“Thought Is Her Atmosphere”: Margaret Fuller and Battling Bias

As a revolutionary intellectual, translator, and social critic, Sarah Margaret Fuller was a crucial figure within the Transcendentalist Movement for a number of reasons. For instance, she brought the works of Goethe to New England, facilitating the German writer’s influence on the growing body of American literature. Additionally, she served as the editorial backbone of The Dial in Boston during the publication’s formative years, producing content and curating material deemed too radical to be printed elsewhere. Furthermore, as the first female foreign correspondent of The New York Tribune, she was both daring and insightful, a person of action as much as a person of letters—a scholar plunging into the literal heat of chaos.

In many ways, Margaret Fuller represented the ideals at the heart of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “The American Scholar,” better than any college man at the time could. However, the action-oriented American Scholar was masculine in his educational discipline and real-life prowess just as the genius of Mozart was masculine in his totally uncompromised dedication to music. Because of the societal limitations of femininity, it seemed these marks of greatness were impossible for women. Surely, female excellence was a contradiction when excellence itself was thought of as a masculine quality—with this rationale, Emerson presumably meant to compliment Fuller’s achievements when he wrote that “she ought to have been a man” (380). But, why couldn’t the American Scholar be a woman?

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Star Tribune Illustration

While we’re eager to imagine that our culture has progressed past this gross display of prejudice against women, the widespread perception of female excellence remains dismal—although it’s so deeply ingrained into our thinking that it’s practically invisible. I recently read a Jezebel article titled “Homme de Plume” about a female writer frustrated with the unconscious bias that publishers often project onto women. Aiming to prove a point, she submitted a manuscript of her novel to publishers using the name Mr. George Leyer and quickly discovered, “My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me—Catherine.” Out of 50 queries, George’s manuscript was requested 17 times; by contrast, out of 50 queries, Catherine’s manuscript was requested only twice. Looking at the numbers, it seemed either that George was “eight and a half times better” than Catherine at writing exactly the same book or that something was ideologically amiss. This episode is just one example, but it’s rather evident that our society readily accepts and embraces male excellence; the notion of female excellence, however, is another matter entirely.

During several of the scholarly salons that Fuller hosted and organized, a party of women analyzed society’s gendering of desirable personality traits, such as intelligence and intellectualism. According to Elizabeth Peabody, “Miss Fuller thought that the man & the woman had each every faculty & element of mind—but that they were combined in different proportions” (281). While the statement hopefully sounds factual the majority of us today, there is still strong opposition against claims in favor of gender equality. Not long ago, Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul declared during an interview, “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not.” He proceeded to explain that female writers demonstrate a “narrow” and “sentimental” view of the world, which he believes is the reason why the whole lot of female writers are beneath him. Some apologists defended Naipaul, arguing the crusty misanthrope is known to shock the public without cause, but we shouldn’t ignore the logic behind Naipaul’s misogyny.

Margaret Fuller said that women and men are capable of possessing the same mental faculties, albeit in different arrangements—but, could different writing styles hypothetically follow from these different arrangements of mind? Was Naipaul onto something? Is the difference between female and male writing discernable in a single paragraph? In response to such questions, The Guardian compiled “The Naipaul Test,” allowing anyone to test their ability to tell a random author’s gender. (I actually thought a passage from Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas was written by a woman, but what do I know?) Furthermore, after running my own writing through a program to assess pointedly masculine and feminine writing trends, I was surprised to learn that my computer thought I was a man—and, if a perfectly objective computer failed to identity my gender, then Naipaul must be spewing bullshit. With the issue of political correctness aside, it’s simply illogical to assume that any author is confined to the written conventions that society ascribes to a single gender. Indeed, as Fuller once wrote:

Male and female represent the 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. (Fuller 116)

More about the female vs. male authors debate:

“More Than a Room of One’s Own” – The New York Times

“Do Men and Women Write Differently?” – Language: A Feminist Guide

“Men, Women, and Writing Style” – Trans Road Map

 

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