The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women

“Male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But, in fact, they are perpetually passing into one another. . . . There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.”

Summary Overview

Margaret Fuller is known as one of the first feminist thinkers in America, if not the first. She strongly advocated for women’s rights to both education and employment. She published her thoughts in a serialized essay that appeared in July 1843 in the Dial, a magazine that she cofounded with Ralph Waldo Emerson and edited from 1840 to 1842. In the essay, entitled “The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women,” she states that there should not be separate spheres in society for women and men and that each woman and each man actually has characteristics of both genders within them. This essay was expanded by Fuller in 1845 and was published as Woman in the Nineteenth Century. It has become known as a foundational document of American feminism and, along with Fuller’s other works, has been cited as a source of inspiration for early American feminist activists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Defining Moment

In the early nineteenth century, the antebellum United States was beginning to see that the revolutionary ideals it had fought so hard attain were beginning to fray. Slavery was increasingly seen by many as a prime example that liberty and freedom were not, indeed, for all men. The abolitionist movement also provided an impetus for American women to take a good look at their own status and position in society. Indeed, many abolitionists, such as Angelina and Sarah Grimke, were also early advocates for women’s rights.

Margaret Fuller was influenced by the abolitionist movement, but mainly through her involvement in the transcendentalist movement, whose members were also active in social reform movements. Transcendentalism was closely linked to Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Fuller befriended after hearing him speak. The philosophy had as one of its main tenets the cultivation of the individual. To Fuller, the individual soul was without gender, and so this philosophy applied equally to women and men. Fuller was also influenced by European romanticism, which was particularly strong in the arts and literature. This intellectual movement was in part a reaction to the Enlightenment and its commitment to the scientific rationalization of nature. The romantics advocated strong emotions and embraced classical history and literature.

Fuller was certainly aware of the issues facing nineteenth-century American women, as she herself had to overcome many of them. A highly educated woman who made her own living by writing and teaching, she was the exception and not the norm in American society. She believed that other women should have the same opportunities that she had, and it was for this reason she wrote on the topic of women’s rights and women’s ability to be equal to men. This was a radical theory at the time for many in the United States who had embraced the ideals of separate spheres for the two sexes: domestic or private for women and political or public for men. Most female writers also embraced the notion of “republican motherhood,” which held that American women should be educated in order to provide a better early education for boys who would one day take their place as leaders of the country and girls who would repeat the cycle and become mothers to boys themselves. Fuller’s call for women’s rights was like an American echo of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which caused some controversy when it was published in 1792. Although America’s attention was soon focused on abolition during the years of the Civil War, Fuller’s work set the tone for many early American feminist activists whose work began in earnest after the war was over.

Author Biography

Sarah Margaret Fuller was born on May 23, 1810, to her parents Timothy Fuller and Margaret Crane Fuller in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. She was their first child, followed over the years by two sisters and six brothers, although one sister and one brother died while in infancy. Margaret was provided the finest of educations by her father, who saw that she was keen and able to learn. She attended various schools in the Cambridge area, including the prestigious Port School in Cambridgeport, which prepared young boys for Harvard but also allowed girls to attend. By sixteen, she had left school and started a self-study program designed with the help of her father, and by 1833, she was tutoring her own siblings, which she found somewhat exhausting. She would have to continue teaching, though, as her father died suddenly of cholera in 1835. She began to teach at schools and publish literary criticism.

Fuller was surrounded by fellow intellectuals in the Harvard University area, and it was here that she heard Ralph Waldo Emerson speak on transcendentalism, a new philosophy that was emerging in America at the time. Hearing his talk inspired her to join the Transcendental Club. In 1839, she began holding “conversations” for women intellectuals and activists in her home. It was during this time that she began to be viewed as a leader in the transcendentalist movement. In 1839, she translated a book about the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. She then cofounded the transcendentalist magazine the Dial with Emerson and, between 1840 and 1842, served as its editor. After stepping down as editor, she continued to contribute to the Dial and published her landmark essay, “The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women,” in July 1843. Fuller expanded “The Great Lawsuit” and published it separately under the title Woman in the Nineteenth Century in 1845. Throughout this time, she earned the reputation of being the most well-read person, male or female, in New England and became the first woman who was allowed to use Harvard Library as a researcher.

