MARGARET FULLER AND MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT
Woman in the Nineteenth Century, and Kindred Papers relating to the Sphere, Condition and Duties of Woman. By Margaret Fuller Ossoli.
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The dearth of new books just now gives us time to recur to less recent ones which we have hitherto noticed but slightly; and among these we choose the late edition of Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century because we think it has been unduly thrust into the background by less comprehensive and candid productions on the same subject. Notwithstanding certain defects of taste and a sort of vague spiritualism and grandiloquence which belong to all but the very best American writers, the book is a valuable one: it has the enthusiasm of a noble and sympathetic nature with the moderation and breadth and large allowance of a vigorous and cultivated understanding. There is no exaggeration of woman’s moral excellence or intellectual capabilities; no injudicious insistence on her fitness for this or that function hitherto engrossed by men; but a calm plea for the removal of unjust laws and artificial restrictions, so that the possibilities of her nature may have room for full development, a wisely stated demand to disencumber her of the
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Parasitic forms
That seem to keep her up, but drag her down —
And leave her field to burgeon and to bloom
From all within her, make herself her own
To give or keep, to live and learn and be
All that not harms distinctive womanhood.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 It is interesting to compare this essay of Margaret Fuller’s published in its earliest form in 1843, with a work on the position of woman, written between sixty and seventy years ago – we mean Mary Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Woman. The latter work was not continued beyond the first volume but so far as this carries the subject, the comparison, at least in relation to strong sense and loftiness of moral tone, is not at all disadvantageous to the woman of the last century. There is in some quarters a vague prejudice against The Rights of Woman as in some way or other a reprehensible book, but readers who go to it with this impression will be surprised to find it eminently serious, severely moral, and withal rather heavy – the true reason perhaps, that no edition has been published since 1796, and that it is now rather scarce. There are several points of resemblance, as well as of striking difference, between the two books. A strong understanding is present in both; but Margaret Fuller’s mind was like some regions of her own American continent, where you are constantly stepping from the sunny “clearings” into the mysterious twilight of the tangled forest — she often passes in one breath from forcible reasoning to dreamy vagueness; moreover, her unusually varied culture gives her great command of illustration. Mary Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, is nothing if not rational; she has much erudition, and her grave pages are lit up by no ray of fancy. In both writers we discern, under the brave bearing of a strong and truthful nature, the beating of a loving woman’s heart, which teaches them not to undervalue the smallest offices of domestic care or kindness.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 But Margaret Fuller, with all her passionate sensibility, is more of the literary woman, who would not have been satisfied without intellectual production. Mary Wollstonecraft we imagine, wrote not at all for writing’s sake, but from the pressure of other motives. So far as the difference of date allows, there is a striking coincidence in their trains of thought; indeed, every important idea in the Rights of Woman, except the combination of home education with a common day-school for boys and girls, reappears in Margaret Fuller’s essay.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 One point on which they both write forcibly is the fact that, while men have a horror of such faculty or culture in the other sex as tends to place it on a level with their own, they are really in a state of subjection to ignorant and feeble-minded women. Margaret Fuller says:
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Wherever man is sufficiently raised above extreme poverty or brutal stupidity, to care for the comforts of the fireside, or the bloom and ornament of life, woman has always power enough, if she chooses to exert it, and is usually disposed to do so, in proportion to her ignorance and childish vanity. Unacquainted with the importance of life and its purposes, trained to a selfish coquetry and love of petty power, she does not look beyond the pleasure of making herself felt at the moment, and governments are shaken and commerce broken up to gratify the pique of a female favourite. The English shopkeeper’s wife does not vote, but it is for her interest that the politician canvasses by the coarsest flattery.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 All wives, bad or good, loved or unloved, inevitably influence their husbands from the power their position not merely gives, but necessitates of colouring evidence and infusing feelings in hours when the — patient, shall I call him? — is off his guard.