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A Revolution of Libraries and Living Rooms: Margaret Fuller’s Legacy of Liberation

Sermon by the Family Minister

Sunday, March 21, UU Society of Sacramento

Hymns:

#207, Earth Was Given as a Garden;  #21, For the Beauty of the Earth;  #51, Lady of the Seasons’ Laughter

Offering Shared with St. John’s Shelter for Women & Children

Question for Reflection before the Offering and Music:

Consider the areas that our Unitarian Universalist movement has chosen to emphasize in our social justice work and social-service activities.  What is the religious principle on which we have based the social-action choices and priorities we have made?  What is the primary religious value that grounds our work?

Sermon:

It’s  my view that most of the social justice priorities of the Unitarian Universalist tradition are based on the values of human dignity and freedom.  The kind of freedom that grounds our social justice actions is not the freedom to be left alone, not the license to do or say whatever you want—though these values are important to many.  Our grounding concept is the freedom to self-development.  This is the right and the ability to grow and flourish to your own potential, to your full humanity.  We protect and promote the ability of people to grow, thrive and contribute to the world.  We strive to remove barriers and lend a hand.

For example, many Universalists and Unitarians were active in the abolitionist movement, or supportive of it.  Slavery is wrong because of the indignity and cruelty of holding another person as property, but also because to do so is to obstruct a person’s free expression and choice, to hinder the flourishing of their full humanity.  Civil rights legislation enables us all to participate as much as we choose in decisions of government and our shared public life.  Without fair and equal opportunities for work, we can’t express our vocation, put our talents to use, or provide for ourselves and those in our care.  Education is another area that determines whether people flourish and succeed, or fall short of their potential.  Universalists and Unitarians have established schools and colleges, brought about free public education, and founded the first free kindergarten in the country.

The cause of human flourishing and freedom grows wider in every era, expanding its embrace.

Many UUs have been involved in every one of the waves of feminism, supporting and leading the movement for women’s rights and free expression of their humanity.  Likewise, we welcome and affirm different gender expressions and sexual orientations.  We join in the struggle for equal rights and we often have led the larger religious community in the work.  We recognize that to be denied your identity or your love is to be denied your freedom to grow and flourish.

Consider this year’s controversy over health insurance reform.  Our personal and public health is key to human flourishing and achievement of our potential. The lack of affordable health coverage can hobble us  with pain and sickness, can sap our strength, drive us to distraction, bankrupt our family, or send us to an early grave.

Over time, the circle of concern and action grows wider for people who care about human dignity and the freedom to pursue your potential.  Such progress is not inevitable, and there have been backlashes and reversals.  Yet over history we have seen new awareness dawning, old prejudice discarded, people speaking up for themselves and speaking out for others.   Every advancement has been a gift to us from people who took risks, gave of themselves, enlarged the vision.  Today I’d like to tell you a bit about one of those people, Margaret Fuller.

Margaret Fuller cast a vision for a wider embrace of freedom in the United States, particularly for the empowerment of women. Through her work as a writer, critic, editor and friend,  Fuller advocated for the freedom of body, mind, soul and spirit.   For example, in her book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, she says that what a woman needs is “as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely and unimpeded, to unfold such powers as were given her.”

Margaret was born to Unitarian parents in Cambridge, Massachusettts, in 1810, 200 years ago this May.  She was the oldest of nine children.  Her father was a lawyer and a Congressman.  Timothy Fuller taught his daughter himself, drilling her on Latin at age six, as well as other languages and teaching her Classical and contemporary literature. This kind of study was usually reserved for boys—and older ones at that.  Margaret had to study in the day and recite lessons to her dad in the evening.  She recalls:  this was a “discipline of considerable severity,” yet it made her academically confident and assertive—and quite productive later on.

