A portrait engraving of Frances Wright by John Chester Buttre. The image shows her with medium length curly hair, puffy sleeves and a waistcoat tucked into a belt tied tightly at her waist. She leans on a desk to her left and rests her face on her left hand.

Remembering Frances Wright on International Women’s Day

March 6, 2024

As we celebrate the cultural and political achievements of women around the world, here’s an introduction to the remarkable life and complex legacy of Fanny Wright, Scottish pioneer of feminism, anti-slavery, and secular thought.

Who was Frances Wright?

The Dundee-born campaigner Frances Wright (1795-1852) once remarked that “the mind has no sex but what habit and education give it.” In an era of conservatism and misogyny, she fought for women’s rights (including reproductive rights), an end to slavery in the USA, and against the influence of organised religion in politics. Her views were highly radical while remaining products of nineteenth-century thought and prejudice.

Early life

Known as Fanny since childhood, Wright was born to a wealthy linen-manufacturing family with a politically radical father. Writing her first book by the age of 18 (on ancient Greek philosophy), she toured North America in her youth. Her memoirs of her travels brought her to the attention of British intellectuals such as Jeremy Bentham. During a subsequent trip to France she began a close friendship with the revolutionary leader the Marquis de Lafayette.

A side-on pencil sketch of Frances Wright with hair curled around her face.

“Turn your churches into halls of science, and devote your leisure day to the study of your own bodies, the analysis of your own minds, and the examination of the fair material world which extends around you!”

Frances Wright

[Image: 1825 engraving of Wright]

An anti-slavery pioneer

During a second visit to the United States, Wright became increasingly concerned with how to abolish slavery. She spent time at the utopian community of New Harmony, established in Indiana by the Welsh industrialist Robert Owen, who had previously developed New Lanark near Glasgow. This inspired Wright to found her own experimental community, Nashoba, in Tennessee. The aim of the settlement was to prepare enslaved people for emancipation, after which they would be relocated to countries such as Liberia and Haiti.

By contemporary standards, Wright’s relationship with her fellow community members at Nashoba was troubling. Her liberal interest in “educating” people before they could be emancipated – until which point, she owned them – was criticised by some contemporary abolitionists. After Nashoba failed in its aims, Wright lived for a time at Owen’s community at New Harmony, editing its newspaper.

Through speaking tours and publications, Wright advocated for female suffrage, birth control, greater rights for married women, and sexual freedom.

Public speaker

Wright settled in the United States following her second visit to the country. Through speaking tours and publications, she advocated for female suffrage, birth control, greater rights for married women, and sexual freedom. During a period in New York during the early 1830s, she converted a former church into a lecture hall which she called “a hall of science.” Her speaking tours attracted huge, enthusiastic crowds of both sexes (highly unusual for a political speaker) and led to the establishment of so-called Fanny Wright Societies.

Wright was deeply critical of organised religion. For this reason, and because she dared to step beyond the social roles assigned to women, she was castigated by the popular press and church in the United States. In The New York American, she was referred to as “the female monster.” Meanwhile, Wright’s own views became ever more radical, leading her, for example, to join the short-lived Working Men’s Party.

A hostile cartoon from 1829 showing a woman with the face of a goose (meant to be Wright) giving a lecture. Text beneath reads "A Downright Gabbler, or a goose that deserves to be hissed."
HOSTILE CARTOON DEPICTING FRANCES WRIGHT AS A “GABBLING GOOSE” for daring to speak in public (1829)

Wright’s legacy

Frances Wright died at just 57, at her home in Cincinnati, Ohio, following complications from a hip injury. Little remembered at the time of her passing, she is today celebrated as the first woman to deliver public lectures to mixed crowds (of both men and women) on social reform in the USA. Wright is also known for her influential, radical views on government, theology, and women’s rights, and as a committed advocate of anti-slavery whose positions nonetheless filtered the racism of her era.

A Frances Wright plaque is included in the Dundee Women’s Trail. Why not check it out!

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