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What Margaret Fuller Did For Feminism

Fuller’s 201st Birthday Celebration

Peabody Book Room, 13 West Street, May 25, 2011
Phyllis Cole

      The West Street shop where we meet made conversation possible in two ways:  literal talk took place here, most famously among the women of Fuller’s circle, but in addition people discovered each other and their mutual possibilities across time and space through the voices-in-print of books.  It seems to me the very walls echo with both kinds of voices.  Certainly Margaret Fuller gave herself deeply to the two kinds of conversation, and the feminist vision of Woman in the Nineteenth Century grew directly from them.  Imagine her in 1843 going from the conversations she led here on West Street back home to Ellery Street in Cambridge, where she was reading everything from current news to ancient world classics in search of insight about women, their wrongs and their potential. All this as she composed “The Great Lawsuit” for the Dial, then a year later began enlarging it into a book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, even before leaving Boston for New York. 
      Moving in that spirit, I’d like to enlarge the conversation by asking how she engaged other feminists, both before her and after.  Most of all, how does her work respond to that of her two greatest feminist predecessors, Mary Wollstonecraft and the sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke, and in turn what did her work mean to the activists who organized a women’s rights movement in America just as she died prematurely in 1850?  I’ve been asking such questions for about a dozen years and this coming year hope to bring the puzzle pieces together in a book.  I’ve discovered that, amidst a great outpouring of well deserved attention to Fuller as a transcendentalist and mystic, there has not been much written about her as a contributor to the feminist tradition as a whole.  Fullerites don’t pay much attention to Wollstonecraft, the Grimkes, or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, while the history and political science types who study these other women rarely give more than a passing nod to Fuller’s intellectually complex and rhapsodic writing.  One group thinks about the civil rights of women, the other, women’s soul.  As Charles Capper, Fuller’s biographer, puts it, she is “strangely missing from feminist histories,” as if her book “floated somewhere above the movement’s turbulent waters.”   So let’s celebrate Fuller tonight by also celebrating Wollstonecraft—that British radical of the 1790s who not only wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman but then joined the French Revolution and, scandalously, had a child out of wedlock—and Sarah and Angelina Grimké —those daughters of South Carolina slavery who reinvented themselves in turn as Quakers, public lecturers against slavery, and feminist advocates.  In a word, Fuller both learned enormously from these older sisters and moved beyond them in ways that would prove crucial to the future of feminism. 
      All three writers really did speak of women’s civil rights.  After all, Fuller’s feminist essay was first entitled “The Great Lawsuit”; and in both versions of this manifesto she declares that a human “inheritance” has been lost, now urging its recovery in ever higher courts.  Indeed, she invokes the divine law that will undo injustice on earth.  She herself is the “lawgiver by theocratic commission” who argues the case.  Of course all this is an elaborate metaphor—a wonderfully ironic one, since according to nineteenth century Common Law of women’s “coverture,” the very essence of a woman’s civil nonexistence was her incapacity to “sue or be sued.”  That’s why Fuller needs make her lawsuit a “great” one, directed to higher courts of the universe than are ruled by Common Law.   The mythic and philosophical Fuller offers solutions to the active deprivations of women in the most concrete, this-worldly senses.  And this aspect and tone of voice brings her quite directly in touch with Wollstonecraft, with her “vindication” of women, and Angelina Grimké with her “appeal” for them. All three are raising public voices where the public has not granted voice, urging their persuasive cases against the business as usual of female dependence and dispossession.  Of the three, I’d add, Fuller’s metaphor of presenting a “lawsuit” is actually the most confrontational.
