Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century: Summary

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

'Woman in the Nineteenth Century' was a pivotal book by feminist writer Margaret Fuller. Look into a brief summary of the book and explore Fuller's early life, works, and influence in the aftermath of its publication. Updated: 12/23/2021

A Transcendental Feminist

Margaret Fuller was one of the most important female writers and thinkers of the 19th century. An important figure in the transcendentalist literary and philosophical movement that included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Fuller was also a pioneering feminist. Her 1845 book Woman in the Nineteenth Century was one of the most important feminist statements of the era.

Drawing on transcendentalist philosophy, Woman in the Nineteenth Century makes an argument for a marriage of equals as the most pure and spiritually fulfilling form of marriage. She makes the then-radical claim that men are not purely masculine, nor women purely feminine.

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  • 0:04 A Transcendental Feminist
  • 0:42 Margaret Fuller's Early Life
  • 1:23 Margaret Fuller's Work
  • 3:35 Margaret Fuller's Influence
  • 4:08 Lesson Summary
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Margaret Fuller's Early Life

Margaret Fuller was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1810. The daughter of a well-to-do family, she was given a substantial private education by her father, Timothy. After completing her formal education in her teens, Fuller realized she was not like most other women of her time, as she desired a career over marriage.

Fuller began working as a teacher at Green Street School and private tutor, while also earning a living as a journalist, book reviewer, and translator. By the time she was 30, she had developed a reputation as the best-read person in New England, male or female. She made connections with heavyweights of the literary scene there, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederic Henry Hedge.

Margaret Fuller's Work

Let's first look at her work as editor of The Dial. In 1839, Emerson asked Fuller to become the editor of his journal The Dial. The Dial was dedicated to transcendentalism, the philosophical and literary movement that Emerson and others had begun formulating in the 1820s and 1830s. Drawing on Eastern religious traditions, transcendentalism championed individualism over social conformity and encouraged self-reliance as a way to intellectual and spiritual fulfillment. Fuller published a series of essays titled ''The Great Lawsuit'' in The Dial, which were collected and published as Woman in the Nineteenth Century in 1845.

Now let's take a look at Women in the Nineteenth Century itself. Woman in the Nineteenth Century draws heavily on transcendentalism, as well as earlier feminist writers, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, to argue for women's equality to men. The basis of Fuller's argument is that mankind is being held back from spiritual enlightenment through its refusal to accept divine love. Divine love, in Fuller's formulation, depends on equality of the sexes. Only when women achieve fulfillment of their potential, Fuller argues, will mankind as a whole reach fulfillment.

Let's now finally take a look at thoughts on marriage. Fuller's book outlines four different types of marriage. The first is based purely on need and convenience, the second on mutual idolatry of the other. Next is intellectual companionship. Finally, there is the spiritual marriage, which encompasses the previous three and in which the man and woman are equal spiritual partners.

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