Fanny Wright – “or a goose that deserves to be hissed”

“It will appear evident upon attentive consideration that equality of intellectual and physical advantages is the only sure foundation of liberty, and that such equality may best, and perhaps only, be obtained by a union of interests and cooperation in labor.” ~ Francis Wright

When the people gathered at Seneca Falls made their Declaration of Sentiments, and voted on their resolutions, the ideas weren’t new. There had been a number of women and men who had championed women’s rights over the years and laid the groundwork for the meeting in New York in 1848. The fact that Lucretia Mott could speak before a mixed group of men and women without ridicule, is testament to the fact that other women had paved the way. One of these women was Frances (Fanny) Wright.

Born September 6, 1795 in Dundee, Scotland, Fanny grew up well-taken care of, but somewhat isolated. Orphaned at the age of 2 and raised by relatives of moderate means, she was unusually well-educated for the time, partly due to access to a college library where an uncle taught. When she was 18, Fanny was introduced to intellectual circles in Glasgow and began writing poetry and plays. Thomas Jefferson filled pages of his commonplace book with quotes from her A Few Days in Athens, a fictionalized exploration of the philosophy of Epicurus, saying “it was a treat to me of the highest order.”

One thing that caught Fanny’s imagination was the new country across the Atlantic. Between 1818 and 1820 Fanny and her sister Camilla traveled around the new United States. They were well received into society, made many new friends, and even had Fanny’s play, Altorf, produced and published. To many it was a brazen act, having her name associated with a public production. On returning to Britain, she published an account of her travels as Views of Society and Manners in America. It was very complementary of the US and thus controversial as well. Fanny was becoming a woman to take seriously.

I think it’s fair to say she became enamored of the country and its possibilities. There was one blot, however, slavery. It disgusted her, but she seemed to understand the economic realities of the institution. In 1825, she wrote A Plan for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in the United States Without Danger of Loss to the Citizens of the South. In it she details a plan to provide slaves a way to earn their freedom while developing skills and education they would need to make it as free individuals. She was unable to get support from the government for her plan, but she was willing to invest her own resources to put her plan to the test.

In 1826 with support from Lafayette and then senator Andrew Jackson, Fanny purchased acreage in Tennessee, near Memphis, and established her utopian community – Nashoba. Starting with just over 300 acres, 30 slaves, her sister Camilla, and ten white volunteers, they began the experiment. It was hard work and although unaccustomed to manual labor Fanny worked alongside the slaves and volunteers.

At the end of the first year, having been ill much of the time, possibly with malaria, she was in need of rest and a different climate, so Fanny returned to England to raise funds and support for her vision. While she was gone things fell apart. Accounts of harsh treatment of slaves, and sexual relationships outside of marriage and between whites and blacks, reached the newspapers and caused a general uproar among the public. Although Fanny’s unconventional views of marriage and sexual freedom meant that she was not overly concerned with much of the behavior, the community had drifted away from her original vision. It was not a success financially and they had been unable to sustain the atmosphere of cooperation and respect that she envisioned. In 1829, Fanny granted the slaves their freedom and transported them to Haiti where they could begin new lives.

Fanny moved to New Harmony, Indiana, another failed utopian settlement started by a friend from England, Robert Owen. Although the communal aspects of New Harmony were unsuccessful, it was still a secular community, where Fanny’s ideas were more welcome than in Tennessee. She joined Robert Dale Owen, the son, in publishing the New Harmony Gazette where she found a powerful vehicle for spreading her ideas. And she had plenty of ideas. Fanny spoke out for women’s rights, birth control, sexual freedom, equality between the sexes and races. She advocated a system of free, secular public schools, greater separation of church and state, and challenged organized religion.

On July 4, 1828, Fanny spoke at the Independence Day celebration in New Harmony. She was a tremendous success and decided to set out to take her message to others in the country. Not only was she an excellent writer, but she was an eloquent speaker. Frances Trollope said,all my expectations fell far short of the splendor, the brilliance, the overwhelming eloquence of this extraordinary orator.” People flocked to hear her, some because they were interested in her ideas, but many because of the controversy. She was controversial, not only because of her topics, but because it was unheard of for a woman to speak in front of a mixed crowd, leading to accusations of “promiscuity” in her meetings and being called “The Great Red Harlot.”

‘A DownWright Gabbler, or a goose that deserves to be hissed –,’ an 1829 caricature of Frances Wright.

