Margaret Fuller: an early women’s rights advocate
During Women’s History Month, names such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart and Rosa Parks should be remembered.
There is, however, an unsung heroine of earlier vintage who most likely will be overlooked. Margaret Fuller, unknown to most Americans, was one of the pre-eminent figures of her era, and her historical importance is recognized in academic circles as well as among feminist leaders.
Fuller was born in Cambridge, Mass., near Harvard, in 1810. Although her life was destined to be tragically brief, she would achieve considerable fame during two decades of civic engagement.
Fuller’s short but crowded career was filled with numerous important social reforms, particularly the cause of women’s rights.
Precocious, Margaret was fortunate to have a caring but demanding father who tutored his daughter as she pursued a rigorous classical education. Fuller proved to be a bright and enthusiastic student who absorbed knowledge rapidly. By the time she reached her mid-teens, Margaret had mastered Latin and Greek and could translate the great German philosopher Goethe’s writings.
After teaching for two years, Fuller devoted more time to her budding writing career.
During the late 1820s she was beginning to question the traditional role of women as teachers or domestic housewives expected to remain subordinate and obedient to their husbands. Fuller not only challenged conventional attitudes like those, but also the Massachusetts law which denied women the right to own property.
Her radical views and determinism were reinforced when she became acquainted with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and other prominent Transcendentalists over the next decade.
In the words of one scholar, Transcendentalism maintained “that man has ideas, that come not through the five senses, or the powers of reasoning; but are either the result of direct revelation of God, his immediate inspiration, or his immanent presence in the spiritual world.”
While in her late 20s, Margaret Fuller launched her famous Conversation seminars, consisting of two-hour sessions devoted to consciousness-raising exchanges with other women. At these meetings Fuller and the participants discussed a wide range of topics, including literature and the fine arts.
These seminars reflected Fuller’s philosophy of life and were a precursor to a feminist movement which evolved during that era.
As Margaret wrote a few years later in her notable 1845 book “Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” “What woman needs is not as a woman to act or rule, but a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely and unimpeded, to unfold such powers as were given her.”
While serving as first editor of the Transcendentalist magazine The Dial, Fuller’s writing skills and reputation became widely recognized.
Horace Greeley, publisher of The New York Tribune, soon hired her to write book reviews and also to oversee the entire scope of the newspaper’s literary department. After only a few months, Greeley’s new wordsmith was also writing far-reaching and incisive commentaries on art and the wider culture.
During her New York career, Fuller became zealous about the pressing social, economic and political issues of her time: slavery, prison reform, urban poverty and, above all else, the rights of women in society.
By the mid-1840s, Margaret Fuller’s views were well known to a large segment of America. She was especially admired by progressive-minded men and women.
Her strident intensity and occasional arrogance, however, sometimes offended her detractors. The hostile attitude of author Nathaniel Hawthorne was perhaps typical. He referred to Fuller as “a great humbug.” Others could be even more savage in their character assassination.
Greeley, though, enamored with his literary star, made Margaret the first woman foreign correspondent in our history and sent her on assignment to Europe.
In Europe, Fuller became friendly with the continent’s intellectual elite. Among them was the notorious Parisian libertine George Sand, whose views about sex and marriage far exceeded Margaret’s unconventional attitudes on the subject. Both these charismatic women believed that, within the institution of marriage, men and women should be equal partners in every respect. Fuller’s admiration of Sand was cogently expressed in a letter when she wrote: “I liked the woman in her … very much; I never liked a woman better.”
A year later in Italy, Fuller fell in love with the Marquis Giovanni Angelo d’Ossoli, and an illegitimate son was born to the couple in 1848.
While there, Margaret became acquainted with the famous revolutionary leader Mazzini, whose brand of socialism resonated with her own political philosophy.
Motivated by the turbulent revolutionary situation in Italy, Fuller took on a leadership role at a hospital in Rome, where she witnessed the tragic consequences of local bloody fighting. When the revolutionary cause collapsed, Fuller and d’Ossoli decided to sail for the United States with their infant son.
Although resigned to returning, Margaret contemplated the journey with apprehension. She long had a morbid fear of drowning, and her anxiety over this was often accompanied by bouts of depression. Prior to departure, in her own words, she was overcome by “a dark feeling” which she regarded as a bad omen.
Unlike previous premonitions, this dread proved prophetic. On the journey across the Atlantic, the ship’s captain died unexpectedly, and during a severe storm, an inexperienced replacement ran the vessel aground near Fire Island, New York. Just 200 yards from shore, the ship was battered by hurricane-like weather for hours and broke apart.
A few of the crew survived, but Margaret, d’Ossoli and their child all perished. According to one survivor who jumped overboard, in her final minutes Fuller stood on the deck awaiting her fate. Her last words were reported to be, “I see nothing but death before me – I shall never reach the shore.”
Sadly, at the age of 40, Margaret Fuller’s future vanished.
Afterward, in describing Fuller’s life, one of her oldest friends remarked to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “How can you describe a Force? How can you write a life of Margaret?”
Historians cite Margaret Fuller as a pioneer feminist and note that leaders of the famous 1848 Seneca Falls Women’s Convention acknowledged her trailblazing contributions in the fight for women’s rights even before her death.
Bruce Dudley lives in Camden, Del., and Paul Smiths.
Dickenson, Donna, “Margaret Fuller: Writing a Woman’s Life”
Fuller, Margaret, “The Essential Margaret Fuller,” ed. Jeffrey Steele
Gura, Philip F., “American Transcendentalism: A History”
Matteson, John, “The Lives of Margaret Fuller”
Nichols, Ashton, “Margaret Fuller and Rights For Women” (video lecture)