Margaret Fuller wrote a kind of manifesto for women with her essay “The Great Lawsuit.” It sounds as though it is something written in the 1970s to put a pep in a feminist’s step, not a work from 1843. It is full of piercing quotes, one being:
“But early I perceived that men never, in any extreme of despair, wished to be women” (1646).
When I read this quote, the first thing I thought of was of how in books or movies, women will disguise themselves as men in order to achieve something they would not have been allowed to as a woman, but you never see a man dressing up as a woman in order to have opportunities he would not normally have had. If a man masquerades as a woman, it is simply for comedic relief. To be a woman is seen as having limitations placed on oneself, whereas being a man is associated with great freedom and so you don’t tend to find stories with men wanting to be women, as to do so would not benefit them in any way. No matter how difficult their situations might be, men in such stories rarely resort to pretending to be the other sex, whereas it is a common plot device for a woman to disguise herself as a man in order to get out of a bad situation or in order to pursue a life she could not otherwise have.
This quote also shows hollowness of the “I totally support you!” argument. They can support us, but men never do they want to trade places with us. Men have a lot of agency, and when they say, “Oh, things can’t be that bad,” or “You don’t have it that tough,” notice that they never actually want to trade places. I have noticed that even today men do have more independence and social strength. I feel as though women are still struggling hard, and we need all the help we can get. I don’t care what men had to say and still have to say about the topic: offer to be me for a day before telling me what I do or don’t understand about my lot in life.
This quote ties into the next, mainly that:
“This is the fault of man, who is still vain, and wishes to be more important to woman than by right he should be.” p. 1646
Not only do men NEVER want to switch places with women, but men also like to think that they are all powerful and all knowing. They think that they are the greater sex and that they have a right to subjugate women and other minorities simply because they are the dominant group. To think that white men are better than women is to be vain. They have flaws just like women do but for some reason those flaws somehow magically disappear and only women are seen as the bad guys. It’s strange to think that men have ruled over women for so long and that we accept them. I’m surprised all the minorities of the world have not band together to rise up against the white man and destroyed his power. IF that were to happen that probably would be like the end of the world.
That idea then spurs the next. The only thing worse than a man who refuses to really understand women or a man who wishes to dominate women is this person (who, horribly enough, may turn out to be a woman herself!)
“Those who would reaform the world must show that they do not speak in the heat of wild impulse; their lives must be unstained by passionate error; they must be severe lawgivers to themselves” (1649).
Not only does this apply to the 1800s, but this quote especially reminded me of the double standard that exists for women politicians as compared to their male counterparts. Today, when women run for government positions, they receive much more criticism than male candidates do—particularly with regards to their personal lives. They are often accused of being too “emotional” in order to govern effectively, something that rarely happens to the men they are running against. Men are never judged as “too emotional” or “too involved.” Their wardrobes are rarely judged as “too feminine” or “trying too hard to be one of the guys.” Much more is expected of female candidates than male, which shows that, although in many ways there is more equality between men and women than there was in the 1800s, there are still ways today in which women are not treated equally.
Speaking of women politicians, this quote speaks to the idea of representing women:
“A profound thinker has said ‘no married woman can represent the female world, for she belongs to her husband. The idea of woman must be represented by a virgin’” (1658).
The idea that a woman must be a virgin has always caused a great confusion. There is no such “married or virgin” standard for men. Women are to “keep” their virginity while men are to have experience, so where are they getting experience? What is with this double standard today? In the 1800s, sex was meant for reproduction, not pleasure…why, then, do we have this idea that men should be “experienced” in the realm of sexuality while women should be as ignorant as possible? This is all very confusing, especially since sex in old-fashioned and a taboo.
It seems to me that, while there is more to a woman than being a wife and mother, and thus a married woman does not represent every aspect of what it means to be female, it is also true that being a wife and a mother are important roles for a woman (particularly since only women can give birth), and so a virgin cannot represent every aspect of what it means to be female, either. Additionally, to say that only a virgin can represent the idea of woman implies that when a woman marries, she ceases to be herself, and while things were different when this was written than they are now, just because a woman was considered to “belong” to her husband does not mean she ceased to be a person with more to her than being a wife and mother.
Also, this quote upsets me because women still seem to believe this! There have been struggles to erase this way of thinking, but many places still believe that the woman belongs to the husband. In the Mexican culture the wife is still considered to be the husband’s property. The husband has the right to tell the wife what to do. The wife is there to please the husband. For example, the other day my aunt asked when I was getting married–I don’t even have a boyfriend. Since I am 22 I am expected to have a husband to “take care” of me. This ideology is still around, and that is disturbing.
Married women, evidently, are not to be taken from their posts, says this quote Fuller references:
“‘It is not enough’ cries the sorrowful trader, ‘that you have done all you could to break up the national Union, and thus destroy the prosperity of our country, but now you must be trying to break up family union, to take my wife away from the cradle, and the kitchen hearth, to vote at polls, and preach from the pul pit? Of course, if she does such things, she cannot attend to those of her won sphere. She is happy enough as she is. She has leisure than I have, every means of improvement, every indulgence” (1642).
