Journalist, critic, and women’s rights pioneer Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810—July 19, 1850) is celebrated not only as the first full-time female book reviewer in America, but also as the author of the very first work of feminist literature in the United States — her 1845 book Woman in the Nineteenth Century came more than five decades before women’s right to vote and predated reconstructionist Betty Friedan’s seminal treatise The Feminine Mystique by more than a century. By the time she was thirty, Fuller, a voracious reader, was known as the best-read person New England and became the first woman allowed to use the library at Harvard.

A testament to the formative power of good parenting, Fuller was educated largely by her father, Timothy, who taught her to read and write before she was four. Determined to give his daughter an education as dimensional and exacting as a boy’s, he forbad her from engaging with the era’s literary diet for girls — etiquette books, romance novels, and domestic handbooks — urging her instead to study Latin. By the time she was six, little Margaret was able to translate short passages from Virgil.

Though she later blamed her father’s rigorous instruction for her childhood nightmares, it instilled in her unflinching confidence in the capacity of her own mind, precipitating a broader faith in women’s intellectual capabilities.

Fuller’s words in Woman in the Nineteenth Century, radical at the time, capture her conviction with timeless resonance:

There is no reason why [women] should not discover that the secrets of nature are open, the revelations of the spirit waiting, for whoever will seek them. When the mind is once awakened to this consciousness, it will not be restrained by the habits of the past, but fly to seek the seeds of a heavenly future.

A year after the publication of her seminal book, when she was only thirty-five, Fuller was sent to Europe as the Tribune’s first female correspondent. But her tireless advocacy of equality extended beyond the rights of women and into education, prison reform, and civil rights. Rather, she believed in the fundamental liberty of the human soul, as this beautiful passage from Woman in the Nineteenth Century so eloquently articulates:

Sex, like rank, wealth, beauty, or talent, is but an accident of birth. As you would not educate a soul to be an aristocrat, so do not to be a woman. … Express your views, men, of what you seek in women; thus best do you give them laws. Learn, women, what you should demand of men; thus only can they become themselves. Turn both from the contemplation of what is merely phenomenal in your existence, to your permanent life as souls. … There is but one doctrine for ye both, and that is the doctrine of the SOUL.

Though celebrated suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and beloved poets like Walt Whitman cited Fuller as an inspiration and a major influence, her legacy was dimmed by her literary executors’ tragic shortness of vision and scarcity of faith. Those entrusted with her letters had little regard for Fuller’s enduring contributions to culture, so they truncated, edited, and even censored much of her private writings before publication. Even her obituary in The Daily Tribune, the transcendentalist journal she once edited, acknowledged the occasional excellence of her writings, but coldly noted that “as a whole they must commend themselves mainly by their vigor of thought and habitual fearlessness rather than freedom of utterance.” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son, Julian, was even harsher, writing that Fuller belonged among the “numberless other dismal frauds who fill the limbo of human pretension and failure.”

And yet Fuller shaped the course of feminist thought for generations to come, challenging both men and women to think for themselves rather than obeying social mores in laying the foundations of a new society based on equality, shared dignity, and mutual respect. Such, perhaps, is the lamentable indignity of the human condition: The tragedy of petty jealousy and ignorant ingratitude is the price triumphant spirits pay for challenging a culture’s most comfortable biases.

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    Constant critical interrogation of all assumptions. Like, for instance, how appropriate it would be to refer to her work...
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    hell yeah
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