Margaret Fuller:
Transcendentalist, Women’s Rights Advocate


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MF PhotoThere would be no Women’s History Month celebration without the life and work of the extraordinary Margaret Fuller. This founding member of the Transcendentalist Club with her friends and colleagues Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and A. Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott, was treated as a social equal by these exceptional writers and thinkers. Her colleague Edgar Allan Poe, the only other outstanding literary critic in 1840s America, stated that there were three types of people: Men, Women, and Margaret Fuller. Elizabeth Cady Stanton attended Margaret’s “Conversations” for Women in Boston which allowed women for the first time the opportunity to express their opinions and thoughts in a public forum.

Who was this strong-willed and determined woman who aggressively pursued her dreams of integrating her feminine and masculine aspects of her psyche in the sacred marriage and insisted that men and women everywhere needed to embrace this for their well-being and happiness? 

As the first-born child in her family, Sarah Margaret Fuller was tutored by her Harvard College-educated lawyer/politician father to be his “first-born son” through a vigorous classical education. She played and rested in her mother’s luscious flower gardens to repair the damage of arduous daily studies leading to headaches and nightmares.

Driven to excel intellectually, Margaret received the attention of brilliant young men seeking to become Unitarian ministers at Harvard Divinity School. She learned and mastered German as a teenager, later translating Goethe into English. Socially awkward, Margaret’s parents sought her mentors in social graces and etiquette so she could eventually find a husband.

During an epiphany in Nature, Margaret realized that she was an integral part of the Universe and the Divine impulse. She felt that she needed to pursue her passion from that time on. She met the Father of Transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who introduced her to his friend, A. Bronson Alcott, who took her on as his assistant at his progressive Temple School in Boston.

Margaret traveled with Unitarian friends to the Great Lakes, Wisconsin, and Illinois to experience the then-known “West”. She was the first woman allowed to research in Harvard Library which resulted in her book “Summer on the Lakes”, which caught the attention of publisher Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune.

Greeley hired Margaret to become the first woman social and literary critic for his newspaper. He encouraged her to develop her Transcendentalist Dial magazine article, “The Great Lawsuit,” into the first American feminist tract, “Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” which became a national and international bestseller in 1845. This seminal work advocating the sacred marriage inspired the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York.

In New York, Margaret exposed the horrific living conditions and treatments in hospitals and prisons on the front page of the New York Tribune. Her literary criticism helped shape the emerging voices establishing an original American literature. American readers were influenced by her to initiate social justice and create true democracy for women, Native Americans, and African Americans.

To finally fulfill her dream of making the Grand Tour of Europe, Margaret negotiated with Horace Greeley to write her personal accounts of this journey as the first woman foreign correspondent. Her writing shifted naturally to tell the story across Scotland, England, France, and Italy of the people’s poverty, unrest, and revolutions for equality.

Passionate to achieve Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini’s dream of unifying Italy, Margaret took letters from him in London where he was living-in-exile to his mother and allies in Naples. She met Count Giovanni Ossoli in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome during Holy Week. After becoming sick in Italy, Margaret left the Grand Tour, recuperated at Lake Como, and returned to Rome.

Margaret became the wife of Count Ossoli and gave birth secretly to their child, Angelito, away from Rome as her husband fought in the Roman Revolution. She wrote her eye-witness account of the struggle as the first woman war correspondent and as the director of the field hospital on the Arno where the Roman soldiers were healing and dying from the bomb attacks of catholic France.

With the failure of the Roman Revolution, Margaret and her family quickly fled to Florence under police surveillance. There she completed her compelling history of the fight for Italian democracy making friends with Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. Having no income since Horace Greeley found out about her controversial love affair and child, Margaret sought to return to America with her family to publish her book.

The family took passage on the ill-fated freighter Elizabeth, which shipwrecked on the rocks near Fire Island during a hurricane. Emerson sent Thoreau to search for their remains. A great American is extinguished in her prime at 41 years old. While in Rome fighting for the people as the only American remaining, Margaret fulfilled her destiny knowing that Rome was her true home.

There she was able to fulfill her dream of being wife and mother as she awakened the American public with her yearning for true democracy in America as well as in Italy. She married Ossoli who was no intellectual, 10 years her junior, and a soldier in the people’s revolution. Margaret struggled with, lived, and fulfilled her own sacred marriage as she evolved and grew in New England, New York, and Italy.

Bronson Alcott shared his journals with Margaret in the Transcendental Club. He led his Conversations as she led her Conversations for Women and they discussed how they prepared for and taught them. Alcott noted in his journals that Margaret’s writing was excellent, but her conversations were superb. She was able to bring forth the gifts and potential of each of her participants to their own amazement. Margaret acted like the Sybil, the Divine Presence and Oracle at Delphi,  as she led her eager participants in thoughtful and exhilarating conversation.

How we need Margaret Fuller’s presence, resourcefulness, and brilliance today as we seek full and equal rights for women in America and in the world. Can we let go of our gender roles and stereotypes to fulfill who we each are in the world?

Rev. Michael Barnett, M.Div., M. Ed., works as an interfaith minister, educator, and teaching artist/poet. For twelve years, he has taught and spoken on the Transcendentalists Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Theodore Parker. He was invited to share his passion for Margaret Fuller at First Parish of Concord, the Concord School of Philosophy’s Summer Conversational Series at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, and the Unitarian Universalist History Collegium in Waltham, MA during Margaret Fuller’s Bicentennial in 2010. Michael continues to evolve his passion for Margaret Fuller and the Sacred Marriage. He can be reached at mbarnett@tradenet.net and at his blog MargaretFuller.wordpress.com

This essay is part of The New York History Blog’s project to highlight the history of women in New York State for Women’s History Month. Have a story to contribute? Find out how.

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