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Pre-Inception Rhetoric in the Creation of a Social Movement: The Case of Frances Wright

By Voss, Cary R. W.; Rowland, Robert C. | Communication Studies, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Pre-Inception Rhetoric in the Creation of a Social Movement: The Case of Frances Wright


Voss, Cary R. W., Rowland, Robert C., Communication Studies


Frances Wright D'Arusmont, more commonly known as Fanny Wright, is a rhetorical enigma. From 1825 to 1835, she was a household name in the United States (Kissel, 1993, p. ii), who was adored and respected by some, hated, feared, and vilified by more. She also was, according to commentators of her time, and historians, critics, and feminist leaders of later periods, either a complete failure as a rhetor or an important role model, who played a crucial role in the development of early feminism. It is this contrasting reaction that makes her a rhetorical enigma.

A RHETORICAL ENIGMA

Many prominent scholars of women's history and rhetoric treat Wright as either unimportant (Kissel, 1993, pp. i, 155) or a failed rhetor. For example, Wright receives less than a paragraph in Karlyn Kohrs Campbell's seminal two volume collection and analysis of early women's rhetoric Man Cannot Speak For Her(1989). Nor is she included in Women Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook (Campbell, 1993). The view that Wright was unimportant is explicit in the research of Molly Abel Travis who argues that Wright played little role in the development of the women's rights movement (Travis, 1993). Some go farther and claim that by taking extreme positions Wright offended many people and may have harmed the cause of women's rights. For example, Carol Kolmerten writes, "Frances Wright remains almost completely unknown today, clear evidence of her `offensive' views" (Kolmerten, 1990, p. 188). She concludes that Wright's call for sexual equality produced an "overwhelming" response in which "Everyone criticized her" and that Wright "continued to be a target of hatred" (Kolmerten, 1990, pp. 128, 129, 141) until her death. Similarly, Travis notes that Wright "became the symbol of political evil incarnate" and that the "term Fanny Wrightism was used to discredit all liberal causes" (Travis, 1993, pp. 393, 395). Susan Kissel observes that Wright was called "the Great Red Harlot of Infidelity," "the Whore of Babylon," or "Priestess of Beelzebub" and that following a lecture tour "the outcries against her increased" (Kissel, 1993, pp. 7, 8).

Rhetorical critics have drawn similar conclusions. For example, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell notes that fear of being labelled a "Fanny Wrightist," was used for many years to deter women from seeking the public speaking platform (1989, p. 17). Susan Zaeske observes that "Wright was widely attacked as unfeminine and immoral for speaking from the public platform" (1995, p. 194). Other critics concur that Wright failed as a rhetor (Kendall and Fisher, 1974; Hillbruner, 1958).

While many believe that Wright's radical rhetoric harmed the women's movement, there axe important early feminists and other commentators who argue that Wright played a crucial role in the development of the movement. At the twentieth anniversary of the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1870, Paulina Wright Davis paid "tribute of just, though late, respect" (1871/1970, p. 10) to Wright. In 1899, Susan B. Anthony listed Wright as the second name (after Mary Wollstonecraft) that should go on a "Roll of Honor" (qtd. in Oliver, 1965, p. 447) of nineteenth century suffrage leaders. Celia Moms Eckhardt, Wright's most recent biographer, summarizes her influence on the development of the suffrage movement:

Elizabeth Cady Stanton kept her works ... on her library table; Susan B. Anthony owned her Biography, Notes and Political Letters in the New York and Boston Editions; and the two of them, along with Matilda Joslyn Gage, used her portrait, as the frontispiece for their History of Woman Suffrage. In 1860 Ernestine Rose, who had followed Fanny to the platform at Tammany Hall, saluted her as the first woman in America to speak for sexual equality. (1984, p. 282)

In their book, One Half the People, The Fight for Woman Suffrage, Anne and Andrew Scott argue that Wright, "became a model for a handful of young women growing up in the 1820s and 1830s" (1975, p.

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