The Magazine


Feminist, Suffragette, and Scoundrel

Jun 15, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 39 • By LAUREN WEINER
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The other prominent figure who guided her ideas was Stephen Pearl Andrews, a utopian socialist, philosopher, and votary of free love. Andrews, who controlled the editorial direction of the sisters' newspaper, Woodhull & Clafin's Weekly, was also a snake: He worked Woodhull into a frenzy about the hypocrisy of Beecher and abandoned her when the scandal broke.

Andrews also convinced the capitalist Woodhull that communism was best. Soon she was out on the hustings agitating for the rights of the workers, even becoming head of Section Twelve of the First International -- until she attracted the disapproval of Karl Marx in Europe. Believing her social positions too radical, Marx expelled Section Twelve from the International.

"Free love" was actually a very elastic concept. Under its banner, reformers were advocating everything from a lessening of the social sanction against divorce, to "open marriage," to legalizing prostitution. Woodhull made a good deal of sense when she urged the acceptability of a wife legally divorcing a husband who drank, beat her, and failed to support the family. When goaded, however, to be more specific about her embrace of "free love," she would come up with defiant statements like, "If I want sexual intercourse with one hundred men, I shall have it."

The dour suffragists of Boston were no more amused by such racy stuff than Marx had been. Lucy Stone denounced "the Woodhull" as outrageously radical and, what was worse, declasse. New York's Anthony and Stanton retorted that Stone and company were snobs and hypocrites. As the battle raged over whether or not Woodhull should be repudiated, Woodhull was busy compiling embarrassing information on the sex lives of men and women in the suffrage movement who were maligning her -- threatening to expose them in Woodhull & Clafin's Weekly unless they contributed to her "Equal Rights Party" campaign for the presidency of the United States. Then came her Andrews-inspired disclosures about Henry Ward Beecher, her imprisonment for obscenity, and a legal action brought against Beecher by Theodore Tilton, the husband of Beecher's latest paramour. (The Tilton-Beecher case, a "trial of the century" extravaganza, ended in a hung jury.)

At the height of all this, Goldsmith shows, accusations of sexual impropriety were thrown at whoever was thought to be on Woodhull's side. The "Jezebel" charge was leveled even at the schoolmarmish Susan B. Anthony. That people could be brought to consider Anthony a loose woman -- that they were ready to condemn female speechifiers and prostitutes alike with the epithet "public woman" -- was proof of how fragile American women's freedom really was.

To point to this fragility is to take nothing away from the truth of Henry James's claim that the woman able to move about freely in the world without having her sexual honor impugned "was possible doubtless only in America." She was not only possible; she existed, and exists, as the characteristic American woman. It is, rather, to say that Woodhull's antics posed a threat to this new model of womanhood.

For in Woodhull's case, both meanings of the epithet "public woman" were close to the mark, as Goldsmith (but not Gabriel) concedes. In light of the danger of discrediting the new woman, it is more than understandable that, after Woodhull's financial and publishing empire crumbled and she fled in disgrace to England, loaded with hush money from the Vanderbilt estate, she was expunged from the feminists' collective memory.

That we can afford to take her out and look at her now, in all of her impressive rascality, may just show how beside the point is agitation for further women's rights. Yet the wild Woodhulls of our own time -- in ideology, if not in personality -- plunge recklessly on.

Lauren Weiner is a free-lance writer in Baltimore.