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Women have been allowed to remain in ignorance and slavish dependence many, very many years, and still we hear of nothing but their fondness of pleasure and sway, preference of rakes and soldiers, their childish attachment to toys, and the vanity that makes them value accomplishments more than virtues. History brings forward a fearful catalogue of the crimes which their cunning has produced, when the weak slaves have had sufficient address to overreach their masters. … When, therefore, I call women slaves, I mean in a political and civil sense; for indirectly they obtain too much power, and are debased by their exertions to obtain illicit sway. … The libertinism, and even the virtues of superior men, will always give women of some description great power over them; and these weak women, under the influence of childish passions and selfish vanity, will throw a false light over the objects which the very men view with their eyes who who ought to enlighten their judgment. Men of fancy, and those sanguine characters who mostly hold the helm of human affairs in general, relax in the society of women; and surely I need not cite to the most superficial reader of history the numerous examples of vice and oppression which the private intrigues of female favourites have produced; not to dwell on the mischief that naturally arises from the blundering interposition of well-meaning folly. For in the transactions of business it is much better to have to deal with a knave than a fool, because a knave adheres to some plan, and any plan of reason may be seen through sooner than a flight of folly. The power which vile and foolish women have had over wise men who possessed sensibility is notorious.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 There is a notion commonly entertained among men that an instructed woman, capable of having opinions, is likely to prove an impracticable yoke-fellow, always pulling one way when her husband wants to go the other, oracular in tone, and prone to give curtain lectures on metaphysics. But surely, so far as obstinacy is concerned, your unreasoning animal is the most unmanageable of creatures, where you are not allowed to settle the question by a cudgel, a whip and bridle, or even a string to the leg. For our own parts, we see no consistent or commodious medium between the old plan of corporal discipline and that thorough education of women which will make rational beings in the highest sense of the word. Wherever weakness is not harshly controlled it must govern, as you may see when a strong man holds a little child by the hand, how he is pulled hither and thither, and wearied in his walk by his submission to the whims and feeble movements of his companion. A really cultured woman, like a really cultured man, will be ready to yield in trifles. So far as we see, there is no indissoluble connexion between infirmity of logic and infirmity of will, and a woman quite innocent of an opinion in philosophy, is as likely as not to have an indomitable opinion about the kitchen. As to airs of superiority, no woman had them in consequence of true culture, but only because her culture was shallow or unreal, only as a result of what Mrs. Malaprop well calls “the ineffectual qualities in a woman” — mere acquisitions carried about, and not knowledge thoroughly assimilated so as to enter into the growth of the character.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 To return to Margaret Fuller, some of the best things she says are on the folly of absolute definitions of woman’s nature and absolute demarcations of woman’s mission. “Nature,” she says, “seems to delight in varying the arrangements, as if to show that she will be fettered by no rule; and we admit the same varieties that she admits.” Again: “If nature is bound down, nor the voice of inspiration stilled, that is enough. We are pleased that women should write and speak, if they feel need of it, from having something to tell; but silence for ages would be no misfortune, if that silence be from divine command, and not from man’s tradition.” And here is a passage, the beginning of which has been often quoted:
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 If you ask me what offices they [women] may fill, I reply — any. I do not care what case you put; let them be sea-captains if you will. I do not doubt there are women well fitted for such an office, and, if so, I should be as glad us to welcome the Maid of Saragossa, or the Maid of Missolonghi, or the Suliote heroine, or Emily Plater. I think women need, especially at this juncture, a much greater range of occupation than they have, to rouse their latent powers. … In families that I know, some little girls like to saw wood, others to use carpenter’s tools. Where these tastes are indulged, cheerfulness and good-humour are promoted. Where they are forbidden, because “such things are not proper for girls,” they grow sullen and mischievous. Fourier had observed these wants of women, as no one can fail to do who watches the desires of little girls, or knows the ennui that haunts grown women, except where they make to themselves a serene little world by art of some kind. He, therefore, in proposing a great variety of employments, in manufactures or the care of plants and animals, allows for one-third of women as likely to have a taste for masculine pursuits, one-third of men for feminine. … I have no doubt, however, that a large proportion of women would give themselves to the same employments as now, because there are circumstances that must lead them. Mothers will delight to make the nest soft and warm. Nature would take care of that; no need to clip the wings of any bird that wants to soar and sing, or finds in itself the strength of pinion for a migratory flight unusual to its kind. The difference would be that all need not be constrained to employments for which some are unfit.