Op/Ed

Victor Nuovo: More than a 19th Century feminist

Editor’s note: This is the 32nd in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
Margaret Fuller (1810-50) was born in Cambridge, Mass.; she was a prominent member of the Transcendentalist Club. In her short life she produced a remarkable body of writing: literary, philosophical and journalistic. She was homeschooled by her father, who early recognized her genius. She read Latin by the age of six, and by her teens was well read in the Latin Classics. She also became fluent in Greek, French, German and Italian. This was not an altogether happy time for her. Looking back on it, she wrote, “I had no natural childhood.”
She was from a young age self-reliant. The early death of her father left her, the eldest of seven siblings, head of the family, which she supported by writing, teaching and editing; she became editor of The Dial, the Transcendentalist journal. She was also a political activist. As foreign correspondent for the New York Tribune, she travelled to Italy in 1848 to report on the struggle for Italian unity and soon joined it. There she met a young revolutionary, Giovanni Ossoli, with whom she bore a son. When the revolution failed, they decided to return to the United States; they married and began their journey, and had almost reached their destination when they were shipwrecked and lost off the coast of Long Island. Only the body of their son was found. A memorial in Cambridge has this tribute: “Margaret Fuller. By birth a child of New England; by adoption a citizen of Rome; by genius belonging to the world.” It is apt.
Her major work, “Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” grew out of an essay, originally published in The Dial. The essay bore the title, “The Great Lawsuit, Man versus Men, Woman versus Women.” Her book is frequently described as an early feminist work. But this is too limiting; she was concerned just as much about men as about women, which she makes very clear at the outset. “By Man I mean both man and woman: these are the two halves of one thought … twin exponents of a divine thought.” The essay and the book might be read as an enlightened exposition of Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” The image of God to which “Man” conforms is androgynous, which is the theme of her whole work; its central thesis is that in order to become truly human, men and women must transcend their birth gender or “cisgender” (to use a current term) and embrace the other, indeed they must embrace the whole of human nature in all its diversity.
In the light of its thesis and the arguments presented in it, “Woman in the Nineteenth Century” should be read by all; it is a philosophical work — a sophisticated discourse on human nature and destiny in which male and female are two complementary parts of a whole. It is also a counsel of human perfection.
But in 1844, perfection had not yet come to America — we still await its coming. Up until then, history and politics had been all about men, more specifically, about white men; and even though human equality was espoused as “a golden certainty,” the “monstrous display of slave-dealing and slave-keeping” continued; nor did women possess the right to vote, or any other active rights of citizens. These gross deficiencies in American democracy had to be overcome if this nation were to realize its destiny. This is the theme of “the great lawsuit.” Fuller perceived an essential connection between the practice of slavery and the demeaning of women. Both were rooted in a denial of human equality. Hence just as the abolitionist assumes “that one cannot by right hold another in bondage, so should the friend of woman assume that a man cannot by right lay even well-meant restrictions on a woman. If the negro be a soul, if the woman be a soul, appareled in flesh, they are accountable only to one Master [God]. There is but one law for all souls.”
The central theme of her work is the union of male and female, as two necessary parts of one whole. Historically, this union is marriage, but she sees it as more than an institution.
She dismisses the Biblical narrative of Adam and Eve, for it demeans the role of the woman. She is depicted as a mere helper, not as a partner or complement. And in the narrative of the Fall, she observes that Adam excuses himself for his disobedience by blaming it all on Eve.
Fuller perceives four kinds of marriage that are not ideal, but well-tried conventions. The first is a “household partnership.” “The man furnishes the House; the woman regulates it. Their relation at best is one of mutual esteem, mutual dependence. Their talk is of business, their affection shows itself by practical kindness.”
The relation is good as far as it goes, but the desire for wholeness seeks more. Hence the next two. First is a relation of “mutual idolatry,” a marriage rooted in romantic love, which she regards as too narrow for human fulfillment. The second is more fulfilling: “intellectual companionship, which she also describes as a marriage of friendship. But she holds out for an even higher relationship, which she characterizes as religious, by which means “a thirst for the true and the good, not the love of sect and dogma,” a bond whose principle is transcendence, whose goal is human fulfillment, of wholeness.
Postscript: “Woman in the Nineteenth Century” is not an easy book to read. Fuller does not state a thesis and defend it with arguments. Rather she uses historical anecdote and literary analysis designed to take possession her readers’ minds and transport them to truth. She worried that her book required “too much culture” to be easily understood. But it is eminently worth reading, and the diligent reader will reap a rich reward. There is a paperback edition of her book, published by Dover Books. It may also be found in “The Portable Margaret Fuller” (Viking), which includes a selection of her other writing, including an autobiographical sketch.

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