Margaret Fuller's Concept of “Gender” in the context of her time

Thesis (M.A.), 2007

110 Pages, Grade: 2,00



Works Cited
1. Primary Sources
2. Secondary Sources

I. Introduction

II. Overview of the Traditional Gender Concept in Antebellum America, Its Consequences for Women and Women’s Resistance
1. Emergence of the Separate Spheres Ideology
1.1 Beginning of Gender Polarization
1.2 Motherhood and Domesticity
1.3 Marriage
2. The Role of Women in Religious Movements During the First and Second Great Awakening
2.1 First and Second Great Awakening
2.2 Women’s Role in the Abolitionist Movement
2.3 Women’s Role in the Temperance Movement
3. Women, Education and Economy
3.1 Education
3.2 Economy
4. The Women’s Rights Movement

III. Fuller’s Gender Concept
1. Criticism of the Prevailing Gender Concept
2. Femininity, Masculinity and the “De-Gendering” of Language
3. The Concept of the Multidimensional and Androgynous Soul
4. Major Influences
4.1 Transcendentalism, Emerson and Religion
4.2 Goethe, Fourier and Swedenborg
5. Application of the Gender Concept
5.1 Fuller’s Marriage Ideal
5.2 Education
5.3 Economy

IV. Conclusion

Works Cited

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I. Introduction

"Let them be sea-captains, if you will", Margaret Fuller stated in her main work Woman in the Nineteenth Century (Woman 346). Although even nowadays there may be only few female sea-captains, the quoted statement would hardly provoke anyone, at least not someone in our contemporary western culture. However, when regarded in its historical context, two questions arise: Firstly, what underlying gender concept encouraged Fuller to make such a statement, in "a time of excessive gender polarization" (Bomarito (vol2) 1), a time in which the ideal of domesticity and

Republican Motherhood (Freedman 25) determined the role of woman? And secondly, how did antebellum American society react to such statements?

The first question will be the main issue of part III, the main part of my work. I will begin with Fuller's general gender concept that involves ideas of androgynity and the "degendering" (Davis 182) of language. Next, the major influences on her concept, namely those of transcendentalism (with special consideration of Emerson), Goethe, Fourier and Swedenborg will be dealt with. Lastly, I will consider how Fuller applied her concept to the specific fields outlined in chapter II, that is, marriage, education and economy. I will concentrate on her main work Woman in the Nineteenth Century because Fuller describes her gender concept there in most detail, whereas her other works such as Summer on the Lakes do not contribute much additional information that is of special significance for the understanding of her gender concept. This is especially true in the case of her Memoirs, which was heavily edited and censored by Emerson and others. It rather distorted Fuller's reputation, as Urbanski states (5). Therefore I will only occasionally refer to them, whenever they provide further information that is relevant to my topic.

Regarding the second question, I will illustrate the historical and cultural background first against which Fuller placed her gender concept, in order to clarify why her "idea of woman" (W 305) was considered provoking and unconventional in antebellum America. I will deal with the traditional gender concept, along with its ideals such as femininity, Republican Motherhood and domesticity. Then, I will describe the effect this concept had on marriage, evangelical movements, education and economy, and also with what is considered the initiation of the first women's rights movement in America, the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. The time span covered will be that of the antebellum period of America, the time when Margaret Fuller lived and published her controversial works.

Since my work is about gender, I had to ask myself what this term actually means. The basic assumption of modern gender studies is that gender is not causally determined by the sex of a person, implying that gender and sex are not identical. But what exactly is the difference? The psychologist R. Stoller borrowed the term from language grammar in order to describe the sociocultural functions of femininity and masculinity (“Gender”). In contrast to the sex, which is commonly regarded as a biologically determined and permanent trait, gender is defined as socially constructed, artificial and therefore subject to change over the course of history. Still not only in the context of time but also from culture to culture are there significant variations of what is considered feminine and masculine. Rubin has summarized the theory of modern gender studies with the term sex/gender-system (“Gender Studies”).

