Condition of Women Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Perhaps the condition of women affords, in all countries, the best criterion by which to judge of the character of men.”

Summary Overview

Frances “Fanny” Wright was a radical thinker, writer, and orator in the early part of the nineteenth century, active in both America and Great Britain. Scottish by birth, she was an early admirer of the young American Republic and travelled often on both sides of the Atlantic throughout her life. She was particularly engaged in the struggle for women’s rights, especially women’s education, as well as being an early antislavery activist. During her first trip to America, where she stayed from 1818 to 1820, she wrote many letters home that she reworked into her first publication, Views of Society and Manners in America,in 1821, which became a bestseller in America. This work included an important letter on her views of the condition of American women during this time period. She was seen by the feminists who followed her (such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton) as an important influence and early activist for women’s rights.

Defining Moment

The post-Revolutionary, or early national, period in American history was a time when a young country was attempting to navigate new political processes, institutions, and beliefs. As is often the case in the time period after revolutions, the more radical views were being tempered as the new country tried to stabilize and find its place in the world. The discussions about women’s rights that began during the American Revolution had been scaled back, and a certain backlash occurred in the early part of the nineteenth century.

When Frances Wright came to America she was immediately struck by its egalitarian nature, with the exception of the continued practice of slavery. She not only became a strong women’s rights advocate, she was also an early abolitionist. Both of these movements did not really gain momentum until the 1830s and 1840s, so Wright was a trailblazer in both of these causes. She was also one of the first women to speak in public, in particular to audiences of both sexes. She was seen as a radical to many conservatives and a successor to Mary Wollstonecraft, who had written A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. Wollstonecraft in particular was viewed as a radical, especially after her husband, William Godwin, had published a scandalous memoir after her death admitting she had had numerous affairs and had given birth to a child out of wedlock. Wright’s own life was equally scandalous, as she herself believed in free love and sanctioned interracial relationships. She became a polarizing figure with some supporters hailing her as one of the most important minds of her time, while her opponents took great joy in referring to her as the “Red Harlot of Infidelity” or the “Whore of Babylon.”

Her first publication, Views of Society and Manners in America was released in 1821, and it became an immediate bestseller. As it was extremely complimentary to America and Americans, she was soon catapulted into the public eye, and Wright discovered she enjoyed a certain celebrity and some notoriety. Letter number twenty-three was titled “On the Condition of Women” and was her first foray into writing about women’s rights, a topic she was to become passionate about in later years. Her view of American women was that they were well respected by men and had good access to education, and this provided an excellent basis for the new country to thrive.

When she published this work, she was still a young woman of twenty-six and was only beginning to formulate her ideas. The letter is more an observation on women in America than it is a radical call to action, and yet Wright still sees in this new country a stark difference between how women are treated there than they are in Britain.

Author Biography

Throughout her turbulent life, Frances Wright was a passionate and outspoken advocate for women’s education, women’s rights, changes to marriage laws, and even birth control. Frances, or “Fanny” as she was also known, was born in Dundee, Scotland, on September 6, 1795. Her parents died within months of each other when she was two, so she and her sister, Camilla, were sent to their maternal grandfather and aunt to be raised. At age eighteen, she left to live with her great-uncle, James Milne, who held the chair of moral philosophy at Glasgow University. In this household, Wright developed her radical philosophy and learned to question conventional ideas. After reading a history of the American Revolution, Wright believed America to be a republican utopia that was based on progressive ideals.

In 1818, she and Camilla travelled to America and toured many of the Northern states. They avoided the south, where slavery was more prevalent, until the end of her trip, and Wright found herself appalled at this practice. Her letters from this American trip were published as Views of Society and Manners in America in 1821 and transformed her into a person of public note. She was soon busy cultivating relationships with learned men such as the Marquis de Lafayette, with whom she travelled to America again in 1824, and Robert Owen and his son, Robert Dale Owen. The Owens had founded a socialist community in New Harmony, Indiana, that sparked Wright’s own idea for a cooperative community. Using some of her inheritance, she established Nashoba (Chickasaw for “wolf”) near Memphis, Tennessee, in 1825. Here on two thousand acres, she bought slaves and then gave them the opportunity to work the land to make enough money to buy their freedom. The community was eventually a failure, and Wright freed the remaining slaves and transported them to Haiti, which was the first black-led, independent republic. By 1829, Wright was lecturing in New York and was involved in the workingmen’s movement, which advocated for better working conditions and free public education for workers.

Although she was opposed to marriage as an institution (she felt it oppressed women), she married a French doctor, Guillaume P. D’Arusmont, in 1831. They moved to France and Wright gave birth to a daughter, Frances Sylva, the following year. She moved back to America in 1835, to Cincinnati, where she began to give public lectures again. She travelled back and forth from France to America numerous times during this period of her life. By 1851, she had divorced D’Arusmont and was in conflict with him over finances and access to Sylva. She died on December 13, 1852, after having fallen on ice and broken her hip earlier that year.

