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Transforming the Traditional: Margaret Fuller’s Treatment of the “Woman Question” in Woman in the Nineteenth Century
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Transforming the Traditional: Margaret Fuller’s Treatment of the “Woman Question” in Woman in the Nineteenth Century
Margaret Fuller , Woman in the Nineteenth Century , androgyny , gender , the Woman Question
  • I. Introduction

    When Margaret Fuller first published Woman in the Nineteenth Century in 1845, her expectations for the book were modest: no more than “a sincere and a patient attention from those who open the following pages at all.”1 Within just a week, its first edition sold out. It has since been hailed as one of the most important statements of feminist method and theory in history, and it gained Fuller considerable prestige, not to mention notoriety upon its publication. Most of the early reactions to Woman in the Nineteenth Century were predictable. Protesting that “Woman is nothing but as a wife,” Charles Briggs, the editor of Broadway Journal, condemned Woman in the Nineteenth Century, for presuming unmarried Fuller to discuss the proper role of women. “How, then, can she truly represent the female character who has never filled it? No woman can be a true woman, who has not been a wife and a mother.”2

    Yet women who lived in nineteenth-century America responded eagerly to the book. Barbara Welter points out that it became one of the most important books of advice for women in the nineteenth-century America (145). In it, Fuller insisted that the American democratic principle “all men born free and equal” (254) needed to be expanded to include women, and she enunciated the principles on which women’s emancipation could move forward. The Woman in the Nineteenth Century is radical because it examines and criticizes the root of the social and personal relations that affect women’s lives: it boldly deals with prostitution, marriage, double standards of morality, women’s conceptions of themselves, and men’s conceptions of them. As Phyllis Cole demonstrates, Fuller’s impact on the feminist movement that followed her was recognized by its founders as well. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony pronounced of Fuller that she “possessed more influence on the thought of American women than any woman previous to her time” (Flexner 68).

    Whereas Fuller has often been perceived as a mere satellite of the Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, scholars have done much to reestablish Fuller’s prominence as a major figure in the Transcendentalist movement in her own right. For example, David Robinson identifies Woman in the Nineteenth Century as a “key expression of the values of American transcendentalism” (84), while Christina Zwarg’s Feminist Conversations revises Fuller’s relationship to Emerson from a mentorship model to a model of intellectual peership. Recently, critics have been more interested in Fuller’s career as feminist and social activist: her turn to radicalism (Chevigny); her increasing awareness of the abuses of social and patriarchal power (Kolodny); and her escape from psychological and patriarchal oppression into “a model of national transfiguration” through “social critique and mythmaking” (Steele 265); the importance of the body to Fuller’s Transcendental philosophy (Hurst); and her treatment of abolitionists and native Americans (Adams). While these critical interventions have allowed us to recognize Fuller’s increasing activism for women and cultural critique, they have tended to provide insufficient critical attention to the nuanced ways Fuller engages with the existing gender relations in the nineteenth-century America for her own feminist purpose.

    The period in which Fuller lived was characterized by wideranging transformations and a rapid social growth that affected women’s roles in manifold ways. Economic changes brought about the shift of production and exchange away from the domestic realm, resulting in the notion of separate public and private spheres into men’s and women’s realms, linked to a specific set of gender roles and norms. The ‘Cult of True Womanhood,’ which preached that women were by nature pure, pious, submissive, and domestic, helped relegate women’s sphere to the home, separate from the male workplace, or the public sphere. Instead, women were given the enormous but privatized moral and spiritual realm: to be responsible for the transmission of moral virtues to her husband and children and the maintenance of social stability. In return for giving up their autonomy of thought and action, the ‘True Woman’ could expect worship from men.

    Although the doctrine of separate spheres with its supporting ideology of domesticity was the dominant discourse of the midnineteenth century, there was clearly other active discourses counter to True Womanhood at the same time, prompted by an increasing awareness of suffragism and other organized women’s movements. Although the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 usually marks the beginning of organized feminism in America, there were clearly strong feminist voices already emerging by the 1830s, dealing with a wide range of legal, educational, and labor issues.

