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Victoria Woodhull

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Thinking about Anthony Comstock and Gilded Age sexuality this week, I was reminded of the woman Comstock destroyed, the fascinating feminist and free-love advocate, Victoria Woodhull.

Born Victoria Claflin in Homer, Ohio in 1838, Woodhull became one of the most notorious figures of the Gilded Age. She entered a bad marriage when she was 15. She met an alcoholic doctor from Rochester named Canning Woodhull. She quickly had two children by him. It seemed like she would be become a pretty standard housewife of the mid-19th century. Thinking about her awful marriage though, she became attracted to free love. The mid-19th century was a time of great ferment in American society. Industrialization spawned a wide variety of reform movements from abolitionism and temperance to Mormonism and solitary confinement. Among these reforms were also feminism and different sorts of sexual experimentation which ranged from free love and polygamy to the weird celibate rituals of the Shakers.

Victoria wanted out of her bad marriage. Divorce was not easy to come by in these years. For example, I have examined state legislative records from Washington Territory from the late 1850s. To get a divorce, you had to have it approved by the territorial legislature. Sometimes they approved it, sometimes not. But it was certainly not easy anywhere in the country, especially for a woman. For Woodhull then, free love was about being with a partner of your choosing outside of marriage. She is sometimes seen as a pioneer of the sexual revolution, but that is not really accurate, for she believed in monogamy, just outside of the bonds of marriage. However, what is important here is that if the relationship didn’t work out, either party should be free to move onto another partner, which was farther than some free love advocates were willing to go.

Woodhull was also a bit of a financial genius. She was born to a very poor family, but got rich pretty young when she became a magnetic healer. This kind of odd spiritualism was again part of the societal upheavals of the Industrial Revolution and there was a real market for new religious movements, odd as they may seem today. In 1870, Woodhull joined with her sister to become the first woman stock trader on Wall Street. She knew Cornelius Vanderbilt and he backed her for this pioneering venture. While some newspapers thought this was a good thing, many New Yorkers were disgusted by the idea that a woman could be on Wall Street. Publications came out comparing her and her sister to prostitutes and showing them in sexualized positions (which to be fair, could have been showing an ankle or something. It was 1870 after all).

Woodhull, along with her sister Tennessee, took the money they made on Wall Street and opened a radical paper in 1870. By this time, the reform spirit in the U.S. was pretty much dead. The religious movements of the antebellum days had sunk into obscurity or exile. The small feminist community was increasingly isolated. Temperance was still strong but concern for the rights of freed African-Americans was in decline. People began seeing Reconstruction as a failure. The Gilded Age was upon us. There wasn’t a lot of tolerance for an old-style radical. The Woodhull sisters did not care. Their paper published the first American printing of Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto in 1871. It promoted such ideas as free love (still, the more conservative version of it), vegetarianism, women’s suffrage, and, God forbid, short skirts. The famous cartoonist Thomas Nast drew an image of her entitled, “Mrs. Satan.” She appeared as a devilish figure holding a sign reading, “Be Saved by Free Love,” showing it to a woman suffering from an alcoholic husband and poverty. The woman’s response, “I’d rather travel the hardest path of matrimony than follow your footsteps.” So as you can see, Woodhull kind of shook up Gilded Age men.

In 1871, she announced herself in her typically boisterous fashion to the American public. Thanks to one of her patrons, the Massachusetts Senator Benjamin Butler, Woodhull addressed the House Judiciary Committee, claiming that women already had the right to vote, which was guaranteed in the 14th and 15th Amendments. She quickly became a leader in the suffrage movement, even though her self-promotion and prickly personality quickly turned leaders like Susan B. Anthony against her. She also had the unfortunate tendency to brand her newspaper as a weapon. When people crossed her, she threatened to publish the sexual histories of her enemies, which included prominent members of the suffrage movements, as well as other prominent Americans. Suffragists later accused her of extortion, saying that she wanted $500 to keep quiet about their sexual activities. She denied this and said she just wanted them to stop gossiping about her.

In 1872, the newly created Equal Rights Party nominated Woodhull for president and Frederick Douglass for vice-president, though the latter never acknowledged it. Anthony refused to vote for her, instead casting her non-counting ballot for President Ulysses S. Grant. Despite the abject failure of her campaign and the split it caused within the feminist movement, she became nationally known for her actions.

It was the paper that made Woodhull nationally notorious. First of all, there was her run for president which she promoted through her infamous media outlet. But if that wasn’t enough, she attacked an American religious institution on November 2, 1872, just before the election. For the nation’s most famous minister, Henry Ward Beecher, denounced her free love philosophy. However, she found out that Beecher was sleeping with one of his parishioners. She published this tale and all hell broke loose. Adultery was a crime. Her charges led to Beecher going to trial. It also helped destroy her. Woodhull, her second husband, and her sister were arrested on charges on indecency for sending such filth through the mail. This is where Anthony Comstock came in. Comstock, on the verge of becoming a nationally known figure, set his fangs of intolerance against her. He was as media-savvy as she; for both, the ensuing trial was a chance to press their agendas to a larger public. Although she was found not guilty by a technicality, Comstock won the ultimate battle. He went on to national fame. Her career was over.

