as such. As Riley puts it: "anyone's body is—the classifications of anatomy apart—only periodically either lived or treated as sexed, therefore the gendered division of human life into bodily life cannot be adequate or absolute. Only at times will the body impose itself or be arranged as that of a woman or a man" (103). While this may seem a potentially liberating view of gender identity, especially when juxtaposed with those who would fix gender within the body as a timeless essence, it is not without its dangers. For is it not possible that in so stressing temporality both Fuller and Riley underemphasize, even ignore the extent to which "anatomical difference" still figures (it makes a difference) in constructing and even predetermining the subject and social positioning of many women? In other words, while we may want to celebrate this temporality, we must not lose sight of the unfortunately still myriad ways in which particular social configurations and power structures work to narrow the range of our choices of identities at any given moment. The celebration of gender as a temporal construct, as an identity that we do not identify with at all moments, may be premature; it fails to acknowledge that the choice of how we live our lives and bodies is not, in the final analysis, solely up to us, but also depends upon the transformation of the dominant social discourses that still, as often as not, narrate us.
That this is so is, ironically, documented in the narrative distortions and revisions Margaret Fuller herself was subjected to over time. Take, for example, Hawthorne's satiric profile of Fuller as Zenobia in the Blithedale Romance (this from the author who had hoped that Fuller would prove "a very woman after all," no better than "the weakest of her sisters" [qtd. in Douglas 266-67]). Other famous examples include Emerson's, James Freeman Clarke's and W. H. Channing's blacking out and excising of Fuller's papers for their Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, Fuller's brother Arthur's attempts to paint a more "womanly" portrait of his sister in the 1855 edition of Woman —paying in his preface "tribute to her domestic virtues and fidelity to all home duties" (v)—, and Horace Greeley's assessment that "great and noble as [Fuller] was, a good husband and two or three bouncing babies would have emancipated her from a great deal of cant and nonsense" (qtd. in Douglas 280).
Finally, there are Henry James's anxious and often condescending musings about the "Margaret-ghost" who haunts him and other writers in his biography of William Whetmore Story and His Friends (1903; cf. Rowe). Intriguingly, in James's formulation, it is not Fuller's actual and imposing presence—"Margaret's mountainous me," as Emerson immortalized her—that looms over these male writers, but a ghost-like apparition. If James is correct, then the most disturbing or haunting thing about Fuller (for these men) is her representing, after death, the disembodied femininity she argued for in life. Although Poe never meant it as such, perhaps we should then read his infamous quip that there are three types of people—"men, women and Margaret Fuller" (Chevigny 19)—as a (backhanded) compliment, pointing not to her "freakishness" (as I am sure Poe intended), but to Fuller's remarkable ability to transcend convincingly—to posit an alternative to—gendered categories.
In Woman, Fuller famously concludes that "It is not woman, but the law of right, the law of growth, that speaks in us, and demands the perfection of each being in its kind" (177). But Fuller's distorted reputation—filtered as it has been through these male writers' manipulations—demonstrates that such questions as "what speaks in us" and "when" may be less important, ultimately, than such questions as "who's listening?" and "how is that which is spoken being heard?"
All of which returns us, in conclusion, to the vexed problem of Fuller's reception, her lasting legacy. At the beginning of this essay, I suggested that early woman's rights figures did indeed listen to Fuller speaking, that they did read and respond to her words. But questions remain: did these women also distort them, filtering Fuller's aspirations through pre-existing ideologies, and taming them of their political punch? In particular, did they defuse Fuller's potentially radical notion that gender identity is not and should not be grounded in two distinct and different anatomies?
Certainly not intentionally, and perhaps not beyond recognition. But even as early as the Declaration of Sentiments (written primarily by Fuller protégée Elizabeth Cady Stanton just three years after Woman was published), we see the first slide down the slippery slope toward gender essentialism that the early woman's rights movement ultimately assumed and that Fuller so assiduously avoided. We might start with the rhetorical discontinuities. While (as I have pointed out) in Woman Fuller works to minimize the differences between men and women, the rhetoric of the Declaration of Sentiments ranges men against women: nearly every sentence begins as follows: "He has never permitted her …," "he has taken from her …," "he has compelled her …," "he has denied her" (Proceedings 6-7). While Fuller strove throughout her career to find a common "I," the suffragists were clearly already willing to see the world as divided into shes and hes, pronouns that they grounded in essential differences. Moreover, it is clearly a "she" declaring her sentiments throughout the 1848 manifesto, while Fuller's 1845 treatise is famously ambiguous about who is speaking. In Woman, Fuller reflects not only in the content but the style and grammar of her prose her willingness to play with gendered categories that remained fixed and oppositional in the Declaration of Sentiments.