At the end of 1844, Fuller left her family and friends in Massachusetts and moved to New York to join the New York Tribune as its literary critic. In 1846, the newspaper sent her to Europe as its first female foreign correspondent. While traveling in Italy, she met Marquis Giovanni Angelo Ossoli and joined him in the Republican fight for independence in Rome. On September 5, 1848, Fuller gave birth to Ossoli’s son, Angelo Eugene Philip “Nino” Ossoli, out of wedlock. In April 1849, she left her son with a nurse and returned to Rome, where she ran a hospital and provided supplies to Ossoli’s group of fighters. Upon the Republican defeat in July 1849, Fuller fled with Ossoli and their son to Florence. While there, she wrote a history of the Italian revolution, but she wanted to publish it in the United States and decided to move back. She and her family had almost completed their transatlantic journey when they perished in a shipwreck off Fire Island near New York City on July 19, 1850.

Document Analysis

Margaret Fuller was one of the first proponents of women’s rights in the United States, advocating for full equality between men and women. In 1843, she wrote one of the first feminist tracts in United States history when she penned “The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women.” This essay appeared in the Dial, a transcendentalist magazine that she had cofounded and then edited for two years between 1840 and 1842. The essay’s main point is that men and women are equal and should have equal opportunities to develop to their full potential, especially in a spiritual way. She dismissed the concept of separate spheres for women and men that was the current wisdom in America at the time. She also believed that both men and women had characteristics of the other sex within them. Given her intense and classical education, Fuller’s work was meant to be read by others as educated as she was. She uses a complex rhetorical style, with many voices and a somewhat disjointed and wandering style that is reminiscent of one of her favorite authors, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Within this essay, allegories and allusions to classical works and personalities are common, which was in keeping with the romantic style that was prevalent at the time. Fuller’s writing style made her work less accessible to the general public, but it nonetheless set the stage for both her follow-up work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, and the feminist movement that emerged later in the nineteenth century.

The excerpt chosen here is the latter part and ending of Fuller’s essay. In previous sections, she discusses aspects of abolition and differing types of marriages, among other issues. She begins this section by explaining what she views as the “two aspects of women’s nature,” Minerva and Muse. Fuller uses Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, to represent the wisdom and intellect of women and Muse to refer to women’s more spiritual and intuitive side, as personified by the ancient muses of Greece and Rome. Fuller thinks that women’s Muse side has been overemphasized and that women can achieve more harmony and autonomy if they also concentrate on developing their Minerva side. Fuller’s essay also demonstrates her wide reading, as she mentions a recent article in the New York Pathfinder, a weekly magazine. Fuller feels that the author of the article is referring to the Muse side of women, while the Minerva, or intellectual, side is portrayed more by quoted words of the poet William Wordsworth. Not content with only classical allusions to Minerva and the Muse, Fuller refers to these more current writings to further her point.

She then goes on to explain more fully the Muse side of women. In this, she celebrates women’s intuitive, spiritual, and “electrical” sides. She represents women as aligned more fully with the natural rhythms of nature and as a source of inspiration for art, rather than the interpreter of art, the artist. The Muse is women’s more natural role, and represents this “especially feminine element, spoken of as Femality”—another reference to the New York Pathfinder, which had published two articles on the subject. As soon as she has made this point, however, she makes the next point that this feminine element is not the unique domain of women alone, and it is not necessarily natural that it should be “incarnated pure”; rather, she asserts, “masculine energy” can also be combined with this feminine element.

Here, Fuller begins to make her case that masculine and feminine are not completely separate and exclusive. Rather, they ebb and flow into each other, and just as women can have masculine attributes, so too can men employ feminine characteristics. This is Fuller’s expression of the “great radical dualism” that exists between male and female. She then chides “physiologists” who try and reinforce the supposedly separate and exclusive characteristics of men and women by scientific methods. Such criticism betrays her leanings toward romanticism, which opposes some of the more scientific rationalizations that were widespread during the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. She insists that “nature provides exceptions to every rule.” Fuller then turns to history for examples of women who have acted with more masculine actions, such as participating in wars, and of men who exhibit a more feminine side, such as a man who shows “maternal love” for a child. She also cites classical mythology with her reference to Hercules, a hero known for his masculine strength, and his penchant for spinning, a particular female occupation. She goes even further by predicting that soon there will be a female scientist capable of great breakthroughs, along the lines of Isaac Newton, who had discovered the law of gravity. She gives another example, predicting that a man may soon become a “Syren,” or siren, a mythical female sea nymph who called to sailors and was blamed for causing them to shipwreck on the coast. Fuller’s view is that this fluidity of gender identity was accepted by the ancients: “Man partakes of the feminine in the Apollo, woman of the Masculine as Minerva.”