When she was a child, Margaret’s father focused on her intellect, and neglected his nurturing of her emotional life.  He taught her to believe she had the ability and the right to do whatever she set her mind to doing.  Then, as she grew into adulthood, her father changed course.  He insisted that she learn to live like a lady.  He sent her to Miss Prescott’s Young Ladies’ Seminary, where other students read her social awkwardness and intellectual assertiveness as arrogance.  They ridiculed her.

When Margaret was 22, Mr. Fuller retired from politics and moved the family to Groton, out in the country in those days.  It was lonely to be so far from her intellectual and social circle, but she used the time to study more, reading and translating foreign literature into English.   Three years later, Margaret’s father died, and she became head of the family.  She did lots of housework, tutored her four younger siblings, and helped her mother manage the family finances.  For the rest of her life, Margaret never experienced complete financial security.

Later on, as a young adult back in Cambridge, she made friends with people in the religious and literary movement known as American Transcendentalism– including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Elizabeth Peabody and others.  These were among the leading writers, philosophers, and theologians in America at the time.  Margaret wrote essays and book reviews for The Dial, the journal of her circle of idealistic philosophers.  She served as its editor.  Though it lasted only a few years, The Dial had a large and lasting influence in American thought.

She was a prolific literary reviewer.  Fuller’s biographer Paula Blanchard notes that in the 1840s, the only other reviewer of significance besides Margaret Fuller was Edgar Allen Poe.  “The two were almost exactly opposite in their critical standards, but [at least they were alike] in having any at all.”[i]

For a time she taught at Bronson Alcott’s experimental school in Providence, Rhode Island.  His goal was to nurture the unique gifts in every child’s mind instead of molding children to society’s expectations.  Yet Alcott’s teaching was so radical that the school didn’t last long.  For example, he told students that babies are “the product of love”—he didn’t get any more detailed or specific than that, but it was considered a terrible revelation to let the kids know that the stork hadn’t brought them.[ii]

Margaret worked for a time as a translator and assistant for William Ellery Channing, the minister known as the father of American Unitarianism.  She remembers him as tender and respectful, and interested in the development of women’s gifts and opportunities.  She writes:  “He regarded them as souls, each of which had a destiny of its own… guided by the light of private conscience.”[iii]

Margaret needed access to the library at Harvard College to pursue her research.  In those days, that library was like a private men’s club, but she persisted.  She became the first woman ever allowed to work in Harvard’s library, but she still wasn’t eligible to enroll as a student.

Margaret’s friends included Elizabeth Peabody, along with her sisters Mary and Sophia Peabody.  Like Margaret, Elizabeth had been tutored as a child, though by her mother.  She had learned Latin and ten other languages.[iv] Among Peabody’s contributions as a social reformer was the founding of the first free public kindergarten in the United States.  As a businesswoman, she operated the West Street Bookstore.  It was as a center of literary thought and social reform.  At Peabody’s bookstore Margaret Fuller hosted a series of conversations for groups of women, and facilitated those discussions.  A college education was off-limits to most women, so Fuller’s program was a rare source of college-level lectures and intellectual conversations.  She provided the women in her meetings with an opportunity to express themselves without the judgment or intrusion of men–an opportunity to exchange ideas and learn from one another.  Stepping outside their housekeeping duties, the women found an invitation to grow in mind and spirit.

Fuller writes that every one of us—every person of every gender—is called to “be a student of and servant to, the universe-spirit”—the Divine.  Every one can have a connection to the universe-spirit.  Fuller does not refer to God as the Almighty, but as the All-Sustaining, the All-Creating.

All beings are kindred, she says, for they are the children of God. Each person can be an “angelic minister helping to “bring the planet into conscious harmony.”[v]

Unfortunately, she says, the human being is still “a stranger to [this] inheritance” of holiness.  As individuals, we have so many unused and unrecognized gifts.  As a civilization, we have so much unrealized potential.  Too much stands in the way of the full flourishing of the human family.

This faith underlies Fuller’s arguments in her major book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century.  Published in 1847, it sold out right away.  It caused a scandal and much discussion around the country.  Indeed, in its wake the first National Women’s Rights Conference took place, in Seneca Falls, New York.  Yet it was another 73 years before women achieved the right to vote in the United States Constitution.

