In the excerpt from Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Margaret Fuller is the first rhetor that we have read who begins to advocate less for women's improvement for the sake of men and more for the sake of themselves. She is able to do this, in part, because women have begun to be educated, and so the literate audience is no longer exclusively male. I found it interesting that although she did present the idea that an educated woman would make a better wife and mother, she also stressed the importance of women being self-dependent.
A woman who can depend upon herself, ultimately, has the option of not being a wife or mother. Fuller praises "the increase of the class contemptuously designated as old maids" (133), because their existence proves that women can exist without being an adjunct to a man through marriage or other relationship.
Fuller draws parallels between the lives that women currently lead and the lives that they are forbidden to lead. If a woman can be a society hostess, how then is she incapable of being a politician? The position of a hostess is no less active, social and demanding than that of a politician. The woman wholly constrained to the domestic sphere is usually married to a man similarly constrained. These limits of socialization and culture are arbitrary - just as arbitrary as making girl clothes pink.
Fuller sees all limits based on gender as arbitrary. "But if you ask me what offices they may fill; I reply--any. I do not care what case you put; let them be sea-captains, if you will" (135). And this is not an unequal stance, for she even mentions later that there are certainly men who would be inclined to what are thought of as feminine occupations even as there are women inclined towards those called masculine.
Reading this piece, I was struck by how, despite the passage of time and the achievements of enfranchisement and office, the sentiments denigrating womanhood remain the same. While in Fuller's time, a woman doing a task particularly well would have been said to surpass her sex, I grew up hearing the praises made bitter by the codicil of "for a girl." There is a focus today on getting more women into STEM, but Liberal Arts are no less dominated by men at the higher levels.
From Christine to Fuller to the present, the thread of dismissing the entirety of the feminine sex as lesser continues in western culture. Whether it is dressed up as honoring women, or stripped bare as demeaning them, the fact remains that there are differences in the ways that we treat others based on personal beliefs about what we know about them. What would equality really look like?
Would it mean that we would have to get to know people before we make judgments about them or their abilities? Or is there more to it? What is the goal of feminism?
If the goal was to keep women from wanting more than they had, then keeping them from education was a good idea. Once a person learns to read and write, they gain the ability to keep learning and to communicate their ideas with others. The act of writing, in and of itself, has a power. Words that are written can be read; sharing her opinions about the world can have an effect on how a woman identifies her own value.
Fuller wanted women to find and identify their value, to themselves and others. "[M]en do not look at both sides, and women must leave off asking them and being influence by them, but retire within themselves, and explore the groundwork of life til they find their peculiar secret" (134). It is not for men to discover the nature of women, but for women to uncover their own natures, free from ties to others. Not, 'who is Mrs. So-and-so,' but who am 'I'? And then she can move on to 'what do I want?'