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Before Jane Addams, There Was Fanny Wright


While there has been much important scholarship conducted on Jane Addams’ work in recent years, there are other women who have intellectual connections to American philosophy that for a variety of reasons have been excluded from consideration as philosophically relevant.  One such neglected figure is Frances “Fanny” Wright (1795-1852).  An influential and controversial writer and orator, Wright advocated for women’s equality, freeing slaves, and worker rights.  Her sharp criticism of organized religion and her unconventional lifestyle brought Wright public condemnation but her thorough arguments also garnered her admirers including many of the intellectuals and political figures of her day. After a biographical sketch, this paper explores Wright’s philosophical methodology as well as two of her major themes: equality for women and the intellectual limitations of organized religion.  Comparisons between Wright’s philosophy and Addams’ philosophy as well as points of contact with Deweyan pragmatism are also offered.




Before Jane Addams, There Was Fanny Wright


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

--The tombstone of Frances Wright


            The last decade has witnessed some important published research on the intellectual legacy of Jane Addams, much of it conducted by members of S.A.A.P.  This rediscovery of Addams has helped set the record straight on the players and influences of classic American pragmatism as well as revisited Addams’ feminist pragmatist contributions to our understanding of peace, patriotism, cosmopolitanism, and care ethics.  I hope the work by Addams’ scholars continues to flourish until her place in the history of American philosophy is fully appreciated.  A concern I have about the attention given to Addams is that she has become the one woman we study in American philosophy.  I know that this is not entirely the case as I have witnessed wonderful presentations on other women in the American philosophic tradition, but I think we need to be vigilant in exploring the works of other forgotten women theorists to avoid a kind of gender tokenism.  To this end, this paper is an introduction to the philosophy of Frances Wright (1795-1852).  Wright was a pioneering feminist speaker and author who was a lightening rod for controversy in her day and beyond.  With very little by way of feminist support in her lifetime, Wright’s trailblazing made the work of the next generation of women intellectuals and progressives easier.

            After a biographical sketch, I will explore Wright’s philosophical methodology as well as two of her major themes: equality for women and criticism of organized religion.  Throughout, I will make comparisons to Addams’ philosophy as well as highlight the resonance between Wright’s philosophy and that of Deweyan pragmatism.


A Scandalous Life

One issue in regard to Wright’s legitimacy as an American philosopher is the significance of national origin.  Wright was born in Dundee, Scotland on September 6, 1795 and did not come to the United States until she was 23 years old.  Nevertheless, it was in America that most of her writing and activism would take place.  Although like Addams, she grew up with material wealth, tragedy forced Wright to mature quickly.  Her father, a college educated liberal who corresponded with the likes of Adam Smith, and her mother both died before she was three years old.  Wright was sent to England to be raised by an aunt.  Wright was a serious child who, like Addams, took advantage of the family library to study history and philosophy.  The precocious child expressed her disgust for “frivolous reading, conversation, and occupation.”  She developed class-consciousness early and applied her egalitarian ideals about the fundamental equality of humanity throughout her life.[i]

            Like many European liberals, Wright was fascinated with the American experiment and became determined to experience it first hand. Wright and her sister traveled to the United States for the first time in 1818. This journey was representative of her strong-willed nature because she told few people of her excursion, and women traveling without male escort were a mild scandal. During her visit, she produced a play that she had written titled Altorf, a tragedy that ran briefly in New York to positive acclaim, even garnering a favorable review from Thomas Jefferson.  On a subsequent visit, Wright toured the country and visited social reformer Robert Owen’s utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana.  She was enthralled with the inherent anti-hierarchal nature and progressive thinking of Owen’s communitarianism.  Her political philosophy was strongly influenced by Owen’s vision of structured social improvement. 