Fuller proclaims:  “We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down.  We would have every path laid open to woman as freely as to man.”  In her book she notes that only in the institution of slavery are women on a par with men:  “Each is [only] a work-tool, an article of property.”[vi]

Fuller shows the contrasts between the founding of the United States on values like freedom and equality and the ongoing and “monstrous display of slave dealing and slave keeping.”  Defenders of slavery, she notes, accuse abolitionists of trying to “break up national union, to destroy the country’s prosperity.”  Now, those who oppose giving freedom to women say such freedom will “break up family union,” destroy the beauty of the home.  As Fuller puts it, they say: “[You try] to take my wife away from [her duties at] the cradle and the kitchen hearth to vote at the polls and preach at the pulpit….  She is happy enough as it is.”  Fuller says:  “Have you asked her whether she was satisfied?”

Yet even men who led the cause against slavery resisted the involvement of women in abolitionist organizations.  In those times, women were not supposed to speak in public at mixed-gender events.  In 1840, at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, women in the American delegation were barred from the convention floor.  That same year, closer to home, the chairman of the Connecticut Anti-Slavery society flew into a rage because Abby Kelley would not keep silent.  He said: “I will not countenance such an outrage on decency….  It is woman’s business to take care of children in the nursery.  She has no business to come into this meeting….”

What’s the problem you might ask?  Women interfere with men’s thinking, the chairman said.   “Where woman’s enticing eloquence is heard men are incapable of right and efficient action.  She beguiles and blinds man by her smiles and…winning voice.”[vii] Such opposition toward women in anti-slavery work and hostility toward them by men in the press had the effect of drawing many abolitionist women into activism for women’s rights.[viii]

Yet Margaret Fuller can show compassion for the kind of man who sneers at women’s demand for fairness:  such a man does not mean to be ungenerous, he is just not yet enlightened.  She says that such hostility is really a “cry for insight.”[ix] She shows confidence that insight will come:  “As men become aware that few men have had a fair chance…they can see that no women have had a fair chance.”[x]

Fuller attacks the prevailing paternalistic attitude of her day, known as the cult of True Womanhood.  This is the view that women, by keeping their innocence in the shelter of their domestic lives, were a civilizing force for the men in their life.  They contributed to society by limiting themselves to cooking, sewing, housekeeping and child-rearing duties, and the spiritual elevation of their husbands and children.  Men, for their part, were considered the protectors of their wives, mothers, daughters, sisters.  Fuller points out, however, that this arrangement does not protect thousands and thousands of women who have no husband or other source of male support in their family.  They must support themselves alone. Such women have “no choice but to work … or steal or belong to men, not as wives but” as prostitutes, she writes.

Scholar Donna Dickenson points out that many young working-class women “used prostitution to eke out low earnings through periods of unemployment.”[xi] In Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Fuller defends women in prostitution from the condemnation of polite society.  She points out that for most prostitutes it’s not a matter of sin but of survival.  Why else would a woman put herself at risk, or subject herself to degradation?  Then, Fuller looks at the situation of women in polite society.  She notes that an independent woman could almost never be economically secure.   Because of such insecurity, women essentially were the property of their fathers and then of their husbands.  Fuller describes how women in polite society learn how to get the attention of men, while not being obvious about it.  That’s unappealing in a woman:  shouldn’t look desperate.  When women hide their true selves in order to get the security of a marriage, when they have to package themselves into something worth buying, Fuller asks, how is this different from prostitution?

Hence, when a woman needs to go into the world to provide for herself, Fuller says, “let her at least have fair play.”  Occupations must be opened for women.  In particular, she recommends training women for the fields of teaching and nursing, and the hiring of women into such jobs.  Nursing “was not regarded a proper profession or as a profession proper for ladies,” writes Donna Dickenson.[xii] This was nearly two  decades before Dorothea Dix and Florence Nightengale established nursing as a profession for women during wartime.

