Woman's rights activist, journalist, transcendentalist, literary critic, and editor, she was born Sarah Margaret Fuller on 23 May 1810 in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. The eldest child of Timothy Fuller, a lawyer and U.S. Congressman, and Margarett Crane, her father was quick to recognize her intellectual capacity and set out to educate Margaret in a manner not usually afforded to women in the nineteenth century. By age six Fuller was reading both English and Latin. Fuller's classical education prepared her for entrance into an intellectual world controlled and dominated by men, but it also extracted on exacting cost on her childhood. She often suffered from headaches and a recurring vision that horses were trampling her. In Fuller's Autobiographical Romance she describes the educational regime instituted for her by her father. “Thus I had tasks given me, as many and various as the hours would allow, and on subjects beyond my age; with the additional disadvantage of reciting to him in the evening, after he returned from his office. As he was subject to many interruptions, I was often kept up till very late; and he was a severe teacher, both from his habits of mind and his ambition for me, my feelings were kept on the stretch till the recitations were over.” (1992, 26) Looking back on this period of her life in the early 1840's Fuller was able to conclude that although her education succeeded in molding her into a “youthful prodigy” it also robbed her of her childhood. “Poor child! Far remote in time, in thought, from that period, I look back on these glooms and terrors, wherein I was enveloped, and perceive that I had no natural childhood!” (27)
Recognizing that the rigorous instruction provided by her father kept her isolated from other children, Fuller was sent to the Park School in 1821 where she stayed for only a year. In 1824 she was enrolled in Susan Prescott's school in Groton, Massachusetts in attempts to provide her with a more traditional educational experience for the time. When Fuller returned to Cambridge in 1826 she embarked on one of the most fruitful periods of her life when she met and associated with James Freeman Clarke and William Henry Channing, then students at Harvard. At this time Harvard was experiencing an influx of European thinkers that made the 1820s and early 1830s one of the most electric periods of intellectual growth in American history.
This period of growth ended for Fuller in 1833 when her father moved the family to a farm in Groton. Fuller was put in charge of the education of her siblings a task that, although she accepted, could not have compared with the intellectual excitement of the previous period in Cambridge. In October 1835 Timothy Fuller died of cholera. In order to support her family Fuller took up teaching first at Bronson Alcott's Temple School in 1836 and then at the Greene Street School in Providence, Rhode Island In 1837. Fuller's teaching experience in this period permitted her to explore the conversational pedagogy that would be most famously exemplified by her “Conversations” for Boston women that would begin in late 1839 and continue until 1844.
In 1836 Fuller stayed at the house of Ralph Waldo Emerson for three weeks. This would initiate the period of her life in which she was at the center of the Transcendentalist movement. Emerson's first impression of Fuller was not favorable, but she quickly won over Emerson with her charm and wit and they remained close friends until 1846 when Fuller left for Europe. Fuller soon became a frequent member of the meetings of the Transcendental club, attending the first meeting open to women the day after Emerson delivered his famous address “The American Scholar” in 1837. Fuller's standing in this circle would eventually translate into her editorship of The Dial, the literary organ founded to disseminate the ideas of the burgeoning Transcendentalist movement which first appeared in July 1840. She edited this journal until 1842.
During this period Fuller inaugurated her series of “Conversations” that included topics such as Greek Mythology, education, the position of women, ethics, and the fine arts. They were attended by such notable Boston women as Lydia Emerson, Sophia Ripley, and Lydia Parker, the wives and relations of Transcendentalism's leading figures. The 1841 series of Conversations was titled “The Ethical Influences of Women on the Family, the School, the Church, Society and Literature,” and the next years’ conversations continued to focus on women, along with mystical and transcendentalist themes. Although recordings of Fuller's “Conversations” are scare, the Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1852) edited by Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Henry Channing, and James Freeman Clarke, include accounts of what was discussed. Emerson describes the impact that they had on those who participated as follows. “A new day had dawned for them; new thoughts had opened; the secret life was shown, or, at least, that life had a secret. They could not forget what they had heard, and what they had been surprised into saying. A true refinement had begun to work in many who had been slaves to trifles.” (1852, vol. 1, 337–8) Accounts such as this were instrumental in establishing the received wisdom about Fuller and her impact on reform-minded women in nineteenth century Boston. Yet, despite Emerson's often-warm praise of Fuller he could not resist paying her a backhanded compliment that reflected the prevailing attitude toward women at the time. “A woman in our society finds her safety and happiness in exclusions and privacies. She congratulates herself when she is not called to the market, to the courts, to the polls, to the stage, or to the orchestra. Only the most extraordinary genius can make the career of an artist secure and agreeable to her.” (321–2) Fuller, by all accounts, was just such an extraordinary genius.
