Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sermon: "Happy Birthday Margaret Fuller!" (Delivered 3-14-10)

The 3C Theme of this sermon is: Commit - To commit to a distinctly Unitarian Universalist way of life. Click here for more information.

[These words are modeled on a spoken word piece I heard delivered by the poet and activist Sonia Sanchez. They are meant to be read live.]

Susan B. Anthony
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Lydia Maria Child
Louise May Alcott
Judith Sargeant Murray
Julia Ward Howe
…cuz if you’re Unitarian you need three names

Olympia Brown, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Angelina Grimke, Sarah Grimke, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Jane Addams, Dorothea Dix, Dorothy Day

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Beecher Stowe

Thandeka and Rebecca Parker and Sharon Welch and Rita Nakashima Brock

Sarah AND Hagar
Eve AND Lilith
Mary AND Mary Magdalene
Mary AND Martha
Ruth, Esther, X, X, X, X, X, X, X, X, X, X, X, X

Phoebe… and I’m not talkin' 'bout Friends.
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe.” (Romans 16:1) Just like:

I commend to you Khadijah;
I commend to you Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir;
I commend to you Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, and Shirley Chisholm;
I commend to you Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, and Andrea Dworkin.

I praise Mary Daly and Mary Daly’s axe.

I praise Angela Davis.
I praise Sojourner Truth (“Ain’t I a woman?”)
I praise Maya Angelou (“I know why the caged bird sings.”)
I praise Ntozake Shange (“I found God within myself and I loved her, I loved her fiercely.”)
I found God within myself and I loved her, I loved her fiercely.
I found God within myself and I loved her, I loved her fiercely.
I found God within myself and I loved her, I loved her fiercely.
I found God within myself and I loved her, I loved her fiercely.

Alice Walker helped us to find (and) love.
Toni Morrison helped us to find (and) love.
Zora Neale Hurston helped us to find (and) love.
Nikki Giovanni helped us to find (and) love.
Sonia Sanchez, Sandra Cisneros, and Elisabeth Alexander helped us to find (and) love.

Sappho, Cassandra, Cleopatra
Queen Nefertiti
Queen Latifah
The Queen Aretha Franklin
Nina Simone, Billie Holliday, Tina Turner, Missy Elliot, Melissa Etheridge.

Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Mother Teresa, Pema Chodron, Starhawk, Margot Adler… Margaret Fuller. Let us worship.

In 1998 I attended my first Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. That year it was held in Rochester, New York and the time and the place held great significance. 150 years earlier, almost to the day, in nearby Seneca Falls, New York, a group of the leading advocates for women’s equality had gathered. Led by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the convention at Seneca Falls helped to launch the quest for women’s equality in the United States.

The Seneca Falls convention concerned itself not only with equality and advancement for women, but with human rights and social change writ large. Frederick Douglass participated in the convention at Seneca Falls. Gerrit Smith, a New York millionaire and, a decade later, one of John Brown’s secret funders, paid close attention to the proceedings. In a subsequent run for President of the United States on a small party ticket some of his supporters pushed for him to name Lucretia Mott as the Vice-Presidential candidate on his ticket.

But here is the point I want to make. If you asked Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Lucretia Mott to who they looked to for inspiration for their reform efforts one of the first names they would have spoken would have been the name Margaret Fuller.

This morning, on this middle Sunday in March, in the middle of Women’s History Month, I want to speak to you about part of our Unitarian Universalist tradition and heritage. I want to tell you about the life of Margaret Fuller. My guess is that many of you have never heard about her. Or maybe you have heard about her but don’t know why she was a big deal. Well, all around Unitarian Universalism this Spring, congregations are making a big deal out of Margaret Fuller. This May will be her 200th Birthday. I suppose I ought to provide you the briefest sketches of her life.

Margaret Fuller was born in Massachusetts in 1810. Her father was elected to the Congress of the United States during her early childhood. At a very early age, her intellectual gifts became apparent. And, I mean at an early age. She taught herself to read when she was three and by the age of five she was translating Virgil from the Latin. (Which kind of puts the “My child is an honor student” bumper sticker to shame, doesn’t it?) As a teen, she attended a selective school for women but she also pursued a life of the mind independently. During her teens she taught herself a handful of foreign languages and also engaged in an independent study of the classics. By the time she was in her early thirties, she had gained the reputation as the most well-read person, man or woman, in all of New England.

Recognizing the limited opportunities provided within society for women to grow as intellectuals, Fuller began to host salons for young women to improve themselves intellectually. Through her twenties Fuller taught at several schools. Intermittently, she worked on writing a biography of Goethe. Her intellectual reputation reached Ralph Waldo Emerson who invited her to join the Transcendental Club which included Boston’s leading Unitarian and Transcendentalist thinkers. He did more than invite her to the table. He provided her with a seat at the head of the table. Fuller, at age 29, became the editor of The Dial, the journal of Transcendentalist thought.

Fuller was unfulfilled. In 1944 Fuller moved to New York and was hired as a writer and reporter for Unitarian Horace Greeley’s newspaper, The New York Tribune. She started as the Tribune’s book critic, the first person ever employed as a full-time book critic for a newspaper in the United States. Two years later she was promoted to editor, another first. Two years after that she accepted a position as foreign correspondent, also the first woman to do that. While working in Italy she took a lover and had a child. Scholars debate whether she ever actually married though Fuller herself advocated for women to remain single for life. Parts of her life and her thought remain mysteries because of a shipwreck off the coast of New York in 1850 in which she, her child, and the father of her child all perished. Margaret Fuller was forty years old when she died.

