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Personalities and Women’s Rights

ISSUE:  Summer 1940

Created Equal: A Biography of Elisabeth Cady Stanton. By Alma Lutz. New York: The John Day Company. $3.00. Margaret Fuller, Whetstone of Genius. By Mason Wade. New York: The Viking Press. $3.50.

I must at once confess that I am able to review “Created Equal: A Biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton,” by Alma Lutz, and “Margaret Fuller, Whetstone of Genius,” by Mason Wade, only as a reader of many biographies. I have none of the background of research in the woman’s movement or in the particular milieu of Margaret Fuller that would enable me to pronounce on the validity of these volumes in their respective fields.

Even in the renewed consciousness of a precarious condition in the position of women, heightened by the political and social philosophies recently invoked, these two books, both published in 1940, seem strange reading. Problems have a way of recurring, but the arguments used to further their solutions can rarely stand the test of later years. Thus in these two books the reality of the scene is somewhat disguised by the quaintness of costume.

The volumes offer a contrast both in the portrayal of the characters and in the style of the authors. Elizabeth Cady Stanton must have been really of the extrovert type, a woman immersed in a cause and easily forgetful of self, and the effect of Miss Lutz’s presentation of her life is to heighten this impression. The book opens with the deep concern of a little girl for the difficulties of women who came to consult her lawyer father. This concern moved directly to a remedy in the determination to go over his law books and cut out all the laws she had heard quoted to the detriment of any help for these women. What would happen to a little girl for cutting up her father’s law books seems never to have entered her mind. This is characteristic of her activities all her life long. She adopted what she considered a sensible dress, and then made as light as possible of the ridicule that followed her appearance. She wrote, spoke, and acted in public to promote the rights of women and then faced her beloved father’s wrath, again with no thought that she could do otherwise than to stand it. Her life was exceedingly full, and we get the story of what she did and what she said and very little of what she felt. Truly her head seemed to rule her heart. We are not so told, but inevitably we recognize that there were compensations for her unbecoming activities, in the public mind, in her beauty, her wit, her seven devoted and well brought-up children, and the fact that she and her husband saw eye to eye in most things and were happy together through the differences as well as the agreements of their activities. Those curls, brown or white, surely softened her life. Miss Lutz gives a picture such as one would have of a neighbor with whom one works on committees or attends lectures, a woman markedly well balanced for all of her driving energy, and despite Train, Mrs. Woodhull, and “The Woman’s Bible.” Her life is as much a history of the times as an account of the woman, and more than once comes the wish that we could know the woman herself in some few deeply revealing moments.

“Margaret Fuller, Whetstone of Genius,” dealing with an impassioned woman, from its very beginning stirs the emotions. Margaret in later life remembered a revealing episode of her childhood, the death of her sister, and the effect of this experience on herself alone is the heart of her memory. “I realize how little I was of stature, in that I looked up to this streaming face; and it has often seemed since that, full grown for the life of this earth, I have looked up just so, at times of threatening, of doubt, of distress, and just so has some being of the next higher order of existence looked down, aware of a law unknown to me, and tenderly commiserating the pain I must endure in emerging from my ignorance. . . . She who would have been the companion of my life was severed from me, and I was left alone. This has made a vast difference in my lot.” Carlyle said of Margaret Fuller, after her death: “Such a predetermination to eat this big universe as her oyster or her egg, and to be absolute empress of all height and glory in it that her heart could conceive, I have not seen before in any human soul.”

We get the picture through Mr. Wade’s volume of a greedy mind and spirit, housed in a very sensitive and not strong body, turned by her father toward the education he would have chosen for the son he had hoped she would be. She was intent on improving herself almost all her life, and she seemed to touch women’s rights and wrongs where she personally felt the impact rather than in the wide range beyond her personal need that called forth Mrs. Stanton’s unceasing energy. Without beauty, though Chappel’s painting of her gives her very definite beauty, without the sustaining support of an adjusted life with husband and children, with the reputation for seeking almost desperately for admiration and love, for pushing herself into stages of intimacy that the other person had not foreseen, she was yet able to win much admiration, much affection, to initiate in her “Conversations” an early type of cultural club, to gain by her unceasing study and her patent honesty great prestige as a literary critic. It is amazing that a person so sensitive, so often ill, so impassioned in her reaction to life’s experiences, could have so constantly kept herself at hard work to support her family.

Mr. Wade sees Margaret through her own eyes, however careful he is to quote people who saw her through other eyes, even to Hawthorne, who is under the suspicion of having seen her through green spectacles. Margaret saw her life as tragic and romantic, and so we see it in Mr. Wade’s biography. She attained her nearest approach to shifting the center of gravity of her life outside herself in her devotion to the revolutionary cause in Italy; and yet this was so inextricably mixed with her deepest personal concerns, her love for Ossoli and, more important, his love for her, and her sense of personal fulfillment in her child, that even the Italian Revolution seems a part of Margaret Fuller, rather than she a very small part of the Italian Revolution. She was noble in aspiration, keen in mind, greedy in spirit, and, as far as this biography goes, utterly without detachment and completely lacking in humor. Tragic disappointment and at least the illusion of romance surely attend such a life.

Mr. Wade’s biography seems, as one begins it, more highly seasoned, more entertaining, certainly, than Miss Lutz’s portrayal of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In memory rather than in reading the second book reaches further in significance. Mr. Wade’s portrayal is consistent, giving the impression of fitting the subject as a glove does a hand.


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