(Sarah) Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810 - June 19, 1850) was a teacher, author, editor, journalist, critic, and women's rights activist whose contributions to literature and mid-nineteenth century reform movements were significant and ingenious. Her popular Woman in the Nineteenth Century, published in 1845, had a significant impact on the women's rights movement that began three years after the book was published.
She grew up in the Unitarian Church and became friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson, subsequently being introduced to and having a pronounced effect on the Transcendentalist movement as the editor of its journal The Dial. When she joined Horace Greeley's New York Tribune as literary critic in 1844, she became the first female journalist to work on the staff of a major newspaper.
From 1839 to the mid-1840s she organized discussion groups of women in which a variety of subjects, such as art, education and women's rights, were debated. A number of significant figures in the women's rights movement attended these "conversations." Ideas brought up in these discussions were developed in Fuller's major work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), which argues for the independence of women. She was considered the most brilliant woman of her time.
Margaret Fuller was the first child born to Timothy Fuller, Jr. and Margarett Crane and in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts on May 23, 1810. Fuller's mother was raised in a Unitarian family in the small town of Canton, Massachusetts. Fuller's father was a very gifted and learned man who attended Harvard University. While there he traded his Calvinistic upbringing for the Unitarian religion and views. Timothy was a devout man and followed the Unitarian rationalism faithfully throughout his life. He often questioned and challenged the religious leaders of the time with his reasoned view, but he never deviated from his newfound faith. Timothy and his wife established themselves with the Cambridgeport Parish Unitarian Church where he served on the church council for some time.
When Timothy and Margarett started their life together, they began pursuing a life in politics. Timothy, who was an accomplished lawyer and a member of the Republican party, was elected to the Massachusetts Senate in 1813, three years after Fuller was born. He served four terms in the state senate. Following that, he served in the United States Congress. When he retired from public life, he decided to focus on his first love, that of writing. Margarett often went unnoticed behind her husband's prominent political life. She was a devoted wife, but managed to maintain her individualism. She was known as vibrant and vivacious, and an avid reader who possessed great intelligence. She was an affectionate mother and an inspiration, tending to the importance of her children's discipline and education.
As Fuller was the firstborn, her father, who had desperately wanted a son to teach and educate, decided he would put just as much effort into educating his daughter, a deviation from the norm of his era. Thus, at a very young age Fuller underwent a boot camp type of training and education. She was forced to read for hours at a time. She became fluent in German and Latin and well-versed in other languages. Soon a younger sister was born into the family, but she passed away at 18 months, and again, Fuller remained the focal point of her father's efforts. In all, Timothy and Margarett were blessed with eight children, with six living into adulthood.
An avid writer from a young age, Fuller kept journals and in one she recorded thoughts about her education, "I was put at once under discipline of considerable severity, and, at the same time, had a more than ordinarily high standard presented to me." Fuller excelled at all subjects, including English grammar, mathematics, languages, music, history, and science. Fuller's harrowing educational experience left her afflicted with a great deal of stress from her father's semi-fanatical expectations. Often her feelings were expressed in the form of intense nightmares and insomnia. Her adult life was plagued with severe migraine headaches caused by intense reading in low light, as well as having extremely poor eyesight.
Fuller's mother felt the need to fine-tune her education by sending her to various schools to learn feminine propriety and manners, as well as the art of interacting with other children her age. Fuller was sent to assorted educational establishments from the time she was nine years old until she was twenty-five. They included Cambridge Port Private Grammar school, Dr. Park's Boston Lyceum, and Miss Prescott's Young Women's Seminary. Fuller reportedly desperately disliked this period of her life. She was so advanced in her education that the classes often bored her and the other students thought her aloof and audacious. In reality, she was very shy and awkward socially and very superior and advanced mentally. Thus she suffered from a great deal of contempt and mockery. Fuller finally decided to end her education and begin educating others. She was a natural teacher who began by helping her family and serving as a type of governess/tutor to her younger brothers and sisters. Her father's public responsibilities left him unavailable for his younger children's educations, but he felt his training of Fuller made her a qualified teacher.
After she concluded her formal schooling, Fuller began to form a circle of friends who delighted in her mind, her wit, and her ability to converse in many realms. Among these friends were James Freeman Clarke, Frederic Henry Hedge, and William Henry Channing. Her closest acquaintance became Lydia Maria Francis. Fuller and Maria, as she was called, would read endlessly and discuss what they read for days at a time. They read all the great writers of the time, and learned about many places and people. Even with this small circle of educational friends, Fuller still felt she lacked accomplishment and polish in social decorum and civility.
The accomplished and beautiful Eliza Farrar, wife of John Farrar, a Harvard professor, noticed Fuller's talents and took her under her wing. Eliza Farrar taught Fuller social graces such as how to dress and interact socially. Eliza's tutelage helped Fuller feel more comfortable with others. It was also through the Farrars that Fuller was introduced to Ralph Waldo Emerson. The two became good friends, although Emerson thought her a bit annoying at first. He complained of the nasal quality to her voice and her apparent plainness. But Fuller's conversations with him won Emerson over and he requested her company often. Margaret then began traveling frequently to Concord, Massachusetts to visit with the Emerson family. She even assisted Emerson with learning German, although she claimed that he didn't have much talent for it. It was here that she also became acquainted with Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott and the transcendentalist movement.