In 1843 The Dial published Fuller's essay “The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women” that served as the basis for Fuller's groundbreaking Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). After the completion of “The Great Lawsuit” Fuller embarked on a westward journey to Niagara Falls and on to the Wisconsin territory. Her narrative of her travels were published as Summer on the Lakes (1844), cementing Fuller's reputation as a travel writer as well as a reformer. In Summer on the Lakes Fuller laments the treatment of Native Americans at the hands of white settlers. For her research she was permitted access to the Harvard library, the first woman to be granted that privilege. It was Horace Greeley's admiration for Summer on the Lakes that led him to offer Fuller a position as literary critic for his New-York Daily Tribune. In December 1844, her obligations to her family fulfilled, and her friendships with many of the Boston literary elite strained, Fuller moved to New York City, and began the most publicly visible era of her career.
During 1844–46 Fuller published around two hundred and fifty articles for the Tribune, ranging from book reviews to commentary on social issue of the day. She was the first woman in America to have a salaried journalistic career. In August 1846 Fuller set sail for Europe and become a travel correspondent for the Tribune. Later she became involved in the revolutions that were sweeping Europe in 1848 as a war correspondent documenting the rise and fall of the Roman Republic. When Fuller arrived in Rome in 1847 she met Giovanni Ossoli with whom she had a son. Fuller died, along with Ossoli and her child, on 19 July 1850 in a shipwreck off of Fire Island, New York while returning to America from Europe.
Fuller's most important work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, is a crucial document in the history of American feminism. Fuller beings that work by connecting women's rights with the progress of liberty. “It should be remarked that, as the principle of liberty is better understand, and more nobly interpreted, a broader protest is made in behalf of Woman. As men become aware that few men have had a fair chance, they are inclined to say that no women have had a fair chance.” (1845, 18) Thus, Fuller is explicitly positioning the extension of liberty to women as an issue couched in the larger context of social reform based on class and race as well as gender. Although Fuller's approach is one of social critique, challenging the gender stereotypes that informed her age, the goal, in keeping with her Transcendentalist pedigree, is located in the individual. “Here, as elsewhere, the gain of creation consists always in the growth of individual minds, which live and aspire, as flowers bloom and birds sing, in the midst of morasses; and in the continual development of that thought, the thought of human destiny, which is given to eternity adequately to express, and which ages of failure only seemingly impede.” (19) Ages of failure, characterized metaphorically as stuck in the mud, only seemingly impede the progress of the individual.
America, for Fuller, is destined to live up to its promise of liberty for all. In describing progress in terms of the growth of individual minds, Fuller is echoing the Transcendentalist notion, common in Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, of self-cultivation or self-culture. Where Fuller differs from these thinkers is in the explicit social character of her view. Whereas Emerson and Thoreau might have been satisfied with the solitude required to perfect the self, given the position of woman, Fuller is not satisfied with this option. In fact, Woman in the Nineteenth Century can been seen as the culmination of the period in Fuller's life where she initially honed her literary voice in the private company of her friends and literary acquaintances. Woman marks the transition between Fuller's private life and her public life. When Fuller began writing for the Tribune (which had a circulation of 200,000) she was writing for a wider public audience than the small Bostonian literary elite. As such, the goal of individual growth, especially for women, cannot be achieved by a mere inward turn but rather requires a critical reappraisal of the outward social roles that had prevented women from achieving the kind of self-realization that Emerson championed. No doubt the reaction of Fuller's Cambridge friends upon her move to New York is partially a reaction to her finding her voice as a public figure.
What women want, according to Fuller's argument, is not the opportunity to be manlike, but rather to discover “what is fit for themselves. Were they free, were they wise fully to develop the strength and beauty of woman; they would never wish to be men, or manlike. The well-instructed moon flies not from her orbit to seize on the glories of her partner No; for she knows that one law rules, one heaven contains, one universe replies to them alike. It is with women as with the slave.” (51) The goal is not to invert the master-slave relationship but rather to create the conditions in which both can fully realize themselves. Thus, it is only through the emancipation of women and slaves that men and masters are themselves truly free. For Fuller, the ultimate goal is “the birthright of every being capable to receive it,– the freedom, the religious, the intelligent freedom of the universe, to use its means; to learn its secret as far as nature has enabled them, the God alone for their guide and their judge.” (51) In order to receive this birthright, women need to be on a equal footing with men in terms of voting and property rights, education, and marriage.
Margaret Fuller's life and work continues to be a source of interest for literary scholars and philosophers alike. As feminist interpretations of Fuller's work continue to develop, her place in the history of the Transcendentalist movement is being continually reappraised. Fuller's work remains an incredibly rich resource for understanding the intellectual climate of her time, and the changing role of women which she helped to shape.