    This strengthening conviction that women should be equal and independent, juxtaposed with the traditional conviction that women should be subordinate and dependent, appears as a major issue within the reform movements as well. The “Woman Question,” as Sarah Grimké and other abolitionists termed the controversy over women’s rights, involved two different conceptions of women’s roles in reform. On the one hand, defenders of woman’s domesticity and moral authority were fearful of overstepping conventional limits of female modesty and propriety, preferring to work quietly and subserviently, guided by men, but insisted that women had immense influence in motherhood and moral guardianship. Opposing this conventional outlook, a minority of radicals claimed that women were as free as men to carry on whatever they set their mind on.

    Such polarity is evident in the political differences between Catharine Beecher and the Grimké sisters (Sarah and Angelina). Beecher believed that a woman of superior moral sensibility, whose influence, if genuinely based at home, would work to influence men, the nation. While Beecher accepted separate spheres between men and women, the Grimké sisters tried to free women from gender stereotypes and sought women’s public participation. In Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, Sarah Grimké argued for women to share equally in those powers and privileges of men – “Men and women were created EQUAL; they are both moral and accountable beings, and whatever is right for man to do, is right for woman” (308).

    Indeed, this background of the two positions on the Woman Question – woman as separate, distinct nature as opposed to woman as a free human being on an equal level with man – is crucial to understanding of how Fuller attempted to deal with the question of what a woman’s role in society ought to be. This paper focuses on Fuller’s treatment of the Woman Question by looking closely at her feminist manifesto Woman in the Nineteenth Century, in conjunction with other lesser known writings such as Autobiographical Romance and her 1844 poetry. I examine how Fuller incorporates and reshapes these two opposing arguments about the nature of women offered by Beecher and the Grimké sisters to transform existing gender relations. The most striking aspect of Fuller’s feminism is not so much the specific actions she advised as her reevaluation of gender itself. No longer taking gender as a natural fact, Fuller reassesses the meanings of male and female, redefines the nature, capacities, and roles of men and women and urges radical changes in existing relations between men and women in Woman in the Nineteenth Century.

    1Margaret Fuller, The Essential Margaret Fuller, ed. Jeffrey Steele (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1992), 246. All future references will be indicated by page numbers inserted parenthetically in the text.  2Charles Briggs, “Review of Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” Broadway Journal, March (1845) in Myerson 8, 15.

    II. Seeking equality through the androgynous soul

    Unlike most women of her time, Fuller’s intellectual abilities and professional achievements – as an outspoken literary critic, first editor of The Dial, an innovative teacher, and an author of the most influential book on woman’s rights – radically challenged midnineteenth-century America’s conventional ideas about femininity. Fuller laments in Woman in the Nineteenth Century, a woman is called “manly” when she possesses heroic courage, energy, or creative genius; when she achieves something, she is spoken as “above her sex” (263). In her writings, Fuller often described herself in bisexual terms and lamented that “A man’s ambition with a woman’s heart, is an evil lot” (Steele 7). The opposing parts of Fuller’s personality existed in conflict with each other from her early youth and could not easily be integrated. This intense inner struggle also became a source of strength for America’s first feminist theorist.

    In fact, Fuller’s extraordinary liberating education from her father and her restricted life as a woman led her to struggle with the notion of gender dichotomy, which she felt was eternally opposed and irreconcilable. Fuller’s parents were emblematic of this duality of gender roles, as Fuller reveals in Autobiographical Romance. Her parents reinforced the gender stereotypes and contributed to her sense of being hopelessly divided between these stereotypes. Timothy Fuller represented to his daughter a paradigm of masculine intellect lacking in “subtle and indirect motions of imagination and feeling” (28). Fuller’s education consisted of Latin and classical readings from an early age, which glorified themes of heroism and action – “power of will,” “common sense,” and “dignity of fixed purpose” (29), which were central to the development of male identity but neglected the growth of her imagination or feelings. Instead, Fuller was kept away from reading novels, plays, and poetry deemed suitable for girls. She was also taught to talk like a man with strict logical accountability and accuracy, while discouraged from feminine mode of expression like “But,” “if,” and “unless” (28).

    This split is also described in spatial terms: her father’s library and her mother’s flower garden. Although some critics like Ann Douglas state that Fuller’s relationship with her “self-effacing” mother “clearly counted for little in Fuller’s childhood” (267), and minimize its importance, this pastoral retreat was a feminized domain where Fuller could temporarily escape from the domains of masculine authority of her father. If the library is the domain of the patriarchal intellect, the garden is a female realm where Fuller felt at home and could release her hidden passions among flowers: “I kissed them, I pressed them to my bosom with passionate emotions, such as I have never dared to express to any human being (32).

    Pulled between contrasting gender roles, Fuller was in the perfect position to understand the strengths and limitations of both the masculinity and femininity in the nineteenth century. Fuller’s own sense of self as being intuitive, emotional, and loving and intellectual and ambitious leads her to theorize about male and female being both sides of the “great radical dualism” (310). While Fuller viewed masculinity and femininity as essentially distinct, her notion of gender duality is radical because it enables the full potential of one’s androgyny. Instead of rigid gender roles imposed upon both man and woman, man and woman both embody masculinity and femininity in differing proportions, as Fuller observes in Woman in the Nineteenth Century:

    Although Fuller saw the masculine and the feminine as separate and different, she perceives them in equal terms, which need to be balanced and merged. Instead of seeing these two elements as mutually exclusive, Fuller viewed them as being mutually complementary. She insists that they are but “the two halves of one thought” (245), in which the development of one requires the development of the other. Because these two aspects are present in both men and women, Fuller claims that there is sameness to each person that transcends an individual’s gender: “In so far as soul is . . . completely developed, all soul is the same” (309). By creating a new model that emphasizes the primacy of soul, which contains both feminine and masculine qualities, Fuller radically proclaims the fundamental equality of each person in place of the gender dichotomy.

    Given her time and place, Fuller’s argument is indeed a radical one, for it directly challenges nineteenth-century America, where men and women occupied separate spheres and values. Instead, Fuller asserts that no person exists as purely masculine and feminine, disrupting the conventional gender norms. “Nature . . . . sends women to battle, and sets Hercules spinning; she enables women to bear immense burdens, cold, frost; she enables the man, who feels maternal love, to nourish his infant like a mother . . . . Presently she will make a female Newton, and a male Syren” (310). Although Fuller retains a generalized sense of difference between masculinity and femininity, she nonetheless opens up the full range of human expression to both men and women, creating conditions of possibility for all possible intermixtures of the masculine and the feminine available to both sexes. Hence, Fuller’s attempt to bring together both masculine and feminine qualities together increasingly explores the possibility of the androgynous vision as an antidote to male and female dichotomy.

    As might be expected, the most difficult aspect of Fuller’s task involves her search for a new language to define the masculine and the feminine. Fuller is in a sense “groping toward some sense of identity in a world that had no categories for the particular mixture she embodied” (Allen 135). She admits that “we have not language primitive and pure enough to express such ideas with precision” (343). For most of her discussion, she addresses this problem of language by using terminology from classical mythology. Hence, Fuller elaborates that men need to combine a “Vulcan” (masculine) and an “Apollo (feminine) side, while women need to merge the feminine qualities of the “Muse” with the masculine qualities of “Minerva.” In Fuller’s vision, human beings had only to realize and accept their androgynous essence to become whole and to live in harmony.

    If these complementary elements were allowed to develop freely and fully within each individual man and woman, Fuller held, there will never be a competition between the sexes but each will correspond to and fulfill one another in perfect harmony. Fuller envisions such an ideal form of union free from unequal power with a powerful central image of “sacred marriage,” where husband and wife journey as a perfect and harmonious union of souls in a “pilgrimage towards a common shrine” (289). This highest form of marriage provides Fuller with a paradigm to critique the shortcomings of mutually exclusive ideals of masculinity and femininity associated with separate and unequal spheres. Fuller felt that the prescribed gender roles suppress the masculine in woman and the feminine in man and in doing so prevent the soul from discovering its true harmony. Such is the case in the “ennui that haunts grown women” (346) who have been forced to submerge their natures into the narrow confines of domesticity.

