Her Flaw as Suffrage Heroine? Preaching Too Much Freedom

Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull , by Barbara Goldsmith. Alfred A. Knopf, 531 pages, $30.

In February 1870, the banker and editor Victoria Claflin Woodhull had a spectral guest in her mansion in Murray Hill: The Greek orator Demosthenes came to her in a vision and told her to lead a revolution to save women.

Immediately, Woodhull decided to run for President. “While others sought to show that there was no valid reason why a woman should be treated … as a being inferior to man,” she explained, “I boldly entered the arena of politics and business and exercised the rights I already possessed. I therefore claim the right to speak for the unenfranchised woman of the country and, I now announce myself as a candidate for Presidency.”

Feminist veterans like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, frustrated and exhausted by warring factions that had split the suffrage movement over issues like race, thought Woodhull might be the feminist Messiah or “new evangel of womanhood” they had eagerly sought. She was beautiful, and they were dowdy. She was rich and they were needy. She was charismatic and they were merely clear. “I have never in the whole 20 years’ good fight felt so full of life and hope,” Susan B. Anthony wrote of Woodhull. “Go ahead! bright, glorious, young and strong spirit.”

But Harriet Beecher Stowe was horrified by the thought of a woman in the political mudpile. “Who ever is set up to be President of the United States,” she wrote, “is just set up to have his character torn off from his back in shreds and to be mauled, pummeled, and covered with dirt by every filthy paper all over the country. And no woman that was not willing to be dragged through every kennel, and slopped into every dirty pail of water like an old mop, would ever consent to run as a candidate.”

Soon they would all discover that Woodhull was already an old mop who had been slopped through many a pail. Before she came to New York, she had been a fortuneteller, clairvoyant healer, actress and even prostitute. She shared the splendid house in Murray Hill–bought with payoffs from Cornelius (Commodore) Vanderbilt for illicit stock-market tips–with two ex-husbands, her strange children Byron and Zulu and the whole parasitic Claflin clan of scam artists and snake-oil salesmen, who flocked to her like caterpillars to the green leaf. Her younger sister, Tennessee, had even been indicted for manslaughter after a death in her father’s bogus cancer clinic.

Worst of all, Woodhull was an outspoken advocate of free love and free divorce. In 1871, she electrified the National Women’s Suffrage Association’s convention with her declaration of a “war upon marriage” as “the most terrible curse from which humanity now suffers.” Using the oratorical skills she had developed on the stage, Woodhull called on American women to “rise and declare … yourself free…. We mean treason, we mean secession, and … we are plotting revolution!”

With 30 daily newspapers in New York alone to report it, the Woodhull scandal would polarize the women’s movement, attract the prurient interest of self-styled Grand Inquisitors, and eventually implicate a wide circle of prominent citizens, including Stowe’s own brother, the celebrated minister Henry Ward Beecher. Over a century before our own era’s hysterical accusations of Presidential ritual abuse, these rumors of sexual wrongdoing would shock the Victorian establishment and expose the hypocrisy behind American public’s values of domesticity and monogamy. Indeed, as Barbara Goldsmith argues in this sprawling but sparkling book, Victoria Woodhull was the star of a timeless American melodrama of politics, religion and sex.

Ms. Goldsmith has spent a decade researching Woodhull’s life and placing it in the context of a huge and operatic cast of characters, but while she has done a heroic job in piecing the story together, the author has less success convincing us that Woodhull was a martyr ahead of her time. As ruthless as her opponents, Woodhull preached a doctrine more about freedom than love, which few women, then or now, were tough enough to embrace. The conflict between women’s legal rights and their emotional and sexual wrongs divides feminists even today, and no female evangel has appeared during the century to resolve it.

Woodhull’s career reflected a woman’s “other powers” of spiritualism and clairvoyance during the era of Reconstruction, when a stern patriarchal religion maintained that women were sexless angels and helped deny them the vote. She grew up when many respectable American girls were dabbling in spirit rappings, magnetic healing and trance speaking, claiming to communicate with dead children or husbands lost in the War. Her parents, Roxy and Buck Claflin, ran a traveling medicine show in Ohio and taught their daughters the tricks of mind reading. Buck beat and starved the girls to encourage them in their trances; and the teenage Victoria later hinted that he also “made her a woman before her time.” Today, she might have gone in for multiple personalities or recovered memories of satanic sacrifice; then, she took to her bed, talked to the angels and began to converse with spirits who promised her that “she would rise to a great distinction.” A young local doctor, Canning Woodhull, came to treat her, and Victoria eloped with him when she was 14.

The marriage didn’t last long, but Woodhull’s subsequent adventures as a magnetic healer of female complaints and as a friend and supplier of goods to brothel-keepers brought her into contact with abuse, abortion, illegitimacy and other dark secrets of women’s lives in Victorian America. Moreover, the raffish doings of the Claflins were only a more lurid and profitable form of what many respectable citizens were doing as well. They might be preaching family values by day, but they were trading wives by night. Moreover, the sexual puritanism of American life engendered an equally zealous and opposite reaction in free-love communes and cults like the Oneida Colony, New Harmony, Memonia and Modern Times, invariably led by alpha males like Stephen Pearl Andrews or John Noyes Miller, who ordained that they had the divine right to all the sex they wanted while others were assigned sexual partners and had to master esoteric disciplines of contraception. These colonies nonetheless attracted many female members.

Feminist utopian literature of the time also testified to women’s fantasies of sexual diversity, control of fertility and guaranteed male companionship on their own terms. The two Iowa women who co-wrote the amazing Unveiling a Parallel (1893), for example, describe Cupid’s Gardens, a luxurious manor of prostitution for women where, “lounging about on the lawn,” the narrator beholds “several handsome young men.”

Woodhull’s rhetoric may have been strong, but in making sexual equality another power of women, she spoke for a hidden agenda in Victorian feminism. Laura Curtis Bullard, mistress of the editor Theodore Tilton, whose own wife, Lib, was having an affair with the married minister Henry Ward Beecher, declared that women wanted divorce more than they wanted the vote: “Women know their own wants, and they know that they do not want suffrage a thousandth part as keenly as they want a reform of the marriage and divorce laws…. What a woman wants is to marry and to be mistress of herself after marriage; freedom to freely surrender a yoke she has freely bound.”

Thus when Woodhull was attacked in the press as a free lover, and when her own newspaper, exposing the Beecher-Tilton affair, was charged with obscenity by Special Postal Agent Anthony Comstock’s Society for the Suppression of Vice, feminist leaders refused to join “the American inquisition.” “If Victoria Woodhull must be crucified,” wrote Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “let men drive the spikes and plait the crown of thorns.”

Drive the spikes they did: Woodhull went to prison, attempted suicide and renounced free love. As Stanton sadly admitted, the “scandalum magnatum” had “rolled on our suffrage movement,” and it would be decades more before it recovered. But Stanton also maintained that Victoria Woodhull had “done a work for women that none of us could have done. She has faced and dared men to call her the names that make women shudder, while she chucked principle, like medicine, down their throats.”

Her Flaw as Suffrage Heroine? Preaching Too Much Freedom