ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance
"The Nineteen-Century Women's Rights Movement and the Canonization of Margaret Fuller"
This article traces the cultural memory of Margaret Fuller as conveyed by proponents of women's rights in the United States over the half-century following her death in 1850. Early death opened her life and message to symbolic appropriation in the long, internally divided history of women's rights advocacy. The memorialists, whose words are recoverable at least in part from their origins in oral speech and print journalism, found a usable past in Fuller; and in so doing they contested her significance with better-known male mythologizers like Emerson and Hawthorne. If disparagement by the latter contributed to Fuller's exclusion from the literary canon, these activists "canonized" Fuller in another sense, as an ongoing influence and feminist saint.
The antebellum decade of women's rights conventions, lyceum lectures, and journalism (the Una) led most notably to the printed essays of Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Caroline Dall. Dall in particular read Fuller in a vital history of feminist critique originating in Wollstonecraft and leading to the conventions. Following the Civil War, memories of Fuller polarized along the competitive line drawn between newly formed activist groups: the New York-based National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, viewed Fuller as a political and social critic, emphasizing her skepticism of marriage; whereas the Boston-based American Woman Suffrage Association, lead by Higginson and Julia Ward Howe, valued her priestly nature and celebration of mystic beauty. Both messages were disseminated throughout the nation by organization media. Even by 1901, as the reunited women's rights movement had taken a more pragmatic turn and Fuller's books had gone out of print, a coalition of leaders again claimed her fresh relevance in a public, media-publicized memorial to Fuller at the site of her death on Fire Island.