Oh, and there is more. Margaret Fuller also wrote the first book in America advocating for women’s equality, published hundreds of newspaper articles as well as poems, essays, and other writings. For a piece she was researching on northern Native American tribes, she became the first woman ever to conduct research inside Harvard’s libraries. Fuller was an incredible and remarkable Unitarian, an incredible and remarkable person. Of course, there are plenty of things that I haven’t even mentioned: Nathaniel Hawthorne is said to have modeled two characters on her: Hester Pryne in The Scarlet Letter and the vivacious, outspoken, and intelligent character Zenobia in Hawthorne’s novel, The Blithedale Romance.

So, just one more thing about her before I leave all the biography stuff aside and turn to the sermonic stuff. Not only was Margaret Fuller regarded as the most well-read human being in all of New England, but she regarded herself that way as well. While sitting at a table with Ralph Waldo Emerson she once remarked, coolly, “I now know all the people worth knowing in America, and I find no intellect comparable to my own.” If you’ve got it, you might as well flaunt it.

Intellectual, trailblazer, groundbreaking feminist, woman of American letters: I want to switch, if I can do so, from history lecture to sermon. Edgar Allan Poe once said that “Humanity is divided into men, women, and Margaret Fuller.” When Poe said this, he was referring to something very specific. During the time when Margaret Fuller lived, upper and middle class women tended to embrace a pattern of thought and behavior that historians now call “The Cult of Domesticity” or “The Cult of True Womanhood.” In fact, the ethos of the 1830s and 1840s was really quite similar to the ethos of white suburbia in the 1950s.

In this societal model, the house was the women’s sphere and housekeeping and child-raising was regarded as more than just women’s work. The activities were considered to be the very expression of the true nature of womankind. Traits that were valued in women included purity, passivity, delicacy, nurturing, faithfulness, and love. Women were regarded as more spiritually inclined than men, and therefore, more virtuous. Women were influential to the extent that they could model virtue; their example could offer moral persuasion. In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the character of Little Eva represents the personification of the Cult of Domesticity: extremely childlike, virtuous, and pious. It is telling that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s model woman is an angelic bed-ridden child.

Under this idea of the Cult of True Womanhood, women were also responsible for making the home ordered, moral, and safe. The world was considered to be chaotic, immoral, and indifferent. The virtues of home life, it was argued, would help men be moral agents within the cold and harsh world outside the home.

Needless to say, Margaret Fuller’s ideas and actions clashed with this culture. They were unmixy things. When Edgar Allan Poe said that all of humanity can be divided into men, women, and Margaret Fuller, it was because she defied categorization according to the gender boxes of her day.

When we read, as we did earlier, Margaret Fuller’s proclamation about the “New Manifestation” [responsive reading #575 in the hymnal] I suspect that many of us chafed at the line, “What Woman needs is not as woman to act or rule.” Who else had trouble with that line? That line does not make sense today. We live in a world where both men and women can and should and do rule, although equality has not yet been reached. That line by Fuller doesn’t make sense to us modern folk today in the age a woman Secretary of State, Speaker of the House, and two Supreme Court justices.

Fuller was speaking to her own day and was saying that the Cult of Domesticity was harmful to both the sexes. “A New Manifestation is at hand, a new hour is come. Man does not have his fair share either; his energies are repressed and distorted by the interposition of artificial obstacles.... We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down… every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man.”

In Fuller’s most famous work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, she talks about the sexes not just squabbling over concretized categories of being, but of tearing the categories down:
Male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But, in fact, they are perpetually passing into one another. Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.

History jeers at the attempts of physiologists to bind great original laws by the forms which flow from them. They make a rule; they say from observation what can and cannot be. In vain! Nature provides exceptions to every rule. She sends women to battle, and sets Hercules spinning; she enables women to bear immense burdens, cold, and frost; she enables the man, who feels maternal love, to nourish his infant like a mother.
A lot of what she is saying doesn’t sound all that shocking today. But she said it in 1840. She was once asked what roles women should have and quipped back that women should be able to do any job, including sea captain. So, just let me name something. Some people in this room were raised with the message that women could do any job. Others in this room were raised at a time when this message had not yet become prevalent. But Margaret Fuller was writing it more than 170 years ago, and in writing and saying it she inspired women like Susan B. Anthony and the struggle for gender equality and women’s suffrage.

So, Happy Birthday Margaret Fuller! We are honored by your angelic ministry.

[Before the benediction I mentioned what a fine writer Margaret Fuller was and added that one of the joys of reading her was reading her literary love letters. This following comes from one of her love letters.]
We will worship by impromptu symbols, till the religion is framed for all Humanity. The beauty grows around us daily, the trees are now all in blossom and some of the vines; there is a Crown Imperial just in perfection, to which I paid my evening worship by the light of the fire, which reached to us, and there are flashes of lightening too. But I do not like the lightening so well as once, having been in too great danger. Yet just now a noble flash falls upon my paper, it ought to have noble thoughts to illumine, instead of these little nothings, but indeed to-night I write only to say: thou dear, dear friend, and we must must meet soon.