Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Resistance and Transformation: An Adult Program on Unitarian Universalist Social Justice History

Margaret Fuller

Margaret Fuller was born in 1810, at a time when women could not attend institutions of higher learning. Although brilliant, she was denied the educational opportunities enjoyed by her father and her male peers. She persevered in her education, on her own terms. She refused to accept the limited role of women in American society, and was a pioneer on issues of women's rights.

Both members of the Transcendentalist circle, Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson were intellectual sparring partners. She was an editor of and contributor to The Dial, the famous Transcendentalist journal of the era. Plagued by financial troubles after the death of her father in 1835, she took teaching positions to make ends meet. Her work as a teacher included time as part of the faculty of Bronson Alcott's experimental Temple School.

Unable to attend Harvard Divinity School as Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Ellery Channing and Theodore Parker had done, Fuller took it upon herself to create a place where women could discuss issues of ethics, education, theology, fine arts, and classical mythology, discussions that the male friends and husbands of her circle took for granted. She began holding salons primarily for women—events she called "Conversations"—in the Boston bookshop owned by her good friend Elizabeth Peabody. As topics for conversation, she often used the same books that were being discussed at the Divinity School. Fuller was able to support herself for a time from income generated through these salons, and was therefore able to write.

In 1845, Fuller's most influential work, Women of the Nineteenth Century, was published. Peabody's bookshop had become a meeting place for the growing women's rights movement, and Fuller's book encapsulated the work of that community. Horace Greeley, in his review of the book, stated, "It was the loftiest and most commanding assertion yet made of the right of Woman to be regarded and treated as an independent, intelligent, rational being, entitled to an equal voice in framing and modifying the laws she is required to obey, and in controlling and disposing of the property she has inherited or aided to acquire... hers is the ablest, bravest, broadest, assertion yet made of what are termed Woman's Rights."

In 1846, Fuller traveled to Europe on a writing assignment. Once there, she became enmeshed in the uprisings in Italy and found a freedom that had eluded her in New England. She and a young Italian nobleman, Giovanni Ossoli, had a child together in 1848. Uncertain of what her reception might be back in New England, she and Ossoli set out with their son to return to the United States in 1850. On the voyage home, the ship was wrecked on a sandbar off of Fire Island, New York, and the entire family, along with most of the passengers, was killed. Upon hearing of the wreck, Emerson sent Thoreau out to the beach to see if any of Fuller's writings could be recovered, but nothing was found.