Some modern scholars such as Judith Butler have caused a new controversy by stating that even a person’s sex was only a social construct (“Gender Studes”). I take up this point here because some scholars have claimed that Fuller not only “degendered” language, but “bodies” as well (Davis 182), and that she actually recognized gender to be a social construct (Nicolay 91). Many scholars also label Fuller a “feminist”. It has to be noted though that neither the term gender nor feminism was used in antebellum America. Actually, Fourier coined the term féminisme, but he did not use it in our modern sense (Rendall 30-31). The term feminism has different meanings for different groups: there are liberal feminists, socialist feminists, radical feminists and others, illustrating that there is not one feminist theory but many (Goldstein 92). Goldstein states that commonly there a distinction was made between nineteenth century

"feminism", which was mainly concerned with the "quest for women's rights" and twentieth century feminism, concerned with the "quest for women's liberation". The first wave of feminism was primarily concerned with equality in political and legal rights, such as full access to education and all professions, equal legal rights in marriage, property rights and the right to sue. In contrast, the second wave, is concerned with "abolition of marriage, continuation of the nuclear family, payment for housewives, abolition of the housewife role, child care, abortion, access of women to predominantly male occupations, abolition of sex roles [. . .]" (Goldstein 91), which means that the second wave primarily aims at deconstructing gender, marriage and other traditional institutions completely, as the aforementioned Judith Butler does. On the one hand, Fuller is a first wave feminist, because her aims are concerned with full access to professions, equal education and other aims identical with the first wave. On the other hand, her gender concept goes clearly beyond traditional notions of the nineteenth century and comes close the concepts of Judith Butler and other second wave feminists.

In antebellum America, the widespread belief was that gender was “natural” and static. Even though the woman question was widely debated, it was not questioned whether the connection between sex and gender was indeed natural or only socially constructed (Shapiro 5). Therefore, the application of feminist theory on the nineteenth century is anachronistic. Feminism, as we know it today, arised in the 1960s, and the two major works, which initiated the movement are Ellmann’s Thinking About Women

(1968) and Millet’s Sexual Politics (1969) (“Feministische Literaturtheorie”).

Although the methods of gender studies and feminism are not easily distinguishable, there is a difference in perspective: Feminist theory tries to illustrate how the construct of gender was used as an ideology that firmly established patriarchal rule and suppressed women continuously. Feminism is therefore primarily concerned with women’s experience and has been accused of essentialism and “gynocentrism”. In contrast, gender studies is more “impartial”, neither siding with men nor women but concentrating on the construction of gender itself from a more objective standpoint

(“Gender Studies”). I accept the method of gender studies and will therefore not merely concentrate on patriarchal suppression but also on women’s own role in actively forming gender identity. In order to avoid presenting women as mere victims of patriarchal rule, I want to also illustrate how women found ways to extend their ascribed “sphere”. By getting involved in several movements such as evangelism, abolition, temperance and others, many women actively tried to participate in the power discourse of their time.

As Fuller was regarded as a radical and non-conformist in her time and harshly criticized for her views, the question also is: How are (gender) identity and power related to each other? Why do many, probably even most societies try to suppress critical voices? As New Historicist Stephen Greenblatt illustrates, there are two major reasons for intolerance in society: the desire for power and the need of security (49). Radical nonconformity is considered a threat for the established social order, and conservative forces try to suppress it. In his essay “Kultur”, Greenblatt shows that culture is a means of controlling its members and exerting power over them by more or less precisely defining what is “right” and what “wrong”, in terms of behaviour, identity and ideologies (48-49). Society punishes those who do not conform and rewards those who accept the given standards. In history, the conservative forces were always those who benefitted from the existing order in society and therefore did not want to change it, even if that meant that certain groups were exploited and suppressed. The punishment may have become more subtle in the course of history, from burning heretics at the stake to merely “looking down” on minorities, but it has certainly not disappeared, not even nowadays (Greenblatt 49).

