The Women of Transcendentalism

Participants in and Influences on the American Romantic Movement

Margaret Fuller
Margaret Fuller. Stock Montage / Getty Images

When you hear the word "Transcendentalism" do you immediate think of Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau? Very few think as quickly of the names of the women who were associated with Transcendentalism.

Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody were the only two women who were original members of the Transcendental Club.  Other women were part of the inner circle of the group who called themselves Transcendentalists, and some of them played key roles in that movement. Here are some of them.

Margaret Fuller
Margaret Fuller. Stock Montage / Getty Images

Introduced to Ralph Waldo Emerson by English writer and reformer Harriet Martineau, Margaret Fuller became a key member of the inner circle. Her Conversations (educated women of the Boston area discussing intellectual issues), her editorship of the Dial, and her influence on Brook Farm were all key parts of the Transcendentalist movement's evolution.

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

The Peabody sisters, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804-1894), Mary Tyler Peabody Mann (1806-1887), and Sophia Amelia Peabody Hawthorne (1809-1871), were the eldest of seven children. Mary was married to educator Horace Mann, Sophia to novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Elizabeth remained single. Each of the three contributed or were connected to the Transcendentalist movement.  But Elizabeth Peabody's role in the movement was central. She went on to become one of the biggest promoters of the kindergarten movement in America, as well as a promoter of Native American rights.

Harriet Martineau
Harriet Martineau. Stock Montage / Getty Images

Identified with the American Transcendentalists, this British writer and traveler introduced Margaret Fuller to Ralph Waldo Emerson during her brief 1830s stay in America.

Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott. Culture Club / Getty Images

Her father, Bronson Alcott, was a key Transcendentalist figure, and Louisa May Alcott grew up in the Transcendentalist circle. The family's experience when her father founded a utopian community, Fruitlands, is satirized in Louisa May Alcott's later story, Transcendental Wild Oats. The descriptions of a flighty father and down-to-earth mother probably reflect well the family life of Louisa May Alcott's childhood.

Lydia Maria Child
Lydia Maria Child. Archive Photos / Getty Images

Part of the general Unitarian circle around the Transcendentalists, Lydia Maria Child is better known for her other writing and her abolitionism.  (She's the author of the well-known "Over the River and Through the Wood" aka "A Boy's Thanksgiving Day.")

Julia Ward Howe, about 1855
Julia Ward Howe, about 1855. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Howe's involvement in Transcendentalism was more tangential, less central, than that of the other women highlighted. But she was influenced by the religious and literary trends of Transcendentalism, involved in the social reforms which were part of the Transcendentalist circle. She was a close friend of Transcendentalists, both male and female. She was an active participant, particularly in carrying Transcendentalist ideas and commitments through the American Civil War and into the next decades.

Ednah Dow Cheney
Ednah Dow Cheney. Public Domain: from Memorial Meeting, New England Women's Club, Boston, February 20, 1905

Born in 1824, Ednah Dow Cheney was part of a second generation of Transcendentalists around Boston, and she knew many of the key figures in that movement.

Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson. Three Lions / Getty Images

 While she was not directly involved in the Transcendentalist movement —her introversion would likely have kept her from such involvement, anyway—her poetry was arguably influenced quite heavily by Transcendentalism.

Mary Moody Emerson, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts
Mary Moody Emerson, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts. Jone Johnson Lewis

Though she broke with her nephew's ideas that evolved into Transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson's aunt played a crucial role in his development, as he himself testified.

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Sarah Helen Power Whitman

Sarah Whitman's Grave
Wikimedia Commons

A poet whose husband brought her into the Transcendentalist sphere, Sarah Power Whitman became, after she was widowed, a romantic interest of Edgar Allen Poe.

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Participants in Margaret Fuller's Conversations

Lydia Maria Child
Lydia Maria Child. Archive Photos / Getty Images

 Women who were part of the Conversations included:

  • Elizabeth Bliss Bancroft
  • Lydia Maria Child
  • Caroline Healey Dall
  • Phebe Gage
  • Sally Jackson Gardner
  • Lucy Goddard
  • Sophie Peabody Hawthorne
  • Elizabeth Hoar
  • Sarah Hoar
  • Caroline Sturgis Hooper
  • Maryann Jackson
  • Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
  • Eliza Morton Quincy
  • Sophia Dana Ripley
  • Anna Shaw (later Greene)
  • Ellen Sturgis Tappan

Mary Moody Emerson commented in correspondence on having read transcripts of some of the Conversations.