Fanny Wright

Fanny Wright

Fanny Wright was born in Dundee on 6th September, 1795. Both her father, a wealthy Scottish linin manufacturer, and her mother died by the time she was three years old. Wright was brought up in the homes of relatives, including James Milne, a member of Scottish school of progressive philosophers. Milne, who encouraged Fanny to question conventional ideas, was to have a lasting influence on her political development.

Wright visited the USA in 1818 and after returning to England published her observations of the country in her book, Views of Society and Manners in America (1821). The book praised America's experiments in democracy and provided information for those radicals in Britain involved in the struggle for parliamentary reform.

In England she became friendly with the Marquis de Lafayette and together they returned to the United States in 1824. Later that year Wright visited New Harmony in Indiana, the socialist community established by Robert Owen and his son Robert Dale Owen. She was immediately converted to Owenism and decided to form her own co-operative community.

In 1825 Wright purchased 2,000 acres of woodland thirteen miles from Memphis in Tennessee and formed a community called Nashoba. Wright then bought slaves from neighbouring farmers, freed them, and gave them land on her settlement.

Some aspects of Wright's community were extremely controversial, especially her decision to encourage sexual freedom. She came to believe that miscegenation was the ultimate solution of the racial question. Wright saw marriage as a discriminatory institution and started advocating free love.

Wright also developed her own dress code for women. This included bodices, ankle-length pantaloons and a dress cut to above the knee. This style was later promoted by feminists such as Amelia Bloomer, Susan Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Fanny Wright by Henry Inman (1824)
Fanny Wright by Henry Inman (1824)

Fanny Wright spent her entire personal fortune on her Nashoba co-operative community. She hoped it would become economically self-sufficient but this did not happen and in 1828 she was forced to abandon her experiment. Wright and Robert Dale Owen arranged for the former slaves to be sent to the black republic of Haiti.

In 1829 Wright settled in New York where she published her book, Course of Popular Lectures. She also combined with Robert Dale Owen to publish the Free Enquirer. In the journal Wright advocated socialism, the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, free secular education, birth control, changes in the marriage and divorce laws. Wright and Owen also became involved in the radical Workingmen's Party while living in New York.

Wright married the French doctor, Guillaume P. Darusmont in 1831. The marriage was not a success and ended in divorce. As her husband, Darusmont had managed to gain control over her entire property, including her earnings from lectures and the royalties from her books. Fanny Wright was in the middle of a legal struggle with Darusmont, when she died on 13th December, 1852. As requested, her tombstone in Cincinnati was inscribed with the words: "I have wedded the cause of human improvement, staked on it my fortune, my reputation and my life."

Primary Sources

(1) Fanny Wright, Course of Popular Lectures (1829)

However novel it may appear, I shall venture the assertion, that, until women assume the place in society which good sense and good feeling alike, assign to them, human improvement must advance but feebly. It is in vain that we would circumscribe the power of one half of our race, and that half by far the most important and influential. If they exert it not for good, they will for evil; if they advance not knowledge, they will perpetuate ignorance. Let women stand where they may in the scale of improvement, their position decides that of the race. Are they cultivated? - so is society polished and enlightened. Are they ignorant? - so is it gross and insipid. Are they wise? - so is the human condition prosperous. Are they foolish? - so is it unstable and unpromising. Are they free? - so is the human character elevated. Are they enslaved? - so is the whole race degraded. Oh! that we could learn the advantage of just practice and consistent principles!

Your political institutions have taken equality for their basis; your declaration of rights, upon which your institutions rest, sets forth this principle as vital and inviolate. Equality is the soul of liberty; there is, in fact, no liberty without it.

How are men to be secured in any rights without instruction; how to be secured in the equal exercise of those rights without equality of instruction? By instruction understand me to mean knowledge - just knowledge; not talent, not genius, not inventive mental powers. These will vary in every human being; but knowledge is the same for every mind, and every mind may and ought to be trained to receive it. If then, ye have pledged, at each anniversary of your political independence, your lives, properties, and honor, to the securing of your common liberties, ye have pledged your lives, properties, and honor, to the securing of your common instruction.

All men are born free and equal! That is: our moral feelings acknowledge it to be just and proper, that we respect those liberties in others, which we lay claim to for ourselves; and that we permit the free agency of every individual, to any extent which violates not the free agency of his fellow creatures.

There is but one honest limit to the rights of a sentient being; it is where they touch the rights of another sentient being. Do we exert our own liberties without injury to others - we exert them justly; do we exert them at the expense of others - unjustly. And, in thus doing, we step from the sure platform of liberty upon the uncertain threshold of tyranny.

