Margaret Fuller, Gender, Reform movements, Women’s rights
Margaret Fuller, nineteenth-century America’s iconoclastic “woman of genius,” struggled for much of her life to carve out a “sphere” in which she might flourish. Unwilling to be contained within a generic woman’s sphere, she embraced individuality, revolution, and, eventually, sexual passion. Her opus, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), helped to set the tone for the Seneca Falls convention of 1848. Beyond calling for woman’s rights, Fuller mocked what she termed “the attempts of physiologists” to base any social demarcation on bodily sex. This critique continues to inspire gender scholars.
Margaret Fuller and Her Circles originated with a 2010 Massachusetts Historical Society conference celebrating Fuller’s bicentennial. By marking “the maturation of Fuller studies,” it addresses a fairly specialized readership (2). Yet Brigitte Bailey invites general readers into Fuller’s world by introducing the overlapping circles—spheres, conversations, and revolutions—that shaped her life and thought. The essays are grouped according to three historical themes: gender and sexuality, reform movements, and “urban and transatlantic culture.” [End Page 153]
Phyllis Cole traces Fuller’s feminist intellectual lineage from Mary Wollstonecraft, whose work she read while young, to the Grimké sisters, whose Boston social circle overlapped with her own. Like them, Fuller claimed women’s rights by on the basis of moral equality. Cole compares Fuller’s manifesto with Wollstonecraft’s “vindication” and Sarah Grimké’s “appeal,” and considers it “the most audacious confrontation with power” (13). The others “asked for the support of powerful men,” but Fuller regarded women as not only deserving, but already possessing rights, which were of divine, rather than narrowly national, inheritance. This attitude of expectation, for Cole, constitutes “Fuller’s greatest gift to nascent feminism.” True to the volume’s circular leitmotif, Cole notes that Sarah Grimké was in turn persuaded by Fuller. Late in life, Grimké declared that “self-reliance only can create true and exalted women” (28–30).
Lest readers mistake “self-reliance” for modern liberalism, Dorri Beam queries the concept of “self” at the heart of Fuller’s feminism. Rather than “self-possessive individualism,” Transcendentalists envisioned an Oversoul connecting individuals to the universe. Fuller expressed this capacious “ecology of self” through mesmerism. In the volume’s freshest and most intriguing gloss, Beam suggests that mesmerism afforded her a means of—in Judith Butler’s phrase—“undoing gender,” for “the soul was infinitely more diverse than a dimorphic model of the sexed body” (60). Fuller considered womanhood an electrical spiritual essence, “the feminine as a force” tethered neither to the body nor the psyche (63).
John Matteson addresses the relationship of embodiment, sexuality, and virtue. In a society that relentlessly bound womanhood to corporeality, Fuller recognized that “the body could not be theorized away.” She famously insisted that “those who would reform the world must … be unstained by passionate error; they must be severe lawgivers to themselves.” Matteson, among others, reads this line as an argument for sexual passionlessness, which he contrasts both with her “remarkable” blend of “condemnation and compassion” in writing about prostitutes and with her own subsequent liaison with Giovanni Ossoli (33).
For Fuller, the “passionate error” into which some women fell was not exclusively sexual. She pitied gender “outlaws”—namely, Mary Wollstonecraft and George Sand—who “run their heads wildly against the walls” of convention, rather than “speaking with authority” until “society … has revised her law.” Fuller re-imagined feminine virtue as deliberate [End Page 154] and confident activism. Present-day scholars must take care not to conflate virtue with chastity, or we risk reifying the very problem she confronted.
Jeffrey Steele, David Robinson, Robert Hudspeth, and Adam-Max Tuchinsky contextualize and chronicle Fuller’s changing politics. Some see her New York years, 1844–46, as introducing her to poverty and systemic injustice; others posit the Revolutions of 1848, which she witnessed firsthand, as her radicalizing moment. According to Steele, Fuller’s preferred tactic for creating social change was “compassionate witnessing,” a practice she...