The high priestess of free love

Author Barbara Goldsmith traces spiritualism, which gave Victoria Woodhull and a number of prominent suffragist leaders the power and motivation to fight against society's limitations in a world surprisingly similar to ours.

By Suzette Lalime

Published March 12, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

At the time of the first convention of the woman's rights movement in Seneca Falls, N.Y., 150 years ago, it was safe for an American woman to assume that half of her babies would die in infancy. She well might die herself in childbirth -- contemporary science was just starting to hit upon basic concepts such as sterilization of medical instruments -- or from any number of rampant infectious diseases. Within 15 years of the 1848 convention, the slaughter of the Civil War would kill millions of sons, brothers and husbands. Death was a common and unsurprising occurrence in women's lives.

Not surprising, then, that many of the radical activists fighting for "woman's rights" were among the estimated 10 million people in the post-Civil War United States who believed in spiritualism, or the ability to communicate with the dead. A catharsis for those who were grieving for loved ones, spiritualism also embraced the theory of free love, a parallel movement that, according to author Barbara Goldsmith, "represented the ultimate expression of female liberation."

In "Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull," Goldsmith argues that a key to understanding the age of suffrage is understanding the influence of spiritualism, which empowered women whose channeled "spirit" voices had authority when their own social positions did not. It was just a short leap from leading seances in the homes of benefactors to demonstrating clairvoyant abilities in public halls, thereby enlarging the entrenched idea of home as "women's sphere." Acting on the strength of their spiritualist beliefs, suffragists turned their attention to the hypocritical legal standards that prevented them from being full participants in U.S. society. They demanded the vote.

Victoria Woodhull promoted views on women's rights that were at least a century ahead of her time. Married and divorced several times, Goldsmith's complex heroine was also a former prostitute and an advocate for prostitute's rights and had traveled the country as a channel for spirits. She was not afraid to oppose the sexual double standard; she spoke publicly against the institution of marriage, in which women, their children, their income and their inheritance became the legal property of their husbands. For this she was called "the high priestess of free love."

She was also "the adored wife who shared [her husbands' lives] ... the crusading editor, the San Francisco actress ... the founder of the first stock brokerage firm for women, the disciple of Karl Marx, the blackmailer, the presidential candidate, the sinner, the saint." Her oration skills led her to become the first woman to speak in front of Congress in 1871. The next year, when she ran for president against Horace Greeley and Ulysses S. Grant, she threatened to reveal the intimate details of her colleagues' dalliances with free love if they refused to support her candidacy. The paradoxes in Woodhull's character are brought into high relief by Goldsmith's vivid narrative, which follows the woman's rights movement and spiritualism through the Civil War to the late 1870s, the time of Reconstruction.

Goldsmith's illumination of the convenient spiritualist leanings of robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was having an affair with Woodhull's sister, Tennessee Claflin, is one surprising tidbit. In her guise as a medium, Woodhull offered Vanderbilt financial advice through her trances, resulting in his investment in the Central Railroad. "It was rumored," writes Goldsmith, "that the commodore had allocated profits on 3,000 shares, or $93,000, to Victoria and Tennessee. When the commodore was asked how he had made such astute financial decisions, he laughed and replied, 'Do as I do. Consult the spirits.'"

Salon caught up with Goldsmith just before her national book tour to discuss how death and sex were common concerns among Victorian activists.

What most impressed me about your book was how successfully you managed to make history come alive.

That was the most important thing to me. That is why it took me 10 years of reading -- down to details such as what was on dinner menus, what people were wearing. I absolutely hate what I call "faction," which is when you mix fiction with facts and call it nonfiction. It just won't do. I didn't make up anything; everything is documented 80 ways from Sunday.

The book is really meant to plunge the reader into that age. I read so many books that are just compendiums of dry facts, laundry lists. I suddenly realized that women like Susan B. Anthony were always depicted as these icy-cold, desiccated spinsters. When I started reading her letters, I just couldn't believe it!

She was such a firebrand!

She was a firebrand. Anthony was a real plain Quaker -- Elizabeth Cady Stanton called her "my stately Quaker girl." Everyone thought, she can't even get married. But she really refused to be married, though she had many suitors. She said she didn't want to be a "doll or a drudge," and those were her only two choices in marriage.

It was surprising to me how much the ideas of free love, suffrage and spiritualism were interwoven in that era. Can you talk a little about the sexual norms that gave rise to this dynamic?

This was a time when there was a deeply entrenched sexual double standard. A man who had 15 mistresses was glorified, and if a mother could marry her daughter to one of these profligate guys -- who would probably give her syphilis -- she thought she'd made a great match. For a man, adultery was thought of in terms of, "Isn't that great. He is so virile." For a woman, it brought a jail sentence. Women were always sexually suppressed. They were supposed to have pure thoughts. If they took any pleasure in sex, it was considered a terrible sin.