Goffmann distinguishes between a social identity, which brings with it the pressure to conform to society’s expectations, and a personal identity, the individual's need to be unique. As these two forms of identity can never be identical, there is a constant tension between the demands of society and the need of the individual (qtd. in Maas 6). Christel-Maria Maas applies this concept to Fuller and states that Fuller had to fulfill multiple roles such as woman, writer, individual and later on, as a mother (Maas 6). She states that writing served Fuller as a method to redefine her own and women’s identity in general (3). Since the individual and society are therefore in constant interaction, some attention has to be paid to the recipients of a writer’s works, namely his or her readers. The theory of writer-response criticism states that a work’s meaning is dependent on the historical situation in which it was written. Gadamer notes that the readers actually gives a work its meaning. Since the readership is not a homogenous but a heterogenous group, a work can therefore have multiple meanings (“Rezeptionsaesthetik”). At first, Fuller wrote exclusively for the transcendentalist circle and expanded her readership only later on. While the liberal trancendentalists mainly approved of her writings, the general public reacted in a more hostile way. The fact that Woman became a success nonetheless, proves that Fuller was able to emphasize with her readers, and did not provoke them too much. She was aware that she lived in a patriarchal society and thus stressed that she did not wish to encroach “on the territory of man” (W 336). I will deal with with this issue in more detail in section III.

In my opinion, people always seemed to have a desire to categorize and explain life, so that they could make a sense of it. However, this led to oversimplifications like the ideas of race and gender. While this gave people in general a feeling of security, because stereotypes make the world seem simpler than it actually is, it served to suppress the groups affected by these stereotypes, like African Americans and women, and gave other groups who were not affected, an excessive amount of power. This power imbalance leads to inequality and therefore to injustice, at least if the basic assumption that inequality is indeed unjust is accepted. This was not always the case, as the Puritan’s belief in a God-given hierarchy illustrates. For them, inequality was “just” (see below in chapter “Religion”) (Barney 190). This also shows that the inherent ambiguity and vagueness of words like “justice” and “freedom” led to their constant redefinition in the course of history, and even at a certain time period these words had different meanings for different people.

In this context, it is worthwile to pay some attention to Booth’s differentiation between the terms "ideology", "relativism" and "pluralism" in his book Critical

Understanding (1979). Ideology, also referred to as absolutism, is defined by him as the following: A group of people who believe in a certain ideology consider it to be the absolute truth, and all other groups with other ideologies that differ from their own must be wrong and be converted, or, if that is not possible, eliminated. Non-conformists are necessarily considered as a threat to the prevailing order, because they believe in something different from the alleged “truth”. Generally, words like "nothing", "everything", “always”, “never”, “completely”, “entirely” are ideological terms that leave no space for exceptions (“Pluralismus”).

Considering even relativism and ecclecticism as mere ideologies, there is only one solution for the problem of ideology for Booth: pluralism. The concept of pluralism suggests that one should acknowledge contradicting positions as equally true (“Pluralismus”). However, the concept of pluralism is so complex that it would go beyond the scope of this work to deal with it in more detail. I mention this theory because I regard pluralism to be an important component of New Historicism. It implies that history should not be imagined as a steady progression from “inferior” worldviews like Puritanism to “better” ones like modern democracy, but that both had their benefits and were appropriate in their time.

II. Overview of the Traditional Gender Concept in Antebellum America

1. Emergence of the Separate Spheres Ideology

1.1 Beginning of Gender Polarization

In the following text, I will concentrate on north-eastern America during the antebellum period from around 1790 to 1850, or, to be more precise, the New England area, because here the changes in society were most exemplary and had a profound influence on Margaret Fuller. New England can be regarded as the intellectual center of nineteenth-century America (Epstein 2-3).

Soon after America had declared its independence from England in 1776 and had become an independent nation, several momentous processes, among them the emergence of the market economy and a middle, or "middling" class gradually began to transform society and had far-reaching influences: Religion, philosophy, politics and economy were profoundly influenced (Epstein 2-3). I will concentrate on those processes which were of special significance to the change of gender identities and relations that took place at that time.

As the processes of industrialization, urbanization and, as a result, the growth of the market economy dramatically accelerated in the beginning of the nineteenth century, family life was transformed considerably. There were changes in the economy due to the gradual transition from agricultural subsistence farming and family businesses to impersonal public markets, which peaked in the 1830s under President Andrew Jackson (Ross 113). Especially after the 1830s, the self-sustaining family economy was more and more replaced by workers who worked on the public market place (Bomarito (vol2) 1).

More and more men moved with their families from rural areas to cities. They did so because work in industries promised better wages and hence more comfort and wealth. Yet the market place also demanded men to become more competitive and self- assertive than ever. Wealth, power and fame were taken as measures of individual achievement which in turn defined one's self-worth (Epstein 69). Qualities such as morality, religiosity and fidelity were not considered men’s strengths though they were deemed desirable. Men were considered mentally and physically superior to women and thus regarded as her natural "protector” (Bomarito (vol2) 1-2; Theriot 17).