Document Analysis

In 1818, a young Scottish woman and her sister travelled to America to see first-hand what the new country had to offer and how it differed from Great Britain. Fanny and Camilla Wright arrived in New York in September and stayed until May of 1820. Throughout this time, Fanny Wright wrote letters to an older friend, Mrs. Rabina Craig Millar, detailing their trip and their adventures as well as expressing opinions about aspects of the new country. In her twenty-third letter, she turned her attention to the condition of women in America. She was impressed by the fact that women in America had more access to education than women in her home country and that this practice was extremely beneficial to the new country. Her writing style in these letters was quite secular in tone, which differed somewhat from the more Christian references and allusions that many women writers of the day employed. In fact, her letters were more like a running narrative of her experiences, with colorful descriptions of the people and places she visited. Interspersed with this, Wright also made astute observations of society and in particular how Americans were trying to live out their revolutionary ideals of liberty and freedom for all.

During her tour of New England, she was very impressed with the high level of education of women. She mentioned that they were adept in languages, both those that were no longer widely spoken (“dead”), such as Latin, and “modern” languages, such as French or Italian. She feels that their “wide scope of reading” had matured them more than her own “gay young” friends. “Gay” here is used in its traditional definition of being happy and carefree. She alludes to colleges being established for women, some of them sanctioned by the state governments. She also mentions that there is a widespread discussion on improving the education of women in America, and indeed there was a movement to establish academies and seminaries to provide secondary education for women. Bear in mind that this was restricted to white women, and that black and American Indian women were not included in this educational movement. Wright also refers to Mrs. Millar’s friend Dr. Rush. This no doubt refers to Benjamin Rush, a Founding Father, who was an esteemed medical doctor and a strong advocate of women’s education.

Wright then explains exactly why women’s education is so important, especially to America. In particular, women needed to understand government and patriotism, as it is the mother who is in charge of the early education of her children. This argument became known as “republican motherhood”; this meant that for the new republic to be secure, future generations of its citizens needed to be taught a strong sense of civic duty. Mothers were seen as the best people to accomplish this task. Additionally, Wright felt that women’s education should not follow the European tradition where women are taught more “ornamental branches” of learning that included drawing and dancing. America demanded that women be taught more “solid information.” Then Wright offers another more practical and personal reason for women’s education. If women are not educated in the same subjects and to the same level as men, they will be ill suited as companions in marriage and not able to engage in significant conversations with their husbands.

Wright is also impressed with the standing in society that American women hold and believes that this is because of their higher level of education. This is in contrast to European women, who are confined to the study of literature and their conversation restricted to the newest fashion styles, dance (“pas seul”), or publication. She sees women as “assuming their place as thinking beings” and that men, in their roles as fathers and politicians, have helped facilitate this. She continues in this vein as she responds directly to Mrs. Millar’s question, no doubt sent to her in an earlier letter, about the general condition of American women. Wright is effusive in her praise, saying that she feels that in no other country could they be held in “higher estimation” than in America. She feels they are respected “at all times and in all places.”

Wright then turns her attention to the domestic life of American women. Here she does touch on class and makes the differentiation between the “farmer or mechanic” and the “gentleman,” but she also feels both classes are as affectionate and caring towards the women in their lives as the other. Indeed, Wright feels that even a “cavaliere servente” or a lover could not be more attentive than American men. Again, Wright feels that women are extremely well treated and respected within marriages in America. She does, however, use the traditional rhetorical point that women are physically weaker than men and that their activities are in a separate sphere to those of men. Where women are busy with “household concerns,” men are out labouring in the field. Wright is clear that American men believe that this type of heavy labour is not suited to women’s weaker strength and they would be offended if women were to undertake it. In this way, Wright clearly believes that men and women are equal, but different.

Wright then makes a key point that how a country treats its women is perhaps the best way to judge its men. In order to better demonstrate this difference between American and European women and to give further weight to her argument, she gives examples. She states that where women are laborers, men are less developed and more like savages, and where women do not have freedom to act independently, men are more likely to be “sensualists,” or those who are addicted to or obsessed with sensual pleasures.

Wright then turns to the regressive attitudes toward women’s morals that she feels is present in England. She explains that women in England have lost considerable independence and that where they were once able to travel without a companion or even with an unmarried male friend without their virtue being questioned, this new generation of British women would find that impossible. They are more dependent on men throughout their entire lives, from the cradle to the altar to the grave, and they do not have control over their own virtue anymore; rather it is men who are charged with safeguarding it for them. Wright again uses as an example women’s impractical preoccupation with fashion as keeping their minds diverted from more important learning. When she was at Nashoba, Wright actually designed her own practical outfit for women, including bodices, ankle-length pantaloons, and a dress cut above the knee. Other prominent feminists later adopted it, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, and Susan B. Anthony. As a way to drive this point home, Wright states that she would rather see women as they are in Scotland, working side by side with their boorish husband and rude son in hard manual labour, than see them dependent on men as a child would be.