The correspondence from her American visits were collected and published in 1821 as Views of Society and Manners in America. European liberals hailed the book because of its positive portrayal of American character and success.  Wright described a proud people who identified with their democratically elected government, and who had little poverty and oppression. This overly optimistic view was likely driven by Wright’s ideology, but she soon sobered to the significant problems in the United States.  A major blemish to the American record was slavery.  While she notes it in Views and Manners in America, slavery was an issue that festered with Wright and she put considerable energy into combating it.  Nevertheless, the success of her publication gave her an opportunity to become friends with Jeremy Bentham and his cohort of philosophical radicals as well as the war hero, Marquis de Lafayette.  Like Addams, Wright came to know many influential people in both the United States and Europe who were impressed by her intellect and insight.

            Inspired by Owen’s New Harmony experiment, Wright attempted to create a utopian community of her own in an effort to end slavery.  In 1825 she purchased 2,000 acres in western Tennessee, near what is now Memphis, for the Nashoba settlement.  In what she termed the “gradual emancipation of slaves,” Wright’s plan was to purchase families of slaves from their owners and have them come to Nashoba where they would learn various trades and become part of a cooperative community.  Slave families could be kept together while they worked off the cost of their purchase.  These freed slaves would eventually be resettled outside of the United States, as Wright believed that it was impossible for whites and blacks to live in harmony in America given the tumultuous history.  While modern sensibilities can see various latent racist assumptions in her plan, Wright viewed Nashoba as mediating between the extremes of complete abolition of slavery, which she saw as forcing too much sudden economic upheaval, and continuing with slavery, which she viewed as a heinous crime against humanity. Like Owen’s New Harmony, Nashoba lasted only a few years, ending in failure, in part, because of public condemnation of Wright’s advocacy of “free love” defined as relations based on love rather than just marriage.  The Nashoba community allowed sexual relations between people regardless of race or marital status.  Despite this setback, Wright continued her public activism on behalf of women, slaves, and working people as a lecturer, author, and newspaper writer/editor.  She died in 1852 alone, in poverty, and somewhat forgotten.

During her lifetime and thereafter it was not unusual for commentators to refer to Wright as “notorious” and “radical” in a swipe that addressed both her provocative ideas and scandalous lifestyle.  Wright’s fluid personal relationships were uncommon for women of her era.  A New York Daily Times obituary, captured the public perception of Wright.  “Her ‘free-thinking’ and infidelity . . . caused a prodigious stir, and made her name a by-word and a hissing among the better class of people.  She wrote numerous political tracts too, and was no less famous as a politician than as an infidel.”[ii]  Commentators indicate that the commonly applied term “infidel” referred to an interrelated mixture of her lack of lasting devotion to a particular man as well as her lack of fidelity to Christianity.[iii]  In either case, The New York Daily Times was correct in stating that her name became synonymous with radicalism.  “Fanny Wrightism” was a term invoked to marginalize political or economic reform efforts viewed as extreme.


Wright’s Philosophical Methodology

One of the challenges in reappropriating Jane Addams as a philosopher was her lack of easily identifiable systematic philosophic writing.  Addams typically began inquiry immersed in local and national issues of social and political importance and drew themes from the experiences.  Thus, her writing is often anecdotal and narrative in a manner not traditionally recognizable as philosophy—although a rich reflective analysis is waiting for those who fully engage her work.  This is not altogether unusual for women intellectuals who where excluded from pursuing theoretical training and therefore found alternative routes such as literature to make their ideas public.  This circuitous path to theoretical analysis is partially true of Wright, as exemplified by her 1822 work of fiction, A Few Days in Athens, which describes an Epicurean utopian philosophy.  The book is set as a discovered and translated manuscript from ancient Athens and presents a number of Greek philosophies as interrogated by students of Epicurus. However beyond such works of fiction, Wright also demonstrated the ability to systematically argue a point in a manner that can be quite compelling to philosophers.

