1. Education

Transcendentalist Women Part 1

When you hear the word "Transcendentalism" do you immediate think "high school English class" or "Ralph Waldo Emerson" or "Henry David Thoreau"? Very few, I'll wager, think quickly of the names of the women who were associated with Transcendentalism. (If Transcendentalism is new to you, or you're not sure what it means, check here.)

Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody were the only two women who were original members of the Transcendental Club, but other women were part of the inner circle of the group who called themselves Transcendentalists. In this series, I highlight a few of these Transcendentalist Women:

Margaret Fuller

Margaret Fuller (1810-1850)

"Very early, I knew that the only object in life was to grow."

Fuller's biography, not (in my opinion) yet adequately told anywhere on the Net, is rich and fascinating. Her father, disappointed that she was not a son, educated her in what was then considered the masculine style. She was intellectually the superior of most if not all her contemporaries. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, a friend and colleague, made fun of her statement that "I now know all the people worth knowing in America, and I find no intellect comparable to my own." Of course, he felt like he was one of the exceptions!) She often found herself -- as many over-educated intelligent women have -- without peers, without enough challenge.

She came, as an adult, into the circle of people who would soon grow into the Transcendentalists. She was hired as a teacher in Bronson Alcott's school, where fellow teacher Elizabeth Peabody became her close friend. She met the English author and reformer Harriet Martineau who introduced Fuller to Emerson. James Freeman Clarke and Henry Hedge were Harvard students who moved in many of the same intellectual circles as she did.

From 1839-1844, she earned a living by sponsoring her famous Conversations, to which were invited many of the educated women of Boston and surrounding areas -- wives of famous men like Emerson and Theodore Parker, but also women who were developing their own work and careers, often as writers. Included were Lydia Maria Child, Elizabeth and Sophia Peabody, Ellen and Caroline Sturgis. (A series involving both men and women failed to have the same lasting success as those attended just by women.)

Fuller contributed art and literary criticism to the Dial, published by the Transcendentalists, and became editor of that journal at its founding in 1840. The Dial was only published for four years, but was a turning point in American literary development.

She helped plan and develop Brook Farm, a utopian experiment; though she never lived there, she was a frequent visitor.

In 1842, when she tried to remove herself from editor of the Dial, Emerson volunteered to take over. But according to some sources, she continued to do most of the editing work until she left New England in 1840 to work on Horace Greeley's New York Tribune as literary critic.

In 1845, Fuller published Woman in the Nineteenth Century (see links below), considered now as a classic work of feminist writing. In 1846, she took up an opportunity Greeley offered to serve in Europe as foreign correspondent with the Tribune.

In England, she met -- among many others -- the Italian revolutionist Mazzini, then in exile. After a stay in France, she went to Italy, where she involved herself in the cause itself. In 1847, her friends and family began to receive letters with a new buoyancy and enthusiasm: Margaret Fuller was in love. Her lover, Giovanni Angelo, Marchese d'Ossoli, helped draw Fuller into revolutionary activism. By 1848, she was pregnant; after several months spent with their child, Angelo Eugene, Fuller left him with a nurse and returned to Rome and her lover.

The Republic that she and Ossoli had been involved in creating was defeated in 1849, and Fuller, Ossoli, and their child fled to Florence. She began writing a history of the revolution. She claimed in letters to have married Ossoli; the exact date and place are in doubt, and some scholars suggest that the marriage was invented to ease her return to society in America.

With husband and child, Fuller sailed to New York. Tragically, just a few hours outside harbor, a storm drove the ship onto a sandbar. Just a few hundred feet from shore, the ship broke apart. The child's body was later found; neither Fuller's nor Ossoli's ever was.

Mary Moody Emerson (1774-1863)

Aunt of Ralph Waldo Emerson, her ideas had a marked influence on her nephew's philosophical development. A 1998 book, Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism: A Family History (Phyllis Cole), uses the diaries and letters of Mary Moody Emerson to document her influence on her nephew.

Daughter of Rev. William Emerson, minister of First Parish Church (Concord, Massachusetts) and of Phebe Bliss Emerson, daughter of the previous minister of that same First Parish Church, Mary was taken at two to live with her grandparents when her father enlisted as a chaplain in the Revolutionary Army. He died soon after of a fever, and her grandmother died in 1779. Her mother remarried, but Mary stayed with her childless aunt, Ruth Emerson Sargeant.

She returned when she was nineteen to help her mother care for the children of her second marriage -- to William Emerson's successor at First Parish Church, Ezra Ripley. She moved to her own home (purchased with an inheritance from her aunt) in Maine, but at age 37 returned to Boston to live with the widow of her brother, William, minister of First Church in Boston.

"Scorn trifles, lift your aims; do what you are afraid to do," she taught young Ralph Waldo, Edward and Charles, devoting herself to their education. Her own education and reading helped challenge the intellect and moral development, especially, of Waldo.

She broke with her nephew in later years, not over his leaving the ministry (which disappointed her) but over his radical Divinity School Address in 1838. She befriended Henry David Thoreau, as well, and their journals reflect their conversations.

While the Phyllis Cole book was hailed in the press as "revealing" supposed "plagiarism" of his aunt by the more famous nephew, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Moody Emerson's influence on Waldo has long been known and recognized, including by Waldo in his lifetime.

*graphics on this page from www.arttoday.com
used with permission

Puzzled by what Transcendentalism is? What is Transcendentalism?.

More Transcendentalist women: The Peabody sisters, Harriet Martineau, Julia Ward Howe, Louisa May Alcott, and Emily Dickinson.

Author: Jone Johnson Lewis.
Title: "Transcendentalist Women Part 1"
This URL: http://womenshistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa031599.htm

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