Spirit in Action: Margaret's Legacy for Us
Dorothy May Emerson and Michael Barnett
The following item by Dorothy Emerson was part of this workshop:
“In Body and Spirit”: Margaret Fuller's Spiritual Development
Additional writings for this workshop include:
“A Life of Greatness: Margaret Fuller’s life and work”
by Dorothy May Emerson, and...
“Margaret Fuller at the New York Tribune: Emerging As a Social Justice Activist”
“Margaret Fuller and Transcendentalism” (original poem)
by Michael Barnett
IN BODY AND SPIRIT: Margaret Fuller’s Spiritual Development
Dorothy May Emerson
When she was in her early thirties, Margaret Fuller looked back at her life and remembered something
she realized as a child:
I had stopped myself one day on the stairs, and asked, how I came to be here? How is it that I seem to be
this Margaret Fuller? What does it mean? What shall I do about it?
She remembered asking herself these questions during a mystical experience she had when she was 21.
It was Thanksgiving and she had gone to church to please her father, but like so many young adults did
not relate to the service. She was struggling with a disappointing relationship and could not accept the
smiling people and the benevolent God being preached. As soon as the service was over, she ran into the
fields, walking for miles in the barren late fall New England landscape, where she had a vision that stuck
with her for the rest of her life.
First she stopped at a stream she described as
“shrunken, voiceless, choked with withered
leaves.” Pretty much how she was feeling, I
imagine. “I marveled that it did not lose itself in
the earth,” she wrote to a friend. Continuing on
her walk, she came to a pool surrounded by thick
trees. Here’s where things began to change.
Suddenly the sun shown with that transparent
sweetness, like the last smile of a dying lover,
which it will use when it has been unkind all a
cold autumn day. And, even then, passed into my
thought a beam from its true sun, from its native
sphere, which has never since departed from me.
Then she remembered the questions she asked herself as a child about who she was. She reflected that
she “saw how long it must be before the soul can learn to act under [the] limitations of time and space
and human nature.”
And then she recognized something about the soul: “I saw, also, that it must do it.” She understood that
the soul must learn to act in spite of it all, and “that it must make all this false true,--and sow new and
immortal plants in the garden of God.”
It reminds me of that Indigo Girls song: “How long till my soul
gets it right? Can any human being ever reach that kind of light?”
Throughout her life, Margaret Fuller reached and kept reaching. She was spurred on this quest by
visions like this one and others she had during her life. Usually these visions came at times of
disappointment, conflict and confusion, when she could have easily given up. Over time, she learned
that difficulties often lead to new insights and growth.
From our perspective in the early 21st century, it’s very difficult for us to understand the enormity of
what it meant for her to question the gender norms of her day a mere half century after the formation of
this country. Biographer Bell Chevigny asserts: “To conceive of women differently was tantamount …
to challenging the assumptions on which the nation was built.”
To say nothing of the religious
assumptions of the Christianity, even the Unitarianism, of the day.
To do this, Bell Chevigny continues: “She had to create a way of life that was not yet possible and a self
whose nature was without local example.”
Mahatma Gandhi said something similar in these often
quoted words: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” What amazes me is how someone
like Margaret Fuller could do this two centuries ago.
Fortunately, she was not the only woman on this journey at the time. Other women were awakening to
the limitations of their proscribed roles. Margaret Fuller’s deep friendships with both women and men
and her Conversations with women helped shape her new ideas. Later she met women in Europe who
were living radically different lives from the norms she grew up with.
Still, she was the one who articulated a new vision for the relationship between men and women. “A
new manifestation is at hand,” she declared, envisioning a time when women and men would share
equally in all aspects of life. Perhaps her most radical new idea, though, was that she based her rationale
for equality on an understanding of male and female as fluid forms, something we are just now coming
more fully to comprehend. Here’s how she put it:
Male and female represent two sides of the great radical dualism. But in fact they are perpetually passing
into one another. Fluid hardens to solid, solid
rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine
man, no purely feminine woman.
Margaret Fuller wrote that she enjoyed being a
woman, but constantly felt restricted by the
role of woman. When she spoke or wrote
intelligently she was often complimented as
having a masculine mind. Her goal for herself
and for society was to integrate the two, so that
women would be free “as a nature to grow, as
an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely
and unimpeded, to unfold such powers as were
In 1844 she went to a country home near the
Hudson River in New York to develop her Dial
essay into the book Woman in the Nineteenth
Century. While at work on that project, she
learned there was a prison housing women
criminals nearby. Ever on the lookout to learn more, she accepted an invitation to visit women inmates
in Sing Sing prison.
Meeting these women, most of whom had been either prostitutes or thieves, blew her theories about
proper female behavior wide open. To her surprise she discovered much similarity in her conversations
with the prisoners and her cohorts in Boston. John Matteson writes: “Fuller saw womankind as
indivisible, not only in a social sense, but also in a spiritual one.”
She appealed to women of means to
recognize their connection with all women and to establish more just relationships across class lines.
Although she was concerned with women’s spiritual development, she did not separate the spirit from
the body or from women’s physical and social conditions. As we have come to realize today, the social is
the spiritual and the personal is the political.
She once wrote: “Early on I knew that the only object in life was to grow.” And she did continue to grow
throughout her life. Each new circumstance and experience widened her vision and expanded her
understanding of the meaning of life and the depths of her soul.
Her goal was to encourage and inspire the establishment of what she understood as true democracy,
which would enable every person to develop their gifts and become contributing members of society.
She increasingly sought to shift public attention from the self-reliant individual to the just society, from
the reformation of the self to the reform of society as a whole.
It might seem as if she were moving away from the self-culture promoted by the Transcendentalists, but
in a sense she was simply taking it a step further by shifting the application of the principles of
transformation from self to society. In her commentary on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays, she notes that
the responsibility of the writer is “to admonish the community … and arouse it to nobler energy.”
would say this is precisely the role of ministry and of our prophetic communities of faith.
Margaret Fuller had to fight long and hard to be herself, to carve out her own way in the world. It may
seem like we have it easier these days. We don’t have the same limitations due to gender restrictions, but
prejudice and oppression still challenge many of us.
Margaret Fuller believed society should be directed by “the divine obligation of love and mutual aid
between human beings.”
It is up to us to continue to work together to bring that vision into reality. In
so doing, her legacy continues through us, as we continue the process of creating greater justice and
equity in our world.
1 Margaret Fuller, in a letter to Jane Tuckerman, Memoirs I, 139-41.
4 Emily Ann Saliers, “Galileo”
5 Bell Chevigny, The Woman and the Myth, 5-6.
6 Ibid., 7.
7 MF, Woman in the Nineteenth Century.
9 John Matteson, “Woes … of which we know nothing”: Fuller and the Problem of Feminine Virtue,” Mass. Historical
Society conference, April 9, 2010.
10 Jeffrey Steele, “Sympathy and Prophecy: The Two Faces of Social Justice in Fuller’s New York Writing,” Mass.
Historical Society conference, April 10, 2010, 2.
11 MF, “Emerson’s Essays,” NY Tribune, Dec. 4, 1844.
12 MF, “Caroline,” NY Tribune, April 9, 1846.