Frances Wright (1795-1852)

Born in 1795 on the coast of Scotland, Frances Wright lived so vibrant and engaged a life that John Stuart Mill would call her one of the most important women of her day.  Captivated by Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and the great promise of a republic, she abandoned a life of privilege in Great Britain and came to the United States of America in 1817.  She spent almost half her adult life here and in this country did virtually all the things for which we honor her.

She was the first woman in America to act publicly against slavery: in 1825 she bought a tract of land twenty miles outside a little  Mississippi River trading post named Memphis, and there she established a commune she called Nashoba.  Its purpose was to discover and then to demonstrate how slaves could be responsibly educated and then freed without undue cost to their owners.  (To impose a disproportionate burden on one part of the nation when the institution of slavery plagued and disgraced us all seemed to Fanny Wright both unfair and politically unwise. Her political sense, such as it was, deserted her, however, when she published an article about Nashoba claiming that sexual passion was “the strongest and…the noblest of the human passions,” the basis of “the best joys of our existence,” and “the best source of human happiness.”  This at a time when allowing an ankle to show in public doomed a woman’s reputation.)

When Nashoba failed in 1828, Wright moved on to New Harmony, Indiana, where Robert Owen's attempt to establish a "new moral world" had captured her attention and sympathy.  There, on July 4, she became the first woman in America to speak publicly to a large secular audience of men and women, and for the next two years she traveled the country lecturing to packed houses about how to realize in practice the principles on which the country was founded. 

Along with Robert Dale Owen, she became editor of the New Harmony Gazette, which they moved to New York City and renamed the Free Enquirer, and in its pages she fought for all the victims of the social and political hierarchies of their time.  Casting her lot with working people, she was involved in the beginnings of the labor movement and repeatedly attacked an economic system that allowed not only slavery in the South but what she called wage slavery in the North--a system that made black women the sexual prey of white men and drove poor women everywhere to the workhouse, to crime, and to prostitution. She argued not only that women were men's equals, but that true justice would come only when "the two persons in human kind--man and woman--shall exert equal influences in a state of equal independence."

So radical and fearless was she that to be called a "Fanny Wrightist" in the 1830s was roughly equivalent to being called a communist in the 1950s.  But she was right in saying that later generations would know that she, and not those who attacked her, spoke for a sane and healthy morality.  For the issues she raised are vital issues still, while those who mocked her rank among the curiosities of history.

In 1848, Fanny published a book called England the Civilizer in which she argued that the problem of governments was that they elevated the male principle, which she maintained recognized no motive power but force—either directly, as violence, or indirectly, as corruption--and worked for "the propagation, the conservation, and the enjoyment of the individual."  The female instinct, on the other hand, worked toward "the conservation, care, and happiness of the species."  Governments stifled or perverted the generous instincts "by forcibly circumscribing all the holy influences and lofty aspirations of woman within the narrowest precincts of the individual family circle...by forcibly closing her eyes upon the claims of the great human family without that circle." 

It would be 90 years before another woman, Virginia Woolf, rediscovered those important ideas that had begun to gain credence as the 21st century began.  In Three Guineas Woolf wrote that the world men had made inclined to war and, like Fanny, she saw that the instinct to battle was sex-related.  Like Fanny she saw that the education men shaped and the professions they followed--the rules of the games by which they played--all sparked and sanctioned the love of invidious distinctions that led ultimately to war.  Together they saw that men had claimed the world and the intellect for themselves and had relegated the hearth and the heart to women. Both argued that only when women were let out of the private house and allowed to bring their different instincts and perceptions to bear on the larger problems of making a decent world could there be a chance of realizing what Fanny called "the destined triumph of the cause I serve."

For further information see Celia Morris Eckhardt, Fanny Wright: Rebel in America, Harvard University Press, 1984; the paperback edition is Celia Morris, Fanny Wright: Rebel in America, University of Illinois Press, 1992. See also Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s introduction to ”The Nashoba Plan for Removing the Evil of Slavery: Letters of Frances and Camilla Wright, 1820-1829,” Harvard Library Bulletin 23 October, 1975.

Written by Celia Morris.