A French Woman on the Wabash

March is Women’s History Month. For a small town, New Harmony has a rich history of notable women. From 1814 – 1824 New Harmony was home to Gertrude Rapp. Although Gertrude remained loyal to the beliefs of her grandfather her whole life, it did not stop her from having a rich and full life in an era when most women were relegated to the kitchen and nursery.

Gertrude was well educated, a gifted musician and an accomplished businesswoman. She mastered the art of silk making and turned it into a moneymaking venture for the Harmony Society. Like Gertrude, Marie Duclos Fretageot did not fit the mold for 19th women. Madam Fretageot called New Harmony home from 1824 to 1832.  Born in France in 1783, she lived apart from her husband, the father of her only child, Achilles.  She made her living as a teacher.  In 1819, her life was forever changed when she met and became a friend, follower and protégé of William Maclure.  Maclure had her schooled in the Pestalozzian method of teaching, and together they joined forces with Robert Owen in New Harmony.

Madam Fretageot taught in the schools of the Owen Community.  But when the community faltered and Maclure left for the sunny climate of Mexico, it was Madam Fretageot who stayed on and managed Maclure’s affairs in New Harmony for several years.  She remained loyal to Maclure and the two corresponded over the years leaving a large body of letters.  Those letters were compiled, edited and annotated by Josephine Elliott in the book Partnership for Posterity.

Perhaps it seems a strange choice for Maclure to pick a woman to manage his affairs.  The world of business and positions of authority were not populated by many females in those days. Yet, Maclure respected Madam Fretageot and recognized her as a competent representative for his interests.  But what of Madam Fretageot?  Why stay in this small town on the Wabash.  It seems that her feelings for Maclure involved more than respect.  Mrs. Elliott makes a good case in favor of Madam Fretageot being in love with Maclure.  And while Maclure admired her, it seems he did not return her romantic feelings.
In 1833 she went to Mexico to join him. Sadly, after only a few months she died. Maclure died in Mexico in 1840.

Today, both Madam Fretageot and William Maclure are considered important people in the Owen community and in the history of New Harmony.  Madam Fretageot stood on her own at a time when a woman was supposed to be dependent on a man.  She was a teacher, a business manager, a trusted friend and a mother.  She did it all with honesty and integrity.