Victoria Woodhull rebelled against this hypocrisy. She said, let's hold men and women to the same standard. How can you put down passion and sexual feelings -- for women only -- when the whole universe revolves around it? For this she was called a free-lover, she was reviled, she was thrown in jail. Today she would have fit in so well. She was just 100 years ahead of her time. She achieved what contemporary women are still trying to achieve.

She had a very famous saying, "To preach the doctrine, you must live the life." If she lived today, she would say, "Don't just put on a little pink ribbon and say you are helping breast cancer. Don't put on a red ribbon and say, oh, isn't AIDS terrible. Go to the barricades and try to help."

Why do you think spiritualism and women's rights were so interwoven?

Spiritualism and the fight for women's rights both empowered women. But spiritualism gave them an extra little boost, because nobody listened to women. If you were a spiritualist, and you believed you could channel the words of Plato, Shakespeare, Aristotle, Demosthenes, for example, then you were empowered. You were speaking the words of great seers that everyone respected. It is not at all surprising that women's rights were on the minds of all these great dead people!

Also, the concept of spiritualism came at a time when the Civil War had decimated this country. It had taken husbands, friends, lovers. Many women could not live with the fact that they would never see these stalwart young men again. It was also the time when an invisible means of communication -- the Morse Code -- went across the country. People thought, why not have a spiritual telegraph? Then the veil between this world and those who have "passed over" will be torn away, and we will not lose these wonderful people.

You set up a vivid scene of a group of women in a home, listening to the raps from the spirit world and communicating with their children who had died.

In 1848, when the first Woman's Rights Convention convened at Seneca Falls, one child in every two died before the age of 5. So this was a terrible time -- typhoid, cholera, any number of diseases were common occurrences. Childbirth methods were very, very unsanitary, so infants died of terrible infections, mothers died of child-bed fever. At that time, many middle-class Victorian women had many, many children and lost many, many children.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who became a great feminist and a great supporter of Victoria Woodhull, came from a family of four boys and four girls. All four boys died. Her father, who was a very eminent judge, really treated Elizabeth as if she were a son. He would say, "Oh, Elizabeth, I wish you were a boy." And so she really wanted to be empowered the way men were empowered. When she became an adult, and suddenly she was told, sorry, no college in this country for a girl, put on your pretty dress and stop preaching abolition, she became very discontented and [that is] what made her so devoted to woman's rights.

The amount of scandal and corruption in that era -- even beyond Tammany Hall -- was surprising. Do you think it makes our scandals pale by comparison?

What an exciting time it was -- a time of robber barons, unscrupulous tycoons, all kinds of duels, murders, of usurping power and manipulating the government. But it wasn't a time so different from our own. Celebrities were worshipped and they could get away with anything: Commodore Vanderbilt, Jim Fisk, Boss Tweed. These people got head-of-the-line access, tons of money and all the power. Commodore Vanderbilt said, "What do I care for law? Ain't I got the power?" He did.

Into this corrupt mix came every kind of scandal we live with today. In 1872, when Victoria Woodhull ran against Greeley and Grant for president of the United States, Harriet Beecher Stowe said, "Whoever is set up to be president of the United States had better be prepared to have his shirt ripped off his back and to be dragged through every dirty pail of water like an old mop." Now, our presidential scandals have not changed. Not a bit. Whoever is set up to be president is dogged by people trying to pull that person's character to shreds.

Many of the people who had the money and power then seemed to have obtained them within a very short time. They were nouveau riche, the "new people," as Edith Wharton would later call them. It reminded me of those popular novels of the time, like the Horatio Alger books -- the ones that said, see, you can go to the big city and get rich.

But Horatio Alger was a very moral and respectable guy. This period much more parallels the 1980s, when guys who were selling insurance or stock or were doing computer work suddenly emerged as billionaires. All of a sudden, the party costs $2 million and there is nothing to show for it the next morning, and as you walk out the door of the fancy hotel, you see somebody sleeping on the street. That was a decade ago in America, and that also sounds a lot like the time I was writing about.

The pendulum is now, I think, beginning to swing back; it is not a time when people welcome that kind of ostentatious display anymore. It is creeping back. What hasn't changed, what really hurts America, is our obsession with celebrity and image as opposed to reality, so that a domestic scandal can push Iraq right off the front pages. So I hope that if there is a real threat to this country, we'll be aware of it and not be so living in our image of scandals, sex and all that, that we don't pay attention in time.

Suzette Lalime

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