Notorious Victoria

Megan Harlan reviews 'Notorious Victoria' by Mary Gabriel.

Published January 23, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

The most amazing thing about Victoria Woodhull, besides her too-unbelievable-for-fiction array of "firsts" -- she was, among other things, the first woman to run for president of the United States (in 1872, with abolitionist Frederick Douglass as her vice-presidential candidate); the first woman to operate a Wall Street brokerage firm; and the first woman to speak before a U.S. congressional committee -- is that it wasn't sexist Victorian-era men who destroyed her reputation and plotted to keep her out of history books, thus assuring her current obscurity. Instead it was her feminist "sisters," specifically such icons as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who, infuriated by Woodhull's departure from their ranks to create her own Equal Rights Party, deleted her accomplishments from the definitive accounts of early feminism. And it was none other than Harriet Beecher Stowe -- beloved author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and genteel women's rights activist -- who helped lambaste Woodhull in a series of trumped-up obscenity lawsuits that would eventually cost Woodhull her hard-earned fortune, her freedom (in several brief jail-terms) and her good name.

And what had Woodhull done to suffer such wrath? Her greatest travesty was to expose -- in her popular financial-cum-political-cum-feminist newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin Weekly -- the adulterous affairs of the conservative head of the American Woman's Suffrage Association, preacher Henry Ward Beecher. And then there was the matter of Woodhull's class and her racy, rollicking rise to power: Born impoverished in Ohio in 1838, she escaped her child-bride marriage to a womanizing alcoholic by becoming a traveling clairvoyant and spiritualist. With the help of her beautiful younger sister and lifelong cohort, Tennessee, Victoria nabbed multimillionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt as a "client" and generous mentor who would later provide backing for her brokerage firm. Finally, Woodhull offended the feminist mainstream by eloquently advocating "free love" and pillorying the inequities of marriage in an era when most feminists focused on women's voting rights.

Fortunately, not one of these players is romanticized or demonized by Gabriel, a Reuters correspondent. Her no-nonsense, prime-source-heavy narrative deftly sets Woodhull's remarkable biography within the political machinations of the Victorian era's feminist matriarchy. There's not a lily-white or faint-hearted woman in the lot -- least of all Woodhull, who, far from being a victim, comes across as someone who rose fast, played hardball and went down fighting. And perhaps the unpalatable aspect of such warfare to feminists of the women-are-nurturers school has contributed to Woodhull's virtual invisibility (the only other recent biography is Lois Beachy Underhill's 1995 "The Woman Who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull").

What Gabriel also highlights as extraordinary about Woodhull is her unerring individualism and bravery in bucking the system, whether male- or female-dominated. As such, she was obviously way ahead of her time -- and, in some ways, ahead of ours.

By Megan Harlan

Megan Harlan's writing has appeared in the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly. She lives in New York City.

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