Upcoming Lecture: “Unfurling Taxonomies: Margaret Fuller’s ‘Femality’ and the Magnolia Tree”

Wednesday, June 16 @ 3:00 PM (EST)

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Margaret Fuller famously asserted that there is “no essential difference” between men and women. Challenging this notion today is either a commonplace, or a familiar, but nonetheless outrageous provocation, depending on the discursive context. In Fuller’s time—the early 19th century—it was revolutionary. She wanted to unfurl the categories “man” and “woman,” and she believed that giving everyone equal opportunity to be what they would be—“Let them be sea captains!” she exclaimed—would restore to society what it was so desperately lacking: the equal contributions of all its citizens. 

The flowering tree in her story, “Magnolia of Lake Pontchartrain,” is a towering sovereign, The Queen of the South, whose powerful fragrance permeates her domain. In many ways, the magnolia is a perfect parallel figure to Fuller: it was an ancient foremother in the complex coevolution of plants and insects that gave way to the multitude of highly evolved pollinators and plants on our planet today. Fuller came into prominence just as nascent ideas in evolutionary science were bubbling to the surface and it is no coincidence that her radical conception of gender mimics the fluidity of nature. Her notion of ‘femality’ is organic, coevolving with society, transcending any one individual, and resisting any fixed taxonomization.

In this talk, Dr. Christina Katopodis draws from the magnolia’s evolutionary history to frame taxonomy as a useful story, a hermeneutics crucial to our understanding of evolution and yet also a perfect point of departure, especially when it comes to thinking about gender identity. When we unfurl taxonomies of plants and of gender(s), attempts to categorize and classify become mere moments—snapshots, even—of a fluid, ever-evolving process of living and growing. In the words of Margaret Fuller, “Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.”

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