After touring, Fanny and Robert Dale Owen relocated to New York, renamed the New Harmony Gazette the Free Enquirer and became leaders in the free thought movement and increasingly in the labor movement. Many of Fanny’s society friends distanced themselves from her, and as time went on the public became increasing hostile, even threatening. It was at this time that Fanny went to Haiti to relocate the slaves whom she had freed. She was accompanied on her trip to Haiti by Guillaume D’Arusmont. They became lovers and on her return she found that she was pregnant.  Deciding that she couldn’t face the increasing hostility of the public, she left for Europe with Guillaume.

Fanny and D’Arusmont married, had one daughter, Sylva, and lived in a kind of self-imposed isolation in Europe. Eventually, in 1835, they returned to America settling in Cincinnati. After a brief speaking tour in support of President Jackson, where her appearance provoked near riots, Fanny retired from public life. She died in Cincinnati in 1852.

It would be easy to see Fanny’s life as a failure, but it takes time for new and radical ideas to take root in the consciousness of society, and there has to be someone who is willing to begin that process. Fanny Wright paved the way for women to speak in public rallies, edit newspapers, and represent radical causes. Each time one person speaks up, it makes it easier for the next person, and brings us closer to the goal.

An opinion, right or wrong, can never constitute a moral offense, nor be in itself a moral obligation. It may be mistaken; it may involve an absurdity, or a contradiction. It is a truth; or it is an error: it can never be a crime or a virtue.” A Few Days in Athens (1822) Vol. II

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
The Utiopian Visions of Franny Wright
Frances Wright (1795 – 1852)

Bicycles and Women’s Emancipation

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.”

Susan B. Anthony, 1896

For a little fun today, let’s look at something simple that made a big impact of the freedom of women – the bicycle! By the 1890s, bicycling had become very popular in the United States as well as in Europe, and women weren’t going to be left out of the fun. Bicycles allowed women more freedom of movement out of their own neighborhoods and into the world at large. They could go farther in less time and it was much cheaper to maintain than a horse!

Susan B. Anthony said in an interview with the New York World in 1896, that the bicycle “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” Francis Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, even wrote a book about how she learned to ride a bicycle later in life.

But, for a woman to be truly comfortable on a bicycle, not to mention safe, their clothing needed to be modified. In the 1970s when bell-bottoms became popular, we used to put rubber bands around our ankles to keep our pants legs from getting tangled up in the gears. I can’t imagine trying to ride with long skirts.

“Her miserable style of dress is a consequence of her present vassalage not its cause. Woman must become ennobled, in the quality of her being. When she is so, . . . she will be able, unquestioned, to dictate the style of her dress.”  Lucy Stone

So in the 1890s, “Bloomers”, or Turkish trousers, which had come and gone from fashion in the 1850s, made a comeback. This was an outfit that included full trousers gathered at the ankle with a short dress over them. (Although not developed by Amelia Bloomer, she advocated them in her magazine The Lily.)

Around the same time there was a movement toward more rational dress for women, due in part to the unhealthy nature (not to mention extreme discomfort) of corsets. Bloomers were soon displaced by an even more “radical” getup – rationals.

“Woman will never hold her true position, until, by a firm muscle and a steady nerve, she can maintain the RIGHTS she claims . . . but she cannot make the first move . . . until she casts away her swaddling clothes.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Were increased freedom of women on bicycles and the corresponding change in dress in part responsible for a move toward women’s liberation, or were they the result of it? It’s an interesting question, but there will always be those who, even when they accept a new found freedom will try to control it. Women were cautioned not to develop the “bicycle face” and warned that their vocal chords were changing because of bicycle riding, making women loud talkers with harsh voices.  Check out this long list of don’t’s for women cyclists at, including such things as the following:

“Don’t chew gum. Exercise your jaws in private.”

“Don’t try to ride in your brother’s clothes ‘to see how it feels.’”

“Don’t scream if you meet a cow. If she sees you first, she will run.”

Sigh. . . Enjoy your freedom ladies. It was hard fought for and not every woman in the world has the same freedoms today. The fight isn’t over!

Émilie du Châtelet – “Femme Savant” and Paramour

Émilie du Châtelet by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

Émilie du Châtelet by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (source)

Depending on where you have heard of Émilie du Châtelet you know her as a mathematician and scientist, or the paramour of Voltaire. She was both, a complex woman stimulated by intelligent conversation and study, but also a coquette. On the one hand very unusual for a woman of the 18th century, on the other a product of her time.

Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil led a privileged life.  Her father was an official in the court of Louis XIV at Versailles.  At the time of Émilie’s birth, he held the position of Introducer of Ambassadors at court.  This put him in the midst of all of the important social happenings of the time in France. Her mother Gabrielle Anne de Froulay was brought up in a convent and well educated for a woman of that time.  The family owned a home in Paris and an estate in Touraine.