Elsewhere, it is true, the Declaration's rhetoric owes a great debt to Fuller, a debt it acknowledges with such Fulleresque proclamations as "… it is time [woman] should move in the enlarged sphere which her great Creator has assigned her" (Proceedings 4). But at other moments, the Declaration's attempts to speak for women translates as an essentialized woman "speaking in us" that Fuller largely avoids. In part, this translation is the result of the Declaration's grounding of woman's rights in "natural rights"—a concept borrowed from the liberal humanist and rationalist tradition as handed down from Locke and Jefferson. While the framers of the Declaration of Sentiments emphasize "natural rights" as a means of affording women the rights granted to (then only male) citizens, by grounding those rights in nature they risk encouraging the view of women as having fixed and timeless natures, a view of women Fuller strove throughout her career to obstruct and make abstract.
"Natural rights" are based on that ultimate abstraction "human nature." This is an abstraction, however, that quickly becomes concrete, as the political experiment that is the United States amply demonstrates. Just as the "created-equal" "Man" of the Declaration of Independence quickly materialized as the white propertied man of the Constitution, so too did the "woman" endowed by nature with inalienable rights of the Declaration of Sentiments quickly materialize as the white bourgeois woman of "bleeding Kansas." That Sojourner Truth had later to ask "Ain't I a Woman?" (Stanton et al. 1: 115-17) only confirms the extent to which the framers of the Declaration of Sentiments had a specific body in mind when invoking the apparently inclusive category "Woman" throughout their Declaration.
Paulina Wright Davis was right, then, to rue Fuller's untimely demise, for even as early as Woman Fuller was quick to point out what the suffragists acknowledged too little, too late. As Fuller contends, "Those who think the physical circumstances of Woman would make a part in the affairs of national government unsuitable, are by no means those who think it impossible for negresses to endure field-work, even during pregnancy, or for the sempstresses to go through their killing labors" (35). This sort of recognition would have saved the suffrage movement, and women in the nineteenth century in general, a great deal of divisiveness.
History tends to repeat itself when it is not thoroughly critiqued and revised. It is one of the central ironies for those of us indebted to feminist principles that some one hundred years have made us virtually no wiser than our early fore-mothers. The second wave, after all, has itself been impeded by the snares of essentialism and racism that also slowed the impetus of the earlier wave and which Fuller explicitly warned against. Both of these "isms" have threatened to rupture the modern feminist movement, leading to acrimonious debate about, as well as the formation of splinter groups organized around, differences between women. The feminist movement, like the sex, is decidedly not "one," and this fact yields both positive and negative consequences. On the one hand, unlike our antecedents, modern feminists have learned and learned relatively quickly that these differences are real, important, and informative of not just gender identity but gendered struggle. Experience has taught us that gender, race, class, sexuality, religious affiliation and other modes of classification are not pop-beads on a necklace that can be separated out from one another so that we may speak as a woman in one context, a Caucasian in another, a member of the middle class in a third, and so on. Rarely does a savvy critic use the singular "woman" as an all-inclusive, unqualified noun anymore, and this avoidance should not be taken as reflecting merely superficial motivations or good training. What it indicates, I hope, is a paradigmatic shift in feminist consciousness concerning the multiple and contingent ways in which gender has and might come to matter (quite literally) in the world. On the other hand, who among us is not dismayed that the American media have gotten away with labeling this a "post-feminist age," and who among us is not concerned that our own internal grievances have not in some small or large way facilitated this labeling process?
