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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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