The Magazine


Feminist, Suffragette, and Scoundrel

Jun 15, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 39 • By LAUREN WEINER
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Just after the Civil War, American women believed their political emancipation was at hand. Though they were still excluded from the ballot box, women already occupied a more advanced position in the United States than in any other country. Political exclusion of women would very shortly go the way of monarchy and slavery, the suffragists were convinced.

They were wrong. Female suffrage was another fifty years in coming, partly because the public was not ready for it in the 1870s, and partly, two new biographies suggest, because a human hurricane blew through the suffrage movement by the name of Victoria Claflin Woodhull. Born in 1838, the long-forgotten Woodhull was until her death in 1927 a controversialist who espoused nearly every "-ism" of her day -- spiritualism, socialism, feminism -- in a particularly flamboyant way. She was also a stockbroker, politician, and newspaper publisher. And very likely a prostitute. And definitely a blackmailer.

By the time she was done exposing, in the pages of her weekly newspaper, the adultery of the popular evangelist Henry Ward Beecher (it didn't seem right to Woodhull that she was being denounced as a harlot over her theories of "free love" while the adored paragon Beecher refused to admit he was practicing what she preached), Woodhull had widened the split between the New York and Boston wings of the suffrage movement. She even brought on a feud between her sometime defenders, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, thus enfeebling the New York wing.

Barbara Goldsmith's Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull conveys the rollicking adventures of "the Woodhull" in a less organized but much more honest way than does Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored by Mary Gabriel. Goldsmith admits that her subject had flaws and so is able to elicit some sympathy for Woodhull at her most parlous moments, while Gabriel is always the feminist ideologue bent on portraying Woodhull as a lofty idealist and original thinker.

When, for instance, as part of a campaign to restore the Reverend Beecher's reputation, Woodhull was jailed in 1872 by the "informer-general" Anthony Comstock (promoter of the Anti-Obscenity Act of 1873), the preacher was exonerated by the members of his church in Brooklyn, and Woodhull, who had printed the truth about the man's "demanding physical nature," was reviled. Goldsmith gets us to feel the unfairness of this, while Gabriel prompts in the reader an urge to deny Woodhull any sympathy or credit.

Goldsmith takes as her main theme the interrelation of the spiritualist and feminist movements. That interrelation, embarrassing as it may be, is a historical fact. As a new religious movement, spiritualism gave women opportunities to lead; hence the prevalence of female trance speakers and mediums. Woodhull's mediumistic propensities came originally from her loony Ohio family. Her father, a "magnetic healer," con man, thief, and blackmailer named Buck Claflin, promoted both Victoria and her younger sister Tennessee as precocious spiritualists.

Woodhull objected to the exploitation, but she didn't object to money. In 1868, after the family had been chased out of various Midwestern towns and cities for running a house of ill-repute and for practicing crank medicine, Woodhull brought her two children, her second husband, and her sister to New York in search of fame and fortune. This strange entourage made contact with Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was as superstitious as he was rich. Tennessee Claflin soon became Vanderbilt's "magnetic healer," while Woodhull conveyed messages to him from his deceased mother and, in a trance state, gave him investment advice from which he apparently profited handsomely.

When Vanderbilt set up the two sisters with their own brokerage firm, they reveled in the novelty of being the first female stock brokers on Wall Street. Some feminists rooted for Woodhull, while others were indignant, when in 1871 she came to Washington, brushed past the established suffrage leaders, and lobbied Congress for the vote. It was another first -- no woman had ever testified before a congressional committee. Characteristically, the speech she gave, "Woodhull's Memorial," was written by someone else: congressman Benjamin Butler, the radical Republican and former Union general, who believed that women already had the right to vote under the Fourteenth Amendment.