Margaret Fuller's The Great Lawsuit: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:00 Overview of the Essay
  • 1:05 Legacy of Barbarism &…
  • 2:08 4 Kinds of Marriage…
  • 3:04 Themes and Analysis
  • 4:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson presents a summary of Margaret Fuller's 1943 essay, 'The Great Lawsuit.' It also analyzes the transcendentalist and abolitionist themes that underpin Fuller's argument.

Overview of the Essay

Will mankind ever reach a state of enlightenment? Margaret Fuller, an American writer and women's rights activist from the 19th century, argues that enlightenment is only possible if mankind recognizes the equality of both sexes. This is shown in 'The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men. Woman versus Women', Fuller's essay that offers a vision of women's path to equality. The essay, first published in The Dial magazine, was later expanded into a book titled Woman in the Nineteenth Century.

The purpose of Fuller's essay is to explore the theological notion that man will inherit the earth once man's conscious is enlightened and he comes to fully experience divine love. Fuller explains that contemporary culture is asleep to divine love, but that it has the power to awaken. She claims that man cannot currently obtain a state of perfection due to his selfish urges. Despite this, she argues, man is capable of reaching a new level of enlightenment if he realizes the power of women.

Legacy of Barbarism & Inequality

What do women and indigenous people have in common? They are both oppressed by patriarchal society, according to Fuller. The author explains that America's colonial history has obstructed the path towards gender equality. America inherited the barbarism of Europe, as evidenced by the colonists' treatment of Native and African Americans. Fuller condemns such barbarism, arguing that the true abolitionists are those that practice divine love and extend it to all of humanity, including women.

Next, Fuller compares the institutions of manhood and womanhood in America. She notes how the institution of marriage promotes the notion that man is the head of the household while woman is the heart of the household. Problematically, this notion casts women as inferiors, who are no greater than children. If woman were capable of achieving self-dependence, she would find more fulfillment. Further, men would benefit if women were allowed to cultivate their gifts and talents. Fuller argues that women need access to intellectual freedom in order to achieve this for their sex.

4 Kinds of Marriage and Call to Action

In the essay, Fuller also ranks four different kinds of marriage in ascending order:

  • Household partnership - an arrangement of convenience
  • Mutual idolatry - occurs when the man and woman find perfection in each other to the exclusion of the rest of the world
  • Intellectual companionship - based on mutual trust and respect
  • Religious union - the highest form of marriage, combines all of the others' traits; men and women are equals on a 'pilgrimage towards a common shrine' (It is important to note that Margaret Fuller uses the term 'religious' to mean 'spiritual'.)

Fuller claims that women and men are the same in their souls, and thus, women need to develop their intellectual and spiritual resources just as men do. Fuller concludes her essay by arguing that for a true union between man and woman, each person must be allowed to exist as an individual. She calls on women to teach by example, becoming self-dependent so that others may imitate them.

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