Fuller then calls for action to allow the soul to develop in the absence of gender, which is a key element of transcendentalism. Every individual has access to the “Oversoul,” which has no gender or race. Fuller makes references to the classical Greek and Roman mythology when she mentions Jove’s birth by his mother, Rhea, and the birth of Jove’s daughter, Pallas (Athena; equated with Minerva), who sprang forth from his head fully grown and armed for combat. Jove, or Jupiter, was king of the Roman gods and was known as Zeus to the ancient Greeks. Fuller’s reference to a child born of a male helps again to reinforce her argument for gender fluidity.

Fuller next explains her views on relationships and how people are best prepared to enter into them. In Fuller’s perspective, men and women need to give themselves time apart and alone to develop their own utmost potentials. In essence, people must get to know themselves first before they can enter into any kind of union with another. In fact, she states this plainly when she says, “Union is only possible to those who are units.” She wants people, especially women, to take time to develop their own thoughts and opinions and above all to cultivate independence and autonomy over dependence on another person. She mentions the “Indian girl,” which is a reference to a story she told earlier in the essay. A young American Indian woman had made the decision not to marry, told her tribe that she was betrothed to the sun, and led a solitary and independent life “sustained by her own exertions.”

Fuller is clear that men will probably not help with this kind of personal development for women, because they “are under the slavery of habit.” To illustrate her point, she first sets the scene with a father and his daughter. Fuller felt men have the same capacity for “maternal love” as women do; she also had her own experience with a father who pushed her to develop her intellect, and she may have been drawing on her own personal experience throughout this segment. Although she has already posited that men cannot or will not assist in women’s self-development, she then states that if men could ever be convinced to help, it would be the result of a man having a daughter. Here she also casually alludes to an epic poem by Robert Southey called The Curse of Kehama, which he wrote in 1810. Southey cited his inability to sleep at a boarding school as his inspiration for this poem, which Fuller refers to when she states, “When lo, the dream was rudely broken.”

She changes her rhetorical style here and moves into a direct dialogue conversation between a husband and wife about the future of their daughter. The husband makes the point quite clearly that he does not want his daughter too educated (“brought too forward”) because “superior women” have trouble finding husbands. His wife responds in defense of educating their daughter, as he should want this regardless of whether or not she eventually marries. In response to this, he invokes the separate-spheres argument, saying that he wants her to have a “sphere and a home” while also having someone to protect her after he dies, thus rather obviously making the assumption that she will not be able to protect herself.

Fuller relates that this exchange left a “deep impression” on her. She notes that this man, if he were looking at the other side of the argument and placing himself in the role of potential husband and not father, may have viewed things differently and allowed his daughter to pursue her education. Again she invokes a classical reference when she says that the father would have been “much more likely to repeat the tale of Alcibiades,” who was a Greek general who stole “phials,” or cups, made of gold and silver from his friend Anytus during a dinner. Although Anytus’s other guests criticized him for allowing Alcibiades to treat him with such contempt, Anytus loved Alcibiades so much that he forgave him.

It was clear to Fuller that because men do not “look at both sides,” women cannot rely on them to enable their intellectual development. She urges women instead to “retire within themselves” and go on a voyage of self-discovery. She believes this will be as a rebirth for them, and they will be ready to go forth into the world and express a new and unique creativity. They will be able to turn “dross to gold” and will be “rich and free” from this experience. In essence, she is saying that the world will be a better place for all if women do this.

She reinforces her argument by saying that women should be granted “the armor and the javelin” in order to protect themselves from the outside world. Such protection would also shield them from the “press of other minds” so that women could be left alone to “meditate in virgin loneliness.” Fuller felt that women need to do this before they marry, if they marry at all. She then tries to align this behavior, which is somewhat unorthodox, at least for America in the nineteenth century, with a most natural state. She is sure that this idea will reappear, as it has in the past when personified by Muse, or Ceres, who is the Roman goddess of the harvest (the “Earth-Spirit”).