Women were from the beginning of industrialization excluded from the market economy and were expected to fully concentrate on their "domestic duties", at least in the cities. In rural areas women's participation in making a living for the family remained higher: They had to participate in their husband's field work and other chores, while women in cities could concentrate more fully on their roles as mother and housewives. It is generally agreed that the Victorian Age was one of “excessive gender polarisation” which brought with it the emergence of the separate spheres ideology (Bomarito (vol2) 1; Boyer 306). The problem of classifying certain traits into the strict categories of feminine and masculine became the subject of philosophy and science during this time of industrialization. Scholars of gender studies generally agree that until 1800 this had been no major issue (“Gender Studies”).

The doctrine of the separate-spheres can be regarded as a "separate-but-equal doctrine that portrayed men as superior in making money and governing the world and women as superior for their moral influence on family members" (Boyer 306). Still the woman's role was in fact never static and uncontroversial, even in the beginning of industrialization. As Coultrap-Mcquin states, "there was no single view of womanhood, but a continuum of views ranging from conservative to more liberal perspectives" (Coultrap 151) and was marked with considerable ambivalence by men (Grogan 34). The debate over women's specific role in society was referred to as the "woman question" (Shapiro 5), which brought with it early traces of women's protest against the unquestioning acceptance of their sphere (Bomarito (vol2) 1). Woman's identity was from the beginning on defined by men and not by themselves, because they already had an inferior position in Puritan society, and it took some time for them to emancipate themselves from men. Despite the limitations women had to endure at this time, the separate spheres ideology was not entirely negative, for it included the belief in woman's "moral qualities" and made women and men more sensitive to gender inequality. As I will illustrate, women exploited the idea of their moral superiority to acquire access to the economic, social and political areas from which they had been excluded for the longest time (Bomarito (vol2) 2). The idea of the New Woman soon challenged the traditional idea of the True Woman (Shapiro 6). But how could society justify these restrictions? And why did women themselves become convinced that their restrictive role was appropriate for them? These are the questions I will deal with in the following.

1.2 Motherhood and Domesticity

One aspect that was central to the identity of the majority of nineteenth-century women was that of motherhood. Childbearing and -rearing dominated most adult women's lives, and being a mother brought them considerable respectability (Freedman 24). The ideal of motherhood was fostered by many bureaucrats and politicians and came to be referred to as Republican Motherhood, whose primary purpose was to breed new and valuable citizens. Also Catholic and evangelical authorities joined in the appraisal of motherhood in order to strengthen the family and prevent social upheaval (Freedman 25). The ideal of the Republican Mother was introduced in the Jeffersonian Era, and a few dame schools and female academies were available to train women how to behave according to this ideal (Ross 93). It referred back to Enlightenment ideals with universal rights and republican virtue (Ross 123-24).

In the Jacksonian Era (1828-1849), the result of intense Democratic-Whig debates was among other things an alternative to the Republican Mother-model. The Democratic Woman or the ornament was to behave according to the instructions of etiquette and conduct books. She was considered very dependent on men, on her father or husband. Her role included typical domestic duties like cooking and cleaning the house, to bear many children and, if privileged, to indulge in piano playing and fancy needlework. This role model restricted her even more than that of the Republican

Mother, because it excluded her from the benefits of better education (Ross 124).

The "ideology of femininity", as Epstein calls it, was based on the following notions: 1. childcare required full-time and undivided attention, 2. women had special abilities of raising children that men did not possess and 3. the home was a refuge from the harsh outside world not only for their husbands but also for themselves and that this "female sphere" would bring them status and power (Epstein 81).

Closely linked to the idea of motherhood was the ideal of domesticity. The home was seen as the "proper sphere" for the "weaker sex". Conformity to the domestic ideal was more common in the middle-class than in the lower classes where women often had to work outside of their homes for reasons of economic necessity. For such women, the domestic ideal was something that they aspired to because it promised a more comfortable and easier life (Grogan 36). Since all domestic duties, such as child raising and cleaning the house, consumed much time, it was considered that women were not only incapable of joining in politics and economy but that they also had no time for it.

