Frances Wright: Unsung Heroine of the Suffrage Movement

H. W. Anness & Co. Flags, Pennant, 1910-1920. Felt. New-York Historical Society, INV.7092b
H. W. Anness & Co. Flags, Pennant, 1910-1920. Felt. New-York Historical Society, INV.7092b

When you think of Women’s History Month, which names come to mind? Many people rightfully associate Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton with the women’s rights movement of the 1800s. After all, they founded the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869, an organization to help women gain the right to vote. For all of their accomplishments, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s vision of equality for women did not appear out of thin air. They had mentors who inspired them, including a woman named Frances Wright.

LEFT: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Drawing, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. RIGHT: Susan B. Anthony, Photograph, Collection of the New-York Historical Society

Frances Wright was born on September 6, 1795 in Scotland. In 1818 she went on a two year tour of America with her sister Camilla. Wright became fascinated by the United States. She saw the young nation as a beacon of hope and liberty. In 1821 she published a book about her journey called Views of Society and Manners in America. Her book caught the attention of the Marquis de Lafayette, French hero of the American Revolution. He encouraged her to re-visit the United States in 1824, and introduced her to former presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Wright loved the principles of freedom and justice that the United States stood for, and was inspired to become an American citizen. However, she was dismayed by the practice of slavery.

Henry Inman, Frances Wright (1795-1852), 1824. Oil on Canvas. New-York Historical Society, 1955.263
Henry Inman, Frances Wright (1795-1852), 1824. Oil on Canvas. New-York Historical Society, 1955.263

Wright soon became an antislavery activist. In 1825 she published a book called A Plan for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in the United States without Danger of Loss to the Citizens of the South. Wright believed it was necessary to help slaves transition from bondage to freedom. She purchased a plantation in Tennessee called Nashoba where former slaves could be taught to read and write and learn a skilled profession. Although Wright successfully freed at least fifteen slaves, she had difficulty raising money for the Nashoba community. Wright decided to raise awareness about the cruelty and injustice of slavery instead.

In 1828 Wright became the first American woman to speak publicly against slavery. The following year she became the first woman to edit a journal in the United States, the New Harmony Gazette. During the 1820s it was almost unheard of for women to lecture and write about politics. Wright was ridiculed for speaking her mind. Artists such as James Aiken created political cartoons of her:

A Downright Gabbler Political Cartoon
James Aiken, A Downright Gabbler or a Goose that Deserves to be Hissed, 1829. Lithograph with watercolor. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

This cartoon, featuring Wright as a goose was designed to humiliate her, and keep her from speaking her mind. Imagine if you were slandered in the press. Would you continue to stand up for what you believed in? Wright could not be deterred. Despite public protest, Wright continued to give lectures. She called for equality for women, freedom for slaves, and free education for all children. She passionately declared: “Equality is the soul of liberty; there is in fact no liberty without it.” [i]

Wright died in Ohio on December 13, 1852. Her tombstone reads: “I have wedded the cause of human improvement, staked on it my fortune, my reputation, and my life.” [ii] No wonder, Susan B. Anthony kept a picture of Frances Wright on the wall of her study!

Learn more about women’s rights activists by participating in our Women’s History Month Scavenger Hunt!  Search throughout the museum for artifacts, including Frances Wright’s portrait. Copies of the scavenger hunt are available anytime this month in the DiMenna Children’s History Museum’s display rack.

[i] Bartlett, Elizabeth Ann, Liberty, Equality, Sorority: The Origins and Interpretation of American Feminist Thought: Frances Wright: Sarah Grimke, and Margaret Fuller (New York: Carlson Publishers, 1994), p. 53.
[ii] Dykeman, Therese Boos ed., The Neglected Canon: Nine Women Philosophers-First to the Twentieth Century (Massachusetts: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999), p. 281.

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