From Emerson to Grimke: Transcendentalism in the Argument for Women’s Rights
During the nineteenth century, prominent thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson shaped the American perspective through the philosophy of transcendentalism. Emerson decried tradition and emphasized the pursuit of individual values, encouraging social activists to call for reforms that gave all Americans a chance to forge their own path through life. In one such case, Sarah Moore Grimké, an advocate for women’s rights, used the transcendentalist principles of self-realization and independence to support her argument in favor of more equal education for girls. The ideal, self-reliant lifestyle defined by Emerson was, in Grimké’s view, denied to women across America.
Transcendentalism taught that every man should live as fully as possible in accordance with his own convictions. In his essay Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson asserts as an inevitable conclusion of the human experience that “imitation is suicide; that [one] must take himself for better, for worse as his portion.” This is the most vital aspect of Emerson’s ideology—that each person’s life is unique and valid, as it represents the manifestation of God’s “divine idea.”
With this respect for the worth of the individual, he urges his readers to “live wholly from within” and gives the quintessential transcendentalist advice, “Trust thyself.” Emerson celebrates self-expression and authenticity, declaring to the world, “I must be myself. […] I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices me, and the heart appoints.” In terms of relevance to his actions, he places his personal beliefs, inward reflections, and primal intuitions above the judgements of others. He refuses to allow societal pressure to influence his lifestyle, though “for nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.” “What I must do,” he writes, “is all that concerns me, not what people think. […] It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it.” To Emerson, one’s sole duty is to seek his innermost desires, regardless of others’ preconceptions.
In this endeavor, transcendentalists believe that one must struggle alone. “[N]o kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.” Only he knows what he truly wants from life, and only he understands his capabilities. This potential to achieve, which is present in every individual, must be utilized to its fullest extent, says Emerson. “A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace.” Emerson claims that the responsibility of every man and woman is to cast off the chains of societal expectations and fulfill his own inclinations in “the independence of solitude.”
In Nature, Emerson highlights the importance of living in the present. He condemns retrospection, asking “why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe?” In his opinion, eliminating obsolete rules and practices is a necessary part of being true to oneself. To establish “an original relation to the universe,” society must “demand [its] own works and laws and worship.” He argues that the past and its institutions must be fully relinquished for individuals to make progress toward self-actualization. In this way, Emerson supports reform movements which seek to shift society toward individualism and empower everyone to reach their full potential.
One of the institutions impeding some Americans from achieving the transcendentalist version of enlightenment is the social inequity between men and women. Sarah M. Grimké described in a letter to her sister how females are confined by very specific expectations in the nineteenth century:
“[W]here any mental superiority exists, a woman is generally shunned and regarded as stepping out of her “appropriate sphere,” which, in their view, is to dress, to dance, to set out to the best possible advantage her person, to read the novels which inundate the press, and which do more to destroy her character as a rational creature, than anything else.”
Such an environment of rigid, unfair standards for women discourages individualism and limits their creative abilities. Indeed, the education they do receive during this period “teaches women to regard themselves as a kind of machinery, necessary to keep the domestic engine in order.” This “dangerous and absurd idea” that marriage and domestic affairs are “the end of [a woman’s] being” so narrowly defines her life’s purpose that it leaves no room for inward reflection or self-fulfillment. Thus, women are barred from leading a transcendentalist’s ideal lifestyle.
Furthermore, Grimké explains, women are denied the “self-respect which conscious equality would engender,” being forced to take on mentalities of inferiority and positions of subservience in their households. Women in Grimké’s time are unable to be true to their passions, see the beautiful power within themselves, or manifest their abilities beyond society’s expectations. Grimké postulates, “if women felt their responsibility, for the support of themselves, or their families it would add strength and dignity to their characters.” The limitations applied to females, which Grimké terms “the bonds of womanhood,” prevent women from experiencing the satisfaction Emerson describes of making the most of one’s efforts and relying on oneself. The opportunity to live fully and truly is simply not available to the women of this era.
The transcendentalist notion of disregarding tradition and established norms led America to question some of its antiquated institutions. The ideology’s central tenets of equality and inner divinity also provided substance to the arguments of social activists, including Sarah M. Grimké’s call for a fuller education for women. Grimké echoes Ralph Waldo Emerson as she demands a chance for self-reliance and freedom of thought. Her letter provides a clear example of how transcendentalism helped bring about America’s era of social reforms.
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During the nineteenth century, prominent thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson shaped the American perspective through the philosophy of transcendentalism. Emerson decried tradition and emphasized the pursuit of individual values, encouraging […]