Émilie was born on December 17, 1706, the only girl of six children. Three of her brothers survived to adulthood, although only one lived to an old age becoming an abbé and later a bishop. As with many women of the time, Émilie was educated because her father recognized her genius and promoted it by providing tutors for her. Although Émilie’s mother was educated in the convent, there is some evidence that she resisted the rigorous education that her husband gave Émilie. In spite of this, tutors were brought to the house to teach her astronomy, mathematics, and physics. She became fluent in German, Italian, Latin, Greek, and as an adult, published translations of literary as well as scientific works into French. In spite of her recognized brilliance, her education wasn’t strictly academic. She received training in fencing, riding, the harpsichord and opera. However, her preference in study was for mathematics and philosophy, certainly unusual for a woman of the 18th century. In a somewhat scandalous application of her abilities, she used her knowledge of mathematics as a teenager to prosper as a gambler. The proceeds were, of course, used to buy the science and mathematics texts she wanted.

All young aristocratic women of the time were expected to make a good marriage and Émilie was no exception. A marriage was arranged and in 1725, she married Marquis Florent-Claude du Chastellet-Lomont. She became the Marquise du Chastellet. (The spelling Châtelet was introduced later by Voltaire.) Émilie was nineteen and Claude was in his early thirties. The marriage doesn’t seem to have been a very passionate affair. It would survive infidelities on both sides. They did, however, have three children: Françoise Gabriel Pauline (1726), Louis Marie Florent (1727), and Victor-Esprit (1733) although Victor died in 1734.

Claude was a military man, this kept him away from home quite a bit and by the time Émilie had her third child, she was bored. Tired of being away from society and ready to resume her active life and her studies, she reemerged on her own terms. Although Émilie didn’t actively resist convention, she was determined to live her life as she saw fit. She lived life enthusiastically and with boldness. Unfortunately, this approach had its consequences and she became the focus of a fair amount of malicious gossip. Lynn Osen, in her book Women in Mathematics, states that Émilie committed two unforgivable sins: “She refused to give up her serious study of mathematics” and “she stole the heart of Voltaire.”

In eighteenth century French society, as in many other times, the issue that concerned people in their gossip was not whether or not a woman had affairs, but was she discreet. There are three names that are associated with Émilie ’s love life. Although Émilie  knew these unwritten rules, at the end of her first affair she broke them in a very indiscreet way. There are a couple of different versions of how it came about, but the result is the same, she attempted suicide. Whether this was an attempt at emotional blackmail or just evidence of her passionate nature, it was thwarted by her lover when he discovered her and got her immediate medical attention.

Voltaire c. 1724, by Nicolas de Largillière

Voltaire c. 1724, by Nicolas de Largillière (source)

Émilie ’s second affair, and a friendship that would last until her death, was with Voltaire. She may have met him when she was young, but her adult friendship began with him in 1733 after the birth of her third child. Even though intellectual women were the butt of many jokes during that time not only in society, but also in literature and the theater (“femme savant” was not a compliment), intellectual men often still sought out these women as their companions. Émilie  and Voltaire were companions in every sense. Over the next 15 – 16 years before Émilie ’s death in 1749, they would rarely be separated and would challenge each other to produce work that has stood the test of time.

Voltaire was often in trouble with the powers that be and was exiled to Britain at one point. When his exile seemed imminent again, Émilie  suggested that they go to one of her husband’s country estates at Cirey. Claude seems to have liked Voltaire and if not welcoming of his wife’s affair at least accepting of it. Émilie  and Voltaire set up a laboratory, accumulated a library and did substantive work during their time here. Émilie  came into her own in mathematics and science and began to make a name for herself.

You could think of them as collaborators of a sort, but although they had many interests in common, their strengths were different. One early example of how they did collaborate was when Voltaire entered a contest for an essay on the scientific properties of heat and light. Émilie  worked with him on his experiments and ideas, but at some point she disagreed with his conclusions and decided to enter the contest herself. Neither won, but both were recognized for their work by having it published. The prize was jointly awarded to three men one of whom was Euler. (That will give some of you an idea of the competition they were up against.)

Although, Émilie  translated literary works and wrote a Biblical commentary on Genesis and one on the New Testament, there are two major works for which Émilie  du Châtelet  is best known. One is Institution de physique, “Lessons in Physics.” Originally intended as a text for her son, it was her assessment of the latest ideas in science and mathematics. In it she attempted to reconcile and explain the works of the major thinkers of her time, such people as Newton, Leibniz, etc. These were concepts that few people could really grasp at the time.