After discussing the restrictions on European women, Wright contrasts this with the “liberty here enjoyed” by American women. She feels it may be confusing to some people to try and understand how American women can enjoy such freedoms, while at the same time retaining their virtue and moral purity. She believes that it is because of their confidence and the fact that they are innocent of any other way of being. Wright ends with a warning that if American women ever give up safeguarding their own virtue, divorce rates will go up.

Wright changes her focus now from the intellectual education of women to their physical health. She is a strong advocate for physical exercise for women as a means to increase their intellectual capacity (“to invigorate the body is to invigorate the mind”). This was a radical idea at the time, and not one commonly proposed. In this, Wright predated Catharine Beecher’s 1841 proposal for daily physical education for women, made up of calisthenics set to music. She then goes on to explain that even though women in America have an extremely strong position in society, they are also held back from reaching their true potential. It is difficult for women to realize their talents, they cannot demand public honors if they have personal ambition, and even if they are strongly intellectual, their bodies and their mental health often let them down. Here, Wright seems to take issue with men’s natural advantages due to the simple fact they are physically superior to women. And she feels that men lord this over women and actually enjoy this power over women (“the daughters of Eve”). Wright then equates this “love of power” with men’s vanity, rather than pride, and that this thought process is the product of “little than of great minds.”

In the next paragraph, Wright’s tone becomes more radical and it is here that her future role as an orator and speaker is foreshadowed. She begins by considering that men “soothe their self-love” by keeping women subservient rather than focusing on their own strength. She appears to realize that this may be a radical thought and asks the question of Mrs. Millar, and all readers, if this is not too severe an opinion. Her use of questions in this paragraph is an effective rhetorical strategy: it breaks up the narrative and makes the reader think more intently on the subject at hand. She follows this up by asking the reader to consider what makes a tyrant, or despot, great, and she answers the question with the fact that he keeps those around him in an inferior position. She moves next to the patrician, or nobleman, and asks what keeps him conceited, and lands on the simple fact of his bloodline. Next, Wright proposes what she assumes is a radical question: “Do you mean to compare men collectively to the despot and the patrician?” This gives her the opening to expand on her main point that men prefer dependent women (“a fragile vine”) to an equal (“a vigorous tree”). Wright then takes this argument to its natural conclusion. She pointedly states that many men may feel this was ill thought through when such dependent women create too many problems and stresses for men to bear. She is equally piercing when she states that instead of helping to raise women up “to counteract the unequal law of nature,” men simply treat women even worse. Returning to the metaphor of the vine and the tree, Wright ends this section by reminding her reader that both men’s and women’s fates are “entwined.” If a woman’s dignity is degraded, then so is a man’s.

Wright returns to the subject of women’s education in America after this diatribe on men’s failings. Again, she states that it is in the best interests of the country to educate women. She also believes that this education will soon become the responsibility of the government to execute, which at the time was only just beginning. Many of the female academies and schools were privately run. This new public education system will be worth “any trouble or expense” that it would cost to establish. In fact, publicly funded elementary schools were not in place across the country until 1870. To reinforce this point, Wright reminds her reader that it was “wives and daughters” who played a great role in the revolutionary war, and to ensure liberty is upheld in America in the future, women’s rights should be strengthened.

Wright then turns her attention to the relationship between character, intellect, and physical health. Character, according to Wright, is built not only through the mind, but also through a healthy body. She makes the point that this is particularly true for American women, as the climate is much more extreme than that of Europe and is therefore harsher on them. She changes her strategy and begins to praise American men as examples of how “the union of bodily and mental vigor” created such an energetic character.

She then quotes extensively from Edmund Burke’s “Speech on Conciliation with America,” which he gave in 1775 in the British House of Commons, in an attempt to further explain and give examples of this unique American character. Burke was a prominent British-Irish politician during the American Revolution, and he was a proponent of trying to appease the then still British colonies to keep them under British rule. At first glance, this seems an odd choice for the radical Wright to quote, given Burke’s conservative nature and respect for the past and for traditions. Although his conservative reputation was earned from his strong opposition to the French Revolution, Burke did in fact champion many liberal causes, and so his worldview was actually far more complex than it first appeared. The excerpt she chose to quote in full was one where Burke was explaining America’s success in commerce, in particular whaling, and how the American character led to this success. He talks of their ability to traverse the world and suffer through the various changes in weather and landscape, such as “deepest frozen recesses of Hudson’s Bay” and the “equinoctial heat.” The Americans successfully pursue the whales they are fishing from Africa to Brazil and to both poles. To Burke, this was an extraordinary example of the American male’s character and therefore his industry as well.

