November 6, 2010

Fuller: She broke her lance upon your shield

Margaret Fuller could not go to college, limited solely because she was a woman. Instead, she sought to create an alternative. On November 6, 1839, she offered the first of her "Conversations" — a series of gatherings (initially only for women) to discuss topics which were normally presented in college.

Most of these meetings were held at the home of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody in Boston. The site on West Street is now marked with a small plaque. She listed her goals in a letter to a friend:

To systematize thought... To ascertain what pursuits are best studied to us, in our time and state of society... and how we may make the best use of our means for building up the life of thought upon the life of action.

An entire conversation, for example, centered on the question, "What were we born to do?" Attendees included Caroline Healey Dall, Maria White Lowell, Sophia Dana Ripley, and Caroline Sturgis.

Fuller became well-known in her lifetime as a literary critic and editor. In more modern times, she is recognized as an important reformer and early feminist thinker. Perhaps the saddest part of her early death at age 40 is that her voice was silenced forever. Her ability to speak, after all, was her greatest strength. Even the reclusive Nathaniel Hawthorne was caught in the spell of her sociability. Her friend, Rev. James Freeman Clarke reflected: "What fire, what exuberance, what reach, grasp, overflow of thought, shone in her conversation!" Clarke's sister Sarah Freeman Clarke recorded her own experience:

In looking for the causes of the great influence possessed by Margaret Fuller over her pupils, companions, and friends, I find something in the fact of her unusual truth-speaking power. She not only did not speak lies after our foolish social customs, but she met you fairly. She broke her lance upon your shield... Your outworks fell before her first assault, and you were at her mercy. And then began the delight of true intercourse.

*For more on Margaret Fuller, I recommend Joan Von Mehren's book Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller.


  1. Are there any good records of the Conversations besides Margaret and Her Friends ?

  2. She must have been amazing - sounds similar to Bronson Alcott who also had amazing oratory but could not write worth beans.