What are the themes in Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century?
Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century played a critical role in elevating and emphasizing women's intellectual capabilities. Fuller grew up in a unique household where she was given a vigorous home education in a time when women were deemed less intellectually capable than men. Because women rarely received such rigorous educations at the time, Fuller pursued friendships with many prominent male intellectuals with whom she could talk academically, including the Transcendentalist leader Ralph Waldo Emerson. Though it was unpopular to view women as intellectuals, Fuller and Emerson ended up involved in close correspondence for many years. Christina Zwarg's book Fuller, Emerson, and the Play of Reading discusses how their friendship was "mutually empowering and interactive" and how their friendship encouraged Emerson to a "gradual endorsement of feminism" (14, 36).
Fuller's ability to influence male scholars' ideas, as seen through her written correspondence with Emerson, shows the great power and value of her words. She believed that women should impact their societies, especially through scholasticism. This theme, women's powerful potential, is the primary theme of Woman in the Nineteenth Century. However, Fuller was interested in equal opportunities for all people, not just women. She was also an advocate for other areas of reform, especially the abolition of slaves, which was a rapidly growing conversation topic at the time, especially after the emancipation of slaves in Britain, largely to to the impacting words of William Wilberforce. In fact, Fuller combines these two ideas (abolition and feminism) multiple times in her work. For instance, she says:
As the friend of the negro assumes that one man cannot by right hold another in bondage, so should the friend of Woman assume that Man cannot by right lay even well-meant restrictions on Woman. If the negro be a soul, if the woman be a soul, appareled in flesh, to one Master only are they accountable. There is but one law for souls, and, if there is to be an interpreter of it, he must come not as man, or son of man, but as son of God.
Here, Fuller's comparison of the treatment of women to the treatment of slaves elevates the seriousness of this issue. She challenges the restrictions that society places on both women and slaves, asking why humans limit one another and what people can do to change this. She boldly challenges the standard expectations of her time about women and people of other races, asserting that women and slaves are just as valuable and capable as any white male, and that education is an important aspect of reform.
Her words were radical but generally well-received. This is seen through her series of lectures that she gave to over "200 women . . . " in a five year time period (von Mehren 118). And, her radical views remained throughout her life. Toward the end of her life, she moved to Italy and participated in the Italian Revolution of 1848-49. In this time, she fell in love with a liberal Catholic man (when she was a Protestant) who was ten years younger than her, had a child with him, and later married him. All of these acts (moving to another country by herself, having a child before marrying, and participating in a revolution) show her progressive beliefs. She believed that women could change the world, and she didn't let anyone place limits on her happiness nor her abilities.
Fuller touches on many topics in her book so much so that many (white male) critics defined Woman in the Nineteenth Century a "glorious confusion". Yet, the theme which she develops more fully is certainly women's position of inferiority when compared to men in the nineteenth century. Men refuse to acknowledge women's spirituality and thus hinder their intellectual growth. Because of this attitude, women cannot fully realize their God-given potential. Fuller's argument also linked the battle for women's rights to abolitionism, stating that those who thought that slavery was wrong could certainly not approve of the submission of women. The liberation of women should be considered a right, not as a mere concession. This idea influenced the movement for women's suffrage.
Although Fuller clearly identifies the conflict between men and women in the nineteenth century, she introduces a touch of skepticism against the binary opposition when she says that "there is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman."