"It is the nation's time": How women won the vote

The story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's battle for suffrage, and how even then, the GOP tried to divide women, blacks

Published August 18, 2013 5:00PM (EDT)

Excerpted from "Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis and Compromise, 1848-1877"

"Remember the ladies,” Abigail Adams had said, but it seemed that no one had. “I have argued with [Wendell] Phillips and the whole fraternity and all will favor enfranchising the negro without us,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton told Susan B. Anthony as soon as the war was over. “Woman’s cause is in deep water.”

For almost two decades Stanton had been passionately committed to securing equal rights for American women. The author of the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments that had been read at the Seneca Falls woman’s rights convention in 1848, which she had helped to organize, Stanton had been married for twenty-five years to Henry Brewster Stanton, a well-known abolitionist whom she had met at the home of her cousin Gerrit Smith. Defying stereotypes about women activists being mean, mannish, and unmarried, she had given birth to seven children; she was round and rosy; her hair was snow white, her manner amiable, her dress an unoffending and forgettable calico. Said a friend of the fossilized men who sat open-mouthed when Stanton appeared in public, “Our fossil is first amazed—next bewildered—then fascinated—then convinced—not exactly of the doctrine of woman’s suffrage, perhaps—but at any rate that a woman to be an advocate of that doctrine need neither be a fright nor a fury.”

As a girl, she had been accomplished in chess, horseback riding, Greek, and the law (her father was a judge), and now, at fifty years old, she had not forgotten being told she should study only French, music, and dance—or that her father wished she had been a boy. She hadn’t wanted to be a boy; she just wanted to be a person who enjoyed the same privileges.

Growing up in Johnstown, New York, she had been influenced by the remarkable evangelist Charles Grandison Finney, one of the burned-over district’s most charismatic preachers. At twenty-nine, while practicing law in Adams, New York, Finney had undergone a conversion experience during which he committed himself to teaching the Gospels. He was ordained three years later, in 1824. In cities such as Utica, Auburn, and Troy and then Boston and New York, he sermonized in a plain but vigorous evangelical style that galvanized listeners; speaking at a giant revival in Rochester, New York, he told his audience that each individual was a moral agent, that slavery was wrong—he refused to give communion to slaveholders—that liquor, tobacco, and caffeine were pernicious, and that men, and women too, could relinquish sin, renew themselves, and love God without intermediaries. He actually welcomed women into the prayer meeting, where they were invited to testify, and took his sense of equal rights to Oberlin College, a pioneering institution in coeducation that, regardless of race, admitted women as well as men. “Men came to Oberlin for various reasons,” the activist Lucy Stone would say, “women, because they had nowhere else to go.”

In 1840, while on her honeymoon, Stanton had been excluded from the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London, and from then on, her commitment to abolition had included or been superseded by her commitment to women’s rights. Along with Susan B. Anthony, during the war she had established the Women’s National Loyal League, a political organization like the male-only Union League, which had been founded to preserve the Union, but had also gathered support for emancipation, the Republican Party, the Thirteenth Amendment, and equal rights.

Stanton and Anthony hadn’t met until 1851, when the two women quickly discovered that they complemented each other perfectly; they remained political partners in the fight for women’s suffrage and equal rights for fifty years. “I forged the thunderbolts,” said Stanton, “and she fired them.” Stanton possessed a tremendous legal intelligence, Anthony a Herculean endurance, especially for those long trips on the road, riding in sooty trains, eating bad food, sleeping on hard beds in faraway places.

“No matter what is done or is not done, how you are criticized or misunderstood, or what efforts are made to block your path,” Anthony counseled a new generation of women, “remember that the only fear you need have is the fear of not standing by the thing you believe to be right.” That encouragement meant a great deal to the 1,500 persons gathered in Washington to listen to Anthony’s last public speech, delivered on her last birthday, and hear her firmly declare, “Failure is impossible.” Not long after Anthony died, in 1906, at the age of eighty-six, Gertrude Stein called her “the mother of us all.”

Yet failure was very possible, and she’d become accustomed to it. Unlike Stanton, Anthony did not come from wealth; just the opposite. Born in western Massachusetts in 1820, she moved with her Quaker family to upstate New York, where her father managed a cotton mill. During the Panic of 1837, he lost his job and just about everything else. Anthony, who had been in school near Philadelphia, came home to support her large family (she had seven siblings) by teaching. In 1845, after her father’s financial condition had improved and he bought a farm, she moved with her family to Rochester, New York, where she continued to teach in one school after another, earning less money than the male instructors.

While in Rochester, Anthony met the abolitionists Amy and Isaac Post and Frederick Douglass, people who fought not just for abolition but for women’s rights and equality for all. As a temperance reformer, she learned early on that though women were invited to meetings, they were told not to speak. So she spoke. Barbed and sarcastic, she made her positions clear: respect for woman’s work, equal opportunity and equal pay, liberalized divorce laws, and the ballot. Because she was a merciless organizer, she circulated petitions, she scheduled meetings to coincide with legislative events, she wrote pamphlets and traveled from county to county and state to state; it was easy to spot her in her gold-framed spectacles. She preferred to be photographed only in profile because of a wandering eye; she was not conventionally pretty or conventionally charming or conventionally dependent on anything or anyone.

In the last few years, the matter of rights for black people, for Southern poor whites, and for ex-Confederates—but not for women—was on the table, and by the spring of 1866, the women’s cause, as Stanton had said, was in deep water. So Anthony and Stanton, along with their allies in the abolitionist movement—including Frederick Douglass, Henry Ward Beecher, and the radical editor Theodore Tilton— formed the American Equal Rights Association for white and black men and women to lobby the government for universal equal rights for all, male and female, black and white. Eloquent as ever, Douglass declared, “The right of woman to vote is as sacred in my judgment as that of man, and I am quite willing at any time to hold up both hands in favor of this right.”

The path to securing that right had just been made more difficult, though: the Fourteenth Amendment had introduced the category of “male” into the Constitution, where it had never been used before. “If that word ‘male’ be inserted,” Stanton gloomily warned, “it will take us at least a century to get it out.”

Why not guarantee voting rights to all adult persons—or, better yet, to citizens? she wanted to know. “The disfranchised all make the same demand, and the same logic and justice which secures suffrage for one class gives it to all,” Stanton explained. She and Anthony hoped to have another friend in the popular orator Anna Dickinson. Douglass credited Dickinson, along with Theodore Tilton, for articulating what would become the Fifteenth Amendment, guaranteeing black male suffrage, and she was also praised for educating the public about it. But Dickinson linked arms with moderate Republicans, who, along with many former abolitionists, unceremoniously reminded Stanton and Anthony that this was the “Negro’s hour.” This was the nation’s hour, Stanton replied.

Everyone walks through the door or no one walks through the door, she said. Wendell Phillips disagreed with Stanton. The spokesman for the independent voter, the disenfranchised, and the cause of black equality, Phillips was not ready to speak up for women; he reiterated that the ladies’ turn would come; they just needed to wait. He did not object to the enfranchisement of women per se, he said, but he thought that campaigning for “woman suffrage” (as it was called) undercut the case for black males. One reform at a time. Stanton was furious. “If the two millions of southern black women are not to be secured in their rights of person, property, wages, and children,” she said, “then their emancipation is but another form of slavery.”

Horace Greeley too, once a supporter of woman suffrage, took a step back. “The ballot and the bullet go together,” he said, waving Stanton away. “If you vote, are you ready to fight?”

Stanton answered, “Yes, we are ready to fight, sir, just as you did in the late war, by sending our substitutes.”

Greeley was silent but never for long. “Public sentiment,” the editor soon explained more temperately, “would not sustain an innovation so revolutionary and sweeping.” The Negro’s hour would swiftly pass if nothing were done; Stanton should know that. Charles Sumner felt the same way. Her timing was “most inopportune,” he coldly explained. He categorically refused to have a black male voting bill “clogged, burdened, or embarrassed” by the likes of woman suffrage. The war had been fought for the enfranchisement of black men, not for women. True, many former slaves were women. Since making her famous speech, known popularly as “Ain’t I a Woman?,” that marvelous orator Sojourner Truth had been the representative of all blacks and especially of women; true, there were free black women such as Frances Watkins Harper, whose speeches had kept morale high during the war. That was irrelevant now. This was the Negro’s hour, which was to say the black man’s hour, even if black women would be doubly disenfranchised.

In the spring of 1867, at the first anniversary of the American Equal Rights Association in New York City, George T. Downing, an entrepreneur and leading black activist, asked Mrs. Stanton if she really believed that black men shouldn’t have the vote until women did. Everyone should have the ballot, she replied; Reconstruction without universal suffrage did not interest her. Equal rights for all. Frankly, she continued, she didn’t trust the “colored man” to safeguard her, a woman’s, rights. “Degraded, oppressed himself, he would be more despotic with the governing power than even our Saxon rulers are,” she explained. “I declare that we go into the kingdom together.”

Annoyed, Downing asked his question a different way: whether Mrs. Stanton would really reject half a good result—the enfranchising of men regardless of color—if women didn’t get the vote. Digging in her heels, she retorted with an argument that alienated some of her supporters, both then and now. “The wisest order of enfranchisement is to take the educated classes first,” she said. That is, why allow uneducated men to govern women? “Would Horace Greeley, Wendell Phillips, Gerrit Smith or Theodore Tilton be willing to stand aside and trust their individual interests, and the whole welfare of the nation to the lowest strata of manhood?” she asked. “If not, why ask educated women, who love their country, who desire to mould its institutions to the highest idea of justice and equality, who feel that their enfranchisement is of vital importance to this end, why ask them to stand aside while two million ignorant men are ushered into the halls of legislation?”

It was not her best moment. From the crowd, a woman’s voice shouted out, “Shame! Shame! Shame!”

* * *

While the members of the American Equal Rights Association were meeting in New York, Lucy Stone and her husband, Henry Blackwell, were in Kansas stumping for universal suffrage. The Kansas legislature had proposed two separate but related referenda to the state Constitution: one would grant black men the vote by removing the word “white” from the Constitution; the other would grant the vote to women by removing the word “male.” If both referenda passed in the fall of 1867, impartial suffrage, as it was called, would prevail on the Kansas plains—and from there, the sky was the limit. “Success in Kansas means success everywhere,” cried Blackwell.

Canvassing the entire state in the winter and spring of 1867, Stone and Blackwell were bumping along in oxcarts and open wagons— with or without springs—and traveling for as many as forty miles a day. It was hard work, but their spirits were high. “We climb hills and dash down ravines, ford creeks, and ferry over rivers,” Blackwell cheerily exclaimed, “rattle across limestone ledges, struggle through muddy bottoms, fight the high winds on the high rolling upland prairies, and address the most astonishing (and astonished) audiences in the most extraordinary places.” Stone excitedly telegraphed the members of the American Equal Rights Association meeting back in New York: “Kansas rules the world!”

But all was not well. “A persistent effort has been made by the enemies of female suffrage,” commented a Kansas newspaper editor, “to get up a fight between that and negro suffrage.” Pitting women against black men seemed a ploy engineered by the enemies of both movements, even though, it was true, there was already friction between them, and Kansans who openly opposed giving the vote to women had already formed an anti-woman suffrage league. And that league sought help from the Republican State Committee, which sent out speakers to defeat the women—including one man who stood up at a woman suffrage meeting to ask whether men really wanted old maids to vote.

This sort of prejudice was not confined to Kansas. Women agitating for the right to vote had to be crabby spinsters without the power that was a woman’s true strength. “I do not believe in suffrage for women,” said Jessie Benton Frémont. “I think women in their present position manage men better.” Anyway, didn’t women acquire power from some separate and higher sphere? Wouldn’t voting therefore demean women? “As to woman’s rights, I have always found privileges much better things,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sister chastised his daughter. “I do not like your saying that you ‘suppose many women would vote as well as most men,’” she continued. “It is placing women whose mental endowments make them the eminent and enviable few, put on a level with the herd of mediocre men.”

When Stone and Blackwell left Kansas and returned to the East, Olympia Brown, the country’s first female minister, took their place. So did Stanton and Anthony. They too traveled as many as twenty-five or thirty miles daily, speaking in every county and every school district, sometimes twice a day. They slept in farmhouses, drank sorghum instead of coffee, chewed moldy green biscuits, and hauled with them speeches, documents, tracts. Their male allies in the American Equal Rights Association—Phillips, Beecher, Tilton—did not join them. “I have often found men who, if you could believe their words, were ready to die for the negro,” Olympia Brown grimly reflected, “but would at the same time oppose bitterly any engagement of women’s opportunity or sphere.” Tilton offered to print only one editorial in The Independent. Beecher was busy writing a novel for which he had been paid a $30,000 advance. Phillips was on vacation. The men signed a petition on the women’s behalf; that was all.

Anthony tried Anna Dickinson. She was home in Philadelphia, sick. “If only Anna E. Dickinson could make ten or 15 of the strong points—we should feel sure,” Anthony tried again. Dickinson did not budge. Recalled the rueful Olympia Brown, “We had no party, no organization, no money.” Until, that is, the ostentatiously rich George Francis Train blew into town in October, offered to fund the campaign, hop on the Kansas trail, and save the day.

A colorful and very controversial man, the Boston-born Train had been orphaned at four years old, in 1833, after his father, mother, and three sisters had died of yellow fever. Raised by his grandparents in Waltham, Massachusetts, Train, as a boy, had heard the esteemed master of self-reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson, deliver one of his rousing speeches, and taking to heart Emerson’s injunction to build your own world, he had gone to work for a relative in the shipping business in Liverpool. That didn’t satisfy him, so he made his way to the gold rush town of Melbourne, Australia, where he started his own firm, dispatched the first clipper ships to California, served champagne in his office, and frequently sent off vivid journalistic reports to the Boston Post about commerce—and about his travels to Java, Singapore, and Shanghai.

Back in America, after speculating in contraband cotton during the war, Train bought shares in the Union Pacific Railroad and concocted a system, which he called the Crédit Mobilier of America, to capitalize the Union Pacific and secure land rights from the government for its expansion. He grew even wealthier. By 1868, at the age of thirty-eight, he had built the Train Villa in Newport, Rhode Island. It contained several green-tinted billiard rooms, bowling alleys, sumptuously sculpted flower gardens, and a huge guesthouse for his father-in-law. He drew the line at the six carriages his family used when driving around town, which he considered wasteful. The upkeep of the showplace cost $2,000 a week. The Gilded Age was well under way.

And he was its barker, “an American in excess,” said a contemporary.

Part Emerson and part P. T. Barnum, Train possessed a gift for platform histrionics that turned staid New England rectitude on its head. Wearing lavender kid gloves, a blue dress coat with brass buttons, white vests, and shiny patent-leather shoes, he rambled, he clowned, he cajoled, he blustered, and he mesmerized his audience for as many as two and a half hours with his jokes and his causes: Irish home rule, soft (paper) money, eight-hour working days—and woman suffrage. He was a madman, a mountebank, a cracked crusader. He vied with Mark Twain for the stage—their names were occasionally confused, much to Twain’s annoyance. “The same God that made George Francis Train made also the mosquitoes and the rats,” Twain remarked. But Train believed himself destined to become president of the United States.

“He is a highly exaggerated type of our people and country,” an acquaintance said, “and has all the energy, boldness, independence, irrepressibleness, that are popularly supposed to belong to the Anglo-Saxon race.” True enough, Train was an American of his time and place. And accordingly, he was a robust racist. Years earlier, at Faneuil Hall, while Charles Sumner was praising Lincoln’s preliminary emancipation proclamation, Train interrupted to harangue Sumner, who, Train said, “could speak of nothing but the ‘sublime n----r.’”

Train thus seemed an unlikely—if not horrible—choice to help Stanton and Anthony in Kansas. But Stanton did not care if Train was a bigot or a boob. He put his money and his showmanship at suffrage’s disposal. “If the Devil steps forward to help,” she declared, “I shall say good fellow come on!” The Republicans had sabotaged women. Train understood that. “The Garrisons, Phillipses, Greeleys, and Beechers,” he sang, “False prophets, false guides, false teachers and preachers, / Left Mrs. Stanton, Miss Anthony, Brown, and Stone / To fight the Kansas battles alone.”

Why, then, shouldn’t she seek help from Train? Stanton’s friends were appalled. Train was a Copperhead with a reputation as a huckster who entertained audiences by pandering to their basest fears, warning them that with black male Negro suffrage, “we shall see some white woman in a case of negro rape being tried by 12 negro jurymen.” Stanton replied, “Suppose George Francis Train had devoted his time & money for three months to the negro as he has to the woman, would not the abolitionist on all sides be ready to eulogize & accept him, of course they would. Do they ignore everyone who is false to woman? By no means.” To her, those former abolitionists who hugged the higher law failed to admit how they’d been willing to compromise; let him who was without sin cast the first stone. “I would not talk of negroes or women,” she also pointed out. “I would talk of citizens. That is where Wendell Phillips failed; he should have passed from the abolitionist into the statesman, instead of falling back to the Republican platform.”

Though Train may have damaged the Kansas campaign, it’s likely that neither referendum would have won in any case, and neither did. “It was not the woman suffrage question that killed the negro question,” Susan B. Anthony summed up. “It was the Republican leaders—the Republican party leaders, who killed negro suffrage, and woman suffrage, too. Had these men been true and brave, had they been willing to have carried out their principles, and made an application of these principles to women as well as to the black men in the State of Kansas, neither the black man’s question nor the woman’s question would have been defeated.” As far as Anthony was concerned, the Republicans had thrown the black man overboard, and the female rats had known when to leave a sinking ship.

In other words, there was plenty of blame to go around.

* * *

With Train covering their expenses, Anthony and Stanton went back east, delivering speeches all the way from Omaha to Boston. Once in New York, they launched a weekly newspaper, The Revolution, again with Train’s money, to be edited by the abolitionist Parker Pillsbury. Train’s subsidy didn’t last long, but his racism continued to alienate former friends and delight enemies.

Still, Anthony and Stanton had refused to denounce him. Nor did they, as it turned out, move from suffrage to statesmanship. Their rhetoric was disconcerting, patronizing, xenophobic. In St. Louis, Anthony told an audience, “When you propose to elevate the lowest and most degraded classes of men to an even platform with white men—with cultivated, educated, wealthy white men of the State—it is certainly time for you to begin to think at least whether it might not be proper to lift the wives, daughters, and mothers of your State to an even pedestal.” The next year, Stanton said without compunction, “Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a Monarchy and a Republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book, making laws for Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble.

“Would these gentlemen who, on all sides, are telling us ‘to wait until the negro is safe’ be willing to stand aside and trust all their interests in hands like these?”

Such an argument played into the hands of the most bigoted of the Democrats, for sure, but Stanton and Anthony were angry, resentful, indignant. Frederick Douglass tried to smooth out relations with them in New York in the spring of 1869. Speaking before a crowd in Steinway Hall at the American Equal Rights Association annual meeting, he affirmed his friendship for Stanton and his respect for her—there was no greater advocate of equal rights, he said—but he just could not embrace her use of such unfortunate terms as “Sambo.”

Moreover, he could not see how anyone could pretend that giving the vote to women was as urgent as it was to black men. “When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans,” he said, “when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms, and their brains dashed out upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.”

The leonine-headed Douglass ardently made his points. Then a woman shouted from the back of the hall, “Is that not all true about black women?”

“Yes, yes, yes; it is true of the black woman,” he answered, “but not because she is a woman, but because she is black.”

Such was the argument, the quandary, the political koan: was it fair, right, practical to put black men ahead of women, all women, if one had to choose? Did one have to choose? Could fairness, justice, and expedience be separated? Should they? The dilemma split men and women of goodwill, it ruffled feathers and assumptions. Clara Barton, who had worked without stop during the war and afterward, taking medicine and succor and information to the wounded and their families, believed women should vote, yet she too felt obliged to put black men ahead of women; how not? There were “thousands of hungry Negroes men & women & children at our doors,” she explained, “thousands upon thousands waiting in fear, trembling and uncertainty all through the South, surrounded by an enemy as implacable as death, and cold as the grave.” To her, giving the black men the vote might stop the brutal murders and beatings inflicted on the entire black population.

Then there was, yet again, the matter of politics. In 1868 General Grant had been elected president, but he’d won by only 300,000 votes. Both moderate and Radical Republicans saw the Democratic handwriting on the wall. If they did not pass federal legislation to secure the black man the vote, the Republicans would lose elections—and fail to complete the work that the war had begun: not just to save the Union but to reconstruct it. The ladies had to wait, and ladies, ladylike, should do so.

* * *

Though the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 did enfranchise the black man—“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”—the amendment said nothing about protecting or enforcing that right. It did not prevent any state from adopting restrictions that might deprive the freedman of his ability to cast his ballot. Nor did its language acknowledge the terrorist techniques, the murders, the beatings, and the threats already used to frighten black voters in the South. The freedman could be asked whether he owned property, whether he could read or write, whether he knew how many bubbles were contained in a bar of soap. Yet Wendell Phillips, for one, realized that a broader amendment was further than most people were willing to go. Compromising, Phillips urged his radical friends not to oppose the Fifteenth Amendment if for no other reason than as an act of common political sense.

After the Fifteenth Amendment passed both houses, establishing the right to vote “regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” the American Anti-Slavery Society disbanded. In May 1870 Congress did try to look after the black voter with an enforcement bill aimed to safeguard him and his right to vote, and Phillips promised he’d keep up the good fight to ensure black men their rights. And to work for women.

But because the Fifteenth Amendment had excluded them, Elizabeth Cady Stanton denounced it as enacting what she called “an aristocracy of sex.” The amendment might be hailed as creating a national citizenship—a national citizen—in a unified nation, but women had been specifically discounted by that body politic. She and Anthony therefore moved in a different direction that, though it included the ballot, also projected a reconstructed American society: where women and men could be treated equally, where women could earn the same wages for the same work, where they could go to college if they wanted or, as Margaret Fuller had put it so many years before, become sea captains if they wished.

For a short time, they embraced the National Labor Union, a reform organization founded in 1866, and hoped that together they might work outside the Republican Party and outside the Democratic Party too, if necessary, and link up with working-class women. “We think our national life does not depend on any party but on the safety, sobriety and education of its citizens,” Stanton declared. In addition, she and Anthony organized the New York–based National Woman Suffrage Association, with herself as its initial president and its membership mainly educated (white) women.

Its membership did not include Lucy Stone. She disagreed with Stanton, disliked Anthony, and hated to discuss such distracting topics as labor laws or divorce, especially before black men had the vote. Yet she too was an indefatigable activist, the first woman in Massachusetts to earn a bachelor’s degree—at Oberlin College—and a superlative organizer and marvelous orator with a low, pleasing voice. She had insisted on keeping her name in marriage—she had consulted Salmon Chase about the legal ramifications—but she was more conservative on social issues than either Stanton or Anthony. She believed that changing the divorce laws, for instance, would permit men to abandon women. And she’d been completely scandalized by Stanton and Anthony’s alliance with George Francis Train.

Calculating the harm done by Train’s involvement in woman suffrage and, worse, by Stanton’s opposition to the Fifteenth Amendment, and furious when she learned that the National Woman Suffrage Association had been formed behind her back, as it seemed to her, Stone established a dissident movement, initially in New England, that included the notables of the abolition movement, such as William Lloyd Garrison and Thomas Higginson as well as the lively journalist Mary Livermore and new convert Julia Ward Howe, still famous as the author of the “Battle-hymn of the Republic.” That was the core of the American Woman Suffrage Association. As its executive committee disingenuously said, it had been organized “without depreciating the value of Associations already existing.” But its very existence did deprecate Stanton and Anthony.

Unlike the rival organization, the American Woman Suffrage Association did not push for restructuring the relationship between men and women; ultimately and despite their very real, deep, and utter commitment to woman suffrage and civil rights, those liberal white men and women were reformers, not radicals. They wanted to create a broad-based national alliance focusing mainly on the ballot box and steering clear of such polemical topics as divorce, prostitution, contraception, and women’s control over their own bodies. Yet the two groups did share a great deal, as Theodore Tilton knew, and in the spring of 1870, when he proposed their merger, many well-known white and black advocates of woman suffrage such as Lucretia Mott, Gerrit Smith, Samuel May, and Harriet Tubman met the proposal with what seemed like relief. But James Redpath, the veteran of Bleeding Kansas who now ran a Boston lecture agency, wryly noted, “The attempt to reform reformers is a hopeless one.” Whittier too was dubious. No good comes of meddling, he reminded Tilton; that was too bad, he continued, since all the strife just made sport for the Philistines.

Whittier and Redpath turned out to be right. The Boston secessionists, as Stanton privately called Stone’s group, would never agree to any merger, and as it happened the two factions wouldn’t unite for another twenty years. For his pains, Tilton was called a busybody. And the Philistines did in fact begin to gather, particularly once the accusation of free love was hurled at the woman’s movement—which made Stone all the more eager to separate herself from the National Woman Suffrage Association.

The question batted about ever since was whether the rupture in the suffrage movement cost women the vote, which they would not receive for another fifty years. Perhaps; but the call for equal rights for women, like so much other reform, had already lost steam in the aftermath of war. Higginson, who had joined the Boston group, might foolishly call the nineteenth the woman’s century, and Tilton may have declared in The Independent that after abolition, woman suffrage was the next great movement, but the fact was that people were tired of causes, tired of speeches, tired of platforms and planks. The hour was not the Negro’s or the woman’s; it belonged to retrenchment.

Men who supported women’s suffrage were called long-haired “Aunt Nancys.” “The Revolution,” carped one journalist, “is edited by two old and ugly ladies, Mr. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mrs. Parker Pillsbury, and published by Mr. Susan B. Anthony.”

Yet a black man voting seemed a far less dumbfounding spectacle than a woman doing so. Stanton was not wrong about this; the so-called aristocracy of sex did exist. Since free black men had been walking on the streets of Boston, New York, and Brattleboro, riding the streetcars in Washington, working on the docks of Baltimore and San Francisco, the idea of those men voting, despite the color of their skin, was not as alarming as that of a woman with political power. They were, after all, men. So Stanton tried to reassure the critics. Giving women the ballot did not sully women, demoralize marriage, or wreck the home, she said; it did not render men an appendage of the dinner pot and washtub. But not many people wanted to listen.

* * *

Women already possessed the right to vote: so said Mrs. Satan, an extraordinary individual from Ohio who, married at fifteen to an alcoholic, was a faith healer, a fortune-teller, a vagabond, a seller of patent medicines and contraception, a stockbroker, and the mother of two. With insouciance, she declared, “A woman is just as capable of making a living as a man”—and just as capable of running a banking house as selling ribbons and thread. It was Thomas Nast who caricatured Victoria Woodhull as Mrs. Satan, the female devil; that’s how powerful, for a brief time, she seemed.

Neither maternal and brainy like Elizabeth Cady Stanton nor a small workhorse like Lucy Stone, Victoria Claflin Woodhull was another grandiose American, excessive and homegrown: she was a proud, sexy, modern woman who resembled the dynamo that Henry Adams would later use to represent the era and not the Virgin with which he romanticized it. “In this age of rapid thought and action, of telegraphs and railways,” acknowledged Susan B. Anthony, “the old stage coach won’t do.” Woodhull was a steam engine, slick and smart and determined to get wherever she wanted to go. She also had the help, she said, of friendly spirits—one of whom, the Greek orator Demosthenes, provided her with stock tips.

While Theodore Tilton was ineffectually trying to arrange a marriage between the two suffrage groups, Woodhull said she was running for president of the United States, and she wasn’t joking any more than George Francis Train had been; the United States seemed up for grabs. Like Train, Woodhull was no stranger either to controversy or dissent or self-invention. She and her attractive sister Tennessee “Tennie” had already opened a brokerage firm on Wall Street, presumably with the financial assistance of the powerful, lonely tycoon Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who reputedly visited Woodhull to make contact with the spirit world.

To Isabella Beecher Hooker, a sister of the Reverend Beecher, Woodhull seemed “heaven sent for the rescue of woman from her pit of subjection.” When the more squeamish took offense at Woodhull’s cheek, Elizabeth Cady Stanton told Lucretia Mott, “We have had enough women sacrificed to this sentimental, hypocritical prating about purity.” If Victoria Woodhull be brash, so be it; if she be crucified, Stanton said, it wouldn’t be by women: “Let men drive the spikes.” Which they would—with Woodhull’s help.

In the winter of 1871, the glamorous, wealthy Woodhull delivered a paper, reputedly written by Benjamin Butler, in Washington that claimed that women already had the right to vote. Butler, who had labeled the hostile women of New Orleans prostitutes, was the Republican congressman of uncertain reputation who had spearheaded the impeachment charges against Johnson and, after the death of Thaddeus Stevens, had assumed the Radicals’ mantle. Brilliant if often unscrupulous, meretricious, and untrustworthy, he may also have been Woodhull’s lover. In any case, he was her advocate and helped her snag a face-to-face meeting with the House Judiciary Committee; Woodhull was the very first woman to appear there.

She was modishly clad in a navy blue cloth jacket and skirt and a steeple-crowned hat with a “brigandish dash to it,” as a journalist reported. Thanks to the Fourteenth Amendment, Woodhull cogently argued, woman could vote; the Fourteenth Amendment had declared all persons born or naturalized in the United States to be citizens, and all citizens have a constitutional right to vote protected by that amendment. Under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the thirty-two-year-old Woodhull continued, women were citizens, and no distinction between citizens was made on account of sex. It was a good argument.

The Judiciary Committee wouldn’t touch it and decided instead that such issues should be settled by the courts and the states, not by the federal government. The buck was passed, ironically so; the committee invoked the doctrine of states’ rights, which had become Reconstruction’s fallback strategy. Yet if the issue lay dormant, Woodhull was not without recourse. She and her sister were publishing Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, a newspaper—reportedly funded by Commodore Vanderbilt—to discuss politics, finance, and women’s rights. It serialized a novel by George Sand, published the first U.S. edition of The Communist Manifesto in 1871, and talked about abortion, divorce, prostitution, and free love with a brashness that reached far beyond the radicalism of The Revolution, which was broke and would soon cease publication. A cross between a scandal sheet, a penny dreadful, a revolutionary tract, and a literary and political journal of serious intent, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly had within its first year a circulation of 20,000. Detractors said there was nothing in it but “the fraudulent, the rotten, the mushroom and the speculative.”