    In this regard, Fuller’s 1844 poem “Double Triangle, Serpent and Rays” dramatizes the transformation of gender differences through a powerful symbol of androgynous union between the opposites of male and female, black and white, dark and light, time and eternity. This sense of utopian perfection and equilibrium harmony is conveyed by an image of two overlapping triangles composing a six-pointed star encircled by a serpent swallowing its tail, with the entire image emitting rays of light as if a sun. By calling attention to the ways in which each meaning of the binary is dependent on the other, Fuller reveals the social construction of the male/female gender dichotomy and then merges the elements into the androgynous whole. Fuller later uses this design to preface the 1845 edition of Woman in the Nineteenth Century:

    But as things are presently constituted, Fuller points out:

    Although a woman can recognize her dual nature, sadly the world is not yet ready to fuse these elements. Men refuse to admit the feminine side of their nature and “never in an extreme of despair, wished to be women” (263). Fuller prophesies that only in this ideal world with its balance of masculinity and femininity, where people are allowed to develop themselves along freely chosen lines, would women and men aid each other in self-discovery and mutual growth: “[A]ll will have entered upon the liberty of law, and the harmony of common growth . . . . Then Apollo will sing to his lyre what Vulcan forges on the anvil, and the Muse weave anew the tapestries of Minerva” (311).

    This process of growth, this making of self into the most is clearly modeled after Emerson’s concept of self-reliance and Transcendental principles of self-development. Fuller extends the notion of the dynamic soul that is continually growing and manifesting itself in new ways to include women explicitly and stresses the necessity of women to grow and develop as a soul: “It is not woman, but the law of right, the law of growth, that speaks in us, and demands the perfection of each being in its kind, apple as apple, woman as woman” (348). Simultaneously, Fuller’s appropriation of Emerson’s language of self-reliance allows her to make a critique of the Transcendentalist ideal of masculine self-empowerment. She comments specifically on the power relationships between men and women. “But as human nature goes not straight forward, but by excessive action and then reaction in an undulated course, he misunderstood and abused his advantages and became her temporal master instead of her spiritual sire” (343). David Leverenz has argued that Emerson’s model of aggressive self-empowerment, which is based upon a forceful expansion of the “dominion” of self, becomes egotistical when taken to extremes, thereby reducing the female to subordination. The male dominance is detrimental to men and women alike. Moreover, Fuller refines Emerson’s concept of self-reliance by recasting a solitary form of male self-reliance into a female model of community and connection, where balance is achieved between masculinity and femininity. When women are allowed to develop freely and fully, “the being will be fit for any and every relation to which it may be called” (298). For Fuller, the fates of men and women are inextricably intertwined. By linking the “development” of the “one” to “the other,” Fuller positions the quest for spiritual transcendence as a joint affair, as an enterprise in which men and women are yoked together in a state of interdependence (Hurst 10).

    While Fuller did not champion equal rights for women in the legal and political sense like Grimké sisters, she did believe that women and men were equal with respect to their intellectual and physical capabilities. She forcefully argued against the idea that women were physically and mentally inferior, whereas the men were rational and intellectually superior. By pointing out the hypocrisy of “those who think the physical circumstances of woman would make a part of the affairs of national government unsuitable, are by no means those who think it impossible for the negresses to endure field work, even during pregnancy, or the seamstresses to go through their killing labors” (259), Fuller reveals how women’s alleged physical weakness is used as the means to keep women out of public life as well as out of positions of power. Likewise, observing how “self-dependence . . . is deprecated as a fault in most women. They are taught to learn their rule from without, not to unfold it from within” (262), Fuller asserts that women have intellects equal to those of men and they should be cultivated equally. Flatly rejecting the exclusion of women from the intellectual sphere, she unequivocally calls for the full intellectual liberation of women. She famously asserts that “every path laid open to woman as freely as to man” (260) and confidently claims that women can be potentially anything they set their mind on: “Let them be sea-captains, if you will” (345). The apotheosized figure of the sea-captain blends a range of physical and mental action, and calls forth an image of an intellectual leader and pilot who can chart her own course.