      What then does she have in common with Wollstonecraft?  First of all, because of her scandalous life, Wollstonecraft was not an easy ally.  Fuller had grown up knowing of her; all she needed to do in childhood was read her father’s letters home from Washington (as she almost surely did) to get the double message.  Within the same week Timothy Fuller described Vindication as a “sensible and just” guide to female education—indeed, it was a major influence on his extraordinary ongoing program for Margaret—and a book that, on account of its author’s libertine life, “no woman dares to read.”  Both in Timothy’s day and still in Margaret’s, Wollstonecraft was widely discredited; and as a result, in her book about law, Fuller calls her an “outlaw,” a woman “whose existence better proved the need of some new interpretation of woman’s rights, than any thing she wrote.”  Any woman wishing to reform others, Fuller goes on, must be “unstained by passionate error.”  In fact she brings up Wollstonecraft not in the midst of her own basic arguments for women, but in describing the marriage of “intellectual companionship” that the loyal husband William Godwin proved by defending his wife after her death.  According to Fuller, it was because William could value Mary’s “inner life” that their marriage seemed “the sign of a new era.”  In later years Fuller would act out life choices uncannily like Wollstonecraft’s, almost act out her script, giving birth to her own child amidst revolution.  But she identifies with no such libertinism in 1844.
      What she does instead is to draw silently on a significant portion of the language and ideas of this first, truly founding vindication of woman’s rights.  For example, Wollstonecraft declares that women are “placed on this earth to unfold their faculties,” not to fulfill the “prevailing opinion, that woman was created for man.”  Fuller in turn protests that only a rare man “can rise above the belief that woman was made for man….What woman needs is…to unfold such powers as were given her when we left our common home.”  Both feminist writers primarily, forcefully urge women’s intellectual development, not just through formal education but through a remaking of the mind itself.  This kind of echoing is not plagiarism, but implicit acknowledgement of a mentor. 
Beyond similarity of language lie deep resonances of principle.  Wollstonecraft is directly grounded in liberty, experiencing the French Revolution as her immediate scene of commitment; half a century later, Fuller finds in the French Revolution her first evidence that “as the principle of liberty is better understood…a broader protest is made in behalf of Woman.”  Wollstonecraft and Fuller are both utopian thinkers, looking to future transformation of human nature itself.  The British feminist affirms that “all will be right,” if it is not so as yet.  And in doing so she engages passion and imagination as well as Age-of-Enlightenment reason.  “A wild wish has just flown from my heart to my head,” she writes, “…I do earnestly wish to see the distinction of sex confounded in society.”  Not only the content of that “wild wish” but its very flight from heart to head is Fuller’s debt to her.  And while Fuller augments the older “wish” into a trans-historical, religious quest, her predecessor also affirms the divine intent behind her own vision:  “These may be termed Utopian dreams,” writes Wollstonecraft.  “—Thanks to that Being who impressed them upon my soul.”
 Such a sense of Wollstonecraft sets in relief both Fuller’s grounding as a feminist in the age of revolutions and her leap beyond that earlier utopian wish into fully Romantic constructions of the soul and universe.  Wollstonecraft knew something about Romanticism too, finding her chief adversary in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who offered only male representatives of the human race to embody a vibrant conception of natural, independent virtue.  “This was Rousseau’s opinion respecting men,” she declares; “I extend it to women.”  Fuller may have learned from that bold act of appropriation how to deal with male mentors of her own, like Emerson and Goethe.  In Wollstonecraft’s world, all the virtues were masculine, so, she said, let women be more masculine.  Fuller finds a much greater prophetic power in the female, in “Muse,” even while also allowing women to become masculine as Minerva.  But then she also redefines the sexes as a “great radical dualism,” continuous and open to negotiation for every man and every woman.  It was her Romantic faith in the openness of soul to the divine universe that, fifty years after Wollstonecraft, allowed for such possibility.