This fight seems to continue today! What is the real reason why the family union broke up? Women were given rights, but they were given rights which they were already entitled to. Who came up with the rules that women were the only ones that cooked and took care of the children? If a female can vote and take care of her “duties” what is the problem? It is known that women were properties of men, didn’t have rights and men were not happy when they were given rights. We have struggled through the difficulties of the obstacles and we are still able to be the “traditional” woman while having the right to vote and have a full time job. Time has proven the ability of women and it has also proven the greatness women have achieved. Women were not happy with their roles and they keep challenging the rules now. Men have had no other option than to accept the change, because there is no way of stopping the progress.
Fuller wants all women to be strong:
“I would have her free from compromise, from complaisance, from helplessness, because I would have her good enough and strong enough to love one and all beings, from the fullness, not the poverty of being.” P. 1657
Fuller wants women to go out into the world and make something of themselves. Not to just take what her husband gives and lets her do, but to stand up against that oppression and to say no. To do what she wants to do because she has a right to do it. In breaking free from male dominance, women will be able to stand alone and not have to rely on anyone else unless they want to. It is upsetting that this has been the goal of many women for many years (at least since 1843!), and it’s sad that not everyone also wants that for themselves and for their children. They are happy to still be under male dominance and to let the men lead while they follow which is why our fight for justice has barely made a dent in society.
Fuller points women towards how they should go about achieving agency:
“What women need is not as a woman to act or rule, but as nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely, and unimpeded to unfold such powers as were given her when we left our common home.” p. 1645
I think this quote really illustrates what ultimately want: women want to be free to do as they please, to pursue what interests them and to have the same rights as men. They want to expand their worlds to be more knowledgeable and to be heard. Women have been ignored and rules by the men in their lives for a very long time, and as Fuller indicates they are getting sick of it. Women are a lot smarter and a lot more interesting and self-reliant than many men give them credit for even today. Even today, women are seen mainly as the homemaker, nothing else. Women are viewed as children that aren’t allowed to do anything without their husband’s approval. I don’t want that kind of life for myself which is why I really like this quote because it does embody the hopes and wishes of many women.
Fuller also says why it is important for women to keep working for equality:
Whether much or little will be done, whether women will add to the talent of narration, the power of systematizing, whether they will carve marble as well as draw, is not important. But that it should be acknowledged that they have intellect which needs developing, that they should be considered complete, if beings of affection and habit alone, is important. (Fuller, 1653)
I really see here that Fuller is trying to encourage women to be all that they can be. I love that she is saying that it is unimportant whether or not we become masters of everything. We need not carve a new David, paint a new Basilica ceiling, or write the next great American novel in order to be impressive. It is wonderful that she is simply forcing us to acknowledge that women’s intellect MUST be seen, recognized, and developed. Looking back, Sojourner Truth echoes this in her speech, saying “Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?” Looking back, I realize that I was wrong in my original common place post. Fuller is not criticizing women or saying that we are simple–she is crying out that our brains need to be acknowledged. Even if we cannot best the men (yet!) with our achievements, we must be allowed to grow so that someday, we may be able to achieve these things. I love this quote even more now, and I am glad that I have had the opportunity to revisit it.
A musical that shows some “girl power” is Into the Woods. In this Sondheim musical, many different fairy tales are combined and set in the same small village by the woods. The baker must go into the woods and collect four things for the witch so that she will reverse her spell upon his family. He tries to tell his wife to stay at home. “The spell is on MY house/Only I can lift the spell.” She replies “The spell is placed on OUR house/WE must lift the spell–” at which point he cuts her off saying, “No, you are not to come and that is final.” Even though he has ordered her to stay at home, she keeps popping up throughout the woods to help him on his way. She doesn’t sit back and let him do all of the work; she takes the adventure with him and teaches him what he needs to know in order to gather the witch’s supplies.
Chappel, Alonzo. Margaret Fuller. N.d. Painting. Virigina Commonwealth University websiteWeb. 10 Dec 2011. <http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/fuller/>.
Fuller, Margaret. “The Great Lawsuit.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature Volume B 1820-1865. Ed. Nina Baym, Ed. Robert S. Levine and Ed. Arnold Krupat. New York: WW Norton and Company, 2007. 1637-1659. Print.
“Margaret Fuller.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 9 Dec 2011. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/ihas/poet/fuller.html>.
She’s the Man poster. 2008. Photograph. WikipediaWeb. 10 Dec 2011. <http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/6/60/She’s_the_man_poster.jpg>.
Sondheim, Stephen. Into the Woods OBC – Part 13 – Maybe They’re Really Magic. 2009. video. YouTubeWeb. 12 Dec 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0hH3hc4mFCU>.
(and a kind of terrible redoing of Rosie the Riveter by Kathleen Esling)