IN storage at an outside facility of the New York Historical Society’s art archives, away from public view, there sits a portrait of a deeply influential Scottish-American woman.

The portrait’s subject is at rest in the Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio, under an elegant but worn tombstone that reads, “I have wedded the cause of human improvement, staked on it my fortune, my reputation and my life.” The grave is that of a remarkable Scottish woman: Frances Wright, who was born in Dundee in 1795.

The United States and Canada have recently celebrated “Tartan Day.” It is the day that honours Scottish Americans and the links between Scotland and North America. In the United States, the day officially began in 1998 when the U.S. Senate passed a resolution. While parades in New York and elsewhere preceded the declaration, the Senate message made it more official.

April 6th was selected because it marks the day that the Declaration of Arbroath was signed at Arbroath Abbey in 1320. Arbroath is known for “smokies” but it is also known for cooking up a bold message that was consumed by people hungry for freedom. The historic Arbroath statement asserted Scotland’s status as sovereign and is said to have influenced the tone and thrust of the United States Declaration of Independence centuries later.

A speaker or writer addressing the contributions of Scottish Americans will predictably note that many of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were Scottish and that the governors of the early states had Scottish connections.

And when we talk of great Scottish-Americans who have had a profound influence in the US, the names of Andrew Carnegie, Alexander Graham Bell, John Muir often come up. Scottish American women are usually never mentioned. But in the wake of Tartan Day, I would lik to place a spotlight on an extraordinary Scottish woman, Frances Wright, who became one of America’s earliest social reformers, abolitionists, and women’s rights advocates.

During Wright’s formative years in Scotland, she developed a deep veneration for the young United States. She was a voracious reader, and while living in Glasgow gained access to libraries. She felt intellectually liberated by the enlightened and republican ideals in American documents and was drawn to the opportunities that the burgeoning government experiment created to advance freedom, human rights, social reform, and equality.

She dreamed of going to America to pursue her passions and to witness whether or not the political and social principles were being upheld. Wright realised that dream when arriving with her sister in New York at the age of 23 in 1818.

When in New York, Wright wrote a well-received play about Swedish independence that was performed. On a whim she sent the play to one of her philosophical heroes, an ageing Thomas Jefferson who was well into his seventies. Jefferson was moved by the poetry of the piece and sent a letter back to Wright which encouraged her to keep moving forward.

After New York, Wright made the bold decision to travel widely across America. What she found, as she engaged with people, further sparked her ambition to advance social reform, racial justice, and women’s rights. She published books, articles, and spoke boldly in large public gatherings for justice and equality. She even pledged her own resources to help slaves find freedom and work.

Wright was derided, slandered, bullied, mocked, and attacked by many religious leaders, prominent press outlets, and public officials. She had the fortitude and courage to carry on.

She became the first American woman to speak publicly against slavery, and the first woman to edit a journal in the United States. Luminary American women’s rights leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony noted Wright’s influence on them.

They wrote, "Her radical ideas of theology, slavery and the social degradation of woman, now generally accepted by the best minds of the age, were then denounced by both press and pulpit, and maintained by her at the risk of her life."

By all accounts, Wright lived her final days in Cincinnati alone, likely suffering under the weight of what she sacrificed for the noble causes she championed. Her death in 1852 went largely unnoticed.

The portrait of Wright in storage is a metaphor of a story that is away from public view and discussion. The courageous voice of this astonishing Scottish American woman needs to be brought out of storage into classrooms, committee rooms, boardrooms, newsrooms, and living rooms.

As we celebrate Scottish Americans, I stand in awe of Frances Wright. Her ideas uprooted weeds, laid fresh seeds, and nurtured the flowers of freedom and liberty. America, Scotland, and our world are still imperfect, but we are more equal and inclusive because of women like Wright who sacrificed and dedicated their lives for the well-being of others.

And women trailblazers today fight with courage in every corner of the globe to aid others and break down barriers. That is a Tartan for which we should all fight.

Ian Houston is president of the Scottish Business Network (SBN) US, SBN Ambassador in Washington, DC, and is a member of the Robert Burns Ellisland Farm and Museum Board. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of SBN or Ellisland.

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