The Living Legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson
“If women feel wronged then they are wronged…I should vote for every franchise for women.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
From his childhood, Ralph Waldo Emerson was surrounded by strong, independent-thinking women. His mother supported the family after his father’s untimely death, and instilled in him a lifelong appetite for learning and spiritual growth. His aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, who lived with them at times, was voracious in her intellectual and religious inquiry and was young Emerson’s most powerful influence. The Emerson home welcomed other progressive women as well, like Hannah Adams, who wrote the first American Dictionary of Religion, and the first book on Judaism by an American, and Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley,who knew Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and German and tutored Harvard students. The women of Emerson’s youth were brilliant and determined.
Years later, in 1850, Emerson signed the “Declaration of Principles” put forth by the first National Women’s Rights Convention held at Worcester, Massachusetts. The renowned suffragist, Lucy Stone, asked him to address the convention, but he was unable to attend due to his work on the memoirs of Margaret Fuller published later that year. But he did deliver a speech on the subject in 1855, in which he described the women’s movement as “no whim, but an organic impulse…a right and proper inquiry…honoring to the age.” He called openly for women to receive their “one half of the world,” their “full rights of all kinds, —to education, to employment, to equal laws of property, equal rights in marriage, in the exercize of the professions, and of suffrage.” He argued that if women were denied suffrage, they should also not be taxed. And “if the woman demand votes, offices and political equality with men…it must not be refused…[their] aspiration of this century will be the code of the next.” Suffragists were among Emerson’s earliest, and most sympathetic audiences, as they understood nonconformity within the established social structure. Although Emerson was not completely sure that women wanted their “equal share in public affairs,” he affirmed “it is they and not we that are to determine it.”
As intellects, literary figures, and participants in public life, Emerson welcomed women. In Concord, along with his wife, Lidian, his intimate circle of intellectuals included Elizabeth Hoar, Louisa May Alcott, Sarah Ripley, and Margaret Fuller from whom Emerson derived many of his progressive thoughts on women in the nineteenth century. Like Margaret Fuller — and most thinkers at this time — Emerson accepted the notion of innate differences between the sexes, of male and female principles in nature. But, also like Fuller, he believed that the best and most interesting natures had both elements: “A highly endowed man with good intellect and good conscience is a man-woman.” Following Fuller’s lead, Emerson pulled back from assigning women a separate, domestic sphere of influence. As Fuller once wrote, “If men look straitly to it, they will find that unless their lives are domestic, those of the women will not be.” After considering women’s limited status in society Emerson wrote, “I think it is impossible to separate the interests and education of the sexes…every country, in its roll of honor, has as many women as men.”
READ MORE ABOUT IT: To read about Emerson and anti-slavery, click here; to read about Emerson and religion, click here; to read about Louisa May Alcott, click here; to learn about Unitarian Universalism, click here.