I should make clear in closing that my lament is not some nostalgic longing for what might have been had Fuller lived. I am not suggesting that Fuller's disembodied, degendered approach to subjectivity (in her published if not her private musings) is ultimately preferable. Fuller's abstractions are at once too general and too individualized, with all the well-documented problems that attend either flaw. Still, Fuller did offer an alternative, a road not taken. Her application of liberal humanistic philosophy to women's rights issues resists or sidesteps the traps of restrictive essentialism and disingenuous universalism that later and even today risk bogging down the feminist movement.
I also recognize that Fuller alone could not have altered this course. Ultimately, what stretched the suffrage struggle out over seven-plus long and hard-fought decades in this country, what continues to make the struggles for gender equity and justice so vital today, was not so much Fuller's or any one inspirational leader's individual death. Instead, responsibility lies with a widespread social, political, and economic opposition to women's advancement. What Emerson concluded about Fuller when he deemed her an "athletic soul, which craved an atmosphere larger than it found" (Chevigny 1, emphasis added) applies as well to other women in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who likewise discovered their atmosphere to be both stultifying and claustrophobic. After all, while Emerson grants Fuller the status of soul, what he could not grant was the transcendence Fuller and other women craved once they found themselves inhibited by the very real pressures of being, not just for a moment, not just at times, but in the last instance, in others' eyes, a woman.1
1. Portions of this text have appeared in an essay entitled "Margaret Fuller, Body and Soul" in the March 1999 issue of American Literature.
CC: Lydia Maria Child. The Collected Correspondence of Lydia Maria Child, 1817-1880. Ed. Patricia G. Holland, Milton Meltzer, and Francine Krasno. Millwood, NY: Kraus Microform, 1980.
EMF: Margaret Fuller. The Essential Margaret Fuller. Ed. Jeffrey Steele. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1992.
FMW: Fuller Manuscripts and Works, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
FP: Margaret Fuller Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.
HCW: The History of the Condition of Women, in Various Ages and Nations. Vols. 4 and 5 of Ladies' Family Library. Boston: John Allen, 1835.
LMF: Margaret Fuller. The Letters of Margaret Fuller. Ed. Robert N. Hudspeth. 6 vols. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1983-94.
LNY: Lydia Maria Child. Letters from New York. 1843. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries P, 1970.
"LNY": "Letters from New-York" (column).
PMF: Margaret Fuller. The Portable Margaret Fuller. Ed. Mary Kelley. New York: Viking Penguin, 1994.
SL: Lydia Maria Child. Lydia Maria Child: Selected Letters, 1817-1880. Ed. Milton Meltzer, Patricia G. Holland, and Francine Krasno. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1982.
Chevigny, Bell Gale. The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller's Life and Writings. New York: Feminist P, 1976.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. 1899. New York: Bantam, 1981.
Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. New York: Knopf, 1978.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Self Reliance." Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.
Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: The Women's Rights Movement in the United States. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1975.
Fuller, S. Margaret. Woman in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Greeley & McElrath, 1845.
——. Woman in the Nineteenth Century and Kindred Papers Relating to the Sphere, Condition, and Duties of Woman. Ed. Arthur B. Fuller. 1874. New York: Greenwood, 1968.
Gustafson, Sandra. "Choosing a Medium: Margaret Fuller and the Forms of Sentiment." American Quarterly 47 (1995): 34-65.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Blithedale Romance. 1852. Ed. Seymour Gross and Rosalie Murphy. New York: Norton, 1978.
Myerson, Joel. Margaret Fuller: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography. New York: Burt Franklin, 1977.
——. Margaret Fuller: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1978.
Proceedings of the Woman's Rights Convention, Held at Seneca Falls, N.Y. July 19th & 20th, 1848. John Dick: Rochester, 1848.
Riley, Denise. "Am I That Name?": Feminism and the Category of "Women" in History. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.
Rowe, John Carlos. "Swept Away: Henry James, Margaret Fuller, and 'The Last of the Valerii.'" Readers in History: Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Contexts of Response. Ed. James L. Machor. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993. 32-53.
Russell, Roberta Joy. "Margaret Fuller: The Growth of a Woman Writer." Ph.D. diss. U of Connecticut, 1983. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1985. 8317725.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage. History of Woman Suffrage. 2 vols. 1881-1882. Salem, NH: Ayer, 1985.
"Fuller, Margaret: General Commentary." Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fuller-margaret-general-commentary
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