By Patrick McWhortor
No matter what century or what era serves as the backdrop for an individual life – the stage on which a person performs her own drama – it is usually constrained by the norms, assumptions and restrictions enveloping that era. We have a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong in our time. We accept the rules as a given in our time. We see the world through the lens fastened to our eyes by our own time.
For most of us, this is true. But for some of us, the restrictive lenses are thrown off, the scenery of the era is shattered, and the rules are set aside. For these few, they see a world that could be, not only the world that is.
Margaret Fuller: A New American Life peers into the life of one of these individuals. Margaret was an enigmatic woman who somehow defied the time in which she lived to suggest a different way of looking at the world. Her life was lived in the first half of the nineteenth century, when the United States was still trying to figure out what it was. It was a toddler of a nation, exploring, probing, testing ideas, falling down and standing up again, yet still beholden to the parental norms of the world that gave it birth in 1776.
Patrick McWhortor with Nancy Ross of Independent Voting
So, as I read about Fuller’s life, I kept reminding myself that it was a different time. This was the early 1800’s. This was a world in which the way most of us today view women and their roles in our lives would be scandalous. If I were to drop into Margaret’s world, I would be abhorred at her treatment. (And I don’t even want to think what my wife would say and do.) But Margaret would be the exceptions. Her views and mine would likely meld.
Put another way, if Margaret could join us in our world today, and see how many norms, rules and expectations have changed, she would surely be ecstatic. In essence, she would realize she was on to something.
This was one of the most significant take-aways of this biography for me. Margaret Fuller was ahead of her time. She could see, almost as if she had visited our world today, a different reality. She struggled throughout her life to fit in with her world precisely because she didn’t.
I admit that in the opening pages of the book, I struggled with Margaret’s story. The role her father played in defining, shaping, yet also controlling her, frustrated me. I just could not identify with what was happening, and I did not want to know more about the demeaning context of her life, most of all the fact that she was property, not a person. This was appalling to my 21st century American sensibility.
But Margaret drew me in. As her story unfolded, I began to understand that she was seeing things the way I was. Somehow, Margaret persisted in battling against the demeaning reality of her era’s beliefs about women. But it was not one linear progression. Rather, I began reading about so many Margarets through the course of her life, veering in one direction after another to figure out if there was a place for her. And I identified with Margaret’s journey. l witnessed the push and pull of the relationship to her father, the duty she performed for her family, the attraction to so many intellectual giants, the experimentation with teaching in a new way, the struggle to find her voice as a writer. Margaret had to live in this world where she did not belong, and kept looking for a path that would be her own. And I was hooked. I had to follow the path to the end. I had to know: did find her place?
And as I followed that path, I began to understand what Margaret Fuller meant to her time and to ours. I began to appreciate that, step by step, she was becoming America’s first true feminist. There was a growing familiarity about Margaret to me, because she seemed to belong in my century, not hers, and I began to realize that her struggle would inspire the launches of struggles of so many others for equality and power.
And that is when the book’s momentum kicked in. Having spent many of the early pages wondering how this almost tragic beginning to a life was going to mean anything to me two centuries later, I began to see the arc of her story take shape by the middle chapters. I had to press on, had to know why she is such an important American of our nation’s early years.
I picked up about two-thirds of the way through the book as I boarded a flight to New York City from Phoenix. I thought I would make a little more progress, but not sure I could finish it by the time I landed. But finish it I did – incredibly, just as we landed. (And for those who know the book’s ending, you will appreciate that I was literally flying over the final scenes of Margaret’s story as I am reading them. How unplanned, as I really did not know the particulars of how her life ended.)
And thus I found myself moved by Margaret Fuller’s story. I followed her path to the end. In fact, I can say that I almost feel like I know Margaret now. I see her in the strong women I am blessed to have in my life. I share a blissful thirty year marriage to someone who has all the strength of a Margaret Fuller and stands on Margaret’s shoulders in our modern world. And I think Margaret would find in our marriage one example of the fusion she struggled to define and explain to her nineteenth-century bound compatriots.
This would be enough, to understand Margaret’s contribution to the goal of full equality for men and women. But her story for me goes beyond the inspiration she offered to suffragists, champions of equal rights, and modern day feminists.
Her story reminds me that we should not easily dismiss the visionaries among us who challenge our reality. We should pay attention to those who imagine a world that seems impossible. It doesn’t mean they all have it right. But we should not dismiss them. These rebels may be saying something important.
That is what many of us are doing in the independent movement and election reform movement. We are facing a political world constrained by so many assumptions, norms, rules and expectations that our fellow citizens cannot see another reality. They don’t believe it can change.
But there are Margaret Fullers among us trying to challenge us to see a new reality. They are defining our future, if we can see it. And just as Margaret did, they are laying the groundwork for the next revolution.
Margaret’s life is emblematic of the hope for a new future that has driven generations of Americans to build a better world. This is our common ideology. Megan Marshall’s wonderful biography offers us a powerful story of how this one woman, living way ahead of her time, made our world today a better place. And I hope it inspires in anyone who reads it the belief that we can do the same for the world of our descendants.
Patrick McWhortor is the Arizona Campaign Director for Open Primaries. He lives in Cave Creek with his wife.
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