Margaret Fuller: A Life Too Soon Ended
Rev. Grace H. Simons
Rev. Joe Cherry
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A liberal religious voice in the Central Valley since 1953.
It's no secret that UUs like to talk about all the prominent figures who have been part of our tradition. Just look at this T-shirt! [The UUA sells a T-Shirt with a list of famous UUs.] And there's a coffee mug a lot like it. I understand the portrait of Susan B. Anthony in our Rochester church is nearly big enough to be a mural. We like to remind each other that several of our early Presidents were Unitarians, to talk about Emerson and Clara Barton and to brag about Pete Seeger. I suspect that we do this as a way of saying that despite our small numbers, we make a difference.
I hope we also find these prominent folks a source of inspiration. The second of the sources of UU inspiration lifts up women and men whose lives showed courageous and principled words and deeds. Each of them, while setting strong examples and having outstanding qualities, was also very human. Each had their own foibles and failings. I think those very shortcomings and oddities make them accessible and increase our ability to imagine that we might be able to do something similar.
Margaret Fuller is something of a case in point and she was born 200 years ago today. She was one of the group of intellectuals and writers we call the Transcendentalists. You may remember that Paula talked some about them last week. We hear of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Peabody and Louisa May Alcott. Fuller was friends with them all - a tight circle of Boston area thinkers and writers, nearly all from Unitarian families. They were highly critical of both the theology and style of Unitarian ministers and churches at the same time they carried many typical New England manners and conventions. We don't hear all that much about Margaret Fuller, partly because she was something of an exception in personality and manner.
Margaret's early childhood holds some keys to understanding this. She was the first child born to her parents, and her father had badly wanted a son. He decided that Margaret would be educated as if she were a boy. Timothy Fuller was a lawyer and member of Congress. He had expectations. In one letter to his wife, he wrote, "Tell Margaret I will love her if she learns to read." She did: at the age of three. When her father was home, he spent evenings teaching her Latin and English grammar. By the time she was seven she had read Virgil, Horace and Ovid. All this made her quite a prodigy when she went to a girls' school. But it also gave her years of night terrors and made her solitary, intense, bookish and unaccustomed to getting along with others her age.
Throughout her life, Margaret never acquired the refined habits expected of New England ladies - even though she arranged to be tutored in etiquette and social graces. She was outspoken on many topics, and not at all shy about her abilities. She once wrote to Emerson, "I now know all the people worth knowing in America, and I find no intellect comparable to my own." Imperious and headstrong, her ways of approaching both women and men made her the subject of teasing and jokes - even among her friends. Still, she was a fine writer and fearless in her social analysis and ideas.
But back to her story. Sometime after Margaret left school, her father contracted cholera and quickly died. She became the main resource for the family and applied to a new school that had opened in Boston. She became a teacher. The school was small and so was her salary. To increase her income, she began giving classes in Latin and German, tutoring and translating works from German. However, the head of the school, an Alcott, was soon embroiled in controversy because he encouraged students to develop their own ideas and interpretations while studying the Bible. This was scandalous. He was attacked by the head of Harvard Divinity School among others. Margaret Fuller rose to his defense. She was becoming a public person - one with radical ideas. Quite a few parents withdrew their children and the school neared bankruptcy. It limped along until Alcott did the unthinkable. He admitted a black child. That was the end.
Luckily, Miss Fuller received a very good offer from a school in Providence. She taught there for two years, but longed for the neighborhood of Boston and the circle of intellectual friends she had begun to make when she taught there. Back she went, and soon found her explorations encouraged by the likes of Emerson and Hawthorne. Gradually, these Transcendentalists developed and articulated their opinions. America was failing to live up to its promise: it was too conventional, too restrictive and too tied to the patterns of Europe.
Emerson was giving public lectures and Margaret wished to do the same. However, the law forbade lectures by women. So Margaret organized regular "Conversations" for Boston women, who were generally not encouraged to apply or extend their learning. This was their opportunity to develop their ideas and explore wider topics. Margaret became an advocate for women's education and mental abilities. "Let it not be said, whenever there is energy or creative genius, `She has a masculine mind'." Margaret's reputation grew - but some of the women who came were considered uppity. They no longer seemed to know their place.
On a trip west - all the way to Wisconsin - Margaret experienced life outside the rarified atmosphere of New England. She was outraged at the conditions endured by women who had been raised with only the skills of drawing room and parlor but now needed to manage households on the frontier. Her commitment to women's education was strengthened and she also became an advocate for property rights, for rights within marriage and for the opening of all areas of employment to women. "We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to women as freely as to men," she wrote. "If you ask me what offices they may fill, I reply - any. I do not care what case you put; let them be sea captains, if you will."