Who among us but has had occasion to remark the ill-judged, however well-intentioned government of children by their teachers; and, yet more especially, by their parents? In what does this mismanagement originate? In a misconception of the relative position of the parent or guardian, and of the child; in a departure, by the parent from the principle of liberty, in his assumption of rights destructive of those of the child; in his exercise of authority, as by right divine, over the judgment, actions, and person of the child; in his forgetfulness of the character of the child, as a human being, born "free and equal" among his compeers; that is, having equal claims to the exercise and development of all his senses, faculties, and powers, with those who brought him into existence, and with all sentient beings who tread the earth. Were a child thus viewed by his parent, we should not see him, by turns, made a plaything and a slave; we should not see him commanded to believe, but encouraged to reason; we should not see him trembling under the rod, nor shrinking from a frown, but reading the wishes of others in the eye, gathering knowledge wherever he threw his glance, rejoicing in the present hour, and treasuring up sources of enjoyment for future years.

What, then, has the parent to do, if he would conscientiously discharge that most sacred of all duties, that, weightiest of all responsibilities, which ever did or ever will devolve on a human being? He is to encourage in his child a spirit of inquiry, and equally to encourage it in himself. He is never to advance an opinion without showing the facts upon which it is grounded; he is never to assert a fact, without proving it to be a fact. He is not to teach a code of morals, any more than a creed of doctrines; but he is to direct his young charge to observe the consequences of actions on himself and on others; and to judge of the propriety of those actions by their ascertained consequences. He is not to command his feelings any more than his opinions or his actions; but he is to assist him in the analysis of his feelings, in the examination of their nature, their tendencies, their effects. Let him do this, and have no anxiety for the result.

Who, then, shall say, inquiry is good for him and not good for his children? Who shall cast error from himself, and allow it to be grafted on the minds he has called into being? We see men who will aid the instruction of their sons and condemn only their daughters to ignorance. "Our sons", they say, "will have to exercise political rights, may aspire to public offices, may fill some learned profession, may struggle for wealth and acquire it. It is well that we give them a helping hand; that we assist them to such knowledge as is going, and make them as sharp witted as their neighbours. But for our daughters," they say - if indeed respecting them they say any thing - "for our daughters, little trouble or expense is necessary. They can never be any thing; in fact, they are nothing. We had best give them up to their mothers, who may take them to Sunday's preaching; and with the aid of a little music, a little dancing, and a few fine gowns, and fit them out for the market of marriage."

(2) John Humphrey Noyes, History of American Socialism (1870)

Frances Wright, little known to the present generation, was really the spiritual helpmate and better half of the Owens, in the socialistic revival of 1826. Our impression is, not only that she was the leading woman in the communistic movement of that period, but that she had a very important agency in starting two other movements that had far greater success and are at this moment in popular favour: anti-slavery and woman's rights.

(3) Ernestine L. Rose, speech at the National Woman's Rights Convention (1858)

Frances Wright was the first woman in this country who spoke on the equality of the sexes. She had indeed a hard task before her. The elements were entirely unprepared. She had to break up the time-hardened soil of conservatism, and her reward was sure - the same reward that is always bestowed upon those who are in the vanguard of any great movement. She was subjected to public odium, slander, and persecution. But these were not the only things she received. Oh, she had her reward - that reward of which no enemies could deprive her, which no slanders could make less precious - the eternal reward of knowing that she had done her duty.

(4) Paulina Davis, speech on Fanny Wright at a meeting of the National Woman Suffrage Association (19th October, 1870)

To this heroic woman, who left ease, elegance, a high social circle of rich culture, and with true self-abnegation gave her life, in the country of her adoption, to the teachings of her highest idea of truth, it is fitting that we pay a tribute of just, though late, respect. Her writings are of the purest and noblest character, and whatever there is of error in them is easily thrown aside. The spider sucks poison from the same flower from which the bee gathers honey; let us therefore ask if the evil be not in ourselves before we condemn others. Women joined in the hue and cry against her, little thinking that men were building the gallows and making them the executioners. Women have crucified in all ages the redeemers of their own sex, and men mock them with the fact.

(5) Robert Dale Owen writing about Fanny Wright after her death.

She was thoroughly versed in the literature of the day, was well informed on general topics, and spoke French and Italian fluently. She had travelled and resided for years in Europe, was an intimate friend of General Lafayette, and made the acquaintance of many leading reformers, Hungarian, Polish, and others, and was a thorough republican; indeed, an advocate of universal suffrage without regard to colour or sex.

(6) Fanny Wright, tombstone in Cincinnati (1852)

I have wedded the cause of human improvement, staked on it my fortune, my reputation and my life.