Émilie ’s most outstanding achievement is her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica into French with commentary.  It was a complete translation of all three books with a commentary that summarized and explained Newton’s theories. She also applied the new mathematics of calculus to his ideas. This was the only complete translation of Newton’s work into French and remains the standard today. Émilie  worked on this up to the time of her death and Voltaire ensured its publication ten years later.

Jean François de Saint-Lambert

Jean François de Saint-Lambert, artist unknown (source)

The third name associated with Émilie ’s love life is the poet Jean François de Saint-Lambert. In the winter of 1747 – 1748, Émilie  traveled with Voltaire to Lunéville, the home of the duke of Lorraine. Here she met and fell in love with Saint-Lambert who was ten years her junior. She also became pregnant. Although Voltaire may have been hurt, it is also possible that by that time their relationship had settled into one of companionship rather than lovers. In either case, he remained by her side and with Saint-Lambert returned to Cirey. I’ve read a couple of theories about what happened next. One is that the three of them conspired to get her husband back to Cirey to convince him that the child was his. The other which seems more likely to me is that he cooperated and returned to spend time there in order to give the child legitimacy. In either case, they were all three with her when the child, a daughter, was born in September of 1749. Although, the delivery seemed to go well, Émilie  died a week later on September 10, 1749 of a pulmonary embolism.

Some people may have viewed Émilie primarily as Voltaire’s muse, but she was much more. She was a brilliant, sometimes contradictory, woman who chose as much as possible to live life on her own terms.

Women in Mathematics
, Lynn Osen, 1974.
An Eighteenth Century Marquise
, Frank Hamel, 1910.

Read about other Famous Women in Math and Science.

Anne Hutchinson – Running Afoul of the State Church

Anne Hutchinson on Trial by Edwin Austin Abbey (source)

Anne Hutchinson on Trial by Edwin Austin Abbey (source)

The “separation of church and state” has been a continuing issue in our American history. Most often it comes up with regard to our public schools. Over the years, these issues have ended up in the courts, with things being decided in the favor of keeping religion out of the schools, but the issues never really go away. Still prayers are said before football games, at graduations, and even as late as 2004 the school board of Dover, Pennsylvania tried to introduce Creationism into the high school biology classroom in the form of Intelligent Design.

I’m not surprised that the effort continues. The United States is one of the most religious nations on earth with hundreds of different religions and Christian denominations.  What does surprise me, however, is that the effort is usually led by evangelical Christians. The reason this surprises me is that evangelical Christians were in large part the driving force behind the First Amendment clause being written into the Constitution.

We don’t have a state religion in the United States, but that wasn’t always the case. During colonial America, many colonies did have official religions that were supported by the state and tax money. In the north, the Congregationalist church (formerly the Puritans) was the official church of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, in the south, the Anglican Church was the official church of Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. There certainly were states without an official religion, most notably Rhode Island which was established on the principle of freedom of religion. But in many of these colonies, evangelicals found themselves at odds with the established churches. One person who is of particular importance to the idea of “separation of church and state” is Jeremiah Moore. Taking up the cause of Moore and many other Baptist preachers who had been arrested for preaching without a license in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson would introduce a bill into the legislature that would eventually be passed and sever the tie between the Anglican Church and the state of Virginia. He would then go on, with others, to insist on the addition of a clause in the Constitution that ensured freedom of religion.

Evangelicalism is characterized by the belief that you can have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Although Evangelicalism didn’t really begin as a movement until the 1730s, the idea that you could have this communion with God through the Holy Spirit did exist. One woman who believed and taught this idea is Anne Hutchinson.

Marshalsea prison where Anne's father spent 2 years after being convicted of heresy (source)

Marshalsea prison where Anne’s father spent 2 years after being convicted of heresy (source)

Anne Hutchinson, born Anne Marbury in 1591, was the daughter of an Anglican minister in England. Her father had strong Puritan leanings and was censured by the church on more than one occasion. He spent time in prison for his preaching and for a time was under house arrest. He was a strong believer in education and in a time that it was unusual for women to be educated, he taught both his boys and his girls.  At the age of 21, not long after her father’s death, Anne married William Hutchinson. Together they began to follow the teachings of John Cotton and John Wheelwright. These two ministers preached similar messages emphasizing grace and a “moment of conversion”, and deemphasizing a salvation based on works.

