Performing Civic Equality

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Performing Civic Equality

I. Methodological Introduction

Margaret Fuller had in mind that the title of her essay "The Great Lawsuit: MAN versus MEN. WOMAN versus WOMEN" (which she would later expand and re-name "Woman in the Nineteenth Century") should prepare the reader to suspend habitual thinking in order to "meet [her] on [her] own ground." To honor Fuller's desire to be met on her own ground (or perhaps, given the turn this paper has taken, her stage), I have worked to reconstruct what her ground/stage might have been, and to understand her ideas/performance in that light. My approach engages feminist performance theory as articulated by Judith Butler and Marjorie Garber, with historical and intertextual context. Butler's examination of the relationship between phenomenology and performance of gender offers a cogent model of the process by which cultural constructs of gender become naturalized without quashing the agency of the historical actors. Garber's examination of transvestitism in narrative as a signal of a society under conceptual stress also works particularly well with Fuller, since her writing activity was very much part of Transcendentalism and the American Renaissance, and responded to historical changes, sectional crisis, slavery, the decline of women's rights, and especially political reform. Viewing Fuller's "The Great Lawsuit" as a act of textual transvestitism became more persuasive as I grappled with her complex and sometimes opaque arguments, and certainly was supported by Edgar Allen Poe's view of her as a gender maverick (he divided humanity into three classes: "men, women and Margaret Fuller" ).

I began this essay with the intention of using feminist and new historicist literary theory, but found it impossible to reconcile the egalitarian and androgynous philosophy of "The Great Lawsuit" with the essentialism of feminist literary theory. For example, Elaine Showalter's "gynocritics" assumes sexual difference in the psychodynamics of creativity, the "problem of a female language," and the assumption of a distinct and progressive "female tradition" of writing. While Monique Wittig stands against essentialism, she argues that nineteenth century feminists universally viewed woman as "unique," and that they ignored the historicity of the construction of that view, not to be rescued until women social scientists worked to prove the intellectual equality of the sexes at the end of the century. While these descriptions may apply to the majority of women's literary production, I would argue that Fuller's "The Great Lawsuit"
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