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Performing Civic Equality Essay

5843 words - 24 pages

Performing Civic Equality


I. Methodological Introduction

Margaret Fuller had in mind that the title of her essay "The Great Lawsuit: MAN versus MEN. WOMAN versus WOMEN" (which she would later expand and re-name "Woman in the Nineteenth Century") should prepare the reader to suspend habitual thinking in order to "meet [her] on [her] own ground." To honor Fuller's desire to be met on her own ground (or perhaps, given the turn this paper has taken, her stage), I have worked to reconstruct what her ground/stage might have been, and to understand her ideas/performance in that light. My approach engages feminist performance theory as articulated by Judith Butler and Marjorie ...view middle of the document...

For example, Elaine Showalter's "gynocritics" assumes sexual difference in the psychodynamics of creativity, the "problem of a female language," and the assumption of a distinct and progressive "female tradition" of writing. While Monique Wittig stands against essentialism, she argues that nineteenth century feminists universally viewed woman as "unique," and that they ignored the historicity of the construction of that view, not to be rescued until women social scientists worked to prove the intellectual equality of the sexes at the end of the century. While these descriptions may apply to the majority of women's literary production, I would argue that Fuller's "The Great Lawsuit" worked to stimulate thinking on the possibilities of Woman by demonstrating that a woman could perform key cultural "scripts" such as a lawsuit and a jeremiad, that women had furthered Western civilization and were crucial to the realization of its zenith in American political culture, and that femality was not only an androgynous aspect of humanity but was also in fact the agent of genius. Fuller hardly wanted to bolster "separate spheres" ideology by emphasizing women's differences. She saw in the absence of women from the public sphere not only great inequality, but also an American body politic kept artificially immature by utilizing only one half of the "Great Radical Dualism." Fuller's key assertions-- the centrality of self-reliant spiritual regeneration, the sexlessness of the soul, and an un-gendered "femality" -- thus contradict the categories which Showalter, Wittig and other feminists have ascribed to mid-nineteenth century women's literary production.

Thus, my attempt to "meet her on her own ground" led me to a non-essentialist approach that analyzed the way in which she invoked the jeremiad and Revolutionary referents to legitimize her voice, and then deployed that legitimacy to argue for a new conception of Woman and femality. Accordingly, Butler's theory of gender-as-performance seemed particularly fitting: Fuller learned male cultural scripts by receiving a "male" education (eventually gaining the reputation as the best-read person-- man or woman-- in New England), she rehearsed them with men and women alike as she sought to hone her intellectual skills, and when she turned to a gender critique, her mastery allowed her to perform a powerful revision of these forms. Far from simply "imitating," Fuller was performing traditionally male scripts with mastery and innovation. In Butler's essay, it is unclear what aspect of an individual chooses to repeat or alter the gendered "scripts" as they conduct their performance. Ultimately, Butler hopes that we might achieve a state in which gender scripts have no particular cultural meaning. For Fuller, there was no question of the choice of guidance; femality's self-reliant Minerva aspect must translate the inspiration of its Muse aspect into self-reliant action. And on the question of prescription, where...

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