Wright admits to her correspondent Millar that she does not believe that American women should join American men in such harsh activities, to which she adds the examples of forestry and hunting. She does, however, encourage women to participate in more physical pursuits such as swimming, archery, or running. She again states that taking part in such activities will create both a healthy mind and a healthy body, which in turn will lead women ultimately to find their independence, as opposed to dependence upon men.

To end her letter, Wright teases Millar with the thought that through this line of argument, Millar might think Wright is about to embark on a discussion of the need for a plan for national public education. She refers to such as plan as “Utopian,” insinuating that it was the ideal and ultimate form of educational system America could create. However, she admits that this is not her role, and instead she leaves it to Americans and their republic to develop this plan. She does, however, end with a wish that America is successful in this venture, which in fact it was, albeit not in Wright’s lifetime.

Essential Themes

Frances Wright believed strongly in women’s right to an education and women’s equal rights with men. As she travelled the new country of America, she saw the stark differences between opportunities for women to be educated in this new world and the stagnation and despair of some women’s lives in England. Wright felt that America was a better country because it took care to educate its women, who in turn would be able to educate their children and thereby raise better future citizens.

Wright was a young woman at the time of writing this piece, and her ideas about women’s rights evolved and became even more radical as she matured. She lectured publicly—a rarity for a woman of this time period—and was interested in such other free-thinking topics as abolition, better working conditions for the working class, and sexual equality for women. Her interests in gender, race, and class placed her far ahead of her time, and she was seen as a radical to many and as a successor to Mary Wollstonecraft. She was most definitely a polarizing figure with many seeing her as a shining light of liberalism, while others viewed her as a danger to the fabric of society.

After the publication of Views of Society and Manners in America, she became a popular figure in America, especially through her lecture tours. Although she lost this celebrity in later years when she spent time in France, she was considered an important influence by such early American feminists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who owned many of her books and put Wright’s portrait in one of her own books. Other early feminists, such as Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Ernestine Rose, all named her as an inspiration for their own work in women’s rights. Walt Whitman and John Stuart Mill were considered admirers as well. Mill considered her to be one of the most important women of her time.

Wright’s place in women’s history has continued to be debated over the years. There are some who dismiss her completely as a failure and negative example, while others see in her an early example of a courageous woman who spoke out about her radical ideas in a public setting. In this she set the stage for many abolitionist and suffragist women who spoke to mixed audiences beginning in the 1830s. Perhaps Wright is best remembered as a prime example of Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s now-famous slogan, “well-behaved women seldom make history.”

Bibliography
  • Bederman, Gail. “Revisiting Nashoba: Slavery, Utopia, and Frances Wright in America, 1818–1826.” American Literary History 17.3 (2005): 438–59. Print.
  • Browne, Stephen H. Edmund Burke and the Discourse of Virtue. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1993. Print.
  • Kissel, Susan S. In Common Cause: The “Conservative” Frances Trollope and the “Radical” Frances Wright. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State UP, 1993. Print.
  • Morris, Celia. Fanny Wright: Rebel in America. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1992. Print.
  • Perkins, Alice J. G., and Theresa Wolfson. Frances Wright, Free Enquirer: The Study of a Temperament. Philadelphia: Porcupine, 1972. Print.
  • Voss, Cary R. W., and Robert C. Rowland. “Pre-Inception Rhetoric in the Creation of a Social Movement: The Case of Frances Wright.” Communication Studies 51.1 (2000): 1–14. Print.
  • Wright, Frances. Views of Society and Manners in America (A Travel Memoir). 1821. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1963. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Bartlett, Elizabeth Ann. Liberty, Equality, Sorority: The Origins and Interpretation of American Feminist Thought: Frances Wright, Sarah Grimke, and Margaret Fuller. Brooklyn: Carlson, 1994. Print.
  • Connors, Robert J. “Frances Wright: First Female Civic Rhetor in America.” College English 62.1 (1999): 30–57. Print.
  • D’Arusmont, Frances Wright. Life, Letters, and Lectures 1834–1844. New York: Arno, 1972. Print.
  • Frost, Elizabeth, and Kathryn Cullen-Dupont. Women’s Suffrage in America: An Eyewitness History. New York: Facts on File, 1992. Print.
  • Ginzberg, Lori D. “‘The Hearts of Your Readers Will Shudder’: Fanny Wright, Infidelity, and American Freethought.” American Quarterly 46.2 (1994): 195–226. Print.
  • Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Ed. Miriam Brody. New York: Penguin, 2004. Print.
  • Wright, Frances. A Plan for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in the United States without Danger of Loss to the Citizens of the South. Baltimore: Lundy, 1825. Print.
  • ---. Course of Popular Lectures, as Delivered by Frances Wright. New York: Matsell, 1829. Print.

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