In addition to the paper, Woodhull had Woodhull. A confident, galvanizing speaker in the manner of Anna Dickinson, whether addressing congressmen or a large crowd, she appeared composed, well dressed, well spoken. Her comportment, in fact, surprised those who came to gawk at the lascivious radical who was acquiring a controversial reputation as a free-loving renegade so outré that some women would not share a stage with her at a women’s suffrage meeting. Yet she gamely expounded her views. “She who marries for support and not for love, is a lazy pauper, coward, and prostitute,” she wrote. Women, she said, should be able to control their own bodies. Women should be able to love whom they pleased. “To love is a right higher than Constitution or laws,” she proclaimed. Invoking the language of higher laws, she claimed sexual freedom to be the new abolition. “Sexual freedom means the abolition of prostitution both in and out of marriage,” she said, “the emancipation of woman from sexual slavery and her coming into ownership and control of her own body.”

Actually, the doctrine of the higher law had already reentered the public conversation in similar dress when Henry Ward Beecher himself had been accused of endorsing it after he had presided at the deathbed wedding of Abby Sage McFarland and her lover, Albert Richardson. A war correspondent, Richardson had been shot at close range in the Tribune office by Daniel McFarland, Abby McFarland’s abusive husband, whom she’d divorced in Indiana. But since New York State did not recognize Indiana’s so-called quickie divorces, Abby McFarland was a bigamist in the eyes of the press and Beecher an enabler, a man as guilty of a crime as she was. “Beecherism—or the higher law,” sneered The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “means merely that each man is to believe and do in all things about as he feels like doing, regardless of all recognized moral codes or legal provisions.”

Moral codes and legal provisions buttressed assumptions about women’s place in the home, the body politic, the world. But, asked the radicals, were these assumptions divinely ordained? The freedom to love was a human right, wasn’t it, and as such, greater than statutes devised by fallible men eager to preserve the status quo? Lucy Stone and the American Woman Suffrage Association wanted to sidestep the issue and distance themselves at all costs from Woodhull and the specter of free love. “Be not deceived,” the Woman’s Journal admonished in 1870, “—free love means free lust.”

Free love routed the church, the state, the home, the family— although when Woodhull rose to speak at a National Woman Suffrage Meeting, she assured her listeners that “I have asked for equality, nothing more.” Again Woodhull was clear, unfaltering, and strong, but the audience outside Steinway Hall in New York, where she spoke, was not ready for her or the resolution read aloud after she left the stage: “All laws shall be repealed which are made by Government to interfere with the rights of adult individuals to pursue happiness as they may choose.”

That statement was evidently written by Woodhull’s friend or lover, the anarchist Stephen Pearl Andrews. An abolitionist and pioneering free-love radical who supposedly invented the word “scientology” in 1871, Andrews had once run a commune in a New York City brownstone where Edmund Stedman, the war journalist and poet (now a banker) had briefly lived. He had also presided over a free-love discussion in antebellum New York and had crossed swords on the topic with Horace Greeley and Henry James, Sr., who, despite their own radicalism, were bested by this progressive and amazing man, whose views were considered noxious.

Andrews and Woodhull would not be silenced. As seductive as she was lucid and poised, Woodhull announced in The New York Times in the spring of 1871, “I advocate free love in the highest, purest sense, as the only cure for the immorality, the deep damnation by which men corrupt and disfigure God’s most holy institution of sexual relations.” Republicans were fast falling away, again accusing women who agreed with her as unsexed suffrage shriekers or of being as uncouth and uncultivated as Woodhull. Former supporters such as Republican representative James A. Garfield made sure to distance themselves from suffrage. Horace Greeley advised dumping “the Woodhull,” as his Tribune called her. “Sooner or later she will resign the craft to the bottom,” the paper said, “if she is not thrown overboard.” The San Francisco Chronicle, usually temperate in its disagreement with “those respectable women who spend their lives in agitation for political privileges,” exploded in a white heat: “For these brazen Amazons of the Victoria Woodhull type,” the paper fulminated, “we have only the contempt and disgust which is due the exhibition of their vile doctrines and worse practices.”

Sexuality had been a troubling issue for reformers, who had nonetheless been adept at using it strategically. Abolitionists had publicized the rape of black women by their white masters to inflame the North and more recently white supremacists (and George Train) claimed that in a free society black men would be free to rape white women. Lucy Stone, who believed the mere mention of sex could bring down the suffrage movement, sought to keep it locked in her bourgeois house. She knew her enemies: not just male egoists or defenders of the status quo but women like another of the reverend’s sisters, Catharine Beecher, who for years taught women the art of genteel domesticity to keep them safe from the suffrage movement and all its nasty, undomestic, sexually powerful implications.

Catharine Beecher happily signed a petition against female suffrage and asked “is woman suffrage contrary to common sense?” to which she replied with a resounding yes. Harriet Beecher Stowe, her sister, was also offended by Woodhull, whom she mocked as the short-haired, loudmouthed character in her novel, My Wife and I. Woodhull was Audacia Dangyereyes, a bully who “cuts the very ground from under the whole woman movement; for the main argument for proposing it was to introduce into politics that superior delicacy and purity which women manifest in public life.”

