Self Reliance and Other Essays

From Emerson to Grimke: Transcendentalism in the Argument for Women’s Rights 11th Grade

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...

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