Frances Wright

Frances Wright (1795-1852), Scottish-American socialist, feminist, and reformer, was the first woman to speak publicly in America.

Frances Wright was born in Dundee, Scotland, on Sept. 6, 1795. Orphaned at the age of two, she inherited substantial means, which enabled her to escape from England and her strict relatives upon coming of age. She went to the United States in 1818, and her play about the struggle for republicanism in Switzerland was performed in 1819 in New York City.

Wright was distinguished for her personal courage, amounting at times to foolhardiness, and for the liberality of her views on public questions. She was especially influenced by the social reformer Robert Dale Owen, and in 1825 she visited New Harmony, Ind., an ambitious experiment in communitarian socialism that his father, Robert Owen, had just founded. There she absorbed the multitude of radical ideas on every conceivable question that flourished in the community. The following year she established her own community at Nashoba on the Tennessee frontier.

Unlike New Harmony, which was founded to demonstrate the superior merits of socialism, Nashoba was aimed directly at the problem of slavery. Wright believed that the most practical way to free the slaves was by establishing facilities where they could work off the costs of their emancipation while acquiring useful skills and the habits appropriate to free men. In some ways this was a farsighted plan. However, like most communal experiments, Nashoba was under financed and badly run. Wright further complicated the enterprise by working into it her own ideas on sex and religion. She came to believe that miscegenation was the ultimate solution of the racial question and that marriage was a limiting and discriminatory institution. Her advocacy of free love and her assistant's public admission that he was living with one of the slave women had a fatal effect on Nashoba's fortunes. In 1830 Wright and Robert Dale Owen arranged for her wards to be sent to the black republic of Haiti.

In 1828-1829 Wright lectured widely in the United States with sensational effect. She spoke on behalf of public education in general and women's education in particular, and she actively supported the Workingman's (Loco-Foco) party of New York, earning the sobriquet of "the great she-Loco-Foco." She also wrote several books, none of which proved very durable. She returned to Europe in 1830, remaining there until 1835. In later years her lectures attracted little attention. She died on Dec. 13, 1852, in Cincinnati.

Further Reading on Frances Wright

Biographies of Frances Wright are William R. Waterman, Frances Wright (1924), and A. J. G. Perkins and Theresa Wolfson, Frances Wright, Free Enquirer (1939). Among the many works touching on various phases of her career, Arthur E. Bestor, Backwoods Utopias: The Sectarian and Owenite Phases of Communitarian Socialism in America, 1663-1829 (1950), is especially useful.

Additional Biography Sources

Morris, Celia, Fanny Wright: rebel in America, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

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