Frances Wright 1795–1852
Scottish-born social reformer.
One of the first advocates of emancipation and equal rights, Frances Wright deeply influenced the social reform movements of the nineteenth century, particularly in the United States. Her eloquence and dedication in these matters earned her both support and outrage from the American and British public. Wright's intellectual legacy reflects the founding impulses of democracy, and it combines a belief in individual liberty with a strong sense of community ethics and the importance of education. Wright's contribution to the earliest beginnings of the feminist movement remains her best known work, but her concern in general was to liberate humanity from all forms of oppression—including ignorance, poverty, and prejudice.
Wright was born into a wealthy merchant family in 1795 in Dundee, Scotland. She was related to the Scottish aristocracy through her mother, and to the intellectuals and political liberals of Glasgow through her father. Both of Wright's parents died in 1798, and she and her younger sister Camilla went to live with her maternal aunt, Frances Campbell. Soon afterward Wright's aunt moved the family south to Devonshire. At the age of eight Wright became heiress to family properties in India. At this time Wright was occupied with the study of languages, literature, history, and philosophy, and her well-known scorn for propriety and social convention evidently dates from this period. Wright began to notice the social inequities that pervaded British rural life, and she was particularly interested in the newly-independent nation of the United States. In 1813, Wright and Camilla moved to Glasgow to live with their uncle, James Mylne, who held liberal political beliefs and taught moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow. In Glasgow, Wright cultivated her intellectual and political interests, and began to write seriously—primarily poetry. In 1818, she visited the United States with Camilla in order to observe the social and political experiment in democracy and individual freedom. Her family wealth gave her an immediate entrance into New York society, and her play Altorf was produced there in 1819. Wright travelled
extensively in the United States, and wrote about her perceptions in Views of Society and Manners in America—In a Series of Letters from That Country to a Friend in England, During the Years 1818, 1819, 1820 (1821). Wright became convinced of the need to establish a "colony" where slaves might both work for their freedom (in a plan of gradual emancipation) and become educated. She bought land in Tennessee in 1825, and named her new community Nashoba. In her attempts to support and draw attention to her endeavors, she lectured widely and edited the New Harmony Gazette, a periodical that grew out of Robert Owen's experimental Utopian community in New Harmony, Indiana. Nashoba never became economically self-sufficient, and was dissolved in 1829. The ex-slaves from the Nashoba community were transported to the new republic of Haiti. After the dissolution of the community of Nashoba, Wright wrote an essay entitled "Explanatory Notes, Respecting the Nature and Objects of the Institution of Nashoba, and of the Principles upon which it is Founded: Addressed to the Friends of Human Improvement, in All Countries and of All Nations" (1830). In 1831, the year following the publication of the essay on Nashoba, Camilla died and Wright returned to England. In the same year, Wright married William Phiquepal D'Arusmont. D'Arusmont had been a former member of Owen's experimental Utopian community, and had followed Wright to England. With D'Arusmont, Wright had two children, but only the second, Frances Sylva D'Arusmont, survived infancy. At this time Wright limited her public activities, but managed to publish her lectures on educational reform in England as A Course of Popular Lectures (1834). In 1835 Wright returned to her political activities in the United States, particularly to her advocacy of the gradual emancipation of slaves. But after 1839 she began to spend more time writing at her home in Cincinnati than speaking in public, and the public furor that had accompanied her attempts at social reform dissipated. During this period Wright wrote England the Civilizer: Her History Developed in Its Principles (1848) and an autobiography entitled Biography, Notes, and Political Letters of Frances Wright D'Arusmont (1849). In 1852, shortly after divorcing D'Arusmont, Frances Wright died after a prolonged illness caused by a fall at her home.
Wright's first major literary production was her play, Altorf. This play, produced in the United States in 1819, takes its setting and plot from the fourteenth-century Swiss independence movement. In 1822, she wrote a dialogue on Epicurean philosophy entitled A Few Days in Athens—Being the Translation of a Greek Manuscript Discovered in Herculeaneum (1822). This treatise reflects Wright's interest in tolerance and self-reliance. However, unlike the original Epicurus, Wright was not an advocate of the spiritual renunciation of worldly pleasures. In Celia Eckhardt's words, Wright "dares to honor happiness" in this work. Furthermore, Wright's Epicurus is noted for his lack of discrimination against women students. Wright's works grew increasingly political in emphasis. Her "Explanatory Notes, Respecting the Nature and Objects of the Institution of Nashoba, and of the Principles upon which it is Founded: Addressed to the Friends of Human Improvement, in All Countries and of All Nations," her many editorials in the New Harmony Gazette (later renamed the Free Enquirer) and in the Boston Investigator, and her A Course of Popular Lectures reflect her abiding concern with slavery, economic disparities, inequities between genders, lack of public education, and the problematic authority of religious institutions. Among her intellectual influences were Thomas Jefferson, Jeremy Bentham, Robert Owen, and Mary Wollstonecraft. Her work, particularly in her later years, focused upon rewriting and developing earlier lectures given in major cities around the United States and England. Some of these lectures were revised and collected in England the Civilizer: Her History Developed in Its Principles, her last published work.
