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

By Crouse, Jamie S. | ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly), December 2005 | Go to article overview

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


Crouse, Jamie S., ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.