19th Century Feminists in the Transcendentalist Movement

By: Maddy Forbess

While everyone recognizes the names Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as classic American authors, we must also recognize the female voices of the 19th century. The 19th century heralded in the idea of American optimism, and the feminists of that era deserve immense credit for making the “American dream” an attainable goal for women, as well.

Margaret Fuller might be a familiar name, but many readers might have never heard of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody or Louisa May Alcott. These women are just a few worth studying for their impact on the rise of feminism in America. They helped to usher in a wave of educated women, who were actively engaged in society. 19th century feminists built off the revolutionary ideals set forth in the Transcendentalist movement for the creation of their distinctly female agenda. Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, and Louisa May Alcott took advantage of the newfound power of the individual and applied it to mean the newfound power of the individual woman.

 Fuller held “conversations” in her home, which functioned as a classroom environment for women since they were not allowed to attend university. They discussed topics ranging from Greek mythology and the liberal arts to the state of current affairs in politics. The importance of Fuller’s “conversations” transcend generations. Her goal was to bridge the education gap between the sexes, instilling the idea that women were not only worthy but capable of the same intellectual feats as men. She once said that, “today a reader, tomorrow a leader,” which elegantly sums up her view that women are just as competent as men where intellect is concerned.

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody utilized her linguistic and literary acumen to start a bookstore; she produced many of her own works and translated German philosophical texts, which were influential to the Transcendentalist movement. Her bookstore Foreign Library served as a forum for political discussion, providing yet another space for women to broach topics formerly reserved for men. Louisa May Alcott often attended these “conversations” and her works, such as her famous Little Women, were also sold in bookstores.

As a prolific writer, Louisa Alcott supported herself financially and illustrated her academic prowess. Through discussion in Peabody’s bookstore about prevalent philosophical ideas and new teaching methods, she fostered a new age of educated women. Louisa May Alcott instilled a sense of independence in the women whose lives she touched. A famous quote of hers stands out to me: “we all have our own life to pursue, our own kind of dream to be weaving, and we all have the power to make wishes come true, as long as we keep believing.” Alcott stressed that women have the right to be a part of whichever sphere or workplace so desire. As long as we have the drive and inner-motivation to do so, we, as women, can enter into those formerly forbidden settings with confidence.

Female Transcendentalist women took it upon themselves to expand the role of women in the public sphere. Whether it was surrounding women with education from a young age as Elizabeth Peabody did with her kindergarten mission or staunchly advocating for women’s rights like Margaret Fuller, 19th century feminists truly committed themselves to bettering society for women. Modern women have them to thank for increased female agency in a myriad of aspects of daily life. 21st century women may take education and certain civil liberties for granted, but there is still room for improvement in society—gender equality has yet to be accomplished. The dedication and grit exemplified by 19th century feminists should serve as a model for modern women battling gender norms, today.