A Manly Woman’s Work for Racial Justice

I dare say you marvel sometimes at my independent way of walking through the world just as if nature had made me of your sex instead of poor Eve’s. Trust me, my beloved friend, the mind has no sex but what habit and education give it, and I who was thrown in infancy upon the world like a wreck upon the waters have learned as well to struggle with the elements as any male child of Adam. – Wright, in a Letter to Lafayette

In light of the recent, persistent incidents of violence by the authorities against Blacks and the recent hate crime in South Carolina, I’ve decided to dig into the history of Epicureanism and bring to light the one person in our tradition that singlehandedly did the most work for African Americans: Frances Wright.

The author of A Few Days in Athens was time and again described in terms that clearly delineate a manly woman. Everywhere she went, her tall, blond, masculine demeanor was the first thing that people noticed and commented about her. In Monticello, she made women uncomfortable. She apparently treated women somewhat dismissively, the way that men treated women. Almost all her associates were men, among whom she moved as an intellectual equal.

Church leaders hated her liberal beliefs and called her a whore and a harlot. Almost 200 years prior to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wright needed bodyguards in America for reasons of her sharp critique of religion and for being an outspoken, passionate speaker on controversial issues, including racial justice.

We do not know if she was straight, lesbian or bisexual. We do know that in 1831, at age 36, she married a French physician whom she eventually divorced after an unsteady marriage. She had a single child, Sylva, who remained in her father’s custody after the divorce. On the subject of marriage, she did not support it and preferred contracts. If she was gay, her decision to marry may have been inspired by a desire to conceive a child.

Regardless of her sexual orientation, it’s clear that she made a huge impression on people as a manly woman. Let’s step back for a moment and consider the social dimension of being a woman with a masculine demeanor. Any person who has to live in our society today as gay, lesbian, or transgender, has had to face ignorant societal reaction, which almost inevitably produces a certain political color in one’s views, particularly if one is highly intelligent as she was. When one is Queer, one learns that churches perpetuate bigotry and abuse because this is experienced in one’s own skin. When one is Queer, one learns that society can be profoundly wrong about many things that it takes for granted and accepts as normal. Frances Wright’s intellectual and ideological premises may have been, to a great extent, the product of the experience of being very visibly Queer or Queer-acting in the America of the 1800’s. She was not Black, yet her profound, relentless, passionate solidarity with Black people and with racial justice possibly indicates a minority sensibility and identity.

Her work on behalf of empowerment for women and Black people in order to materialize a more egalitarian society may have, in part, been inspired—as we also see in Marx—by her early adoption of materialist philosophy, which does not admit imaginary consolations such as the ones religions attempt to provide, preferring instead the exertion of one’s creative power over hard reality.

In 1825, Wright was deeply involved in activism for the abolition of slavery. She proposed that the government should set aside land where slaves would be able to gain important skills, so that they would eventually be emancipated and able to function as free citizens. She even donated 640 acres of land in Tennessee, where a settlement known as Nashoba was founded. The residents were slaves whom she purchased with the promise of eventual freedom.

In addition to crop failure and other problems in Nashoba, her overseer James Richardson published extracts from the plantation’s journal that publicized his relationship with a slave woman, an indiscretion that scandalized the public. Wright responded by claiming that racial mixing might be a viable solution for racial inequality. However, racial mixing proved to be profoundly controversial in her day and she eventually sent the slaves to Haiti in 1830 and gave up her slave-emancipation project. By the time she was 53, her idealization of America–which she had nurtured as an egalitarian youth in Britain–had subsided and she published England, the Civilizer. She would later write:

The prejudice, whether absurd or the contrary, against a mixture of the two colors is so deeply rooted in the American mind that emancipation without expatriation … seems impossible.

The Jefferson black-bloodline perspective must be considered here. Thomas Jefferson, who was one of her mentors and died in 1826 shortly after her most dynamic year as an activist for racial equality, had racially mixed children of his own. His alliance with Fanny Wright may have been inspired, in part, by his sense of commitment with the future of his offspring of color, and perhaps–why not?–by his love for them. Perhaps a part of him hoped for them to be able to have a better life in a multi-racial or racially mixed America. However, this was too controversial and scandalous at the time and certain segments of society were not ready to accept interracial relationships.

Perhaps if Fanny Wright had had her way, we would not have had the South Carolina shootings, and the recent wave of violence against Black people. Perhaps a great proportion of Americans would be racially mixed and would base their identities less on color and more on nation, region, or other criteria, and coexistence would not be seen by so many as such a hard pill to swallow.

Wright died at 57 and was buried in Cincinnati, Ohio.

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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