Mothers who had to work outside of their home, were chastised by the authorities. As so much importance was laid on a mother raising her children, society criticized mothers, who had other ambitions, of neglecting child care and therefore violating their primary duty as a woman and mother. The ideal was that women would remain confined to the home all the time and do the housework instead of working on the marketplace and competing with men. The home was idealized as a place of love and harmony, praised in songs like "Home, Sweet Home" and poems such as Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Children's Hour" (Boyer 306). Literature served to idealize and reinforce the ideals of motherhood and domesticity. Advice books gave quite detailed instructions on how to raise children (Green 5) and domestic novels became very popular in those days (Degler 378). The heroines of sentimental novels by women writers such as E.D.E.N. Southworth were mostly depicted as self-sacrificing, "pure" and highly religious women whose uncomplaining endurance of injustice was rewarded in the end (Degler 378-79). I will deal with this genre in more detail in the chapter headed "Women and Economy".

Associated with the idea of motherhood was the assumption that women were physically and mentally inferior to men. Orthodox Catholics argued with woman's secondary creation and stated that all women bore the stigma of Eve, the temptress. For these reasons, women were regarded as naturally subordinated to man. Egalitarian accounts from the Bible were simply ignored by supporters of the separate spheres ideology. The orthodox Catholic church of the nineteenth century revealed through its condemnation of women its hostility and intolerance towards new, more liberal ideas arising in that time (Grogan 39-40). This reveals how patriarchy encouraged the selective reading of the Scriptures and misuse of religion to support repressive ideologies.

Not only religion, but also philosophy and "science" served to restrict women. Rousseau argued that women were exclusively adapted to their reproductive role that there was no need for them to develop the faculties men possessed: reason, memory and imagination. For him, woman was the representative of nature, representing also negative aspects such as disorder, ignorance and "wildness", whereas man stood for "civilization" (Grogan 40). An unmarried (adult) woman without children had no reason for existence; according to Rousseau, she only existed in relation to man (Grogan 41). With this ideology in mind, it is of little wonder that women, who accepted the role which society assigned them, measured their sense of self-worth with their achievement of bearing children. Diderot even believed that their biology made women "permanent invalids" (qtd. in Grogan 40) who needed support from men. Still other philosophers like Helvetius and Condorcet disagreed with these notions and believed that women and men were likely to be improved though not necessarily to be made equal (Grogan 40). Therefore, there was no absolute agreement on the "woman question" among the philosophers.

Also medical experts considered women's nature. Since science had increased in importance, their opinions enjoyed considerable public attention. They regarded two traits as characteristic of women: physical weakness and mental sensitivity. The female body was considered extremely delicate and fragile, therefore incapable of hard labor.

This illustrates the ideological background of such findings, for they ignored the fact that household chores, work at the textile industries and the field work of black female slaves was hard work. Furthermore, women were regarded as more sensitive, which made them seem predestined for childcare and of stronger spirituality than men (Grogan 42). On the other hand, women were described as incapable of higher intellectual development, which would only be harmful to their feelings of sentiment (Grogan 45). While stressing the importance of motherhood, both scientists and the clergy ignored the fact that birth rates were actually declining in nineteenth-century America: while the average American woman had 7.04 children in 1800, in 1850 she only had 5.02 and in 1900 only 3.98 children (Boyer 307). Just as it served to reinforce racist sentiment, science was also misused to reinforce prejudice against women. In fact, one can conclude that every person who was not a white Anglo-Saxon male was subject to prejudice and regarded as inferior.

One positive aspect about the prevailing "ideology of femininity", as Epstein calls it (Epstein 81) was the belief in woman's moral superiority. She was considered to instil moral values in her children and positively influence her husband. The Moral Mother was therefore regarded as an important member of society and as crucial in ensuring the maintenance of order in the family and, by extension, to prevent social upheaval (Grogan 37).

1.3. Marriage

Since the ideal of motherhood was deeply ingrained in antebellum America, and financial security was mainly to be found in marriage, women were generally very willing to be married. Indeed, by the end of the nineteenth century, more than ninety per cent of American women were married and many also quite happily. Although the Romantic notion of a marriage based on love gained in acceptance, most marriages were probably mainly economic partnerships (Freedman 20-21).

