Margaret Fuller contributed so much to the early feminist movement. Yet somehow, as her biographer Charles Capper puts it, she is “strangely missing from feminist histories.”
Perhaps it was her short life, taken away tragically – along with a manuscript of what was shaping to be her greatest work as a writer.
But the fact remains, she was a formidable figure in women’s liberation.
So today, we’ll address that error. It’s time you get to know one of the most courageous and revolutionary feminists of the twentieth century.
Who is Margaret Fuller? What was her impact on society? And how did she change women’s destinies forever?
1. She had what was considered a “boy’s education” at the time.
Sara Margaret Fuller was born on May 23, 1810, in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. She was the first child of Congressman Timothy Fuller and his wife, Margaret Crane Fuller.
Her father badly wanted a son. He was apparently disappointed, so decided to give Margaret a “boy’s education.”
Timothy Fuller set out to educate her at home. At age three, Margaret learned how to read and write. At 5, she was reading Latin. Her father was a relentless and rigid teacher, forbidding her to read typical “feminine” books on etiquette and sentimental novels.
Her formal education began at the Port School in Cambridgeport and then at the Boston Lyceum for Young Ladies.
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After being pressured by her relatives, she attended The School for Young Ladies in Groton but dropped out two years later. However, she continued her education at home, training herself in the classics, reading world literature, and learning several modern languages.
Later on, she would blame her father’s high expectations and rigorous teachings for her nightmares, sleepwalking, lifelong migraines, and poor eyesight.
2. She was an avid reader.
She was such a voracious reader, that she earned a reputation for being the most well-read person in New England – male or female. Yes, it was a thing.
3. She worked as a teacher.
Margaret has always dreamed of becoming a successful journalist. But she barely even began when her family was struck by tragedy.
In 1836, her father died from Cholera. Ironically, he failed to make a will, so the bulk of the family fortune went to her uncles.
Margaret found herself bearing the responsibility of looking after her family. To do so, she took a job as a teacher in Boston.
At one point she was paid $1,000 per year, an unusually high salary for a teacher.
4. She hosted what she called “conversations” for local women, which were influential to the beginnings of the women’s rights movement.
In her late 20s, Margaret began hosting “discussions” for women in Boston. The meetings were actually classes conducted in a discussion style, in which she taught women literature, mythology, and philosophy.
The famous discussions were “designed to encourage women in self-expression and independent thinking.”
In one letter addressed to her friend, Sophia Ripley, she explained her ambitions for the classes:
“To systematize thought, and give a precision and clearness in which our sex are so deficient, chiefly, I think, because they have so few inducements to test and classify what they receive. To ascertain what pursuits are best suited to us, in our time and state of society, and how we may make best use of our means for building up the life of thought upon the life of action.”
In the first meeting, conducted in Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s parlor, 25 women attended. In the span of five years, the discussions attracted more than 200 women, drawing some as far as Providence, RI.
The subjects turned into more serious and relevant subjects like Education, Culture, Ethics, Ignorance, Woman, even “Persons who never awake to life in this world.”
It was also well-attended by influential women of the time, such as Transcendentalist leader Lydia Emerson, abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, and Native American rights activist Lydia Maria Child.
The meetings were a strong base for feminism in New England. It became so influential to the women’s suffragette movement that suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton called it a landmark in “the vindication of woman’s right to think.”
Margaret charged $20 per attendance and soon increased the price as the discussions grew popular. She was able to support herself independently for 5 years because of this.
5. She wrote the first “feminist” book of America.
Margaret’s journalism career finally took flight when she became the editor of transcendentalist journal The Dial, a post offered to her by transcendentalist leader Ralph Waldo Emerson.
It was during this time that Margaret gained attention as one of the most important figures of the transcendental movement, becoming one of the most respected journalists in New England.
Astonishingly, she was also the first female to be permitted to use the Harvard library.
More importantly, it’s here that she produced her most important work in American History.
She published, “The Great Lawsuit” as a serial on The Dial. In 1845, she published it independently as “Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” the first “feminist” manifesto published in America.
The original title was supposed to be The Great Lawsuit: Man ‘versus’ Men, Woman ‘versus’ Women.
The Great Lawsuit discussed how women contributed to American democracy and how women should be more involved. Since then, it has become a major document in American feminism.
In a letter, she told a friend:
“I had put a good deal of my true self in it, as if, I suppose I went away now, the measure of my footprint would be left on earth.”
And so it did.
6. She was the first full-time American book reviewer.
Among Margaret Fuller’s many “firsts” is the fact that she was the first ever full-time American female book reviewer in journalism.
She quit her job at The Dial partly because of ill health, the fact that she wasn’t fully compensated for her agreed salary, and the publication’s dwindling subscription rates.
Better things were meant for her it, it seems. That year, she moved to New York and worked as a literary critic for The New York Tribune, becoming the first full-time book reviewer in America.
7. She was also The New York Tribune’s first female editor.
Margaret didn’t just stop there. She became so good at her job, that her boss, Horace Greeley, promoted her as editor. No other female before her held the position.
This is when Margaret’s personal and intellectual growth really flourished. In her 4 years in the publication, she published more than 250 columns. She wrote about art, literature, and political issues about slavery and women’s rights.
8. She was the first female American foreign correspondent.
In 1846, Margaret received the opportunity of a lifetime. She was sent to Europe as a foreign correspondent by the Tribune. She was the first woman in America to become a foreign correspondent for any major publication.
For the next four years, she delivered 37 reports for the Tribune. She interviewed the likes of Thomas Carlyle and George Sand.
Many prominent people regarded her as a serious intellectual figure, even in England and France and her career rose even more. She broke barriers, often taking roles not meant for women at the time.
She was so confident and assured of her position she wrote to Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“I now know all the people worth knowing in America, and I find no intellect comparable to my own.”
9. She was married to a former marquis.
Margaret settled in Italy, where she met her future husband, Giovanni Angelo Ossoli.
Giovanni was a former marquis, disinherited by his family because of his support for Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini.
There was a lot of speculation about their relationship. Some even say that the couple was not married when Margaret gave birth to their son, Angelo Eugene Philip Ossoli.
Depending on different sources, the two apparently married in secret in 1848.
Both Margaret and Giovanni actively took part in Giuseppe Mazzini’s fight for the establishment of a Roman republic. She worked as a nurse while Angelo fought.
While in Italy, she was finally able to fully focus on her lifelong work – History of the Italian Revolution. In letters between her and friends, it seemed like the manuscript had the potential of becoming her most groundbreaking work.
10. She died in a tragic shipwreck.
Unfortunately, her manuscript would never see publication.
In 1850, Margaret and her family traveled back to America, wanting to introduce her son to the family. However, just 100 yards away from the shore, their ship hit a sandbar, catching fire and sinking.
The family did not survive. Their son, Angelo’s body washed up on the shore. However, Margaret and Giovanni’s body was never recovered – along with what was shaping to be the greatest work of her life.
And one last tidbit:
“Years later, a small monument to Margaret Fuller was erected on the Fire Island beach not far from the wreck site. It stood as a memorial to a remarkable woman for 10 years. Then, it too was claimed by the sea.”