The Great Lawsuit by Margaret Fuller is one of the essential works of early feminism, which still serves as a major inspiration for activists nowadays. Her original ideas and rich language, saturated with metaphors and allusions, were highly regarded by many prominent contemporaries. In The Great Lawsuit, Fuller raises the issue of gender inequality and argues the importance of revising gender norms and destroying stereotypes to ensure future progress and prosperity of American society.
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Gender and Racial Inequality
In the middle of the 19th century, traditional gender roles were rarely challenged. Most people believed that women were genuinely happy when their responsibilities were limited to cooking and raising children (Fuller 8). However, Capper notes that these restrictions were imposed without consent (113). In the family, the man was “the head”, and the woman was “the heart”, even though no one asked her opinion (Fuller 8). Through this metaphor, Fuller shows that women are deprived of their voice and individual conscience. Even assuming many women did not mind the role forced upon them by society, the partnership between “the head” and “the heart” was not equal. Fuller notes that “if a husband dies without a will, the wife inherits only a part of his fortune, as if she were a child, or ward only, not an equal partner” (9). Overall, throughout the essay, women are often compared to children and slaves because they are extremely limited in their rights.
Slavery and racial inequality are other important issues that Fuller continuously raises in her work. For instance, she criticizes the American Revolution, stating that while it promoted the ideals of freedom and equality, it did not lead to the abolition of slavery (Fuller 6). Fuller is inspired by the ideas of the abolitionist movement and sees apparent similarities in the challenges to racial and gender equality. The idea that all human beings are created equal recurs throughout the essay. Appealing to the Christian narrative, Fuller states that “there is but one law for all souls” (11). In her opinion, neither blacks nor women should have a master other than God.
Marriage as an Equal Partnership
Fuller further develops the idea of gender equality in her concept of marriage. She argues that in many cultures, marriage is merely “a contract of convenience and utility” (Fuller 23). Women are forced to marry by their family or society and often have very little control over the event, defining their whole life (Fuller 23). Hence, the traditional union between a man and a woman reinforces the latter’s inferior position in society. Fuller proposes a different approach, suggesting marriage should rather be a form of partnership based on equal rights, friendship, and intellectual companionship. In this union, a woman would empower a man in his intellectual life and sometimes even share his occupation (Fuller 24). The marriage of William Godwin and Mary Wolstonecraft illustrates this concept the best. Fuller praises Godwin for his strongly held values and devotion to his wife, who was often criticized for her progressive ideas in contemporary society (24-25). Mutual respect and empowerment enriched the short-lived union of these prominent philosophers (Fuller 24-25). Hence, Fuller shows that the contribution of an independent, strong woman to the marriage can be immensely valuable, and it is up to men to recognize it.
Women’s Role in the Change and Women Empowerment
While Fuller believes that men have to change their attitude towards women, she states that the latter should actively participate in the process. She notes that “to the woman, who could conquer, a triumph was awarded” (Fuller 15). In the next passages, she refers to Aspasia, Elizabeth of England, and Catherine the Great to prove that strong women can succeed despite the antagonism of the male-dominated society (Fuller 15). It is important to note that she explicitly emphasizes the intelligence of women who successfully claimed their place in history, therefore challenging the aforementioned concept of “head and heart”.
Fuller knows that not all women have enough determination and bravery to challenge the order of things in society. However, it does not mean that they have nothing to offer to the world. She believes that “there should be encouragement, and a free, genial atmosphere for those of more timid sort, fair play for each in its own kind” (15). Fuller elaborates on the role of men in the transformation of women’s role in society in her conversation with Miranda.
Miranda is a highly successful woman who is accepted as an equal by many men for her resolution and intelligence. She admits that her father played a pivotal role in fostering her self-esteem and independence. By treating her as an equal from a young age, he allowed her to develop as a self-dependent thinker, free from the influence of misogynistic stereotypes of the patriarchal society. However, Miranda states that “self-dependence, which was honored in me, is deprecated as a fault in most women” (Fuller 13). She believes that every woman could become a productive, independent member of society with the right upbringing (Fuller 13). She admits that many men admire and cherish women, but even then, their attitude can be frustrating. Capper notes that “even those lovers and fathers often mix sentimentally chivalric sentiments toward women with condescending dismissals of their capacity to reason and compete”(115). Hence, Fuller argues that men should empower women to become self-dependent, just like Miranda’s father did. Recognition and respect of women’s intellectual capacities should take the place of sentimental reverence.
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The idea of women empowerment being beneficial to society as a whole is widely accepted in the Western world today. However, in the middle of the 19th century, not many shared Fuller’s opinion. She sarcastically describes men who think that gender equality will lead to “hysterics at the polls, and senate chambers filled with cradles” (10). Indeed, most believed that giving women equal rights and opportunities would have disastrous consequences. Fuller, on the other hand, argues that equality would bring “ravishing harmony” (11). She uses the examples of women who overcame the societal challenges and achieved success in politics and literature to prove her point.
Margaret Fuller proposes significant changes to the role of a woman in contemporary society. She believes that all human beings are created equal, and women should be entitled to the same rights men have. Her main argument is based on the idea that the prosperity of society depends on finding the balance in the relationship between a woman and a man. While she emphasizes the importance of fostering self-dependence and esteem in women, the primary benefactor of changes she proposes is not a woman but society in general.
Capper, Charles. Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life, Vol. 2: The Public Years. Oxford University Press, 2007.
Fuller, Margaret. The Great Lawsuit, Man versus Men, Woman versus Women. Web.