Delivered at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville. Reworked from an earlier sermon of the same name.
Arguably, a marker cultural phenomenon we’ve still got going is American Idol. Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and some Thursday nights until the end of May, there will be 30 million or so viewers who will tune in to see who Simon will trash, whether Ellen will be a suitable replacement for the lovably ditzy Paula Abdul, whose singing performance is too pitchy or pitch perfect. And then text message in their vote, a kind of balloting I’ve yet to master.
I’m not too proud to say I am usually among them — even while staying in the venerable Pickett-Eliot house behind our associational headquarters on Beacon Hill in Boston this past week — ignoring the disapproving gaze from portraits of our founding church fathers — cheering for my favorites, puzzling over those who seem to slip through by virtue of their smiles or their fashionable pouts. Never voting, mind you — though my husband has a few times in crunch moments — but captivated by the possibility that the bank teller from Detroit or the church choir singer from North Carolina or the backwoods girl from Tennessee or the Italian cook from New Jersey might get picked. Or to deal with more than a smidgen of generational disconnect, even judgment, that a few years back, when the remaining 20 young women and men were asked to name the person who most inspired them and all of them selected family members: slim blonde wives who said yes to much less-pretty princes, mothers who woke them up and forced them to go to auditions, grandmas and brothers and fiancés who believed in their talents and their dreams.
Over the years, when the same question has been asked, the circle has occasionally been expanded to include BFFs. When they give their answers, I have both been predictably touched by the heartfelt tributes and surprisingly disappointed.
I have realized the tendency is toward a kind of this-is-dedicated-to-the-one-I-love moment, but the question as I choose to hear it is about broader and deeper sources of inspiration. Which for me encompasses both the everyday notion of practical encouragement and the loftier notion of prophetic muse.
Who was the man or woman whose vision or deeds shaped them?
Oh, I know that I am asking a great deal of very young contestants in a televised singing competition, as we are often reminded. But it is my fantasy that if for some reason I was ever in a hootenanny version American Folk Idol, that when my moment came to stand in front of the camera and name my inspiration, to make my dedication, that I would (no disrespect to my parents or BFFs or third grade teacher) say Joni Mitchell, whose lyrical contributions were, you must agree (or not), often prophetic.
Not the lines about moons and Junes and Ferris wheels, which were pleasant and memorable, but the ones that foretold of paving paradise and putting up parking lots, or her native Canadian indictment of the United States, her adopted country, that had already come to trigger so much terror in others.
We have all come, she sang in that soaring soprano, to fear the beating of your drum. When she urged us to imagine a cosmic change, with bombers flying shotgun in the sky, turning into butterflies across our nation, we knew we were in the imaginative, clear-eyed presence of someone persistently warning us of what might come to pass if we refused to really see, really ignore, really turn away from what was true. And then showing us a grander possibility.
The stuff of Elijah and Isaiah.
Her soaring, circular words. Her singular shining, prophetic female presence.
Biblically speaking, there were only seven women recognized as prophets or prophetesses: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Chanah, Abigail, Chulda, and Esther. In the most traditional sense, prophets are those who are believed to be speaking on behalf of God or other spirits. Another more expanded but accepted definition is that a prophet informs a religious community about what they are doing wrong, how they are deviating from the path expected from them, urging them to change their ways.
When I think about our Transcendentalist Unitarian prophetess Margaret Fuller, it is in that same sense — a charismatic, astonishingly enlightened woman with a bold, brilliant, and critical mind. With, as she wrote, a thirst for truth and good, not love of sect and dogma. A kind of idol for her own time, not blonde and singing, but dark-haired and scribbling, hundreds of words in articles, essays, speeches, and journal entries over her tragically brief life.
I will admit I knew very little about Margaret Fuller when I was first asked to serve on the selection committee for the Fuller Awards program of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation. I knew she was one of our famous women, part of the circle of Concord, Massachusetts, intellectuals who were considered seminal figures in the 19th century philosophical, literary, and political renaissance in New England called the American Bloomsbury. The group included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott.
What I soon learned as I joined the group of lay and ministerial colleagues whose wonderful task was to solicit and select scholarly, creative, and justice-seeking projects by contemporary women was that she is a significant and under-recognized prophetic voice from our liberal religious heritage. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wrote of her, she possessed more influence on the thought of American women than any woman previous to her time. With her famous Boston women’s conversations, her editing of the Transcendental journal, The Dial, and later her seminal book, Woman of the 19th Century, Fuller urged women to abandon behaviors and attitudes that kept them in diminished roles and to develop their potential to participate equally with men in the world.
I will admit the book (and much of her writing) is tough slogging. I have never fully read this expansion of an essay entitled The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men; Woman vs. Women published in 1843 that is considered the first major feminist document to appear in America. In it, she took up the central issues of women’s economic, political, intellectual, and sexual status in society.
