Margaret Fuller - Forgotten American Heroine

By Timko, Michael | The World and I, November 2002 | Go to article overview
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Margaret Fuller - Forgotten American Heroine


Timko, Michael, The World and I


Michael Timko is professor emeritus at the City University of New York. He has written frequently for The World & I; his article "Queen Victoria and Mrs. Brown" appeared in the May 2002 issue.

It is not disrespectful, in spite of recent events, to say that the word hero has become trivialized. One no longer needs to rescue people from burning buildings to be called a hero. An athlete simply has to score a winning point, or a celebrity merely has to show up for a good cause, to become a hero. We have, it seems, forgotten the classical meaning of the term: "a being of godlike prowess and beneficence."

While there are many candidates for the title among American women, a legitimate one is almost wholly forgotten. The life and works of Margaret Fuller (1810--1850), according to one literary historian, "transcended virtually every stereotype American women had to endure in the first half of the nineteenth century." Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two pioneers in the American feminist movement, claimed in their History of Woman Suffrage that Fuller "possessed more influence on the thought of American women than any woman previous to her time." Certainly Fuller's monumental and seminal work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), provided a great impetus to the women's rights movement. Edgar Allan Poe called this work "a book which few women in the country could have written, and no woman in the country would have published, with the exception of Miss Fuller." It was only three years later that Anthony and Stanton formalized the movement at Seneca Falls, New York.

Fuller was, by any standard, a remarkable woman: poet, teacher, editor, columnist, translator, critic, feminist theorist, and advocate. She certainly should be seen as the most important American woman of letters before 1850. A feminist pioneer, she wrote controversial social and literary criticism at a time when women were expected to remain at home and raise children. Fuller, one critic has written, "became an articulate and influential voice in America's struggle to come to terms with its literary identity and social conscience."

Fuller was a controversial figure, admired by many and despised by some. Emerson, who admired her, described the effect she had on him in this way: "It is like being set in a large place. You stretch your limbs and dilate to your utmost size." Conversations with Margaret, he said, were "strange, cold-warm, attractive-repelling." But Nathaniel Hawthorne, not an admirer, called her "a great humbug," a woman with a "strong, heavy, unpliable, and in many respects defective and evil nature." The suggestion has been made that Hawthorne modeled his character Zenobia in Blithedale Romance on her.

To appreciate her remarkable achievements, we have to remind ourselves of the way females were regarded in the early and middle years of the nineteenth century, especially their place in society. Charles Capper, the author of a recent study of Fuller, writes of the "myriad special constraints" upon girls of that period. "These included," he says, "the constantly reiterated opinions in magazines and advice books that a woman's only legitimate place was in the home and that her only true personality consisted of the womanly virtues of piety, passivity, submissiveness, and sexual purity. In America these burdens were made all the more difficult for many middle-class women to bear because of the stark contrast between these womanly ideals and the relative freedom they had often enjoyed in their girlhood." All her life Fuller was to fight against these constraints. Her battles on behalf of American women, and women all over the world, to be considered the equal of anyone, regardless of gender, were demonstrated in her writings and in her own life.

UNITARIAN FAMILY

Sarah Margaret Fuller was born to a Unitarian family in Cambridge Port, Massachusetts, on May 23, 1810, the first of Margaret and Timothy Fuller's five children.

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