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Women, in particular, all want to be ladies, which is simply to have nothing to do, but listlessly to go they scarcely care where, for they cannot tell what. But what have women to do in society? I may be asked, but to loiter with easy grace; surely you would not condemn them all to suckle fools and chronicle small beer. No. Women might certainly study the art of healing, and be physicians as well as nurses. … Business of various kinds they might likewise pursue, if they were educated in a more orderly manner. … Women would not then marry for a support, as men accept of places under government, and neglect the implied duties.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 2 Men pay a heavy price for their reluctance to encourage self-help and independent resources in women. The precious meridian years of many a man of genius have to be spent in the toil of routine, that an “establishment” be kept up for a woman who can understand none of his secret yearnings, who is fit for nothing but to sit in her drawing-room, like a doll-Madonna in her shrine. No matter. Anything is more endurable than to change our established formulae about women, or to run the risk of looking up to our wives instead of looking down on them. Sit divus, dummodo non sit vivus (let him be a god, provided he be not living), said the Roman magnates of Romulus; and so men say of women, let them be idols, useless absorbents of precious things, provided we are not obliged to admit them to be strictly fellow-beings, to be treated, one and all, with justice and sober reverence.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 2 On one side we hear that woman’s position can never be improved until women themselves are better; and, on the other, that women can never become better until their position is improved – until the laws are made more just, and a wider field opened to feminine activity. But we constantly hear the same difficulty stated about the human race in general. There is a perpetual action and reaction between individuals and institutions; we must try and mend both by little and little — the only way in which human things can be mended. Unfortunately, many over-zealous champions of women assert their actual equality with men—nay, even their moral superiority to men — as a ground for their release from oppressive laws and restrictions. They lose strength immensely by this false position. If it were true, then there would be a case in which slavery and ignorance nourished virtue, and so far we should have an argument for the continuance of bondage. But we want freedom and culture for woman, because subjection and ignorance have debased her, and with her, Man; for —
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Both Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft have too much sagacity to fall into this sentimental exaggeration. Their ardent hopes of what women may become do not prevent them from seeing and painting women as they are. On the relative moral excellence of men and women Mary Wollstonecraft speaks with the most decision: –
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Women are supposed to possess more sensibility, and even humanity, than men, and their strong attachments and instantaneous emotions of compassion are given as proofs; but the clinging affection of ignorance has seldom anything noble in it, and may mostly be resolved into selfishness, as well as the affection of children and brutes. I have known many weak women whose sensibility was entirely engrossed by their husbands; and as for their humanity, it was very faint indeed, or rather it was only a transient emotion of compassion. Humanity does not consist “in a squeamish ear,” says an eminent orator. “It belongs to the mind as well as to the nerves.” But this kind of exclusive affection, though it degrades the individual, should not be brought forward as a proof of the inferiority of the sex, because it is the natural consequence of confined views; for even women of superior sense, having their attention turned to little employments and private plans, rarely rise to heroism, unless when spurred on by love! and love, as an heroic passion, like genius, appears but once in an age. I therefore agree with the moralist who asserts “that women have seldom so much generosity as men;” and that their narrow affections, to which justice and humanity are often sacrificed, render the sex apparently inferior, especially as they are commonly inspired by men; but I contend that the heart would expand as the understanding gained strength, if women were not depressed from their cradles.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 We had marked several other passages of Margaret Fuller’s for extract, but as we do not aim at an exhaustive treatment of our subject, and are onlv touching a few of its points, we have, perhaps, already claimed as much of the reader’s attention as he will be willing to give to such desultory material.