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.