In 1829, the Scottish-born abolitionist Frances Wright (widely known as Fanny Wright) embarked on a lecture tour across the United States of America. The breadth and depth of her speeches, whose topics included slavery, children’s rights, women’s rights and intellectual freedom, was astounding. Wright, however, is not remembered so much for what she said, as for the fact that she said it before an audience that included both men and women – then called a ‘promiscuous audience’. She was not rewarded for it. Critics called her a prostitute and the ‘red harlot of infidelity’, who wanted to make the world ‘one vast immeasurable brothel’.
Yet Wright had her supporters. She was close to the Marquis de Lafayette, the military leader who played a key role in both the American and French revolutions, and corresponded with American founding father Thomas Jefferson. In a lecture series entitled ‘On the Nature of Knowledge and Kindred Inquiries’, she notes her unusual position. ‘Perhaps at this moment, she who speaks is outraging a prejudice,’ she told her audience. ‘I should be tempted to ask, whether truth had any sex.’ The condition of a society’s women, she maintains, reflects the health of that society as a whole. She goes on to argue that the ideals of the United States – as she sees them, liberty and equality – include education for all. ‘I have been led to consider the growth of knowledge, and the equal distribution of knowledge, as the best – may I say the only means for reforming the condition of mankind.’
Of Free Inquiry, Considered as a Means for Obtaining Just Knowledge 1829
However novel it may appear, I shall venture the assertion that until women assume the place in society which good sense and good feeling alike assign to them, human improvement must advance but feebly. It is in vain that we would circumscribe the power of one-half of our race, and that half by far the most important and influential…. Let women stand where they may in the scale of improvement, their position decides that of the race. Are they cultivated? – so is society polished and enlightened. Are they ignorant? – so is it gross and insipid. Are they wise? – so is the human condition prosperous. Are they foolish? – so is it unstable and unpromising. Are they free? – so is the human character elevated. Are they enslaved? – so is the whole race degraded…. that we could learn that what is ruinous to some is injurious to all…
There is a vulgar persuasion that the ignorance of women, by favouring their subordination, ensures their utility. ’Tis the same argument employed by the ruling few against the subject many in aristocracies; by the rich against the poor in democracies; by the learned professions against the people in all countries…. Surely it must have been a misconception of the nature of knowledge which could alone bring it into suspicion. What is the danger of truth? Where is the danger of fact? Error and ignorance, indeed, are full of danger. They fill our imagination with terrors. They place us at the mercy of every external circumstance. They incapacitate us for our duties as members of the human family, for happiness as sentient beings, for improvements as reasoning beings. Let us awake from this illusion. Let us understand what knowledge is. Let us clearly perceive that accurate knowledge regards all equally; that truth or fact is the same thing for all humankind; that there are not truths for the rich and truths for the poor, truths for men and truths for women; there are simply truths, that is, facts, which all who open their eyes and their ears and their understandings can perceive.