Margaret Fuller became the editor of the Dial, the magazine of the Transcendentalists and was also a contributor. Her essay on women's rights formed the basis for her later book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century. It was the first book on the topic published in America, and made her both well- known and controversial. The first printing sold out within a week. While advocating for women's abilities and rights in many areas, she also claimed, "I mean both men and women; these are the two halves of one thought. I lay no special stress on the welfare of either. I believe that the development of one cannot be effected without that of the other." A few praised the book, but more were outraged. Margaret Fuller had called for a revolution in the place of women in both public and private life.
It was her description of her travels west though, that caught the eye of Horace Greeley, he of "Go west, young man! Go west!" Greeley convinced Margaret to move to New York and work for the New York Tribune. She became the first woman journalist on any newspaper in the US. She wrote reports, reviews, and social critique (notably on abolition, the treatment of American Indians and prison conditions) and she gradually became an established journalist. Then came an opportunity to travel to Europe. Greeley agreed to publish pieces she sent from her travels. Margaret Fuller became America's first foreign correspondent.
She traveled with friends through England and France, but it was in Italy that her life was changed. Ideas of revolution had been growing in Italian soil. She met and fell in love with an Italian Marquis who was involved in the revolt. They married had a child. When the fighting began, Margaret was drawn into the revolutionary efforts, but the uprising of 1848 failed. Deeply disappointed and now impoverished, she arranged to borrow enough money to sail home. All the plans were in place and Margaret knew that she would be able to earn a living back in the United States. But she was filled with foreboding and wrote to several friends that she felt some ill fortune would befall her within the year.
Still, the family set sail. When they neared their destination, however, the ship ran aground. They were within sight of the shore. The captain tried several strategies to get Margaret off the ship, but she refused: refused to be separated from her little son, refused to try suggested methods, refused to trust the crew. Finally, the ship began to break up in the storm-driven waves. A sailor snatched the boy and struck out toward shore just as a wave toppled the mast, which crashed into the deck. Neither sailor, boy nor parents survived. In fact, Margaret Fuller's body was never found.
Perhaps it was the controversy she raised. Perhaps her long stay in Europe had let her brilliance fade in the minds of Americans. Perhaps her lack of social skills caused resentment and animosity. Whatever the reasons, American culture turned away from Fuller and she was ignored or forgotten until the 1970s brought a surge of research in women's studies. Even today, neither her name nor her work are very familiar.
Still, many of her ideas were carried on by reformers through the remaining years of the 19th century and into the 20th. We can be inspired in our own day by the ways she opened doors of possibility. Both with her writing and her independent life, she raised the aspirations and hopes of women. That new hope is a gift which empowers others to expand their efforts, to dare to spread their wings.
Another figure is being celebrated this weekend - one much closer to our own day. Yesterday was the first Harvey Milk observance. He too spoke out for pride and rights but died young. Both for Fuller and for Milk, we may well wonder what achievements might have marked their later years, what differences we would see because of their advocacy for the rights and dignity of those forced to the margins of society.
In Milk's most famous speech, he said, "I can't forget the looks on faces of people who've lost hope. Be they gay, be they seniors, be they blacks looking for an almost-impossible job, be they Latins trying to explain their problems and aspirations in a tongue that's foreign to them ... And the young gay people in the Altoona, Pennsylvania ... you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow. Hope that (things) will be all right. you have to give the people hope."
The 2008 election turned the word hope into a slogan. That was clearly effective, but I hate to see hope become partisan - a possession for one side and object of ridicule for the other. We Unitarians, Universalists and Unitarian Universalists have a long tradition of holding out hope, of working on the basis of hope, of claiming that hopes can become reality. We hold the kinds of hopes that Margaret Fuller and Harvey Milk raised. That kind of hope changes lives and builds a better day. Both Fuller and Milk inspire us to speak and act based on hopes that our communities and our culture will value the gifts of all our people, and in so doing, free and enrich us all. Let's be sure that we speak and act to give them hope!
May 23, 2010
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We are a liberal church and the only UU congregation in Stanislaus county. We serve Ceres, Denair, Escalon, Hickman, Hughson, Keyes, Manteca, Modesto, Oakdale, Patterson, Ripon, Riverbank, Salida, Turlock and Waterford. We welcome Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Deists, Free-thinkers, Humanists, Jews, Pagans, Theists, Wiccans, and those who seek their own spiritual path. We welcome people without regard to race, physical ability, ethnicity or sexual orientation.