Margaret Fuller

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What is the explanation of "The Great Lawsuit" by Margaret Fuller?

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Margaret Fuller was an American advocate of women’s rights, equality of opportunity, expansion of education, and other liberal principles. In The Great Lawsuit, she makes the case that the history of America, which had generally followed the precedents set in Europe, is one in which men have fought tooth and nail for a firm definition of the liberty, equality, universal dignity, and all of those grandiose ideals that would guarantee the establishment of a truly enlightened society. Responding specifically to the rise of the American abolitionist movement, Fuller defends the justness of that cause but argues that its fundamental moral conviction also needs to be extended to the liberation of women. She says,

Though there has been a growing liberality on this point [emancipation], yet society at large is not so prepared for the demands of this party [women], but that they are, and will be for some time, coldly regarded as the Jacobins of their day.

“Jacobins,” in this sense refers to the group of the same name that terrorized the nobility during the French Revolution. What Fuller is implying is that, like the nobility of Europe, the men of America have proclaimed equality for certain groups while neglecting the inequality of others. Women, no less than African Americans or Native Americans, are an oppressed class, and Fuller argues for recognition of this point. Again, as she states,

Many women are considering within themselves what they need that they have not, and what they can have, if they find they need it. Many men are considering whether women are capable of being and having more than they are and have, and whether, if they are, it will be best to consent to improvement in their condition.

Fuller signifies the similarities (at a theoretical level) between women in the family and slaves. The tone and presuppositions made by men in their interactions and disposition towards women have historically relegated them to an inferior status and repressed them as a general class. It is interesting to note that Fuller’s arguments would directly inspire the thoughts and work of Simone de Beauvoir, particularly in her masterpiece The Second Sex. The idea that women occupy an inherently subordinate position to men by the very nature of how men and women relate to one another in a hierarchical society is a pervasive theme in academic feminism, and its roots can be traced back to the writings of early women’s rights thinkers like Fuller.

The solution to cultivating pervasive ideas of equality between the sexes is a reform of marriage. Fuller maintains that throughout the history of Europe, people have debated as to whether marriage is the union of two people in love or merely a contract of economy. She argues that marriages progress towards an increasingly perfected form, which Fuller dubs the “religious” marriage. Religious marriages embody all of the best qualities of other forms, but also include communion based on the highest ideals of mutual admiration. Fuller’s writings set her apart in her time as a steadfast advocate of political reform and the elevation of the family.

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In "The Great Lawsuit," Margaret Fuller argues that women should have the same freedoms as men. As she puts it:

We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to woman as freely as to man.

Fuller develops this argument by putting women's rights in the context of abolishing slavery. She understands the current situation of women's rights in the 1840s in America as related in a way to the injustice of slavery.

She contends that the ideals of equality on which the United States was based and which animated the French Revolution have been badly violated in the US but are nevertheless true. She writes that the growing awareness of injustice toward Native Americans and black slaves has brought attention to the unfair situation women are in:

As men become aware that all men have not had their fair chance, they are inclined to say that no women have had a fair chance.

She notes that women are too often lumped with children, treated as inferior, and denied the property rights that males enjoy. She says that the male might be head of the household but is not head of the woman.

Like Mary Wollstonecraft, Fuller argues that treating women with more dignity would elevate men, bringing everyone to a higher plane:

An improvement in the daughters will best aid the reformation of the sons of this age.

Fuller outlines four kinds of marriage, each progressively better. She argues for three forms of marriage superior to the most common, which is simply each partner in his or her own sphere, performing traditional tasks. Marriages and society thrive when spouses move to the second level and mutually idolize each other, even more when they share intellectual companionship, and are best when they function as religious unions on a "pilgrimage towards a common shrine." Religious unions are the highest form of marriage, because they encompass mutual love and intellectual sharing.

Fuller accepts that men and women are fundamentally different, but the transcendentalist in her makes her an individualist, and she notes that the differences between individuals make it difficult to stereotype the sexes. Since each sex can "cross over" and do each other's tasks, each sex should be treated equally. She writes:

Male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But, in fact, they are perpetually passing into one another. . . . Nature sends women to battle, and sets Hercules spinning; she enables women to bear immense burdens, cold, and frost; she enables the man, who feels maternal love, to nourish his infant like a mother.

Fuller's writing style can seem flowery and her arguments tame, based around old-fashioned ideals of women representing virtue, Christianity, and an emphasis on marriage. Nevertheless, audiences at the time did not miss the radicalism of her ideas, and we should not either. The idea that "every barrier" to women should be thrown down would have included allowing women to vote and enter the workplace. Many people found these to be frighteningly radical notions that would entirely upend society and lead to chaos. Evoking the French Revolution was also a radical stance: it would be like endorsing the ideals of communism, Karl Marx, and the Russian Revolution today. Although the women's rights Fuller advocated for have become commonplace, to the point we can hardly imagine women not having them—the vote, the right to enter the workplace, companionate marriage between equals—at the time they revealed Fuller as a left-wing radical thinker who wanted full female emancipation.

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