Frances Wright was one of the earliest feminist speakers to travel around the United States, speaking on behalf of the rights of women between 1828-1829. She was radical for her time and her voice rings true today. She was anti-slavery, pro-labor unions and pro-free public education as well. She was vilified by the public and according to Miriam Schneir in her book, Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings, to be called a “Fanny Wrightist” was to “be placed beyond the pale of respectability”(18).
She was born in Scotland and grew up in England. She traveled to the United States, eventually immigrating, because she was inspired by the American Revolution. “She had an idea for gradual emancipation of slaves that she was eager to try out. She purchased about two thousand acres of mosquito-infested wilderness in Tennessee” and created a community she called Nashoba “where slaves could earn their freedom through labor while receiving an education”( Schneir 18).
Schneir writes that “she advocated the ‘amalgamation of the races’ through miscegenation”(19).
I had to look that word up and found this definition on wiki:
Miscegenation is a term which is used to refer to the mixing of different racial groups through marriage, cohabitation, sexual relations, or procreation, particularly mixing that is perceived to negatively impact the purity of a particular race or culture. Anti-miscegenation is a prominent theme of racial supremacist movements, including white supremacy.
The experiment at Nashoba failed. Though she herself believed Nashoba to be egalitarian, the slaves were not equal and had to buy themselves out of slavery. At the time there was an idea that had great popularity in the United States that was called “colonization.” Colonization believed in freeing the slaves but then sending them to other locations in colonies after their liberation. The slaves at Nashoba, once they had bought themselves out of slavery through working on the farm, would be relocated to independent settlements in Haiti or Liberia( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nashoba_Community).
Others at this time, including Abraham Lincoln, also had ideas to send the slaves back to Africa as freed people. This divide in the abolitionist community was serious with those who did not believe in colonization, like the Grimké sisters, (prominent abolitionists both written about on this site) advocating for immediate emancipation and equal rights. The Grimké sisters did not want to compensate the slave owners to “sweeten” the deal. That was appalling to them. The divide between colonization and emancipation in the abolition movement lasted a long time.
Click here for an informative article explaining “colonization” and why some people, black and white, thought it was a good idea.
“Some blacks supported emigration because they thought that black Americans would never receive justice in the United States. Others believed African-Americans should remain in the United States to fight against slavery and for full legal rights as American citizens. Some whites saw colonization as a way of ridding the nation of blacks, while others believed black Americans would be happier in Africa, where they could live free of racial discrimination”(https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/african/afam002.html ). It seems many people were in fact relocated to Liberia before colonization lost its funding.
I include this detour to the concept of colonization to help offer context to what Frances Wright was attempting to do with Nashoba, though from our current lens it may seem horrendous. I myself only recently learned of this alternative to emancipation that was being floated at the time.
Though the Grimké sisters never had direct experience with Frances Wright or her works, they were exposed to the negative press around her. Concerning Wright’s feminism, Gerda Lerner in her book The Grimké Sisters of South Carolina writes:
“Sarah and Angelina, had they read the writings of Frances Wright or heard her speeches, might have been spared many years of agonized intellectual struggle, for the ideas the young Englishwoman projected so boldly and prematurely were these they themselves would later advocate to a similar chorus of defamation”(66).
This illustrates how so many women through time were erased and unknown to each other and subsequent generations of feminists, each one thinking they were inventing the wheel and unable to pull on the predecessors’ work to make theirs easier.
This is part of the mission of #NastyWomenWriters, to return our predecessors to us that we may continue and refine the work that was started, not believing we have to begin all over again or that no woman has yet walked the path we are walking.
After Nashoba failed, Wright began her lecture tour.
“Central to her feminism was the idea that ‘whenever we establish our own pretensions upon the sacrificed rights of others, we do in fact impeach our own liberties’”(Schneir 19).
Following is a quote from one of her lectures:
“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 practices and consistent principles!”( Schneir 22).
Frances Wright is a #NastyWomanWriter and Activist
©Theresa C. Dintino 2019
Lerner, Gerda. The Grimké Sisters of South Carolina, Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1967, 2004.
Schneir, Miriam. Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings, New York: Random House, 1972.
Colonization, The African American Mosaic,