Fuller’s book was published by the printer of the New York Tribune, the newspaper of Horace Greeley, a political activist and member of the Universalist church.  Greeley had hired Fuller, and made her the Tribune’s literary and political editor.  She investigated corruption in New York, met with women in prison for the crime of prostitution, and recorded her summer travels on the Great Lakes.  In 1848, a year after Woman in the Nineteenth Century was published, Fuller headed to Europe.  The newspaper printed her dispatches from England, Scotland, France and Italy.  Writing from London, Fuller was happy to report on a new kind of business: laundry facilities for poor women—the  precursor to the laudromat—including water and wash basins, plus rooms for hanging clothes to dry, since outdoor space was scare in crowded city neighborhoods.[xiii] In Paris she discovered another new institution:  day care, which enabled “poor women to leave their children to be nursed during the day while they work[ed].” [xiv]

She moved to Rome, took the side of the pro-republic revolutionary fighters, reported for the newspaper, and began a book on the revolution.  This made her the first female foreign-war correspondent from the United States.   At age 38, she met an Italian man 12 years younger than she was.  Giovanni Angelo Ossoli and Margaret Fuller fell in love, retreated to a village, and had a son.  It’s unclear whether they ever married.  When his regiment was called into Rome to defend the republican cause, Margaret went along and worked in a hospital as a nurse.  Afterward, when their baby was two, they sailed to the United States, but could afford to travel only on a freighter. The night before its expected arrival in New York, knocked about by Hurricane winds and stormy waters, the freighter hit a sand bar and sank.  Margaret, her husband and baby all died.  Her friends Emerson and Thoreau went down from Boston to visit the wreck but could find no trace of Margaret’s family or her possessions, including the history she had been writing of the revolution.[xv]

In 40 brief years, Fuller had launched herself from a life of study, teaching and encouragement of others into a life of risk-taking, trail-blazing action.  In living rooms or parlors, Margaret Fuller and her friends led a movement of idealism in American literature and a revolution of spiritual expression and exploration in American religion.  In her discussion groups, she invited women out of sex roles and gender prisons to find confidence in critical thinking, and find themselves in the free exchange of ideas and opinions.  She named injustice, challenged hypocrisy, and called for the overthrow of all arbitrary barriers to human flourishing. Her work not only brought forward the cause of women’s empowerment, it enlarged the vision of human dignity and freedom for all kinds of people.

In every era, the circle of concern and action grows wider as new awareness dawns, old prejudice discarded, and people speak up for themselves and speak up for others.

A theme of Transcendentalism is that every person is a source of light and truth.  Each person can be—in Margaret Fuller’s words—an angelic minister, helping humanity to flourish and shine.

In spite of adversity, each one of us can help others to bring forth the light and the truth we hold within.  We can learn to know and value our own gifts, and bring those gifts forward into a world that needs us.

Amen.


[i] Paula Blanchard, Margaret Fuller: From Transcendentalism to Revolution (Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1987).

[ii] “Bronson and Abigail Alcott,” by Charles Howe and Peter Hughes, online Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography , http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/bronsonalcott.html

[iii] Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century and Other Writings. Donna Dickenson, ed. (Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 73.

[iv] “The Peabody Sisters,” by Susan Ritchie, online Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography, http://www25-temp.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/peabodysisters.html.

[v] Fuller, p. 5.

[vi] Ibid., p. 38.

[vii] Ibid, p. 240, note 72.

[viii] Ibid., p. 240, note 72.

[ix] Ibid., p. 24.

[x] Ibid., p. 11.  Emphasis mine.

[xi] Ibid , Introduction by Donna Dickenson, p. xxv.

[xii] Ibid., p. 259, note 210.

[xiii]Ibid., p. 213.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 213.

[xv] “Margaret Fuller,” by Joan Goodwin, online Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography, http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/margaretfuller.html

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