Margaret's life had become very pleasant for her at this point. She was making friends, enjoying lively conversation, and planning on a trip to Europe with Eliza. However, shortly before the party was to depart for Europe, Margaret's father became very ill and died unexpectedly from cholera in 1835. Timothy left behind his widow and six children without any savings or other financial aid. Thus, it befell Margaret, being the eldest, to try and find some means of supporting her family.
Fuller was 26 when she was hired by Bronson Alcott to teach at the Boston school he had opened, the Temple School. Bronson was delighted with her level of education, her quick wit, and her desire. However, his methods proved to be too controversial and the Temple School closed after a few months. From 1837 to 1839 Fuller traveled to Providence, Rhode Island for a teaching job and sent much of her earnings home to her mother.
She returned to her family farm in 1839 and moved them to a rented home five miles outside of Boston. Fuller traveled into the city each day and held what came to be called "conversations" in Elizabeth Palmer Peabody's West Street bookstore in Boston later that year with a female group of intellectuals who enjoyed the opportunity to converse about a wide variety of subjects. This group of women were all well-educated, ambitious, and clever. These types of gatherings were common among men of this time but women had no access. Thus, these "conversations" were born and attended by Lydia Emerson, Sarah Bradford Ripley, Abigail Allyn Francis, Lydia Maria Child (Fuller's long-time friend), Elizabeth Hoar, Eliza Farrar, Mary Channing, Mary Peabody and Sophia Peabody (Nathaniel Hawthorne's wife), Sophia Dana (Mrs. George Ripley), and Lydia (Mrs. Theodore Parker). This group of women group discussed and debated everything from classical mythology and ethics, to education, and equal rights. Fuller charged fees for the group that she presided over and the "dues" supported her and her family for the next five years. During this time, she worked on translating Conversations with Goethe. She would later go on to write her most acknowledged work, Women in the Nineteenth Century (1845), which was inspired by her meetings with these women and their arguments for the independence of women everywhere. This book also reflects her ideas on many of the subjects covered by the "conversations." Women in the Nineteenth Century was considered by many to be the most profound and contemplative account on the subject of women's equality to date.
Fuller's writing career flourished through her association with the transcendentalists of her time. From 1840 to 1842, she was asked to be the editor of the transcendentalist journal, The Dial. This gave her the opportunity to reject and approve appropriate articles, often filling in a deficient edition with many of her own ideas and writings. She also gained confidence as she convinced Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker, Elizabeth Peabody, Caroline Sturgis and Ralph Waldo Emerson to submit various articles to her specifications. Eventually, Emerson took over as editor of The Dial in 1843. Fuller's final writing for the The Dial proved to be her most influential article ever, The Great Lawsuit: Man vs. Men and Woman vs. Women.
It was during her concentrated time with the transcendentalists that Fuller formed and solidified her own beliefs about religion. She did not give up her Christian faith, like many of the Transcendentalists of her time, but continued to believe in Jesus Christ as her savior and testified that he "…is constantly aiding and answering me." However, unlike many Christians, Fuller embraced the transcendental idea that she could worship and have religious experiences just as well out in nature as in a church.
Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune, became impressed with Fuller's writings when he read her articles in The Dial and her book Summer on the Lakes in 1843. Greeley invited Fuller to join his writing staff, making her the first female journalist to work for a major newspaper. She worked as critic, essayist, and reviewer, covering a wide variety of subjects and events.
In 1846 the Tribune sent Fuller to Europe as a foreign correspondent. Fuller reveled in this assignment and began with a tour in the British Isles, including Scotland, and then went to Paris. While in Paris she met and interviewed George Sand, whom she had long admired and also Thomas Carlyle, whom she found disappointing due to his reactionary politics amongst other things. She also decided to support the philosophies and movements of Giuseppe Mazzini, who she had met while in England. After Paris, she traveled to Italy where she became acquainted with the revolutionary Giovanni Angelo Ossoli when he was 26 years old. Fuller was 37 at the time, but the connection was undeniable and the two fell in love. It is difficult to document their marriage, and it was unclear whether they ever married. Some believe that they did marry shortly before the birth of their son, Angelo Eugenio Filippo Ossoli in September of 1848. During this eventful time in Fuller's life, turmoil surrounded Italy, with war breaking out. The couple supported Giuseppe Mazzini's revolution for the establishment of a Roman Republic in 1849. The war was widely supported by many Italians. Fuller supported the cause by working in a hospital, but as safety conditions worsened, the couple decided it was in their new family's best interest to go to America. It is believed that Fuller never fully supported this decision because of her love for Italy, and because of her concern over how her new family would be accepted in New England.
In May of 1850 Fuller and her family set sail for New York City. During the voyage, the ship's captain contracted smallpox and died. Fuller's son, Angelo, also contracted the disease, but recovered. The rest of the crew navigated the ship and their lack of experience proved costly. The ship sailed straight into a hurricane and wrecked off Fire Island on the southern coast of Suffolk County, New York, killing most of the passengers. Fuller and her family were among the casualties. Many, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Trancendentalist School were extremely saddened by this tragedy. Emerson sent Henry David Thoreau to New York to search for the bodies and to look through recovered belongings. His efforts were in vain. All of Fuller's writings covering the passed two years were lost, including a manuscript on the history of the Roman Republic. Fuller's surviving family erected a monument in her name at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many of her writings were collected together by her brother Arthur and published in the book At Home and Abroad (1856) and Life Without and Life Within (1858).
All links retrieved November 5, 2022.
- Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House, nonprofit that works to strengthen and empower families through social and educational programs
- Works by Margaret Fuller. Project Gutenberg
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