One analyst of this expanded essay describes the theme as focused on the need for the world to be fully awaken to divine love and the power of universal enlightenment, hindered in this country by inequality among men and women, as well as the treatment of Native and African Americans.
Women needed access, she maintained, not just to poetry, arts, and emotional fulfillment, happiness in particular, but also to intellectual and religious freedom equal to men.
The Great Lawsuit, according to one commentator, also focuses keenly on the abolitionist movement of the time, paralleling women’s lack of freedom with that of slaves, calling upon liberal men’s compassion for the slave to be applied to women as well, and for women to expand their energy fighting for slave’s freedom to their own liberation.
The book got mixed reviews from the famous male literary figures of her era, with Edgar Allen Poe saying that it was a book few women in the country could have written with the exception of Miss Fuller, noting its independence and unmitigated radicalism. Thoreau praised the book as rich extempore writing, talking with pen in hand, however Nathaniel Hawthorne, previously a supporter of Fuller, thought the impression it left was disagreeable… I think, he wrote, that Margaret spoke of things that should not be spoken of.
Perhaps because of passages like this one: Were they free, were they wise fully to develop the strength and beauty of Woman; they would never wish to be men, or man-like. The well instructed moon flies not from her orbit to seize on the glories of her partner. No; for she knows one law rules, one heaven contains, one universe replies to them alike. It is with women as with the slave. Tremble not before the free man, but before the slave who has chains to break.
Being a curious and diligent funding panel member and eventually chair, I gathered more details about Margaret from the biographical sketches available in collections of Unitarian and Universalist women’s writings like Standing Before Us, a collection of writings about our own Sheroines. In this celebratory bicentennial year of her birth, I share some of this with you.
She was born to Unitarian parents in Cambridge in 1810. Her father was a liberal politician and a supporter of equality for women. He educated his already precocious daughter at home for several years, instilling in her principles of independence and moral courage which he derived both from his own progressive beliefs and study of Greek and Latin writers and philosophers. She knew both languages by the time she was six years old.
It has been written that Margaret reached adulthood as a formidably intelligent, socially eccentric, not conventionally attractive but by many accounts electric and sensual young woman who was either intensely disliked or intensely admired, but who could not be ignored.
One of her contemporaries described her as not beautiful, but more than beautiful. A sort of glow surrounded her and warmed those who listened. She has been called the sexy muse for her male colleagues, and was undoubtedly a model for Hawthorne’s adulterous Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter.
In the 1830s and 40s, Fuller, as editor of The Dial, in its time chastised and also called the best magazine in the country, became a member of that famous Transcendentalist circle and club, in fact the only woman, besides perhaps Elizabeth Peabody, with any regular presence among them.
In fact, if there was a prophet, mentor, or muse for her it would have been Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose home she was a guest in for a length of time on several occasions, staying up late at night for intimate bedside talks — more intimate than his wife preferred. She took long walks with Hawthorne by the riverbanks in the countryside surrounding Concord, hub of what was called by detractors a motley sublimo, slipshod hodgepodge of writers of poetry and ethnical scripture. With the aging Reverend William Ellery Channing, founder of our American Unitarian Christian tradition, she read German philosophy and theology.
Theologically, Transcendentalism — a commitment to finding the divine in the human endeavor in concert with nature — was consistent with Fuller’s conviction that religion was to be found in her own heart, writing that as for religious institutions, she belonged nowhere. I have pledged myself, she declared, to nothing — I have my own church where I am by turns priest and lay man (or woman).
Like other Transcendentalists of what a later critic called the Old New England sort, she believed herself to be a child of God, and if a child, then a direct heir — a very condensed way of saying, as Caroline Dall, a fellow female Transcendentalist wrote, that the spirit within her was the breath of divine creative spirit, and therefore its reach, its possibilities, and its final destiny.
The constitution of the Transcendentalist community to whose principles Fuller covenanted was ethically demanding. They collectively vowed to promote what they saw as the great purposes of human culture — to establish the external relations of life on the basis of wisdom and purity; to apply the principles of love and justice to our social organization; to substitute a system of brotherly cooperation for one of selfish competition; to secure for the young the benefits of the highest physical, intellectual, and moral education possible; to prevent what they saw as the exercise of worldly anxiety by the competent supply of necessary wants.
To diminish the thirst for accumulation — to guarantee physical support and spiritual progress.
As lofty and challenging as these commands for human betterment were for all the members of this club, the barriers still existing for women around access to formal education and vocations made it even more daunting for Margaret and the few other females in the circle. While the transcendentalists asserted there was “no sex in souls,” the outer world had many boundaries.