      In those fifty years, much closer to Fuller than to Wollstonecraft, Sarah and Angelina Grimké also raised their voices and took up their pens in defense of women.  They were not conscious revolutionaries, let alone sexual rebels.  But from the grounding of Quaker faith, they dared an equally radical act in their public, vocal opposition to slavery.  Their 1837 season of lectures in Massachusetts had seismic repercussions because in response the Congregational Clergy issued a “Pastoral Letter” condemning public speech by women as a violation of their Biblically defined sphere.  And the women’s responses drew battle lines for an immediate and long-term struggle over women’s right to public voice.  Margaret Fuller crossed paths with them in Concord in 1837, at a time when her own primary attention was still on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “American Scholar” address, but his wife Lidian (her host) was simultaneously inviting the Grimkés for tea and joining townswomen in planning an antislavery society.  Fuller recorded no impression of them then, but her writing of the 1840s had most assuredly caught up on the significance of these recent protests.
      Like Mary Wollstonecraft, Angelina Grimké appears in Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century as a relatively brief allusion, occurring at a moment in mid-stream that suggests rather than encompasses her larger debt to the two sisters.  Cataloguing current motions that “overflow upon our land,” Fuller tells of “women who speak in public…for conscience sake,” and in particular Angelina.  Indeed, this brief appearance is part of a theme developed throughout the essay of Quaker women pleading their holy cause of abolition, and at the end she draws in her readers, too, as “Exaltadas”—exalted ones—who must oppose the annexation of Texas with the same boldness as the abolitionist women, rather than risking offense to God.  Fuller is amplifying the voice of Angelina Grimké to Romantic registers of power for herself and readers alike.
      However, just as with Wollstonecraft, there’s more Grimké in Fuller’s argument than she acknowledges explicitly. In particular, she never mentions Sarah Grimké, the writer who decisively turned moral agency to feminist pleading and provided her with an invaluable ideological source.  Fuller’s “lawsuit” depends significantly upon Sarah’s arguments in Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, written amidst that forbidden speaking tour of 1837.  Never as confident a public speaker as her younger sister, Sarah was the legal analyst of the pair, laying bare the Common Law of married women’s “coverture” in a cogent form that would echo through subsequent American and British feminist arguments.  She quotes directly from the highest British authority, Sir William Blackstone, and dissects his logic to show women’s suspension of legal existence as a form of abuse and degradation at one with slavery.  Legal disempowerment, she argues, destroys woman’s “responsibility…as a moral being.”  She does not evoke tyranny or revolution and never even shows awareness of Wollstonecraft’s previous manifesto.  But this second major beginning of feminist argument hinges equally upon abuse of power and is just as enraged.  Both content and tone are crucial to Fuller, who directly mimics parts of Grimké’s argument as she makes her primary case for woman’s need.  “It may be an Anti-Slavery party that pleads for woman,” she asserts, “if we consider merely that she does not hold property on equal terms with men.”  Like Grimké, Fuller offers a litany from first person witness of husbands robbing their wives’ earnings.  Even though she promises rhetorically not to speak directly of them, she cannot resist speaking, “for the subject makes me feel too much.” 
      But, Fuller also expresses the “large” ideals of personhood within marriage that will give new hope and destiny to women.  “If principles could be established,” she concludes, “particulars would adjust themselves.”  That’s where she goes beyond Grimké.  Fuller is a Romantic in both “feeling too much” and moving from mere feeling to universal principles that promise redress.  Her transcendental idealism is a means of at once releasing the inner self from emotional turmoil and addressing problems at the root:   trust in self and universal justice amounts to a non-conflictual strategy for change.  Her argument and Grimké’s might be considered complementary, sequential steps in such a strategy.  Grimké clears space with a negative critique, responding in explicit, lawyer-like detail to the edicts of male authority:  first the Massachusetts Pastoral Letter and its attempted prohibition of women’s speech, then Blackstone and his legal definition of women’s moral non-being.   While alluding knowledgeably to both controversies, Fuller rehearses neither one, but instead steps beyond them by calling forth women’s actual voices, arising from podium and printed page, and claiming their harmony with natural law.  She evokes such a law but does not just write like a lawyer, adding to her Grimké-esque argument satiric and celebratory portraits of her own making.  Her early “speech” for women’s rights is preceded by dialogue with a smugly possessive husband and followed by conversation with Miranda, the self-reliant woman who would have all women share her riches of knowledge. 
