Life Story: Susanna Wright2021-05-28T15:28:25-04:00

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Life Story: Susanna Wright (1697–1784)

Scientist, Poet, Proto-Feminist

The story of a Quaker scientist, poet, and innovator.

Textiles: laying out mulberry leaves to feed silkworms

Textiles: laying out mulberry leaves to feed silkworms, engraving attributed to B. Cole, 1749. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

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Susanna Wright was born on August 4, 1697 in Warrington, England. Her parents, John and Patience Wright, were Quakers. Susanna spent her early years in England, growing up with her two brothers and two sisters. As Quakers, her parents believed that girls should receive the same educational opportunities as boys, so Susanna became fluent in French, could read and write in Italian and Latin, and was particularly good at science.

Around 1714, John Wright decided to move his family to the Pennsylvania colony in North America. Pennsylvania was a Quaker colony, so living there meant the family would enjoy religious freedom and economic opportunities that they did not have in England. But John and Patience did not want to disrupt their daughter’s education. So, Susanna stayed in England until 1718, when she journeyed alone across the Atlantic to join her family in Chester, Pennsylvania.

In 1722, Susanna’s mother died. Susanna took on all the responsibilities of running her father’s household. She helped her father move the family again in 1728, this time to the Pennsylvania frontier. John received a patent to run a ferry across the Susquehanna River and founded a new settlement at the site of his ferry crossing. The settlement became known as Wright’s Ferry, and today it is called Columbia, Pennsylvania.

Susanna flourished in her new home. Living on the Pennsylvania frontier gave her the opportunity to pursue her intellectual and business interests free from the social constraints of the more settled areas of the colony. She studied local plant life, and began writing essays about her findings. She became a chief clerk of the Wright’s Ferry court, representing the interests of her poor and illiterate neighbors. She studied medicinal herbs and medical science, and helped care for the sick people in her community. She campaigned for the better treatment of the local Native communities who were being displaced by English settlers. She was an active, respected, and vital member of the Wright’s Ferry community.

Meanwhile, her father’s ferry was very successful, because it made crossing to the colonial frontier easy, and the Wright family’s wealth and stature grew. In 1745, her father’s business partner passed away and left his mansion and lands to Susanna for the rest of her life. This gift was incredibly important, because under the English practice of coverture Susanna would never have been able to be truly independent. The gift gave Susanna the financial security she needed to stay a single and independent woman when her father died in 1749 and left his estate to his sons.

Now that she had a home and fortune, Susanna began to pursue her own business interests. After extensive study, she became the first person to successfully cultivate silk worms in Pennsylvania. Her business harvested and dyed the fibers her silk worms produced, and then shipped them to England to be woven into fine fabrics and stockings. Her research in the field paved the way for more Pennsylvania colonists to start their own silk worm farms, and for others to establish factories for weaving the fibers into cloth. Establishing industries in the colonies was very important, because without them the colonies would never survive as an independent country.

Susanna’s family’s ferry had made their town an important stopping point for any western expedition. This gave Susanna the opportunity to meet some of the most important people of her time. In the early years of the French and Indian War, Susanna helped Benjamin Franklin prepare British troops heading west to fight the French. Benjamin was so impressed with her that they began a lifelong friendship. He made sure to send Susanna the most up-to-date news and scientific papers, and Susanna sent him her writings and opinions on the most pressing matters of the day. Susanna also became part of the literary circle of Milcah Martha Moore, sending poems and essays to her friend, some of which appeared in Milcah’s textbook for children. Unfortunately, most of Susanna’s writing is lost, because she never kept copies or published her works. It was all produced for the private enjoyment of friends.

Toward the end of her life, Susanna witnessed the events of the American Revolution and the formation of the new United States of America. Through her many correspondents, she heard all of the philosophical and political debates that shaped the foundation of the new nation. She was particularly struck with the idea of liberty being a universal right. She understood that her personal freedom was a happy accident of birth and circumstance, and that most women did not have her same opportunities. According to law, religion, and custom, colonial and early American women were expected to live their lives subordinate to the wishes of their fathers and husbands. She began to question whether this situation was fair.

Living on the Pennsylvania frontier gave Susanna the opportunity to pursue her intellectual and business interests free from the social constraints of the more settled areas of the colony.

Susanna sent a poem to her close friend Elizabeth Norris outlining her thoughts on women in eighteen-century society. In the poem, she challenges the commonly held belief that women’s subordination was God’s plan. She urges her friend to reexamine the passages of the Bible that were used to keep women under men’s control. She celebrates Eliza’s decision to never marry, because it allows her to live free. She applauds the community of women who are starting to champion women’s rights, a tantalizing clue that Susanna was not the only woman in Pennsylvania who held these radical opinions. And she warns that men will be judged for their abuse of power in the afterlife.

Susanna Wright passed away in 1784 at the age of 87, five years before the new Constitution of the United States of America failed to give women the rights of citizens. But her life of education, personal freedom, and usefulness had taught her that no matter what her male contemporaries believed, women had all the intelligence and spirit necessary to one day rise up and demand equality.

Vocabulary

  • clerk: A person who keeps records and accounts in an office.
  • coverture: A common law practice where women fell under the legal and economic oversight of their husbands upon marriage.
  • frontier: The area between a settled place and wilderness.
  • Quaker: The informal name for the Religious Society of Friends, a Protestant Christian group that was founded in 1650. Quakers stood apart from other Christian groups in the eighteenth century because of their commitment to nonviolence and their belief that women should receive formal education.
  • silkworm: The caterpillar of the silkworm moth. This caterpillar spins a cocoon that is harvested to make silk fiber.
  • subordination: Being put into a lower status or class.
  • universal right: Something that all human beings are entitled to have.

Discussion Questions

  • What special circumstances allowed Susanna to live a life of scholarly work and personal freedom?
  • How did moving to the colonial frontier affect Susanna’s life?
  • Why was the development of manufacturing critical to the independence of the colonies?
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Themes

SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND MEDICINE

New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

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