In still Puritan Boston, Margaret Fuller was refused admission to Harvard. Only partly daunted by this wall, she was able to get hold of all that books that the Harvard Divinity School was assigning its male students. At 28, she set up reading circles for women in her home and in Elizabeth Peabody’s foreign language bookstore, many of them the wives of those transcendental and Unitarian intellectual giants who had gone to college through the front gates. Charging substantial tuition to these women, equivalent to Harvard in some instances, she achieved an admirable degree of economic independence, at the same time inspiring in them a desire to learn and converse versus the customary needlework and idle gossip which Margaret forbad.
Do your minding not your mending, she demanded, as she lectured (a vocation and an enterprise largely off limits publicly for women of her era) on art, mythology, education, and women’s rights. It was said of her that her conversations were seldom heard equaled. In fact, Emerson thought her the most entertaining conversationalist of her time.
Some of the money she earned went to pay, as an unmarried woman, to board with a married couple, since living alone was not an acceptable alternative. Some of the rest she used to finance her own private anti-slavery campaign and other causes.
While her reading and discussion circles were truly legendary and have been described and used as the model for similar teas and conversations among Unitarian Universalist women today, the best documentation for her prophetic social witness comes from the pieces she did, both news and critiques, for the New York Herald Tribune.
She was hired by famous editor Horace Greeley to write literary reviews in 1844, the first American woman to hold such a position. He called her the most remarkable, and in some respects the greatest, woman America had yet known. Not content to remain a reviewer, she took a trip to what was then the Western frontier, describing in her book Summer on the Lakes the lives of the settlers in Illinois and Wisconsin and the destitute survivors of the native tribes they had displaced.
Moving from arts and literary critique to social witness and critique, she explored the dark corners of New York, producing what have been called by biographers and modern journalism scholars stunning reformist exposes of conditions in the prisons, asylums, alms houses, and institutions for the blind.
Among her most radical and far-sighted observations were about the plight of women prisoners when in the 1840s, authorities began jailing them for prostitution and public drunkenness. Few women reformers would come to the aid of women in jail because reformers wanted to avoid risking their own status as respectable middle-class ladies.
One woman did, our Margaret Fuller, noting in print that there was a great and dire need to help discharged females, becoming one of the first to argue that economic and social forces brought women into prostitution. She said she had always felt great interest in these women, who she wrote were trampled in the mud to gratify the appetites of men, and wished she might be brought into direct contact with them.
At the Bellvue Alms House, Fuller found people who received decent basic care but who sat staring in what she described as vacant boredom. In response, she called for books and education to help them find jobs. The condition at Toombs prison she called barbarous, the air in the upper galleries she found unendurable. Fuller’s articles on asylum and prison reform all stressed the same theme — kind care begets good results.
Like all prophets who look at the world through their own humanness, no matter how ardently they invoke the divine, Margaret had blind spots — failing to see basic physical conditions beneath the holiday dressed surface of mental wards that cried out for change. Her attitude toward Irish immigrants who came fleeing the potato famine was at best condescending, at worse hate-provoking. She warned her readers that the Irish were foolishly romantic, extremely ignorant, blindly devoted to the church, lazy, and ungrateful. They were her Other.
She was not yet 35 when she wrote three especially harsh and damning columns on what she and others deemed the Irish character, columns defended at the time because at least she called for tolerance and patience in educating them, rather than for violence and deportation.
Ever an adventurous spirit, intrigued by the Italian revolution, she went there as a foreign correspondent, met and perhaps married a young nobleman, and bore a son. On a visit home to America, their boat shipwrecked off Fire Island within sight of shore. She was only 40 when she died.
I would like to imagine that a searching and sensitive soul such as Margaret would have continued to evolve in her understanding of the conditions of new immigrants, of those she saw as Other. That even this very blind spot in her prophetic nature would have been opened up to compassionate enlightenment.
No matter, Margaret Fuller, whose 200th birthday we will celebrate all this year as a liberal religious association, culminating with much attention at our annual General Assembly, was and continues to be a prophetess for a new generation of Unitarians as we realize that, in the two centuries since her birth, there have been giant steps for womenkind, but still miles to go.
Miles to go before we are to feel safe from domestic violence and other acts of gender-based aggression. Miles to go before we are fully protected constitutionally from gender-based discrimination. Miles to go before we truly have equal pay for equal work and equal representation in the halls of Congress.
This flawed but powerful American prophetess has inspired us to do our own work through our Margaret Fuller and other funding programs of honoring and supporting contemporary women in theology and female workers for justice and equity: advocating for young women in the sex industry; proving a forum for Transylvanian women to talk about their private lives as wives and mothers; supporting feminist work in economic reform in Portland, Oregon.
Margaret Fuller’s life may have been pitchy in places — off key, off the mark, but for me, at least, she is still — an American idol.