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.
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.