Depressed, and abandoned by the suffragist movement, Woodhull left for England. She remained active in politics for a time. She married for the third time, to the English gentleman John Biddulph Martin, in 1883. She remained somewhat active in American life, trying to run for president again in 1884 and 1892. She ran a magazine during the 1890s. But after the death of her husband in 1901, she led the quiet life of a member of the landed gentry until her death in 1927.

For further reading, see Johanna Johnston’s Mrs. Satan: The Incredible Saga of Victoria C. Woodhull and Lois Beachy Underhill, The Woman Who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull. And like last week’s discussion of Comstock, Helen Lefkowtiz Horowitz’s excellent article, “Victoria Woodhull, Anthony Comstock, and Conflict over Sex in the United States in the 1870s,” from the September 2000 issue of the Journal of American History was extremely valuable in putting this together.

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  • c u n d gulag

    So, Woodhll was the original DFH chick, and what’s happened since then is all her fault!!!

    • c u n d gulag

      D’OH! “WoodhUll!”

      Now, on top of the rest of the crap going on in my life, and my new-found other laptop issues, my ‘u’ sticks.
      Well, fck it! OY!

      In her savvy use of the press, she sounds like William Randolph Hearst with a hoop-skirt.
      So, of course the men folk had to try to destroy her. It was for her own good!

      • Spud

        I wouldn’t call coming from an impoverished background to British landed gentry as “being destroyed”.

        She had a wild ride of a life on her own terms. It should be celebrated, not mourned.

        • c u n d gulag

          I celebrate her life.
          She was waaaaaaaaay ahead of her time!

          What I’m talking about is them destroying her career as a newspaper publisher.

  • Pith Helmet

    In a related vein (re: Comstock), I recently watched this documentary: DM Bennett: The Truth Seeker. Another life Comstock went out of his way to destroy. What a bastard.

  • DivGuy

    Just sharing books, on spiritualism and 19th century American science and religion, Leigh Schmidt’s Hearing Things is brilliant and highly recommended.

    Other things that are brilliant and highly recommended are this series of posts. Thanks Erik.

  • Honorable Bob

    Their paper published the first American printing of Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto in 1871.

    This tells you all you really need to know.

    • Bill Murray

      about you

    • joe from Lowell

      Looking back, it’s tough not to conclude that the communists were right about everything except communism.

      • Honorable Bob

        I like that.

        It’s a great observation, Joe.

        And those like Ms. Woodhull were on the wrong side of history.

        Hey, but let’s all nod about what a really great gal she was. Communist…no big deal.

        • c u n d gulag

          Dishonorable Boob,
          If you were capable of it, and could really think, you’d realized that “morans” like you are the ones on the wrong side of history.

          Last I looked, women could vote, have meaningful jobs and careers – and even own property.
          So can blacks – who are no longer property.
          There are no ‘Debtors Prisons” – just out of control collectors.
          There is no child labor – at least not unless/until Newt gets elected President.
          Homosexual are starting to get the same rights as the rest of us.

          These are all things that Conservatives were against.
          They liked the way things were not just 1920 or 1950, but 1820 and 1850.

          Ms. Woodhull was on the RIGHT (rather, correct, or, LEFT) side of the issues.

          People like you have been on the wrong side of history since time began.

          You and your ilk may continue to act like cave-dwelling morons – but somehow, the rest of us managed to move out of the caves despite your best efforts.
          And we ain’t going back, no matter how hard you try!

        • joe from Lowell

          And those like Ms. Woodhull were on the wrong side of history.

          Hey, but let’s all nod about what a really great gal she was. Communist…no big deal.

          …except that she wasn’t a communist.

          • c u n d gulag

            I think Dishonest Boob’s fundamental disconnect is that he doesn’t understand the concept of “free love,” since he’s had to pay for it his whole life.

        • NBarnes

          Communist…no big deal.

          I don’t grok how right-wingers are still running ‘OMG communist!!1!’ out there like it’s an obvious and automatic argument winner. Leaving aside the fact that the fall of the Berlin Wall is sneaking up on its 25th anniversary, it was never the case that there was a straightforward mapping of communist to (the notorious genocidal tyrant) Joseph Stalin. I don’t expect people that ruled by their lizard brains to appreciate the subtleties of distinction that separate Soviet tyranny from other, gentler constructions of communist, but you’d think that they’d at least make an attempt to present a case that’s more solid than ‘COMMUNISM!!! BOOGA BOOGA BOOGA!’.

          • I suspect those who use the term “communist” as the ultimate dismissive pejorative today are old people who are giving away their age by their wistful longing for the days of Joe McCarthy.

          • Isn’t it time for Otto Pohl to note that American academia is composed primarily of Stalin apologists?

            • It’s an internet tradition.

