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  • Margaret Fuller's Physical Education
  • Jess Libow

In the posthumously published Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, Frederic Henry Hedge recalls his impression of thirteen-year-old Fuller: "I have the idea of a blooming girl of a florid complexion and vigorous health, with a tendency to robustness, of which she was painfully conscious, and which, with little regard to hygienic principles, she endeavored to suppress or conceal, thereby preparing for herself much future suffering" (91).1 Apparently presuming his readers' awareness of the adult Fuller's chronic migraines and back pain, Hedge offers an account of these ailments steeped in nineteenth-century ideas about child development and sex difference. Proposing that Fuller would have remained healthy into adulthood had she cultivated her innate vigor, Hedge cites adolescent folly as the source of her impairments, even as he praises her precocity elsewhere in his reminiscence. As an adult, however, Fuller herself proposed a slightly different narrative. While she shared Hedge's and others' concerns about young girls' precarious health, Fuller attributed her physical condition not to individual error or neglect but rather to a systemic national failure regarding female education. In this essay I argue that Fuller turned to the pedagogical science of physical education in order to redress what she perceived as a significant source of white women's interrelated physical and social limitations. Throughout her writings from the early 1840s she presents her own impairments as products of an education system that prioritized girls' sedentary, indoor pursuits over outdoor physical activity. Imagining an education system designed to cultivate female bodies as well as minds, Fuller figures white female able-bodiedness as essential to engendering a feminist future.

Scholars have long recognized the centrality of embodiment to Fuller's thinking, which, as C. Michael Hurst puts it, "sutures the body and mind back together" (12). I propose that the education of girls offered Fuller an ideal arena in which to pursue this relationship between processes of mental, spiritual, and physical development on a large scale. Fuller describes herself as an extreme [End Page 1] case of disrupted development, "a youthful prodigy" whose rigorous intellectual education produced "premature development of the brain," which in turn "prevented the harmonious development of my bodily powers and checked my growth," leaving a pattern of "continual headache, weakness and nervous affections, of all kinds" (26). While critics such as Cynthia J. Davis, Deborah Manson, and Rachel A. Blumenthal have identified the significance of illness and health in Fuller's feminism, investigating her interest in physical education reveals how she leveraged her concerns about women's impairments to launch a pervasive critique of sexist systems.2

Examining Fuller's turn to physical education also helps clarify the roles of race and nation in her conception of female health. As Kyla Tompkins explains, the project of nineteenth-century health reform, of which physical education was part, "[stitched] nationalism to the individual white body" (6). Like many other health reformers, Fuller viewed cultivating individual health as inextricable from shoring up white American hegemony. She believed that the bodies of white girls—and with them, the political status of white women—could be transformed by an education system that incorporated physical activity. At the same time, because she insisted that female impairment was the result of an overly sedentary life, Fuller could extend neither her critique nor her intervention to Indigenous women, whom she suggested were impaired by the physical demands of their social roles. Ultimately, Fuller's racially differentiated theories of female development both fueled her aspirations for white women's spiritual and political capacities and established the racist limitations of her feminist vision.

In what follows I begin by showing how Fuller's interest in physical education put her in direct conversation with figures in the education reform movements of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as well as the emerging women's rights movement. Next, I turn to Fuller's reflections on her own early schooling, which she drew on to develop a broader critique of white women's stunted intellectual and spiritual development. I then trace the sociological turn in her thinking about physical education by examining her 1844 travel narrative Summer on the Lakes...