For All Nails #313: Uncommon Women

by David Mix Barrington

Excerpts from Historiae Virorum Illustrorum Novangliae , a Latin reader by William Coe Collar, published in 1903 by Athenaeum Press, Boston, Massachusetts, N.C., CNA. (English translation by D.A.M.B.)

Dame Margaret Fuller: Boston's Woman of Letters

Sarah Margaret Fuller was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts (now part of the city of Boston) in 1810, the daughter of Timothy Fuller, a lawyer, graduate of Harvard College, and member of the Northern Confederation Council. From her earliest childhood she was trained by her father in Latin and Greek, and was accepted as the intellectual equal of any man in the literary salons of Boston. She worked as a teacher and private tutor, and organized conversation societies exclusively for women. Her writing on topical affairs, particularly the civil controversy of 1841, brought her to the attention both of Bishop Emerson and the editors of the New York Herald, where she became a regular columnist. In 1849, as social and political revolution swept Italy, Fuller went to Rome to describe for the Herald the emergence of the new Kingdom of Italy under the guidance of Pope Pius VIII FN1.

It was there that she engaged in a series of debates with Monsignor Guido Sarducci on the nature of woman and its implications for religious thought and practice. She argued that women were capable of any kind of learning or employment, and should be free to define their own existences rather than being made subject to their husbands. Her remarks were published as a book, The Nature of Woman. Though Sarducci rebutted many of her points, the debate was credited with affecting Pius VIII's 1858 encyclical De Familia Humana, where marriage is described as an equal partnership of man and woman, and both men and women are urged to educate themselves to their full potential FN2.

In her own writings, Fuller commended the Roman Catholic Church's progress toward a full respect for woman's dignity, but went further to say that her dignity and potential could be achieved either with or without union with a man -- she herself never married. Within the Church, leaders of women's religious orders, such as the great physician and scientist Sister Danielle Richard of Montreal, often cited the Unitarian Anglican Fuller as an inspiration.

On her return to North America, Fuller began the two other works for which she is now best known, her history of Rome (published in twelve volumes in 1878) and the foundation of the girl's academy in the West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston FN3 that now bears her name. The school (founded with the help of Bishop Emerson but serving girls of all religious backgrounds) combines the rigorous training in the classics and other letters that Fuller herself received as a girl with practical training in home, farm, and industrial arts. In 1887, in his last honors list, Governor-General John McDowell asked the Grand Council to name Fuller a Dame of the Confederation, the first woman to receive this honor for contributions to letters and to education. She received the honor from the Viceroy in Burgoyne, her last major journey outside Boston before her death in 1889. That honors list remains the latest in the Confederation's history, as the administrations of Governors-General Gallivan and Burgen have so far declined to submit further names for consideration.

Mary Lyon: Pioneer of Women's Education

Mary Mason Lyon was born in Buckland, a small village in Deerfield District, Massachusetts, in 1797. She had a difficult upbringing, as the death of her father in 1802 left her remaining family to manage a small farm, but showed a gift for reading and arithmetic from an early age. Formal education was only sporadically available in the countryside, and Lyon eventually left home for the town of Byfield in Newburyport District, where she was first a pupil and soon also a teacher at a female seminary established by the Rev. Joseph Emerson (no relation to the Bishop) and his gifted assistant Zilpah Polly Grant. After working with Grant to establish two other girl's schools, Lyon developed her vision for a seminary that would provide comprehensive education for older girls, from all social, economic, and religious backgrounds.

Originally named Deerfield Female Seminary, Lyon's school featured low tuition and rigorous entrance exams testing mental flexibility as well as specific learning. Recognizing that girls arrived with different levels of formal academic preparation through no fault of their own, she admitted particularly promising but undertrained girls for six months of special training in spring and summer before they began the regular first-year courses of instruction in the fall. Along with the traditional subjects of Latin, Greek, and English literature, DFS required mathematical competence of all its graduates and trained them in the sciences, including extensive nature study. It was Lyon and her students, together with those of Hooker College in nearby Amherst, who first carefully studied the large preserved birdlike footprints near the Connecticut River, now believed to be evidence of giant prehistoric lizards.

By the time of Lyon's death in 1862, the college renamed in her honor was fully as much a place of higher education as Hooker or Harvard, and formed a part of the system of colleges established and supported by Bishop Emerson (though Lyon, herself a dissenting Christian rather than an Anglican, gave the college no formal association with the Church and emphasized its openness to all creeds).

Today Mary Lyon College is a leading, perhaps the leading, undergraduate institution for women in the Confederation. It includes the art historian Dorothea Vanderbilt among its alumnae, and the agitator and poetess Emily Dickinson among its former students FN4.

Emily Dickinson: The Bellatrix of Amherst

Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 in the small farming town of Amherst in the Deerfield district of Massachusetts. Her grandfather Samuel, her father Edward, and brother Austin were all civic leaders in the town, district, and province, and Edward in particular held several political offices. At the age of ten, the beginning of her education was interrupted by the civil disturbances of 1840-1, including the burning of the nearby city of Holyoke. The Dickinsons took several refugees from the fire into their home, and Emily said later that their experiences of suffering at the hands of Northern Confederation and private forces was the catalyst for her lifetime of struggle against injustice.

Emily attended Mary Lyon College in nearby Deerfield from 1846 to 1848, withdrawn by her father in the face of expulsion for organizing a student protest against required chapel attendance and physical education classes. Dissatisfied with the small-town life and with her family home, she moved to Brooklyn where she unsuccessfully sought work as a journalist. There she became involved in a variety of political protest activities, particularly in opposition to conscription for the Rocky Mountain War.