    III. Reconstructing a Powerful Female Self

    Not only does Fuller outline the concept of androgynous self that undoes the inequities between two sexes, but she also proceeds to search for alternative modes of thinking for women as well. While Fuller urges women to claim equal opportunities with men, she goes onto argue that women must first discover and develop their special powers as women in the current society, where masculinity has failed. Interpreting Orpheus as a symbol of man in general, Fuller suggests he failed to trust Eurydice (woman) enough when “[h]e might have been her guardian and teacher. But . . . he misunderstood and abused his advantages, and became her temporal master instead of her spiritual sire” (155-56). Instead Fuller promises that “the time is come when Eurydice is to call for an Orpheus, rather than Orpheus for Eurydice” (252), reversing the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and its power-relations. In place of silenced and objectified Eurydice wellknown from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Fuller imagines a powerful female agent who journeys into underworld to rescue Orpheus. In contrast to Orpheus who had failed to save Eurydice from the underworld, women now should take the first step in saving humanity. Pleasant as it may seem, being “led and taught by men” (261), Fuller stresses that women must take charge of themselves and continue their journey alone, if necessary.

    Indeed, most of Woman in the Nineteenth Century consists of Fuller’s attempts to reconstruct a powerful and creative female selfhood outside the masculine realm. Jeffrey Steele demonstrates that Fuller engages in “feminist myth-making that resulted in the construction of profound symbols of female divinity and power” in her cultural critique (25). Ranging freely over history, mythology, and religion, Fuller emphasizes that in every age and society, there had been heroic and powerful women rewarded by their societies. For instance, she examines history and focuses on Elizabeth of England, Isabella of Spain, and Mary Stuart to demonstrate that women were and are just as capable as men, “distinct in expression, but equal in beauty, strength, and calmness” (272). Furthermore, her mythological creations like Diana, Minerva, and Vesta embody selfreliant independence as well as a powerful and dangerous female nature that threatens to disrupt conventional notions of domesticated femininity.

    Similarly, Fuller’s definitions of Muse and Minerva as being both sides of a woman challenges some of the most prevailing gender assumptions of her culture. The portrait of Minerva represents an independent womanhood that directly defied centuries of tradition and custom ranking women as mentally, socially, and physically inferior to men. The image of Muse, the other feminine side, expresses an innate female power that she sees as being “electrical in movement, intuitive in function, spiritual in tendency” (309). Electrical, intuitive, and spiritual, Fuller’s Muse partially seems to be in conformity with the nineteenth-century image of the True Woman as pious, pure, domestic, and submissive. Yet it is significant that Fuller’s Muse retains first two qualities – piety and purity – in ways that threaten domesticity and submissiveness. Steele suggests that such an image of an instinctive force that is intuited evokes a female creative energy that had been consigned to a political “unconscious” outside of masculine dominion (xviii). Her Muse, like Cassandra and the Seeress of Provost, has a heightened intuitive spirituality and purity, while at the same time, possesses a powerful female creative energy that refuses to be contained at home and constantly needs to be expressed. These women of inspiration, prophetic insight and “impassioned sensibility” “frighten” (302) and overpower men around them with their vital, electrical life-force: “the electrical, the magnetic element” (302). Moreover the knowledge made available through this epistemology of intuition is not the “binaristic knowledge of exclusion and separation but instead is a collaborative, feminist knowledge” (Hurst 22).

    Fuller’s vision of powerful womanhood culminates in an image of an Indian maiden who is “betrothed to the Sun” (302). By freely choosing to stay pure and withholding herself from men, a woman can be seen to exercise a degree of autonomy and empower herself. Fuller’s suggestion of female separation is also related to her belief that people must be self-contained and self-assured “units” (312) before they can be a unity. Because of the unequal power in the sexual relations, which impose false limitations on women’s development, Fuller is convinced that the process of female selfdiscovery must begin with women active alone. Seen in the context of nineteenth-century America, Fuller’s emphasis on female celibacy and purity had a practical basis as well, as Barbara Welter points out. Until better means of birth control were devised, the ability of a woman to achieve her goals was at least partially dependent on her ability to limit the size of her family, given the realities of early marriage and increasing life-spans (184). Hence, Fuller transforms the stigmas society attaches to the “old maids” to a more liberating form: “saints” and “sibyls” (299), who can spend time achieving their own aims and make their own contributions to society, instead of to her family only. Fuller’s Muse, moreover, incorporates religious and spiritual authority from Christianity. Fuller concludes by envisioning a female savior of spiritual perfection who will “vindicate their birthrights for all women” and “teach them what to claim and how to use what they obtain. Shall not her name be for her era Victoria, for her country and life Virginia?” (347)