While Wright provoked some of the most scathing denunciations of the women's movement of the nineteenth century, she also earned the praise and respect of prominent liberal thinkers of that century. According to George Holyoake, John Stuart Mill (who shared with Wright the ideals of equality and individual liberty) considered her to be "one of the most important women of her day." Walt Whitman attended many of her lectures and sympathized with her passionate struggle for the fulfillment of the democratic promise latent in the new nation. According to critic Celia Eckhardt, Frances Wright's reception by the American and European public shows "how much people love the rhetoric of equality and how little they are inclined to make equality possible." The fact that ten thousand people attended one of Wright's lectures in New York City in 1837 provides evidence for the popularity of Wright's writings and lectures. However, Wright's attempts to put into practice her beliefs regarding gradual emancipation, sexual freedom, racial equality, economic justice, and public education were consistently condemned as radical, blasphemous, and unfeminine. This public outrage, led by the established press and religious authorities, must be counted as one of the principal reasons for the failure of the community of Nashoba. Wright is recognized by more recent critics for the power of her rhetoric and for the profound influence that she exerted over the feminist movements of the nineteenth century. Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton all refer to Frances Wright as a pioneer in women's rights. Current feminist scholarship acknowledges her impact on the struggle for social justice, but also notes the extent to which her own philosophical inheritances influence her views. Elizabeth Bartlett claims that Wright was more interested in supporting the rights of humanity in general than of women in particular. Bartlett also claims that Wright "sought the liberty of women to be like men" rather than criticized that ideal itself. Yet Wright's fervent attempts to argue for the independence and equality of all human beings formed a strong foundation for later feminist and liberal activists.
Altorf (drama) 1819
Views of Society and Manners in America—In a Series of Letters from that Country to a Friend in England, During the Years 1818, 1819, 1820 (letters) 1821
"Explanatory Notes, Respecting the Nature and Object of the Institution at Nashoba, and of the Principles upon which it is Founded: Addressed to the Friends of Human Improvement, in All Countries and of All Nations" (essay) 1830
*Course of Popular Lectures (lectures) 1834
England the Civilizer: Her History Developed in Its Principles (history) 1848
*Biography, Notes, and Political Letters of Frances Wright D'Arusmont (autobiography) 1849
*Reprinted in Life, Letters and Lectures. 1834-44 (1972)
(The entire section is 94 words.)
SOURCE: "Nashoba Concluded," in Frances Wright, Columbia University Press, 1924, pp. 111-33.
[In the following excerpt. Waterman reviews Frances Wright's published plan for her cooperative community of Nashoba and argues that Wright's advocacy of equal rights and sexual freedom contributed to her reputation as a radical.]
Shortly after her return [from England in 1827] Frances [Wright] carried out the suggestion in her letter to James Richardson, and made public her famous "Explanatory Notes, respecting the Nature and Object of the Institution at Nashoba, and of the principles upon which it is founded: Addressed to the Friends of Human Improvement, in all Countries and all Nations."1 In this remarkable document she plainly stated that it was now the purpose of Nashoba to carry into practice certain principles which had been long advocated by liberal thinkers, but which the world would never receive unsupported by experiment. At Nashoba it was hoped to convince mankind of their moral beauty and their utility, and within herself Miss Wright felt there existed the qualifications necessary for successfully carrying on such an experiment—mental courage and a passion for the improvement of the human race.
Observation had taught her that "men are virtuous in proportion as they are happy; and happy in proportion as they are free!" In the present state of society, however, they were...
(The entire section is 1380 words.)
SOURCE: "Frances Wright and the Second Utopia," in Restless Angels: The Friendship of Six Victorian Women. Ohio University Press, 1983, pp. 23-62
[In the following excerpt, Heineman discusses Frances Wright's correspondence concerning the establishment of Nashoba, a colony intended to serve as a model of emancipation and equality.]
