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Margaret Fuller: The amazing life of America’s forgotten feminist 

Long before the suffragettes came on the scene, women were advocating for their rights in society.

One, in particular, was Margaret Fuller who in a short space of time, turned out to be one of America’s most influential feminists.

This is an overview of her life and her incredible role in the feminist movement.

Who is Margaret Fuller?

Margaret Fuller is considered to be one of the most influential American feminists of her time.

She was very well-educated and dedicated her life to being an editor, teacher, translator, women’s rights author, free thinker, and literary critic. Not to mention, she worked closely with the transcendentalism movement.

Although Fuller only lived a short life, she packed a lot in and her work continues to inspire women’s movements around the world. Born in 1810, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, her father, congressman Timothy Fuller began her education at an early age before she continued to formal education, and eventually, a life striving towards progression both personally and on a social level.

What did Margaret Fuller believe in?

Fuller was a steadfast believer in women’s rights, in particular, the education of women so they could have equal standing in society and politics.

But that’s not all – Fuller had a strong opinion on several social issues, including reform in prisons, homelessness, slavery, and she vehemently opposed discrimination against African Americans and Native Americans.

Fuller was known to be a confident, assured woman who was passionate if not a little bad-tempered, yet her beliefs were revolutionary for her time and although she received criticism, she was also well-revered by her colleagues, students, and followers.

How did Margaret Fuller demonstrate that women could be leaders?

Through her work, Fuller showed how capable women are to take control, a foreign concept to most at the time when she was born.

Not only did Fuller lead numerous “conversations” in Boston on the subject of feminism, but she was the catalyst, encouraging other women to think for themselves – she avoided “teaching” and rather provoked others to think deeply about such social issues.

As a result, numerous women who attended her “conversations” later went on to become prominent feminists and reformists, shaping the history of America through their determination and passion.

Margaret Fuller books

In her 40 years of life, Margaret wrote several books focussing on feminism but also memoirs and poetry. Some of her most prominent works include:

  • Women in the Nineteenth Century. Originally published in 1843 as a magazine publication, it was later republished as a book in 1845. Controversial for its time but highly popular, Fuller details her desire for justice and equality, especially for women.
  • Summer on the lakes. Written in 1843, Fuller details life in the midwest during her travels. She documents the life and struggles of women and Native Americans in the region, paying close attention to cultural and social issues.
  • The Woman and the Myth. This is a collection of Fuller’s writing, including unpublished excerpts from her journals, documenting a range of issues on feminism and transcendentalism.

For a full overview of Fuller, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, written by Megan Marshall, looks into her incredible achievements, bringing her back to life with her timeless views and outlooks on feminism.

Margaret Fuller on feminism

Fuller had several beliefs on feminism, but at the core, she wanted equal education for women. Fuller recognized that the only way for women to gain equal status to men in society was through education.

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She approached this in different ways, through her writing and her “conversations” which paved the way for reform and inspired countless other women to campaign for their rights.

Her book, Women in the Nineteenth Century is believed to have influenced the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights gathering which took place in 1849.

The core message of this book?

That women must become well-rounded individuals, who can take care of themselves and need not rely on men.

Through her successful careers as a critic, editor, and war correspondent, she set the example by doing as well as sharing her ideas and encouraging others to think deeply about the social injustices being faced by women.

Margaret Fuller on transcendentalism

Fuller was an advocate for the American Transcendentalism Movement and was the first woman to be accepted into the movement, working alongside the likes of Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Their beliefs were centered around the idea that at the core of it, man and nature are both inherently good. They believed society, with its many boundaries and institutions that seep in and corrupt the core goodness.

In the late 1830s, alongside colleague Emerson, Fuller decided to take their lectures and publications to the next level when they recognized their teachings had become somewhat of a “movement”.

Her involvement with transcendentalism continued – in 1840, she became the first editor of the transcendentalist journal “The Dial”.

Her beliefs were centered around the liberation of all people, but especially women. She advocated for philosophies encouraging fulfillment and was influenced by German romanticism, as well as Plato and Platonism.

Margaret Fuller quotes

Fuller didn’t hold back on her views, and today her quotes act as inspiration for many. Here are some of her most popular sayings:

  • “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.”
  • “We have waited here long in the dust; we are tired and hungry, but the triumphal procession must appear at last.”
  • “The especial genius of women I believe to be electrical in movement, intuitive in function, spiritual in tendency.”
  • “If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.”
  • “Men for the sake of living forget to live.”
  • “Male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But in fact they are perpetually passing into one another. Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.”
  • “Only the dreamer shall understand realities, though in truth his dreaming must be not out of proportion to his waking.”
  • “A house is no home unless it contains food and fire for the mind as well as for the body.”
  • “Very early, I knew that the only object in life was to grow.”
  • “I am suffocated and lost when I have not the bright feeling of progression.”
  • “All around us lies what we neither understand nor use. Our capacities, our instincts for this our present sphere are but half developed. Let us confine ourselves to that till the lesson be learned; let us be completely natural; before we trouble ourselves with the supernatural. I never see any of these things but I long to get away and lie under a green tree and let the wind blow on me. There is marvel and charm enough in that for me.”
  • “Reverence the highest, have patience with the lowest. Let this day’s performance of the meanest duty be thy religion. Are the stars too distant, pick up the pebble that lies at thy feet, and from it learn them all.”
  • “It should be remarked that, as the principle of liberty is better understood, and more nobly interpreted, a broader protest is made in behalf of women. As men become aware that few have had a fair chance, they are inclined to say that no women have had a fair chance.”
  • “But the intellect, cold, is ever more masculine than feminine; warmed by emotion, it rushes towards mother earth, and puts on the forms of beauty.”

10 things you probably didn’t know about Margaret Fuller

1) She had what was considered a “boy’s education” at the time

Fuller was the first child of Congressman Timothy Fuller and his wife, Margaret Crane Fuller.

Her father badly wanted a son. He was 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.

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.

Fuller had a keen interest in modern German literature, which inspired her thoughts on philosophical analysis and imaginative expression. She was also the first woman allowed to use the library at Harvard College which shows the importance of her standing in society.

3) She worked as a teacher

Margaret had 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) Her “conversations” lasted five years

In the first meeting in 1839, conducted in Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s parlor, 25 women attended. In 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 suffrage movement that suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton called it a landmark in “the vindication of women’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.

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. This book is believed to be inspired by her “conversations”.

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.

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 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 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.

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 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.

Written by Kiran Athar

Kiran is a foodie, writer and traveler. She considers herself a citizen of the world, who gets her inspiration from the people she meets along her journeys. She's currently living in Spain, where she spends her time writing, watching the shepherds and eating tapas in the mountains of Andalucía.

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