She was first arrested for disorderly conduct in May of 1849 in one of the protests against Henry Gilpin's investiture as Governor-General -- after one night in jail the authorities dismissed the charge of disorderly conduct rather than keep her in questionable conditions. In this way she discovered the tactic that would be central to her career as a political activist. By deliberately committing minor non-violent crimes, such as chaining herself to the railing of a public building, she compelled the authorities to arrest her, attracting attention to her cause, diverting their resources, and raising the spectre of a public trial she could use as a platform for further agitation. This was not without risk, as she was beaten several times and often confined in harsh conditions that no doubt shortened her life -- she eventually died of consumption in 1875 during a strike at a McGregor Industries factory in Philadelphia.

Since her death, Emily Dickinson has obtained some notice as a poetess. Until her final break with her family in 1858 (sparked by her father's election to the Grand Council as a Liberal), she would record her curious short poems in notebooks on her visits to Amherst. Afterward, she left countless scraps of paper behind her in friends' homes, jails and seedy boardinghouses, where many were preserved and later collected and published. But she will best be remembered as the diminutive figure marching at the head of a body of protesters, or being led away to prison, as the voice of conscience for the Confederation, urging it towards equality for women and dignity for the working man.

Near Eliot FN5, Concord District, Massachusetts
4 August 1976

Victoria Elizabeth Hartford was an Uncommon Woman. FN6 It said so right there on the acceptance letter from Mary Lyon College, addressed to her with all three of her names. The college's judgement, after all, only ratified that of her teachers at Fuller and the committee that had awarded her the Dedham Parish scholarship. Her uncommonness, it seemed, was manifested in the same academic skills that Fuller expected of all its students -- she was just better at those skills than anyone else. To the victors of the academic race went the spoils, in this case the chance to spend three years in Deerfield at the expense of the parish, essentially being paid to read books and write about them.

Which suited Vickie just fine, as it happened. If MLC appreciated her uncommonness as much as had Fuller and the parish, she might eventually earn a living reading books and writing about them. Dame Mags had managed that in the last century, when it was harder -- there was your real uncommon woman. Her dispatches from Italy, her Roman history, her school, all through her own skill. There were more ways for a woman to make her own way now, she thought -- judges, space pilots, politicians, space pilots turned politicians, but Dame Mags had it right. Start by learning your language, and then the languages that formed it, your history, your literature -- when you know that, you have something to say. Then just say it in the clearest and most powerful way, and maybe you can reach Popes and Governors-General and, more importantly, readers around the world. An uncommon ambition for an Uncommon Woman, indeed.

Like Queen Elizabeth, Dame Mags was also uncommon in not having a husband. No more virgin than the Virgin Queen, of course -- at least according to one heavily thumbed magazine article FN7 in the MFA library. The author portrayed Fuller as a total libertine who had been the lover of nearly every important North American literary figure of the century, before you started counting foreigners. It had been uncommon of Vickie, she supposed, to have spent an entire free Saturday at the Dudley Square library tracking down the article's sources. Sloppy! And she had been paid to write this stuff, at least by a jeffie magazine! Sure, Dame Mags had it off with Hawthorne, Woodville, Emerson, Garibaldi, and probably Richardson. But both Dickinson and Lucy Stone? One (much better researched) book suggested that Fuller might have experimented with Sapphism, but there was nothing conclusive. And wasn't Whitman supposed to have been a Platonist?

Her wheeling companion, she saw, had drawn ahead of her while she pondered these matters. At the top of the next hill, David was waiting for her, stopped to look at a flock of sheep and their guard llama FN8 behind a fence. She shifted down and pedaled a bit faster. As she remembered, the swimming hole was about three more miles. Her body was holding up just fine. Not an uncommon body, for all that David was fascinated by it like one of MacPherson's geese FN9, but one that enjoyed the physical sensations of love as much as any. Did she love David? She liked him, was fond about him, cared for him, was happy to be a couple with him at school and for the summer. Which was why, in a sufficiently private corner of the swimming hole, she would be taking off the top but not the bottom of her new Mexican swimdress for him. Was that love? As good a name for it as any, she thought.

In four weeks, though, she was moving a hundred miles away, and David was staying for his last year at Roxbury. He would follow her after that year, he said -- Hooker College was only ten miles from Deerfield, and he was a certainty for next year's parish scholarship. Vickie didn't want him making a decision like that on account of her, but she'd researched it -- Hooker was a fine place for his mathematics, not Burgoyne or Champlain, but a fine place. And the parish scholarship had to be used in the province, and most of the other good places were in or near Boston. What was the point of "going away to college" and staying in the same city? So she had decided -- Hooker was all right for David.

But why was she making that decision? The classic reason for a woman to never marry was to prevent all her decisions being made by her husband. But it seemed to Vickie that the real problem was the reverse. For all that he could make a calculator do tricks or win a cross-country race, David was just a MacPherson goose. First fascinated with those space pilots, now fascinated with her. He would be happy to follow her to college, follow her to graduate school, follow her all her life -- he would marry her now if she wanted.

And that made no sense. Uncommon Women should rule their own lives, but not another's. Which was why this love affair was going so far and no further, and probably had to end before the summer did. But not today. Today was a day for wheeling, swimming, and cuddling with her boyfriend. There would be plenty of other days to be uncommon.

Forward to FAN #314: The Magnificent Anachronism.

Forward to 18 August 1976: And You Could Have It All.

Return to For All Nails.