Sarah Margaret Fuller, an American journalist, critic, and women’s rights advocate, was born on May 23rd 1810 in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts (the house where she was born is still standing). Her lawyer father Timothy, soon to be elected as a representative in the US Congress, taught her to read at the age of three and a half and gave her a rigorous early education, forbidding her to read feminine etiquette books and sentimental novels. Soon Margaret could translate passages from Virgil. Meanwhile, her mother taught her how to sew and carry out household chores.
After attending formal boarding schools until she was 16, Margaret studied the classics, learned several modern languages, and read world literature, realising that she did not fit in with other young women of her age. By the age of 25 she was writing articles for periodicals, and had her first literary review published in the Western Messenger.
In 1835 her father died of cholera, and Margaret became head of the family, stepping in to take care of her widowed mother and younger siblings. Her father had not left a will, and two of her uncles gained control of his property and finances (assessed at $18,098.15). Humiliated at the way her uncles were treating her family, Margaret wrote that she ‘regretted being of the softer sex’. After her father’s death Margaret began a teaching career, earning the unusually high salary of $1000 per year.
On November 6th 1839, Margaret held the first discussion with local women, intending to compensate for the lack of women’s education with debates and conversations on fine arts, history, mythology and nature, and also answering questions such as ‘What were we born to do’? A number of significant figures in the women’s rights movement attended these gatherings.
By the age of 30 she had earned a reputation as the best read person in New England, and hoped to earn her living through journalism and translation instead of giving private lessons. In October 1839 Ralph Waldo Emerson gave Margaret the post of Editor for his transcendentalist journal The Dial. He had met her in 1835 and liked how she made him laugh. Margaret edited the journal for 2 years, eventually being recognised as one of the most important figures of the transcendental movement.
In the summer of 1843 Margaret travelled to Chicago, Milwaukee, Niagara Falls, and Buffalo, New York, interacting with several Native Americans, members of the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes. She wrote Summer on the Lakes, using the Harvard library to research her book, the first woman allowed to do so. She wrote ‘Women in the Nineteenth Century’ that was published independently in 1845, discussing the role that women played in American democracy and giving her opinion on possibilities for improvement. The book has since become one of the major documents in American feminism, and was considered the first of its kind in the USA.
Margaret then moved to New York and joined Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune as a literary critic. By 1846 she became the publication’s first female editor. During her 4 years there she published more than 250 columns, discussing topics ranging from art and literature to political and social issues and women’s rights. In 1846 the New York Tribune sent Margaret to Europe as its first female foreign correspondent, and eventually provided the Tribune with 37 reports, interviewing prominent writers. She also found a partner there in the Italian revolutionary Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, a disinherited marquis, and lived with him in Florence. It is unclear whether they were actually married as she was Protestant and he was Roman Catholic. Their child Angelo was born in September 1848.
On May 17th 1850 Margaret, Giovanni and Angelo set sail for the US on board an American merchant freighter, Elizabeth. The ship hit a sandbar less than 100 yards from Fire Island, New York, on July 19th 1850. Most on board attempted to swim to shore, leaving Margaret, Giovanni, and Angelo still on board. A massive wave threw Giovanni overboard, and Margaret and Angelo ended up missing, presumed drowned. Angelo’s body was washed ashore, but neither Giovanni or Margaret’s bodies were ever recovered. A memorial to Margaret was erected on the beach at Fire Island in 1901, and a cenotaph, under which Angelo is buried, is in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge. Part of the inscription reads:
By birth a child of New England,
By adoption a citizen of Rome,
By genius belonging to the world.