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Social Reform

Margaret Fuller and her Conversations

Margaret Fuller, although intelligent and highly educated, faced many difficulties in finding ways to earn money to help support her family in the 1830s. Like other Transcendentalists, she was a skilled school teacher, working with Alcott at his Temple School, until that venture ended, and in Providence at the Greene Street School, but the pay was too little and she had little time or energy to devote to writing, which she felt was her true vocation.

In the fall of 1839, however, she found an enterprise in Boston which offered intellectual stimulation, both for her and the many well-educated women of Boston, and time for her writing. Following in the model of the reading parties of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and other women's study groups and inspired by Alcott's plan to offers a series of conversations in Lynn, she announced a series of public Conversations "designed to encourage women in self-expression and independent thinking." Sophia Dana Ripley helped her find a group of women wishing to discuss issues such as "What were we born to do? How shall we do it?" to satisfy their "wish for some such means of stimulus and cheer, and . . . for a place where they could state their doubts and difficulties with hope of gaining aid from the experience or aspirations of others," as Fuller would write to Ripley. The physical place of meeting would be Elizabeth Palmer Peabody's parlor, and 25 women appeared for the first meeting at eleven on a Wednesday morning.

These Conversations proved very popular, drawing women all the way from Providence, RI. Some had studied in Fuller's private German class in 1837-38, and most were associated with the women's rights movement. Among those who subscribed and attended regularly were Lydia (Mrs. Waldo) Emerson and Elizabeth Hoar from Concord, Susan Burley from Salem and an advocate of higher education for women, Caroline and Ellen Sturgis, Mary Ward, Mary Channing, Marianne Jackson, Jane Tuckerman, Elizabeth Bancroft, Eliza Farrar, Sarah Clarke. The Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society was well represented, including the wife of the abolitionist orator Wendell Phillips. Charging $10 for a series of energetic two-hour sessions weekly the first week, an amount later doubled as attendance grew, Fuller was able to make as much money as she had teaching school in Providence and have time for her scholarship and writing. She supported herself in this fashion for five years.

Fuller set the serious tone of these Conversations from the beginning. The first series was based on Greek myths which could become "launching pads for a fresh approach to subjects such as the power of the human will, the sources of creative energy, the development of the arts, and the different faculties that are put to use in rational and aesthetic pursuits." (von Mehren, p. 116). The spring 1840 series was devoted to the fine arts. She opened one evening to men, but that was not successful because "the men took over the discussion and performed for each other," and the Conversations had already a "decidedly feminine character, feminine concerns addressed in feminine language in an atmosphere of feminine intimacy." (von Mehren, p. 116)

Not surprisingly, the Conversations incurred criticism and ridicule, from women such as Maria Weston Chapman of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, who thought abolition should be a major subject of discussion, to Emerson's calling them "Parlatorio." Yet over the five years, more than 200 women participated, as the subjects turned to Education, Ethics, Culture, Ignorance, Vanity, Woman, and "Persons who never awake to life in this world." (von Mehren, p. 119)

Such meetings became a strong base for feminism in New England. Many women who became leaders in the feminist movement, such as Julia Ward Howe, Lydia Maria Child, Edna Dow Cheney, Caroline Sturgis, and Caroline Healy Dall, participated in what Elizabeth Cady Stanton called a landmark in "the vindication of woman's right to think." The Conversations would also set into motion those ideas which became Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century.

Joan von Mehren. Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller. Amherst, UMP, 1994.

Not all of Margaret Fuller's conversations were with women. Her relationship with Emerson was a series of intense conversations which deeply influenced them both. For more on this subject, see Christina Zwarg's Feminist Conversations: Fuller, Emerson, and the Play of Reading. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995.