Teaching Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century is instructive in its challenge. The text contains numerous references that take students to task with additional research to understand the import of its anecdotes. The text’s oscillation between essentialism and radical gender fluidity can also perplex the student who expects a linear argument one would find in a work such as Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women. Yet, when given due time for reflection, Fuller’s Woman never fails to reach students at the heart in our moment today, troubling gender and feminism further, and begging comparison to Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity.
Fuller raises questions that demand a response from a modern audience ill-equipped to answer them. Is there room for the spiritual in feminism? Have our voices lost some of their passionate urgency in our reserved, academic writings that seek to foster political change? Can women offer the world something that men cannot? Even to take a first stab at that last question appears at once dangerous and also necessary. Fuller has a way of transferring urgency to her readers and waking even the sleepiest of students at eight o’clock in the morning–but it takes work to get there.
The Power of Conversation
My pedagogy, like Fuller’s, depends on the circuitous nature of conversation that returns to some of the same ideas over and over again throughout the semester, complicating them with each turn. My classroom is student-centered: students generate the discussion questions and pick the passages we spend time closely analyzing. They also generate anywhere from one third to half of the content for the syllabus; they take turns presenting or leading a discussion; and we rotate time-keeping to make sure we get to everything on our agenda for the day. This equity in leadership brought us to Fuller’s Woman and Milton’s Paradise Lost in the same week in my “Advanced Topics in 19th Century Literature: Gender in the American Renaissance” course this fall. Students paired two passages of Milton with Fuller’s Woman, one for each class period on Fuller, comparing their portrayals of marriage, especially the mutual dependence of man and woman in heteronormative marital relations.
Fuller’s text really needs two class periods (at least) because students must have time to carefully read her sentences, digest their meaning, and let the text do its work in their minds. Phyllis Cole writes about Fuller’s Conversations as inspiring a “remaking of the mind itself,” and I believe Fuller’s Woman does the same in its anecdotes and examples that lead readers to their own, personally meaningful conclusions rather than dictating oversimplified, generalized answers. At the end of the first class, I asked students to choose one sentence from Woman for the next class that they would like to read aloud and discuss. This made our second class extremely productive, gave each student an opportunity to adequately prepare a focused point, and every student shared something in a generative discussion with 100 percent participation.
Transatlantic Pairings with Fuller
If you have the opportunity to guide your students to consider pairing John Milton with Fuller, in a 75-minute class, I recommend giving 20 minutes to Milton (approx. 50 lines), and 50 minutes to half of Fuller’s Woman. Adding a great deal of Milton to the reading load is unreasonable, but reading 50 lines aloud, together in class, leaves plenty of time for analysis and discussion. Milton’s portrayal of Eve in comparison to Fuller’s radical ideas disseminated in Woman brings out the innovations of the latter both in its time and in a modern context.
While many students read Virginia Woolf and Mary Wollstonecraft, few read Margaret Fuller so, at least in my class, most are reading her for the first time. Comparing Woman to A Room of One’s Own and Vindication helps to place Fuller in the Transatlantic canon of women’s writing.
What I’ve found helps most is telling students not to look for a linear argument but to let the text affect and change them, to attend to the examples and anecdotes that strike them, leave others that don’t for another day, and remain open to reconsidering what they think they know. This approach comes from reading Jane Duran’s 2010 article in The Pluralist, “Margaret Fuller and Transcendental Feminism.” I highly recommend it to your students for further reading. It’s also a great piece to read during your lesson prep.
Fuller’s Impact on Students Today
Inevitably, we laugh at how little has changed, but the tone of the conversation is notably different once Fuller has passed through the room. Nineteenth-century Victorian ideals feel pervasive and ever present in our lives today, suffocatingly so, and students speak more passionately when we discuss “historical” female-authored texts. When I introduce Fuller to a class, it seems that the question of “is this feminist enough?” has been answered with a resounding “Yes!” at this point in the semester, and we have been grounded, at last, in Fuller’s time and in ours.