            In a series of public lectures, later published and available today as Reason, Religion and Morals, Wright frames social commentary on the treatment of women, slavery, and organized religion around the pursuit of knowledge.  She systematically explores the nature of knowledge, evidence, and opinion as a foundation for making her critique of social institutions and understanding.  She describes her objective as surveying,

the field of human inquiry; to ascertain its nature, its extent, its boundaries, its limits; to discover, in the first place, what there is for us to know; secondly, the means we possess for acquiring such knowledge as is of possible attainment, and thirdly, having satisfied our selves as to what can be known, and as to what we know, to seek in our knowledge the test of our opinions.[iv]

Her survey will bring her to the conclusion that knowledge is acquaintance with ourselves and all the things that stand in relation to us.  It is obtained through, “observation and patient inquiry.”[v] 

Although writing long before the progressive era, Wright expressed some progressive ideas while developing her theory of knowledge.  Her philosophy is in the service social improvement, not merely scholarly insight.  To that end she suggests that “the growth of knowledge, and the equal distribution of knowledge, as the best—may I say, [is] the only means for reforming the condition of mankind.”[vi]  Compare this with Dewey’s claim that “knowledge deals with the world in which we live, the world which is experienced, instead of attempting through the intellect to escape to a higher realm.  Experimental knowledge is a mode of doing, and like all doing takes place at a time, in a place, and under specifiable conditions in connection with a definite problem.”[vii]  Wright’s valorization of social knowledge also resonates with Addams claim that “the most pressing problem of modern life is that of reconstruction and a reorganization of the knowledge that we possess; that we are at last struggling to realize in terms of life all that has been discovered and absorbed, to make it over into healthy and direct expressions of free living.”[viii]

Wright’s analysis of knowledge leads her to believe that social progress will only come with “fearless inquiry.”[ix]  Inquiry becomes a centerpiece of her social epistemology.  Her emphasis on “fearless” inquiry reveals her concern that social forces and prejudices exist that prevent many people from engaging in rational inquiry.  In the second lecture featured in Reason, Religion, and Morals, “Let us inquire!” becomes something akin to a mantra for Wright.  She offers a simple invective that reflects a pragmatic process of tenuous truth: “Read, inquire, reason, reflect!”[x]  She describes stifled inquiry as responsible for sexism and racism in American and it also motivates her antagonism toward religion.  She views religious institutions as socially and economically entrenched and thus resistant to the open reflection and discovery needed for inquiry.  Wright rails against mystification in favor of genuine inquiry: “There is no witchcraft in knowledge.  Science is not a trick.  The philosopher is not a conjuror.  The observer of nature who envelopes his discoveries in mystery, either knows less than he pretends, or feels interested in withholding his knowledge.”[xi]  Wright is clearly a passionate activist, but like Addams, it is difficult to read her work without seeking the critical thinking that underlies it.


Wright’s Feminism

            Wright, the first woman to lecture publicly to audiences of men and women in the U.S. on behalf of women’s rights, believed in gender equality in an era when this was far from a settled issue.[xii]  The force of sexism was so strong in the early 18th century that Wright does not actually argue for women’s suffrage although suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony acknowledged their intellectual debt to Wright.  The education of women, the availability of birth control, the loosening of divorce restrictions, and the improvement of the sexual experience of women[xiii] were at the forefront of Wright’s feminism.  Her advocacy on behalf of women on these issues predates the likes of Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger.  Wright was well aware that her position on women’s equality was controversial.  At the beginning of her public lecture on knowledge, she concedes, “Perhaps among those who hear me, there are who deem it both a presumption and an impropriety for a woman to reason with her fellow creatures.” To this, Wright asks whether “truth had any sex?” [xiv]  Wright was a masterful orator who knew that the audience came out of curiosity to see the brazen woman radical, but left having encountered potent philosophically grounded ideas difficult to flippantly dismiss.

            To make her case for women’s education, Wright employed a social progress argument.  She viewed the United States as a land of opportunity and wanted it to heed its commitments to freedom and equality.  However, rather than a rights-based argument for women’s education, Wright appealed to progress: “The wonderful advance which this nation has made not only in wealth and strength but in mental cultivation, within the last twenty years, may yet be doubly accelerated with the education of the women shall be equally a national concern with that of the other sex.”[xv]  Wright does not deny that women should receive “the usual branches of female education,” but she also wants them to be engaged citizens and thus politically active.  Accordingly, she suggested that women “be taught the principles of government and liberty; and the obligations of patriotism.”[xvi] Wright argued that women’s education has benefit in the present and in the future because mothers will be training the next generation of citizens.  Wright viewed gender equity in education as a prerequisite for political rights because such rights are empty words without the knowledge to understand the circumstances and responses. 