      In the religious bedrock that makes such self-reliance possible, Woman in the Nineteenth Century also advances a conversation begun by Letters on the Equality of the Sexes.  Grimké’s tract is intensely scriptural, a feminist commentary on America’s Second Great Awakening orthodoxy.  “I am in search of truth,” Grimké avows on her first page, and “shall depend solely on the Bible to designate the sphere of woman.”  But her reading of Genesis and Paul is highly revisionary, critiquing the “perverted interpretation” that underwrites women’s subjection with apparently sacred authority.  She affirms the equality of female and male in God’s creation and their equal guilt in the fall, reading as mere prediction rather than command God’s word to Eve that she will be subject to Adam.  She responds to Paul’s command for women to “keep silence in the church” by reciting women’s “gift of prophecy” throughout the Bible and Paul’s positive guidelines for its practice.  Such a reading of scripture frames her withering response to the Pastoral Letter, where she bypasses clerical authority in favor of Jesus’ injunction to “Come unto me and learn of me,” then recalls the direct word of God, “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgression.”  Given such scriptural words, no woman of faith would dare be anything but a public reformer. 
      Immersed in New Critical and Romantic approaches to the Bible as poetry rather than revelation, Fuller does not join Grimké in patient argument. But she is more like Grimké than Wollstonecraft in engaging with the Bible’s patterns of prophecy and millennial possibility.  Acknowledging the fall only as a projection of the “severe race” that created the Bible, she finds that “even they greeted, with solemn rapture, all great and holy women as heroines, prophetesses, judges in Israel.” Instead of a fall, there has been a loss of the divine “inheritance”; still, however, a “future Eden” awaits its recovery.   In that recovery she combines elements of the Judaeo-Christian tradition with “other nations” by affirming Sita, Isis and the Greek pantheon alongside Eve and Mary.  Fuller lays out the content as well as capacity of woman’s holy voice across world cultures and eras. But, as with Grimké, the language of Jesus provides a touchstone for her hope:  “This is the law and the prophets.  Knock and it shall be opened, seek and ye shall find.”
      In Fuller’s hands prophecy turns primarily from Grimké’s indictment of iniquity to such seeking and finding.  She writes with a utopian confidence outside her predecessor’s range; neither Quaker conviction nor antislavery politics gives Grimké such possibility.  The Letters end without vision of God’s kingdom, but only with a call for woman to labor against sin in a fallen world.  Each letter closes identically, “Thine in the bonds of womanhood”; her arguments do not loosen those bonds.  In this sense Fuller’s greater affinity lies with Wollstonecraft, who sees the world opening to revolutionary change.  However, Fuller’s confidence in transformative possibility far surpasses both.  Souls can discover their own power and their creator’s law, allowing the prescriptions of church and state simply to be overwhelmed by the higher truth of equality.  As she says, “There is but one law for souls,” enfranchising both woman and African slave, and “this law cannot fail of universal recognition.” 
      Possibly Fuller’s greatest gift to nascent feminism is this rhetoric of expectancy as a means to its own fulfillment.  Such optimism both arises from self-reliance and directs the self outward to social change.  Both of her predecessors ask for the support of powerful men in changing the status quo.  “Our brethren are called upon,” Grimké writes, “by every sentiment of honor, religion, and justice, to repeal these unjust and unequal laws.”  Despite her radicalism, Wollstonecraft concludes similarly: “Let woman share the rights and she will emulate the virtues of man….Be just then, O ye men of understanding!”  Fuller asks men for attention but does not depend on their power.  When she uses the verb “let” it is to proclaim rather than ask permission:  “But if you ask me what offices [women] might fill; I reply—any.  I do not care what case you put; let them be sea-captains, if you will.”  She is not asking permission; her sentence is syntactically parallel to “let there be light.”  Likewise she lays down a queenly mandate of hopefulness:  “We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down.  We would have every path laid open to woman as freely as to man.”  Giving voice to such possibilities is her unique way of pleading the cause.  
