"If They Have a Moral Power": Margaret Fuller, Transcendentalism, and the Question of Women's Moral Nature

Article excerpt

In the 1994 movie version of Little Women, Jo March participates in an informal debate with a group of men over women's vote that captures well the various arguments on this topic in the mid-nineteenth century. One man expresses the traditional view: "A lady has no need of suffrage if she has a husband," while another responds, "If women are a moral force, shouldn't they have a right to govern, and preach, and testify in court?" Jo, however, responds to the illogic of both these arguments: "I find it poor logic to say that because women are good, women should vote; men do not vote because they are good; men vote because they are male, and women should vote, not because they are angels and men are animals, but because they are human beings and citizens of this country." Though the scene does not occur in Louisa May Alcott's novel the writers of the movie made an effort, in keeping with Alcott's novel, to place the movie within the context of Transcendentalism, and this scene exemplifies an important debate within the transcendentalist movement. This debate, particularly the argument for women's vote based on women's moral nature, matches closely with Emerson and other transcendentalists, while Jo's argument corresponds with Margaret Fuller's position. Like Jo, Fuller rejects an argument for women's rights based on a superior moral status for women. The question about women's moral nature becomes a central issue when examining the rhetoric of Fuller's feminist argument within the context of Transcendentalism.

Until only a few decades ago, Fuller's position within Transcendentalism received little attention from the scholarly community. Relegated to the margins of the transcendentalist circle as a minor figure whose writing was found to be difficult and digressive, the scant attention she did receive focused on her biography. However, with renewed interest in women's history, scholars such as Bell Gale Chevigny and David M. Robinson have recovered Fuller's position as a major figure within the transcendentalist circle. In addition to her place within Transcendentalism, critics have also sought to reclaim Fuller's influence in the history of the women's rights movement, (1) while others have re-evaluated the rhetoric and style of her writing, particularly based on oral and conversational traditions, and with a growing understanding of women's rhetorical strategies. (2)

In situating my argument within these majors strands of Fuller criticism, I would like to place Fuller within the transcendentalist movement, building on Robinson's assertion that Fuller bases her argument for women's rights on the transcendentalist beliefs in self-culture, while also problematizing that relationship, since I wish to uncover a disagreement between Fuller and her fellow transcendentalists concerning the moral nature of women. Like Sandra M. Gustafson, I see Fuller subtly changing the premises of the cult of true womanhood to embody a much more radical argument than her transcendentalist counterparts, a difference much the same as Cynthia J. Davis argues exists between Fuller and the later women's rights reformers. As both Gustafson and Davis notice, Fuller refuses to base her argument on essential gender differences between men and women; instead, she develops an argument that comes close to the modern understanding of socially constructed gender roles. In particular, she rejects the popular belief that women have a superior moral nature. By looking closely at the dominant cultural understanding of women's nature and the roots of this argument, one can see the ways in which the transcendentalists and even some women's rights reformers incorporated these beliefs into an argument for women's rights. Then, by comparing these arguments to Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century, we can see how she repositions her argument to avoid the pitfalls of her contemporaries" arguments for women's rights by removing from the argument its premise of women's superior moral nature. …