          • Honorable Bob

            I don’t grok how right-wingers are still running ‘OMG communist!!1!’ out there like it’s an obvious and automatic argument winner.

            Yes, it’s an automatic argument winner.

            Here’s your schoolin’…

            USA was founded upon a capitalist system. Communists wish to promote a communist system.
            Communists are inherently Anti-American for that reason. And the American people know it.

            There…better?

            • Lyanna

              The US was founded on a slave system.

              Abolitionists wished to promote an anti-slavery system.

              Abolitionists were inherently anti-American for that reason, and Americans “knew” it.

            • joe from Lowell

              There…better?

              No. That was so utterly moronic, so totally lacking in anything even approaching an understanding of history, so completely devoid of ideas, that I’m concerned that everyone who read your comment is now stupider.

              May God have mercy on your soul.

              • NBarnes

                Thank you. Somebody had to do it.

                It is, after all, an internet tradition.

      • Looking back, it’s tough not to conclude that the communists were right about everything except communism.

        Great line Joe, I shall steal it. Of course its over the head of dishonorable bob then what isn’t.

    • DrDick

      That she was on the right (or rather left) side of history?

      • LeeEsq

        What about using the word correct instead? It makes things clearer.

        • DrDick

          Actually, that was an intentional play on words.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    While divorce was very difficult in most states in the 19th century, at least before the mid-1870s, Indiana was the Las Vegas of its day. Indiana courts could dissolve marriages for any cause whatsoever. And though you technically had to be a resident to take advantage of Indiana’s liberal divorce laws, there was no minimum time of settlement to claim residency. More on Indiana as America’s 19th-century divorce mill here.

    • Is Indiana’s attempt to purge itself of past sins why they have such consistently horrible politicians today?

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        In 1825, Robert Dale Owen founded New Harmony in Indiana as a socialist utopian community. After that didn’t work out, he spent years as a state legislator and was responsible for a lot of woman-friendly antebellum legislation in the Hoosier State (including, I think, the divorce laws and married-women’s property laws).

        With the exception of Birch Bayh, I think it’s basically been downhill since then (and even Birch gave the nation Evan).

        • This is really interesting.

          I never knew what happened to Owen after New Harmony collapsed.

  • joe from Lowell

    Massachusetts Senator Benjamin Butler from Lowell

    I think I’ll try to get Lowell High School to change the name of its sports teams “the Beasts.”

  • Funny – for 7 years, I lived just 16 minutes from Homer, yet the people of rural central Ohio never celebrated Woodhull or advertised she was from there. Shocking…

    • But hey, the good people of Mount Vernon love to let you know that the writer of “Dixie” originated there!

      • And he got his start in minstrel shows! Such a rich history!

        Also: Paul Lynde! (They still had signs up marking the town as his birthplace as late as 1994, and maybe still today for all I know. Funny that they’d celebrate him, but not Woodhull, actually…)

    • DrDick

      Oh hell, Oklahoma and the town of Okemah only got around to acknowledging that Woody Guthrie was from there and might be someone important in the last couple of years.

  • LeeEsq

    Thomas Nast was an interesting fellow view wise. Sometimes he could be very modern and progressive with his political cartoons like “This is a White Man’s government” or “and not this man” and his defense of Chinese immigrants. On race issues, he could see through white racist bull very well and devastate it. Other times, he could be very conservative like the Mrs. Satan cartoon above. Its very hard to come to a final judgment about him.

    • Or is he being snarky with the poor woman carrying the drunk guy and two kids? I don’t know.

      • I don’t see Nast quoting scripture ironically (this is someone who insisted that Catholics should attend schools where they would be taught the version of the Bible in which the pope is the Antichrist). “Get thee behind me, (Mrs.) Satan” seems pretty earnest.

        • Oh yeah, Nast was pretty earnest on this one. He hated Woodhull.

          • But the larger point about Nast having some odd politics sometimes seems pretty true to me. He certainly fell out of favor as time went on; the Republican Party changed and Nast did not.

        • DrDick

          He was pretty virulently anti-Irish.

    • A lot of (what were then) progressive antebellum movements cast themselves rhetorically as opposed to some metaphorical form of slavery. The temperance movement was opposed to physical slavery to drink; the suffragist movement was opposed to political slavery of women; the anti-Catholic movement was opposed to the mental slavery of Irish etc. immigrants. (See also “white slavery.”) It all hangs together if you assume there’s no or limited agency among the people you’re trying to help.

  • Benjamin

    For further reading in novel form, see also Marge Piercy’s “Sex Wars”.

  • Jamie

    Publications came out comparing her and her sister to prostitutes and showing them in sexualized positions (which to be fair, could have been showing an ankle or something. It was 1870 after all).

    So, could you demonstrate how she was presented by others at the time, or is this second hand reporting?

    I find this interesting, and would be more interested if I could see what was actually happening. Price of admission, etc. not telling you what to do.

  • Pingback: The Coming Woman, based on the life of Victoria Woodhull by Karen J. Hicks (Spotlight and Excerpt) | My Life. One Story at a Time.()

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