      In the years of conventions that produced an politically active transatlantic feminist movement, between Stanton’s 1848 gathering at Seneca Falls and the Civil War’s opening, all of our early writers had either died or (with the Grimkés) gone into retirement.  But all were influential.  To put it briefly, Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments learned its rhetoric of liberty and tyranny from Wollstonecraft, its argument about the ways the law obliterated women from Sarah Grimké, and her affirmation of divinely originated self-respect from Fuller.  We can be certain of the Fuller influence because, as I discovered some years ago, Stanton’s first speech for the movement that year took whole sentences from Woman in the Nineteenth Century:   sentences of inspiration calling upon women to “live first for God’s sake,” urging that they “persist to ask and it will come.”  Through her long career, Stanton did not completely embrace Fuller.  She rarely mentioned her, and in one overtly hostile moment quoted Theodore Parker remembering how Fuller would “twaddle forth” about art and the soul to “gawky girls and long-haired young men.”  Quite a picture of Fuller’s conversations!   But in writing the History of Woman Suffrage, she did list Fuller as well as Wollstonecraft and the Grimkés among those to whom she dedicated the work, and she called Fuller a “precursor” especially in her “vindication of woman’s right to think.”  That phrase made Fuller a clear partner of that other precursor and vindicator, Wollstonecraft.  Finally, near the end of Stanton’s life, when the once warring Boston and New York factions of the women’s rights movement had rejoined, they gathered in 1901 to dedicate a memorial to Fuller’s life at the scene of her death on Fire Island, and Stanton wrote to the Boston Woman’s Journal honoring Fuller as “one I knew and admired.”  “I had the privilege,” she now acknowledged for the first time, “of enjoying many of her famous conversations.”  So picture young Elizabeth Cady Stanton, among others, in this room about 1843. 
      But it was the Bostonians, disciples of Fuller’s transcendentalism and feminism, who really kept her memory alive throughout the nineteenth century.  I have time for only a few snapshots.  In May, 1870 the recently formed New England Woman’s Club began the custom of celebrating Fuller’s birthday in their elegant new quarters, shared with the Woman’s Journal and American Woman Suffrage Association, just off of Beacon Street near the State House.  Amidst banks of flowers and memorial recollections were placards with words of Fuller’s lettered upon them:  “We must have units before we can have union.”  “We would have every path open to woman as freely as to man.”  For this group, at least some of them spiritualists, it was almost as though she had not died at all.  Maybe the most uncanny report is from William Henry Channing in the early 1870s, that a day of thinking of his old friend made him feel possessed by her spirit.  “I speak to you,” he told a Boston audience, “not as a man, but as a woman.  I am speaking as Margaret Fuller would have spoken.”  In their politics, religious activism, and writing, Fuller’s disciples—including the young women who attended her conversations—worked on her strength.   Caroline Healey Dall in fact wrote a history of feminism with Fuller at the center. Thinking specifically of her relation to Wollstonecraft, Dall wrote, “[Margaret Fuller] caught the rumor which floated in subtle discord all around her.”  That lovely sentence perfectly catches her way of listening to the conversation and then venturing her own word. 
      There is much more to tell of this “afterlife” of Margaret Fuller, but tonight is not the time.  Let me leap ahead to a conclusion in the making: that Fuller’s legacy has indeed continued to live on through both direct and subterranean channels into the Second and Third Waves of feminism in our own lifetimes.  No other founder of American or transatlantic feminism was as early and strong as she in affirming identity and consciousness—“consciousness raising,” we might call it—as the foundation of any movement for women’s wider lives.  No other feminist made the claim, integral to an affirmation of the human race, that gender was not fixed but fluid, that women could be like men and men like women.  No other feminist saw the possibilities of utopian transformation so clearly, and based it on such faith in the fluid potential of human and divine nature.  In all these ways she drew upon her predecessors Wollstonecraft and Grimké but went beyond them, so making a great difference both to her immediate feminist heirs and to us today.

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