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Margaret Fuller, born Sarah Margret Fuller in 1810, began her great feminist text with a quote from Hamlet: “Frailty, thy name is WOMAN.” Her entire life was lived in opposition to this judgment: at only three and a half, she was learning to read and write; at five, she was translating Latin passages from Virgil; at sixteen, she taught herself several modern languages; by age thirty, she was considered the best read person in New England, and the first woman with access to the Harvard reading room. At that time, in 1840, Fuller was the editor for the transcendentalist journal The Dial and personal friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who would describe Fuller after her death as “the real center” of the transcendentalist movement.
After a literary upbringing at the hands of her father, Fuller left school to educate herself, falling in love with Shakespeare and Goethe. Following her father’s death, however, she was forced to put aside her own work in order to support herself, and accepted a position at the controversial Temple School, run by Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott). There she met Elizabeth Peabody, and in 1839 began hosting “Conversations,” at Peabody’s bookstore—educational discourses on literature and the arts for women. In 1844, she began work as a literary critic for the New York Tribune, eventually traveling abroad as the paper’s first female foreign correspondent.
In 1843, Fuller published one of her most important essays in The Dial, entitled “The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women.” In 1845, a book-length version was released as Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which is today considered one of the first feminist texts written in the US. In it, Fuller extols the virtues of transcendentalism and the abolitionist movement, and argues for the equality of the sexes. Transcendentalist author Henry David Thoreau and critic Edgar Allan Poe both wrote in support of the work.
Fuller died at forty years old in a shipwreck off Fire Island, New York, after writing to a friend of “a vague expectation of some crisis—I know not what.” Her body, along with those of her husband and infant son, were never recovered.