We have seen that among early peoples the quite normal man is warrior and hunter, and the quite normal woman house-wife and worker-round-the-house; and it is quite conceivable that if no intermediate types had arisen, human society might have remained stationary in these simple occupations. But when types of men began to appear who had no taste for war and slaughter—men, perhaps, of a more gentle or feminine disposition; or when types of women arose who chafed at the slavery of the house, and longed for the open field of adventure and activity—women, in fact, of a more masculine tendency—then necessarily and quite naturally these new-comers had to find, and found, for themselves, new occupations and new activities. The intermediate types of human beings created intermediate spheres of social life and work.
Edward Carpenter, Intermediate Types among Primitive Folk: A Study in Social Evolution (1919)
Take up some one pursuit or occupation with persevering determination. I can truly declare that I...
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SOURCE: "Jane Austen and the Rebel," in Fanny Wright: Rebel in America, Harvard University Press, 1984, pp. 1–24.
[In the following excerpt, Eckhardt contrasts Frances Wright, who even in her youth expressed outrage at oppression and willfully entered into political activism, with the more iconic and conventional figure of femininity drawn by Jane Austen.]
On the sixth of September, 1795, a child was born on the southeast coast of Scotland whose life proved as vital as any could be in the nineteenth century, and almost as full of pain. Her name was Frances Wright, and John Stuart Mill would call her one of the most important women of her day.1
She was important because she dared to take Thomas Jefferson seriously when he wrote, "All men are created equal," and to assume that "men" meant "women" as well. She was important because she made of her life a determined search for a place where she could help forge the institutions that would allow that principle to govern society. She was important because she had the integrity and courage to renounce the upper middle-class world to which she was born—a world whose prizes and comforts were hers for the taking—and to risk her health, her fortune, and her good name to realize, in the United States of America, the ideals on which it was founded.
In 1825 she became the first woman in America to act publicly to...
(The entire section is 11104 words.)
SOURCE: "Wright, the American Suffragists, Mill, and Whitman," in In Common Cause: The "Conservative" Frances Trollope and the "Radical" Frances Wright, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993, pp. 94-114.
[In the following essay, Kissel contends that Frances Wright, by generating both public opprobrium and sympathy, significantly advanced the cause of women's rights in the United States and Britain.]
Rejected by the majority, Frances Wright's ideas nevertheless came to affect every level of American society. Those who have focused attention on her career have agreed on the paradox of her life, its electricity and color reduced to seeming paralysis and invisibility before her death. Yet her ideas would have impact on the mainstream of American culture. In 1924 William Randall Waterman concluded his study of Frances Wright with these words:
Just how deeply she influenced American thought it is difficult to say…. Probably it would be safe to say that through her lectures and editorials she did much to popularize and stimulate the demand for a more liberal religion, more liberal marriage laws, the protection of the property rights of married women, a more generous system of education, and the abolition of capital punishment and of imprisonment for debt. Slavery she opposed as irrational, and an obstacle to the progress of America…. Perhaps Miss Wright's...
(The entire section is 9837 words.)
SOURCE: "Frances Wright," in Liberty, Equality, Sorority: The Origins and Interpretation of American Feminist Thought: Frances Wright, Sarah Grimke, and Margaret Fuller, Carlson Publishing, 1994, pp. 25-55.
[In the following excerpt, Bartlett considers Wright's moral and political convictions, which grew out of her intellectual commitments to liberal democracy and Utopian socialism.]
Wright's Feminist Thought
The juxtaposition of all of the contrasting philosophical backgrounds and assumptions of moral sense, utilitarianism, and Utopian socialism creates a complexity and richness in Wright's feminism. From the Enlightenment Wright drew the importance of education in shaping character and thus in defining the equality or inequality of the sexes. From utilitarian liberalism she gained her appreciation of the liberty of individual thought and action. She drew her passion for justice and equality from moral sense and Utopian socialist thought. As a moral sense theorist, she justified her feminism with moral righteousness; as a utilitarian, she justified it as a useful solution to a practical problem.
Wright was a liberal feminist, a minimalist who saw no significant differences between men and women with regard to their physical, mental, moral, and sexual capacities. Along utilitarian liberal lines, Wright argued that the emancipation of women was called for by the...
(The entire section is 8260 words.)
Eckhardt, Celia. "Of Fanny and Camilla Wright: Their Sisterly Love." In The Sister Bond: A Feminist View of a Timeless Connection, edited by Toni A. H. McNaron, pp. 37-50. New York: Pergamon Press, 1985.
Describes the relationship between Frances and Camilla Wright, which was instrumental in supporting Frances Wright's political ideals and activism.
Lane, Margaret. Frances Wright and the "Great Experiment." Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman & Littlefield, 1972. 50 p.
Provides biographical information, particularly for the period in which Frances Wright began the experimental community of Nashoba.
(The entire section is 84 words.)