Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century was first published in The Dial in 1843 as an essay titled “The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women.” Some of Fullers friends–particularly Horace Greeley–were so impressed with it that they suggested she expand and rewrite it into a full-length book. She did just that, and the book was published in 1845 under its new title. This is the second of the two full-length books included in The Essential Margaret Fuller.
In the Preface, Fuller explains the original essay’s title and the main idea that runs throughout the book:
I meant, by that title, to intimate the fact that, while it is the destiny of Man, in the course of the Ages, to ascertain and fulfil the law of messenger, the action of prejudices and passion, which attend, in the day, the growth of the individual, is continually obstructing the holy work that is to make the earth a part of heaven. By Man I mean both man and woman: these are the two halves of one thought. I lay no especial stress on the welfare of either. I believe that the development of the one cannot be effected without that of the other. My highest wish is that this truth should be distinctly and rationally apprehended, and the conditions of life and freedom recognized as the same for the daughters and the sons of time; twin exponents of a divine thought.
Basically, she’s saying that man can’t inherit the earth until all people are seen and treated as equals, which also reflects her transcendentalist way of thinking. She argued that if women were given more intellectual and spiritual freedom, the effect would be to further enlighten all of mankind.
Fuller hits on nearly all of the main ideas in feminist thought, such as the equality of husband and wife in marriage; women deserving the same opportunities for education, employment, and positions within government; and women being able to make their own life choices. In addition, Fuller calls for the abolition of slavery and voices her disgust with the nasty treatment of Native Americans.
Reading this in the 21st century, the ideas contained in the book are nothing new. At first I was a little disappointed because I expected to be blown away by what Fuller had to say. Then it dawned on me that what I really should be blown away by is the fact that this book was written by a woman… in the 1840s… at a time when women weren’t even allowed a college education. Forehead slapping ensued and I was officially awestruck. I don’t know why it took me the first fifty pages or so to have this revelation. For the rest of the book–even though I did a bit of skimming in this one, too, when it started to make me yawn too much–I was full of appreciation for what I was holding in my hands and reading. GO MARGARET FULLER!
Yes, I did some skimming and yes, sometimes I wanted her to just get to the point already, but I have so much respect for Fuller for writing and publishing this book. She stuck her neck out for what she believed in and never bowed to any nasty criticism she received. I applaud her. Now I’m really looking forward to reading Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman which was written in the 1790s and is already on my TBR pile. If you’re a feminist, or interested in learning (more) about feminist and transcendentalist ideas, you really shouldn’t skip out on Woman in the Nineteenth Century; I found it a little boring here and there, but it was definitely worth the read.
My final post on Fuller will be up sometime tomorrow and it’s about what I found most interesting in The Essential Margaret Fuller: her time in Italy during the revolutions of 1848-1849 and her first-hand descriptions of that experience.