At this point, Fuller veers into territory that is somewhat familiar, at least to her. She illustrates her point this time using a work by Goethe, whom she considered one of the great minds of his time.. Goethe was a German writer, scientist, politician who lived between 1749 and 1832, so his death was a fairly recent event when Fuller was writing. He was one of the earliest writers of the romantic period, which influenced the American transcendentalists to a great degree. Fuller had published her translation of Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe in 1839, and she was quite conversant in his life and his writings, some of which she had translated into English.

Fuller was aware that many knew of her admiration for Goethe, and she states she knows that she may “tire” her readers with her “Goethean illustrations.” She chooses one of Goethe’s masterpieces, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, as her example. Originally published in German in 1795–96, the novel was translated into English in 1824. Fuller finds the book’s female characters compelling because they are strong and self-developed. It is for this reason that, even if Goethe’s name may “nauseate” the reader, she feels it is vital to delve into his writing to bolster her own argument.

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship follows the protagonist, Wilhelm, as he progresses through his life. There are numerous female characters in Goethe’s novel, the first being Mariana, an actress with whom Wilhelm falls in love but whom he eventually leaves when he finds out she is seeing another man. Fuller feels that with each female character Wilhelm meets, he encounters women “of more and more character”—in other words, women who are more self-realized or self-actualized than the last. She views Mariana as the least well-developed character and Macaria as the most fully developed. To Fuller, Macaria represents the Minerva, or intellectual, side of women. Another female character, Mignon, represents the Muse side of women, or the intuitive and emotional side. Mignon is an abused young woman who was part of an acrobatic troupe, which she left to accompany Wilhelm on his travels.

Fuller is intrigued that Goethe presents these women as fully formed individuals, and so they appear to her as “unrelated.” They do have relationships with people and exist within them, but they are not dependent on or “restrained” by a man. She mentions three other of Goethe’s characters: Theresa, Natalia, and Natalia’s aunt, the “Fair Saint.” Theresa is an excellent “economist,” which in this case means the keeper of a household and its accounts. At the end of the book, Wilhelm actually marries Natalia, who saved him from bandits earlier in the book.

Fuller is impressed that each of these female characters is not bound by their chosen paths in life. They are free to develop as they will, as nothing is “enforced or conventional.” She notes that Mignon and Theresa wear male clothing, which is hardly conventional, but she considers it “graceful.” On the other hand, Macaria does not move from a chair, and the Fair Saint has a phobia about dust appearing on her clothing. Each of these women has different thoughts, different opinions, and different ideas of how to live her life. Fuller views this as being “natural and free,” allowing for the harmony of nature to arise because the women have followed paths of “Truth and Love,” which have led to their freedom. For Fuller, Goethe’s women act as role models for how American women could find their own freedom, especially when she states that “new individualities shall be developed in the actual world.”

Leaving Goethe, Fuller turns her attention again to the topic of marriage, which she discussed earlier in her essay at some length. Here she quotes an anonymous “profound thinker” as saying that a married woman cannot represent the concept of “woman,” as she is not an individual herself but rather property of her husband; therefore, only a single and virginal woman can represent women conceptually. Of course, Fuller disagrees with this representation, although she herself was single at the time she was writing this essay. Fuller believes that it is this concept of a husband owning a wife that is the “very fault of marriage.” Instead, she argues that a marriage should be the union of two autonomous individuals who come together to form a whole.

Fuller reinforces this by stating that a self-developed, or “self-centred,” woman would not live her life through the lens of a relationship, in this case a marriage. She would not let herself and her identity be subsumed by another, in this case her husband. Fuller views it as a “vulgar error” that people could view women through this lens only. Women have more ability and capacity to show “Truth and Love in their universal energy.” This refers back to the theme of a more spiritual soul that exists without gender. To make her point even clearer, Fuller suggests that if women claim for themselves this self-development and autonomy, they could be at once both virgins and mothers, like the Virgin Mary. Fuller previously quoted in this essay a dedication of the tragedy Adelchi by Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni, published in 1822. In this dedication, Manzoni refers to his wife as having a “conjugal affections and maternal wisdom” while at the same time preserving “a virgin mind.”

