On Woman in the Nineteenth Century
by Memunah Sillah, Virginia Commonwealth University
Most of the criticism of Fuller's Woman In The Nineteenth Century is along the lines of Orestes Brownson, who writes of Fuller's book that "all is profoundly obscure, and thrown together in "glorious confusion." Frederick Dan Huntington complains of a want of "method" calling it more "a collection of clever sayings and bright intimations, than a logical treatise... "(WITNC, 222). It is indeed quite a task figuring out the direction of Fuller's compass. After an initially well laid-out position on man's inherent imperfection, and the connection of this to the even more imperfect situation in which man has placed woman, it is difficult to identify a central idea. The book becomes especially muddy towards its end, where Fuller carries on with endless examples, and comes up with few new points.
What, however, is clear is Fuller's argument for the spirituality of woman, the "immortal being" that is being deprived of its "nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely and unimpeded, to unfold such powers as were given to her" by the creator. It is the importance of this immortal soul, or rather, the inability of man to acknowledge its importance, that Fuller sees as the cause of much of woman's suffering. Marriage, considered compulsory for a woman, "if it be only to find a protector, and a home of her own", is all too often arranged for "convenience and utility" rather than as a "meeting of the souls." Not only does this "convenience" leave redundant the most sacred part of the woman; it also deprives man of the spiritual bliss the complete woman would have been able to provide. Unfortunately, himself "under the slavery of habit," man is too imperfect to realize what he's missing.
Interestingly, Brownson evokes this irony in his criticism of Fuller, when he remarks; "Understand that woman has an immortal soul! Why, we are far beyond that already. Read our poets, listen to our philanthropist, abolitionists... and you shall find that she is already a divinity, and adored as such." With the same breath, Brownson calls on the Apostle's "command" to women to "obey" their husbands, and for their husbands to "cherish" them. It is this imperfect union, "the form of a union where union is none" that Fuller explicates. If the woman must "obey," this means she is restricted from following the dictates of her individual mind, and subject to those of another. She ceases being a "unit," lacking the completeness necessary to develop "the organization both of body and mind" to develop "communion with the one" and thus "perfection." It is not until such a perfection of a "uni" is achieved that a "union" can be successful.
Fuller's claim of woman as an immortal being reflects the transcendentalist thought of Emerson and Thoreau, ever struggling to attain immortality, sometimes giving in to FATE, at other times roaring against those unwilling or incapable of seeing the light. Fuller's bad guys are men, not Fate or society as a whole. Still, she does admit to humans' FATE, that is, their "imperfection" and their enslavement to "habit." Like Emerson and Thoreau, Fuller makes use of foreign gods and Literature to prove the Transcendentalist view that spirituality "permeated all peoples," or in her case, all women. (Jackson, 51) In these gods, her strongest allies, Fuller reflects on her own description of herself as "a man's mind and a woman's heart." Her feminine "emotion" coupled with her "intellect." She had received from her father a calibre of education "considered the masculine style", which distinguished her from other women of her time. This unique situation that she was in is also responsible for fostering that strong sense of self importance, that of the self "as the only constant friend" and that "what the soul is capable to ask it must attain,..." The resulting strength of character she exhibited did not sit well with people, especially the men, of her time.
Most ridiculed her, as blatantly represented in the character of Hawthorne's Zenobia in The Blithedale Romance. Unlike Coverdale's representation of emotion as the downfall of woman, Fuller claims "emotion as part of a woman's godliness, a necessary Other to the complete spiritual woman." This Other stands in opposition to, and informs, the "masculine" intellect which, alone, has not the power to uplift woman. It is emotion that warms up the cold and manly "intellect" and raises it to "forms of beauty". Given this inherently "superior susceptibility to magnetic or electric influence," a woman additionally possessed with "creative genius," and therefore acts against the established order, becomes a misfit in the eyes of society. Here, Fuller is trying to explain her actions to a society that seems set in its regard of her. Her argument is that a superior level of education such as hers, unusual for a woman of her time, combines with "electrical, magnetic element," inherently female, but which "has not been fairly brought out at any period," produces a character upon which society frowns. The first American women to possess such high "intellect" and at the same time, "overladen with electricity,"Fuller could not have been more unhappy. Matthew Arnold's letter to a friend exemplifies the kind of reaction Fuller received from her contemporary critics. "I incline to think that the meeting with her would have made me return all the contents of my spiritual stomach." Fuller would place Arnold in the same boat as Agamemnon's servant Talthybius, whose "vulgar mind" perceives the prophetic Cassandra as a "madwoman."
If Fuller dismisses "worldlings" such as Arnold, she pays homage to her "reverent" precursors like William Bysshe Shelly. Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a more precise precursor of Fuller, but her using Shelly does not only ally with the paragraph on young men thinkers, but also demonstrates man and woman as "the great radical dualism" that is "perpetually passing into one another" because the two are interchangeable in nature. Shelly symbolizes the natural man who plays the role of Mary Wollstonecraft, just as Mary Wollstonecraft could write A Vindication of the Rights of Men.
The interchanging role of man and woman is an important trend in Fuller's argument. It comes out of the transcendentalist premise that the structure of the universe is similar to and interchangeable with that of human kind. Men and women both being a part of nature, similarly have interchangeable natures. This is because the center of human activity is not in the shape or form of the being but rather in the soul. That the woman's soul then houses both the Muse and the Minerva is testament to the central force of her nature, her "intuitive powers" coupled with her "placid brow," her "continence." Both masculine and feminine powers, cohabiting the nature of woman, leave Fuller with hope for the same "community of life and consciousnes of mind" in men, the kind that is illustrated in men like Shelley, who is able to see with a woman's eye.
Brownson, Orestes A. "Miss Fuller and Reformers" in Woman in The Nineteenth Century. Ed. Larry J. Reynolds, W.W. Norton & Company, N.Y. 1998. Pages 213-216.
Huntington, Frederic Dan. "Noble and Stirring Eloquence." In Woman in The Nineteenth Century, Ed. Larry J. Reynolds, W.W. Norton & Company, N.Y. 1998. Pages 221-223.
Jackson, Carl T. The Oriental Religions in American Thought. Greenwood Press, London, England, 1981.
Morritz, Frederick A. Margaret Fuller: A Man's Mind and a Woman's Heart, 1997.
Wollstonecraft, Mary A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Wollstonecraft, Mary, A Vindication of the Rights of Men.
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