Wright wrote the above words advocating women’s education in 1819.  Almost a century later in 1913, in a society that is still patriarchal albeit with greater freedoms for women, Addams contributed to the multi-volume, The Woman Citizen’s Library which promoted women taking full advantage of their citizenship.  Addams made a similar observation by describing the full participation of women in society through citizenship as “a great social development of our time.”[xvii] Unlike today’s fractionated progressive constituencies, both Addams and Wright viewed women’s advancement as part of comprehensive social advocacy.  Neither figure was a single-issue activist.

American pragmatists generally supported women’s advancement and John Dewey was no exception.  Dewey acknowledged the insights gained from women’s experience and worked with a number of women, Addams included, who influenced his philosophy.  Neither Dewey nor Addams may have acknowledged Wright’s work but genealogical threads of ideas in the American philosophical tradition can be observed.


Wright, Addams, and Dewey On Religion

            Wright is most vociferous in her criticism of organized religion.  In particular she finds religion to be divisive, wasteful, and retarding social progress.  While merely engaging in public speaking and publishing as a woman was enough to garner scorn in her day, her position on religion made her the target of vicious personal attacks.  The popular press excoriated Wright as “the priestess of Beelzebub,” “infidelity in an Angel’s garb,” and “bold blasphemer and preacher of licentiousness . . . impervious to the voice of virtue and case-hardened against shame.”[xviii]  Wright never retreated from her position and she leveraged public outrage to sell books and build speaking audiences.

            One theme that stands out in Wright’s criticism of organized religion is economic interest.  While many American feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman found religion to be a barrier to equality, few emphasized the vested monetary interest that religion has in maintaining existing asymmetrical power relations.  For example, when Wright chided organized religion for not taking up the plight of slaves, she noted the underlying financial connection, “I have never heard one [religious leader] bold enough to comment on the evil which saps the industry, vitiates the morals, and threatens the tranquility of the country.  The reason of this forbearance is evident.  The master of the slave is he who pays the preacher, and the preacher must not irritate his paymaster.”[xix]  Elsewhere, Wright repeatedly invoked the figure of an estimated $20 million as the annual cost of church operations in the United States.[xx]  She suggested that this money could be better spent on direct social improvement.

            In addition to economic criticism, Wright contended that religion is divisive:  “religion has ever been, and now is, the deepest source of contentions, wars, persecutions for conscience sake, angry feelings, backbitings, slanders, suspicions, false judgments, evil interpretations, unwise, unjust, injurious, inconsistent actions.”[xxi]  She also sited the internal divisions of Christianity in terms of denominations as problematic.  These denominations fight amongst themselves over theology and yet, she observed, there is nothing in science which can explain these divisions.  Here she invoked a nascent form of social construction theory, in reminding everyone that these divisions are human born ideas, not ontological categories.

            Wright also criticized religion as being anti-rational and thus anti-inquiry.  Wright ironically poses the conclusion that if religion is the most important subject, then “its truths must be the most apparent.”[xxii]  Wright responded that religion asks adherents to believe in the unseen and unprovable.  Furthermore, dabbling in philosophy of religion, Wright asked whether god would demand that you “spend your time and torture your faculties in imagining things which ye never saw?” or whether god would command you to “prostrate the reason he should have given, and swear credence to doctrines, which they even who teach, pretend not to understand?”[xxiii]  Like Socrates, Wright cannot fathom a god that does not engage the rational intellect of humanity.  Like Marx, Wright views the irrationality of religion adversely impacting its morality.  She claims that religious adherents eyes are “no longer fixed on this world, nor their hearts on their fellow creatures, they are transformed into the enemies of true science, and the scourgers of society, the persecutors of reason and of sane morality.”[xxiv]  Given this rhetorical hyperbole, its little wonder that she was the subject of social scorn.