Fuller concludes by wondering aloud when such a woman will appear to act as a role model for others to follow this path. She suggests two names for such a woman, the first being Victoria, which has the dual significance of meaning a triumphant and powerful woman and being the name of the new British queen, who ascended to the throne in 1837. The other name she suggests is Virginia, which may refer back to her discussion of the virgin mind. In the end, she decides she cannot predict a name, as she feels that this woman “must teach us to give her the fitting name.”

Essential Themes

Margaret Fuller was a pioneer in American feminist thought. While others were advocating solely for women’s education, and therefore remaining within the accepted social roles of the time, Fuller was adamant that women should settle for nothing less than full equality with men. Her belief that women needed to become self-realized and develop fully within themselves was a departure from the norms of the time. Most women writers respected the concept of separate spheres for men and women that had developed through the so-called cult of true womanhood or cult of domesticity, which idealized women’s role in the domestic or private sphere. Fuller did not believe this, ascribing instead to American transcendentalist beliefs that each person could have a direct relationship with God, as well as with nature, and should aspire to cultivate their own soul. To Fuller, this translated to a soul without a sex, and so each individual person, male or female, was capable of the same level of self-discovery and spiritual development.

From this egalitarian starting point, it easily follows that women should have equal access to education and to employment. Fuller believed that each woman should be allowed to live her life without dependence on a husband. She also believed strongly that women have an intellectual side, represented by Minerva, and a more intuitive, natural, and emotional side, represented by Muse, and that cultivating the Minerva side would balance the Muse side. Further, she believed that both men and women have elements of each of these sides to their personality, so that there is no one who is purely male or purely female in existence. Fuller regarded masculinity and femininity as fluid concepts that each gender employs and enjoys from time to time. In this, Fuller was less like her contemporaries and more like her counterparts in the twentieth century, who fought for the vote early in the century and for equal rights in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, she and her work were only rediscovered when women’s history became an accepted branch of history. She was a woman ahead of her time. As a result, and because of her highly erudite writing style that references many classical and literary works, her writing was not as popular as that of other writers of the day. The reaction to this essay was quite favorable within her circle of transcendentalist friends, which included Ralph Waldo Emerson, but she wanted it to have a wider audience. She expanded it to a book-length work and published it two years later as Woman in the Nineteenth Century. The book retains the essay’s complex rhetorical style, however, and Fuller recognized that it may still have a limited readership.

Fuller’s importance as an American intellectual and feminist writer faded after her premature death in 1850. The Civil War focused American attention squarely on race rather than gender, and American feminists had to wait until the second half of the nineteenth century for their concerns to come to the forefront of public discourse in the United States. When women’s rights resurfaced as an issue, many of the activists looked back to Fuller for inspiration. She was in many ways to the United States what Wollstonecraft was to Britain—the first truly feminist voice.


  • Capper, Charles. Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life. Vol 2. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.
  • Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Trans. R. Dillon Boylan. London: Bell, 1886. Print.
  • Unitarian Universalist Women & Religion, 2010. Web. 10 April 2013.
  • Mehren, Joan von. Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1994. Print.
  • Murray, Meg McGavran. Margaret Fuller, Wandering Pilgrim. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2008. Print.
  • Myerson, Joel, ed. Transcendentalism: A Reader. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.
  • Steele, Jeffrey. Transfiguring America: Myth, Ideology, and Mourning in Margaret Fuller’s Writing. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2001. Print.
  • Wayne, Tiffany K. Woman Thinking: Feminism and Transcendentalism in Nineteenth-Century America. Lanham: Lexington, 2005. Print.

Additional Reading

  • Bailey, Brigitte Viens, Katheryn P. Wright, and Conrad Edick. New England in the World: Margaret Fuller and Her Circles. Durham: U of New Hampshire P, 2013. Print.
  • Dickenson, Donna. Margaret Fuller: Writing a Woman’s Life. New York: St. Martin’s, 1993. Print.
  • Gura, Philip F. American Transcendentalism: A History. New York: Hill, 2007. Print
  • Gustafson, Sandra M. “Choosing a Medium: Margaret Fuller and the Forms of Sentiment.” American Quarterly 47.1 (1995): 34–65. Print.
  • Marshall, Megan. Margaret Fuller: A New American Life. Boston: Houghton, 2013. Print.
  • Slater, Abby. In Search of Margaret Fuller. New York: Delacorte, 1978. Print.