    IV. Conclusion

    In a paradoxical way, Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century holds in tension a vision of humanity as androgynous and an affirmation of the uniqueness of women’s nature: first Fuller sets out to counter prevailing rigid female stereotypes by claiming the equality of men and women; then the theme of self-reliance leads her to celebrate a distinct female nature, separate and unique from men. In fact, while Fuller calls for recognition of the androgynous model of self that challenges gender differences by incorporating both masculine and feminine qualities, she repeatedly seems to return to the conventional nineteenth-century notions that masculine and feminine characteristics are essential and distinct, even if those characteristics may inhabit either men or women. For instance, Fuller suggests that there is an essential difference that gives women a special insight into Apollo/Muse (intuition) and men a special revelation of Vulcan/Minerva (intellect). Hence, Fuller states that “the special genius of woman . . . to be electrical in movement, intuitive in function, spiritual in tendency” (309), whereas “the intellect, cold, is ever more masculine than feminine” (302). Similarly, Fuller at times believes that there is an essential and distinct nature belonging to women. Just as Fuller calls for women to “[a]scertain the true destiny of woman” (258), she urges for women to discover and affirm their true natures and capacities.

    Perhaps it is partly due to these reasons that Fuller’s feminism might seem inconsistent and confused within her theories. While it would be too easy to see Fuller operating totally within a hegemonic dominant discourse, such an interpretation does not seem to do justice to her radical subversion of the patriarchal values and ideologies. The radicality of Fuller’s feminism, however, must be understood in relation to specific historical and social contexts of mid-nineteenth-century America. In other words, these disjunctions and contradictions within Fuller’s text can be seen as a site where cultural debates surrounding the Woman Question are played out, negotiated, and productive of the possibility of resistance.

    For example, Fuller partakes both thoughts of Grimké and Beecher, whose political differences also replicate the opposite strands of thinking about women. Yet Fuller does not merely repeat their ideas, but skillfully appropriates their arguments, ultimately transcending both of them. Like Grimké who advocated for equality of women and slaves, Fuller sees women’s servile position related to the plight of the “red man, the black man” (253) and argues that “it is with women as with the slaves” (277). Yet Fuller’s intention is not merely to claim equality for women, but to “go to the root of the whole” (258) and ultimately ends up questioning gender ideology itself. Although she nonetheless retains the categories of masculinity and femininity, she opens up the infinite possibilities made available by the concept of androgyny and redefines the meanings of male and female as well as the nature, capacities, and roles of men and women.

    Likewise, while she rejects a conservative vision of separate spheres with its ideology of True Woman, domesticity and submissiveness, it is important to note that Fuller’s attempt to state a positive ideal of femaleness borrows from the dominant discourse of True Womanhood. Yet Fuller does not merely remain within the True Woman tradition, but deliberately selects purity and chastity for her ideal of womanhood, the very two qualities enforced by patriarchal society to ensure its control over the social structure, and thereby does challenge masculine oppression. Similarly, Fuller extends this ideal of sexual purity to men and criticizes the accepted notion of male sexuality that a “man is so constituted that he must indulge his passions or die” (331), just as Fuller’s androgynous vision calls for man to partake in domesticity: “If men look straitly to it, they will find that, unless their lives are domestic, those of the women will not be” (260). Ultimately Fuller recasts the same conventional notions in radical ways to provide a powerful and liberating form of female subjectivity: electrical, vital, magnetic, and full of life.

    Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century ends in triumphant optimism and hope. It envisions great America, as “the chosen land for moral law” (253) and women’s part in that great unfolding of destiny: “women’s turn must come, it is the destiny of the land, the inexorable epic law” (254). Although Fuller does not argue for direct political institutional change, overall Woman in the Nineteenth Century can be seen radical in its critique of American nineteenth-century culture and that culture’s gender assumptions. It is primarily through consciousness-raising and personal experience that Fuller seeks to end women’s subordination, for political changes are hollow without an individual’s inner transformation.

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