            Jane Addams, unlike Wright, Stanton, and Gilman never offered such a thoroughgoing condemnation of religion.  While Addams may have been sympathetic to Wright’s position, she largely muted religious criticism so that she could effective engage religious organizations and their followers in discussion toward social improvement.  Addams reconstructs Christianity in progressive humanistic terms viewing Jesus as endeavoring to bring about social advancement. Addams claimed that “Conduct is the supreme and efficient test of religious validity” as she avoided theological discussions.[xxv]  John Dewey was more willing to address religion head on.  Dewey appears sympathetic to Wright’s position on religion in his claim that, “many persons are so repulsed from what exists as a religion by its intellectual and moral implications.”[xxvi]  Dewey is more careful and measured in his response than is Wright.  He proposed to reinvent the religious landscape by separating “religions” from the “religious” as well as reconceptualizing god as a unification of imaginative ideals.   Wright offers no such intermediary understanding of religion. 

Dewey also makes a similar argument to that of Wright in terms of waste:  “It is probably impossible to imagine the amount of intellectual energy that has been diverted from normal processes of arriving at intellectual conclusions because it has gone into rationalization of the doctrines entertained by historic religions.”[xxvii]  Dewey expresses related concerns to those of Wright over mystification and religion’s proclivity to draw attention away from present social issues in favor of future salvation. Where they differ is in tone and politics.  Dewey attempts to salvage a sense of the religious while Wright has no use for it. 


Worthy of Further Exploration

            As American philosophers increasingly pursue foundational work beyond the classic canon such as the legendary Metaphysical Club, the writings of women outside the academy and outside formal designations of philosophy are worthy of further exploration and none more so than Frances Wright.  Her writing is not only historically intriguing but her work provides for interesting reflection on the nature of social critique.  This is especially true in the United States today where, for example, public challenges to religious financial interests are rare.  I hope other American philosophers will consider revisiting the pioneering writings of Frances Wright.


[i] Paul R. Baker, “Introduction,” in Frances Wright, Views of Society and Manners in America (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1963), x.

[ii] New York Daily Times, December 18, 1852, page 1.

[iii] Lori Ginzberg, “'The Hearts of Your Readers Will Shudder': Fanny Wright, Infidelity, and American Free Thought” American Quarterly 46, no. 2 (June 1994), 205.

[iv] Frances Wright, Reason, Religion, and Morals (New York: Humanity Books, 2004), 49.

[v] Ibid., 50.

[vi] Ibid., 63.

[vii] John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty in ed., Jo Ann Boydston, The Later Works, 1925-1953 Volume 4: 1938 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), 82.

[viii] Jane Addams, “A Function of the Social Settlement,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences XIII (January-June, 1899), 34.

[ix] Wright, Reason, Religion, and Morals, 68.

[x] Ibid., 114.

[xi] Ibid., 91.

[xii] Molly Abel Travis, “Frances Wright: The Other Woman of Early American Feminism” Women’s Studies 22 (1993), 389.

[xiii] Wright argued that sexual passion was “the best source of human happiness.”  Quoted in John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America 2nd ed., (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 113.

[xiv] Ibid., 62.

[xv] Frances Wright, Views of Society and Manners in America (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1963), 22.

[xvi] Ibid., 23.

[xvii] Jane Addams, “Why Women Are Concerned With The Larger Citizenship” in Shailer Mathews, ed., The Women’s Citizen’s Library  IX (Chicago, 1913), 2142.

[xviii] Quoted in Wendy Martin, “Profile: Frances Wright, 1795-1852” Women’s Studies v. 2 (1974), 274-277.

[xix] Wright, Reason, Religion and Morals, 64.

[xx] Ibid., 112.

[xxi] Ibid., 149.

[xxii] Ibid., 133.

[xxiii] Ibid., 140.

[xxiv] Ibid., 156.

[xxv] Jane Addams, “The Reaction of Modern Life Upon Religious Education,” Religious Education 4 (April 1909), 26.

[xxvi] John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1934), 9.

[xxvii] Ibid., 33.