Friday, September 21, 2007

France Wright, an Early American Feminist

For my birthday this year Jake gave me Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present" (Lauren's recommendation).

In the first chapter of the book Zinn writes,

...this book will be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest. I will try not to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system. I don't want to romanticize them. But I do remember (in rough paraphrase) a statement I once read: "The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don't listen to it, you will never know what justice is."

I really can't recommend this book highly enough. Zinn's writing is intelligent and engaging and I feel as though I learn something new each time I pick it up.

For example, in his chapter "The Other Civil War," Zinn mentions Frances Wright "an early feminist and utopian socialist," who, according to Zinn, addressed Philadelphia labor unions on July 4th, 1829.

Wright was an advocate for "socialism, the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, free secular education, birth control, changes in the marriage and divorce laws." In 1858 Ernestine L. Rose described Wright as "the first woman in this country who spoke on the equality of the sexes." (My source for this info is here.)

Wright is probably the most famous for attempting to establish a utopian society, made up of slaves she bought and then freed and whites, called Nashoba. (The community was founded in 1826 and fell apart four years later.) Wright believed that free love (if you get what I'm saying) was one solution to racism. Nashoba's ultimate failure was a result of financial mismanagement, but, in a way, it was a failure from it's inception. Whites still held the power in the community in the form of a board of trustees and overseers. Please check this out for a brief critique of Nashoba.

As a woman who went to college, I want to recognize that I would not have been able to get a secondary eduction, let along a college education, were it not for Wright and other activist like her pushing for universal equal opportunity for education.

In 1829 Wright said,

Your political institutions have taken equality for their basis; your declaration of rights, upon which your institutions rest, sets forth this principle as vital and inviolate. Equality is the soul of liberty; there is, in fact, no liberty without it.

How are men to be secured in any rights without instruction; how to be secured in the equal exercise of those rights without equality of instruction? By instruction understand me to mean knowledge - just knowledge; not talent, not genius, not inventive mental powers. These will vary in every human being; but knowledge is the same for every mind, and every mind may and ought to be trained to receive it. If then, ye have pledged, at each anniversary of your political independence, your lives, properties, and honor, to the securing of your common liberties, ye have pledged your lives, properties, and honor, to the securing of your common instruction.

All men are born free and equal! That is: our moral feelings acknowledge it to be just and proper, that we respect those liberties in others, which we lay claim to for ourselves; and that we permit the free agency of every individual, to any extent which violates not the free agency of his fellow creatures.

1 comment:

Jess said...

Howard Zinn is amazing, and that's a great book (which I also own).