The Contributions of Freethinkers: Frances Wright

The Contributions of Freethinkers: Frances Wright January 16, 2009

Although the success of the feminist movement has secured equal legal rights for women virtually everywhere in the West – a guarantee de jure, if not always de facto – there are still pockets of institutionalized sexism that survive. The Catholic church is the most obvious example, but other Christian denominations also deny the equality of women, such as when over 100 Southern Baptist bookstores refused to display a magazine about female pastors.

By contrast, the freethought movement has always respected the equality and talents of women. One example of this is the story of the influential female freethinker and social reformer, Frances Wright.

Frances Wright was born in Scotland in 1795. Her parents died when she was very young, and she was raised in England by relatives who gave her a classical and liberal education. At the time this was unusual for women, but her guardians’ efforts bore fruit: When she turned 18, she moved to Glasgow, where the Scottish Enlightenment was in full swing. Wright flourished in this thriving intellectual community, which opposed slavery and encouraged the participation of women, and began to speak and write. One of her first books, A Few Days in Athens, outlined her utopian vision in the form of a dialogue between students at Epicurus’ school.

In 1818, Wright traveled to the United States of America for the first time. She was enthralled by the possibilities that the new nation offered, writing that the system of representative government “has been carried to perfection in America”. She found only one black mark on America’s name: the continuing existence of slavery, which she called “odious beyond all that the imagination can conceive”. Her book on the experience, Views of Society and Manners in America, was well received in both European and American circles (Jeremy Bentham was said to have praised it) and established her place as one of the leading lights of the day’s intellectuals. She also corresponded with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

In 1825, she became an American citizen. It was there that she met a fellow Scot, Robert Owen, who was addressing Congress on the topic of improving working conditions for laborers (as he had done in his own mills). Inspired by Owen’s utopian ideas, Wright bought a plot of land on the Tennessee frontier and named it Nashoba, initially populating it with thirty former black slaves and several white overseers. Wright intended to create an egalitarian community where the former slaves would work to repay the cost of their emancipation, while receiving an education that would enable them to become independent members of society. It was a noble experiment, but it never managed to become economically self-sufficient; this, as well as public outrage over rumors of interracial sex at Nashoba, was enough to cause the unraveling of the community.

After the collapse of Nashoba, Wright was discouraged but not defeated. She rejoined Robert Owen and became joint editor, and later sole editor, of his newspaper, the New Harmony Gazette. Later, she and Owen cofounded the paper’s successor, the Free Inquirer. In these papers and on the lecture circuit, she put forth a vigorous and wide-ranging call for social reform. She advocated a national system of free and secular public schools; she demanded equal rights and entry into the workforce for women; she called for the availability of birth control, the creation of a social safety net, and a more equitable distribution of wealth – and, true to her freethinking heritage, she argued for a rational world free of oppressive clericalism and religious superstition. Predictably, the press began referring to her with epithets such as “The Red Harlot of Infidelity”. She ended each lecture by calling for the creation of a Hall of Science in every community, to be dedicated to the cause of “universal knowledge”.

By all contemporary accounts, she was a superb speaker. The author Frances Trollope, after witnessing a lecture by Wright, said, “I knew her extraordinary gift of eloquence, her almost unequaled command of words, and the wonderful power of her rich and thrilling voice… [but] all my expectations fell far short of the splendor, the brilliance, the overwhelming eloquence of this extraordinary orator”. Another observer wrote, “A prodigy in learning, in intellect and in courage, she awes into deference the most refractory bigot”. (These quotes come from Randy Best‘s two-part post series, a treasure trove of information on Wright’s life.)

More shocking than Wright’s views was the composition of her audience. She was the first woman to lecture in public before mixed audiences of men and women, and was roundly criticized for this “promiscuous assembly”. As opposition grew more intense, some of her audience members were assaulted; critics tried to disrupt her speeches by setting off smoke bombs or, on one occasion, by turning off the gas lines that kept the lamps in her lecture hall lit. (She finished the lecture anyway – by candlelight – to thunderous applause.) The press criticized her for fomenting “riot and revolution”.

Sadly, Wright’s radicalism may have been too advanced for her day. In 1829 she left America to take the former slaves of Nashoba to Haiti. She was gone for six months, and when she returned, she found that her political adversaries had vilified her in the press to such an extent that she felt she could no longer effectively get her message across; also, she had become pregnant by her companion Philippe D’Arusmont. She left America for a time to live in the relative peace and quiet of Europe. She returned for one final lecture series in 1838, but when her favored political faction, the Jacksonian Democrats, were defeated, she withdrew for the last time from public life. She spent the rest of her life in seclusion until her death in 1852.

Although Frances Wright never saw most of her favored causes succeed, the torch she lit did not go out. Later pioneers of the feminist movement, including Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, all praised Wright as an inspiration and a pioneer in the cause of women’s rights. And many of the social reforms she championed – the abolition of slavery, free and secular public schools, the creation of a social safety net – did eventually come to pass. Without her trailblazing advocacy, these reforms might never have happened. Frances Wright’s life is a lesson for reformers: even if the causes we support are not realized in our own lifetimes, we can still do the vital job of laying the groundwork for our future successors.

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