Once married, a woman lost most of her legal rights: She no longer had complete control over her property, could not sue or be sued, and not testify before the court. If a married woman worked, the wages she earned belonged in legal terms entirely to her husband. In fact, one could describe married women as "civilly dead" (Freedman 21).

Only in the second half of the century women were be granted property rights with the Married Women's Property Acts (Epstein 80). A wife could rarely divorce from her husband and if the husband divorced from her, she was seldom granted custody over the children, and this despite the fact that she was considered to possess superior abilities in childcare. She and her children were regarded as not much more than property of the husband (Bomarito (vol2) 1).

One major problem which could arise in marriages was domestic violence. In all social classes, men who could not stand the social pressure of outward success sometimes directed their frustration against their wives. This was especially problematic since women, as has been mentioned, could only divorce in seldom cases. They had to rely on other men such as their brothers and fathers to represent them in court. The ideal of womanhood made women therefore very vulnerable to male aggression (Freedman 22). In this context, the influence of a man's peer group should not be ignored. If a man's work companions demonstrated a harsh treatment of their wives, many men conformed to this peer pressure and acted accordingly with the same "masculine" violence (Grogan 38). Since most cases of domestic violence occurred in connection with the consumption of alcohol, women soon became deeply involved in the emerging temperance movements (Freedman 22), with which I will deal later on in more detail.

Young, unmarried girls enjoyed more freedom than their married fellow women.

For example, they still had property rights (Rendall 24). But they were regarded as future-mothers and therefore expected to be submissive, "pure" and beautiful as well. One of the main fears that parents had, was that their daughters could become involved in an illegitimate relationship and become pregnant before marriage. If their lover deserted them, they were condemned as "fallen” women. Since marriage was then hardly possible for them, they often faced economic hardship and were often even forced into prostitution. In France, Parent-Duchâtelet argued in his study De la

Prostitution dans la Ville de Paris (1836) that "one could only reproach them for not having the courage to die of hunger." (qtd. in Grogan 35). This condemnation of prostitutes is also largely applicable to nineteenth-century America.

Another group which did not conform to the ideology of femininity and was therefore ostracized were the so-called "spinsters" or "old maids". Although spinsterhood was rare in antebellum America, it could be an alternative for intellectual women who actively sought independence from men. Famous examples are Catharine Beecher, Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Martineau. Yet if such women had no family support or were successful writers they faced great hardship. Hence it is not surprising that many women preferred marriage over such a state of existence (Freedman 20-21).

2. The Role of Women in Religious Movements During the First and Second Great Awakening

2.1 First and Second Great Awakening

Technological progress made people less reliant on nature and nature was therefore not experienced as threatening and omnipotent as before (Schulz 52-53). This led to a strengthened self-confidence which can best be coined in Franklin's term of the self-made man. As men realized that they themselves had brought about this change, they emancipated themselves more and more from God. This was especially the case with men, because they were the major innovators of new ideas to improve their lives while women were mostly excluded from it. The transition from a colonial, deferential society to a more egalitarian one led to a democratizing impulse: it "reconstructed American Protestantism through its appeal to popular aspirations, which disregarded distinctions of class and education and inverted traditional forms of religious authority in the name of religious and popular democracy" (Conser 33).

This also led to a general demise in religion, especially among men, as Epstein notes (Epstein 47). The Second Great Awakening emerged as an effort to revert this decline. It lasted from around 1790 - 1840, which means that it was ever-present in antebellum America. Although it was initiated by men, women played a major role in it (Epstein 47). Why women were so prominent in it and what the movement's specific goals were, will be the main issue in this chapter.

For the majority of women religion remained vital to their world view, while men were the ones who governed the country. Most of these ruling men were not highly religious and felt irritated by women's emotional approach to life.


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Margaret Fuller's Concept of “Gender” in the context of her time
University of Göttingen
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Margaret, Fuller, Concept, Gender, Gender Studies, Romanticism, Emerson, Transcendentalism, American Renaissance, Women Studies, Feminism, American Literature
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M. A. Oliver Steinert-Lieschied (Author), 2007, Margaret Fuller's Concept of “Gender” in the context of her time, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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