Margaret Fuller’s “The Great Lawsuit” was originally published in July 1843 in The Dial Magazine. It was republished and expanded in book form in 1845 under the title Woman in the Nineteenth Century.
Fuller was a journalist, editor, woman’s rights advocate, transcendentalist, and abolitionist.
The basis for Fuller’s essay is the idea that man will rightfully inherit the earth when he becomes an elevated being, understanding of divine love. There have been periods in time when the world was more awake to this love, but people are sleeping now; however, everyone has the power to become enlightened. Man cannot now find perfection because he is still burdened with selfish desires, but Fuller is optimistic and says that we are on the verge of a new awakening. She claims that in the past man, like Orpheus for Eurydice, has always called out for woman, but soon will come the time when women will call for men, when they will be equals and share a mortgage.
According to Fuller, America has been hindered from reaching equality because it inherited depravity from Europe, hence its treatment of Native and African Americans. Fuller quotes the ancient Medes on how all people are equal and bound to each other; those who infringe on others’ rights are condemned, but the biggest sin is hypocrisy. Man needs to practice divine love as well as feel it. Among those who practice it are the abolitionists because they act on their love of humanity; many women are part of this group.
Fuller then begins to examine men and women in America. She observes that many people think that in marriage, man is the head of the house and woman the heart. Problems with the law derive from the problem of women being viewed as inferiors, equal to children but not men. The truth is that women need expansion and seek to be like men; they need to be taught self-dependence. The idea that equality between men and women would bring divinity to new heights because it would help fulfill the lives of both men and women is reinforced by looking at historical evidence where men and women were equally divine, including Christianity with its male and female saints. Women, Fuller says, need not poetry or power to be happy, which they now have access to, but rather intellectual and religious freedom equal to men’s.
The transition of marriage in earlier times as that of convenience into a union of equal souls is discussed in relation to four types of marriage, which Fuller ranks in ascending order. The first type, the household partnership, is merely convenience and mutual dependence. The man provides for the house, the woman tends to it. The second type is mutual idolatry where the man and woman find in the other all perfection to the exclusion of the rest of the world. The intellectual companionship is the next highest form of marriage. In this, man and woman are friends, confidants in thought and feeling with a mutual trust, but rarely love. Above all of these forms is the highest marriage, the religious union. It envelopes the other three to include mutual dependence, idolatry, and respect. The man and woman find themselves as equals on a “pilgrimage towards a common shrine.” Fuller also makes brief mention of the life of “old maids”, often looked down upon because they are not married, but she says that they have the opportunity for close communion with the divine which married people do not have to that extent.
Fuller then looks at the differences between men and women in order to enforce that women need their intellectual and spiritual resources strengthened. She says that the souls of men and women are the same, even with differences in masculinity and femininity. The differences are not between men and women, though, for both have masculine and feminine energies, but are between individuals: “There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.”
The conclusion of the essay is that before a true union can occur, each person must be an individual and self-dependent unit. For women to become such individuals, men need to remove their dominating influence, but women also need to claim themselves as self-dependent and remove themselves from man’s influence. Fuller ends looking forward and making a call for the woman who will teach women to be individuals. 1
Notes & Quotes
- Fuller is very concerned with hypocrisy in America, which she considers to be the greatest of all sins. She states that men in America (and elsewhere) practice hypocrisy because they claim to feel divine love, yet they do not actually practice it, as seen through the barbaric treatment of slaves, African Americans, and American Indians. This anxiety of hypocrisy existing and dominating American life is prevalent in 19th century thought, as most commonly seen through the villainous confidence men, libertines, and painted women. 2 It’s particularly gothic to view hypocrisy at the immense scale that Fuller sees it existing in her contemporary America, infecting most of the male population as well as a considerable part of the female population. In a democratic nation, hypocrisy can cause massive degeneration to the whole of the people and its institutions.
- Fuller’s transcendentalist philosophy is made clear in her call for women to become self-dependent individuals. In order for this to happen, she states that men need to release their dominating hold on women and marriages need to be of the highest form, the “religious union,” in which husband and wife are on equal footing. Additionally, women need to be allowed means to intellectual and spiritual development and freedom. However, Fuller also believes that women need to do some work themselves towards obtaining this goal: women must claim their independence and become true individuals, outside of man’s influence. This is reminiscent of Thoreau’s self-removal from the dominating and degenerating influence of society in order to learn true self-sufficiency. For Fuller, women must remove themselves from masculine dominance in order to learn what it means to live as an individual.