By 1633, Cotton’s message, which didn’t strictly adhere to the Anglican Church doctrines, was attracting attention from the church and he found it necessary to flee to America. After a time, Anne felt the Spirit leading her to follow Cotton to Massachusetts and she and William, with their 11 children, sailed for Boston in 1634. They flourished in Boston. William was successful in trade, and Anne found a place in the community helping others and attending childbirths where women often congregated. At some point, she began to share with these women the message she had learned from Cotton and Wheelwright.

Men would often congregate to discuss recent sermons and theology, but there were no such meetings for women. As more and more women became interested in what Anne had to say, she began to have meetings for them in her home. This eventually led to meetings twice a week attended by as many as 80 people. They would review the sermon, discuss it’s meaning, and often disagree with it. Anne began to espouse her own teachings. Principle among them was the “covenant of grace” as opposed to the “covenant of works.” She emphasized “an intuition of the Spirit” or “a personal revelation” as the true evidence of a person’s salvation rather than their good behavior.

In 1636, it became clear to officials in Boston, that many people were developing opinions that weren’t considered orthodox within the church. The fault for this was laid at the feet of Cotton, Hutchinson, and Wheelwright (who had recently arrived from England.) A number of meetings were held, particularly with Cotton, to try to sort out what his specific teachings were and where they differed from the official church doctrine. (This controversy still exists today between different denominations, with some emphasizing that works have nothing to do with the state of your salvation, and others emphasizing that your faith is not assured unless there is evidence of the fruit of good works.)  By late 1636, things came to a head and Hutchinson and her followers were accused of heresy.

Anne was accused of antinomianism and familism. Antinomianism literally means “against the law” and Familism was a sect that emphasized a feeling of divine love. Both of these ideas were considered to be dangerous for fear that they could lead to immoral behavior. Neither accusation is really accurate. While Anne believed that she and others like her, received salvation purely by the grace of God and that this could be experienced and felt by the believer, thereby providing “proof” to the individual, they were not immoral people. By all accounts, Anne was highly respected in the community and very active in helping people, in spite of having a large family of her own.

John Winthrop, Anne's accuser and judge (source)

John Winthrop, Governor of Massachusetts, presided over Anne’s trial (source)

By 1637 when Anne came to trial, her primary accuser John Winthrop had become governor of Massachusetts. He feared that if the people in the colony did not remain “pure” that God would not protect them. It was a difficult life for the settlers. Just before Anne’s trial, the settlers had engaged in a war with the Pequot Indians. Many Puritans believed that Indian attacks, poor crops, natural disasters, or any misfortune was God’s judgment for sin.  Another aspect of this trial was that Anne had risen to a place in the community that Winthrop did not deem “fitting to her sex.” Men had begun to attend Anne’s meetings. In fact, one of her admirers was the previous governor of the colony, Sir Henry Vane. It was not considered proper for a woman to teach men. Cotton, in an attempt to distance himself from Anne, even accused her of promoting licentious behavior by having men and women together in her home for these meetings. The entire situation was filled with politics, fear of judgment, and probably no small amount of misogyny.

On the first day of the trial, Anne met their arguments point for point, probably frustrating them greatly. However, on the second day, Anne gave them her message. She told them that she was assured of her salvation because of a “personal revelation.” The court deemed her a heretic and sentenced her to banishment from Massachusetts. She remained under house arrest throughout the winter in the home of Joseph Weld in Roxbury. It was a severe winter in which she was separated from her family.

In the spring, a church trial was held, in which Anne was excommunicated. During the winter, William and some other men made plans to leave Massachusetts. Twenty-three men would ultimately sign what became known as the Portsmouth Compact. They purchased Aquiddeck Island from the Narragansetts and formed a new settlement. This was near Providence Plantations which had been established by Roger Williams with specific provisions for freedom of religion.

At some point after the death of William in 1641, Anne and some of her family moved to a place in eastern New York. Here she and all but one of her children and other family members were massacred by the Indians. She had had good relationships with the Narragansett Indians in Portsmouth and may not have realized how tense the relationships were in her new home. Her daughter Susanna was away from the house and by some accounts was captured and held for several years before being ransomed to her remaining family in Boston.

As with many historical figures Anne’s life is viewed through many lenses. She is seen as a heretic, a libertine, and a feminist, or as a woman who simply followed the dictates of her conscience. She definitely stepped out of the generally accepted role of women in Puritan society. Ultimately, she was a victim of both secular and church politics, but she was also a woman who insisted on her religious liberty.

Life of Anne Hutchinson: With a Sketch of the Antinomian Controversy in Massachusetts by George E. Ellis
God In America – PBS special