Woodhull refused to be intimidated. And she was happy to retaliate. “Two of your sisters have gone out of their way to assail my character both by means of the public press and by numerous private letters,” she notified the Reverend Beecher. “You doubtless know that it is in my power to strike back.” She made her meaning quite clear in her paper. “One man, a public teacher of eminence, lives in concubinage with the wife of another public teacher of almost equal eminence,” she wrote. “All three concur in denouncing offenses against morality.” She could incriminate the lot of them.

Woodhull had learned that Beecher had been having a protracted affair with his parishioner the petite and pious Elizabeth Tilton, who happened to be the wife of Theodore Tilton. Mrs. Tilton had confessed the two-year-long adultery to her astonished husband back in the summer of 1870. Reeling, Tilton had told several friends, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Recriminations, confessions, and retractions were lobbed back and forth between the Tiltons and Beecher. Then the affair was more or less hushed up. But Theodore Tilton, who evidently learned that Woodhull knew of the affair, tried to keep her quiet by writing a biographical panegyric about her of ridiculously flattering proportions. “Such a book is a tomb from which no author again rises,” laughed Julia Ward Howe when the puff piece appeared. It was true; subscriptions to The Independent, his paper, melted away.

But Woodhull hadn’t sufficiently frightened Beecher, and when he refused to introduce her before one of her lectures, she took aim. On October 28, 1872, she and her sister published a special edition of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly and blew the lid off the affair. Woodhull was declaring aggressive moral warfare against such phony reformers as Tilton and Beecher, who, as she said, were really free-lovers.

After Commodore Vanderbilt had presumably stopped supporting it—assuming he ever had—Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly had barely limped along. But now readers were paying as much as forty dollars for one copy of the salacious “Beecher-Tilton Scandal Case,” and by the end of the week more than 150,000 copies of Woodhull’s paper had been sold. Beecher’s Plymouth Church, on the Sunday after the story broke, was brimming with so-called worshippers.

Then down came Anthony Comstock on the sisters. A rising star in the antipornographic crusade that would take hold at the end of the century, Comstock had been a Civil War veteran and loner whose celebrated name would become synonymous with moral priggishness. (George Bernard Shaw, in 1905, said that Comstock would likely ban his play Mrs. Warren’s Profession from the stage because Comstock cringed even at the site of a naked baby.) A New Englander in New York City, among its prostitutes and vile weekly newspapers, only ten cents a copy, and the saloons and bordellos that were, to him, eroding the moral fabric of the city, Comstock was placed at the head of a secret committee for the suppression of vice at the Young Men’s Christian Association, funded in part by the banker and philanthropist Morris K. Jesup. In that capacity, Comstock was able to have Victoria Woodhull and her sister arrested for sending obscene literature through the U.S. mail. George Francis Train rushed to pay the sisters’ bail, but they declined his offer. Woodhull said that from the first she had known that she must suffer for the sake of her conscience, and bail would spoil that.

Though Woodhull and Claflin were exonerated, the scandal further stigmatized the cause of woman’s suffrage as located somewhere between degradation and tomfoolery but something nonetheless to be punished, banned, censored, and at all costs avoided. Even so, in large part The Woman’s Journal, the newspaper of the American Woman Suffrage Association, continued its campaign. Still, when one of its contributors was later invited to write a column about women’s issues for Harper’s Bazaar, he was explicitly told not to mention suffrage.

The Woodhull-Beecher scandal hurt both the National and the American Woman Suffrage Associations; Beecher had been president of the latter, Tilton president of the former, and worse yet, in 1872 Woodhull had campaigned for president of the entire United States on a woman suffrage ticket. Yet while women from both organizations, including Susan B. Anthony, wondered if Woodhull was a confidence artist who had exploited suffrage to aggrandize herself, Elizabeth Cady Stanton noted, with a light touch of irony, that “all the agitation has helped in some way. The free love scandal has made suffrage respectable.”

It did not make it respectable enough. Woodhull continued to supply more grist for the journalists’ mill. Publicized for weeks in Woodhull’s own newspaper as well as papers nationwide, the scandal and its aftereffects precipitated a major retreat from the suffrage ranks. “We need every clean soul to help us, now when such a flood of what is fatal to the peace, and purity of the family, is rolled in on our question,” said the frustrated Lucy Stone. “My one wish in regard to Mrs. Woodhull is, that [neither] she nor her ideas, may be so much as heard at our meeting.” That time Stone’s reason was not prudery, or at least not prudery alone; she knew she had to dissociate suffrage from the inevitable Woodhull backlash to save the cause. “Died of Free Love,” one newspaper announced, “The Woman Suffrage Movement.”

In 1874 a desperate Tilton sued Beecher for alienating his wife’s affections. After a trial that lasted for six gossipy, hysterical months, with the national papers incessantly hawking the story of failed friendship and of free love and lawlessness, the jury could reach no verdict. Tilton moved to France. Elizabeth Tilton was left alone with her children, without money, growing blind, and clinging to spiritualism to see what she could no longer physically see. Beecher returned to the pulpit. Lucy Stone focused most of her attention on the Woman’s Journal though she continued to lecture. In 1879 she registered to vote under the Massachusetts law that allowed women to vote in school elections, but because she registered as Lucy Stone, not Mrs. Lucy Blackwell, her name was erased from the rolls.

Embroiled in lawsuits and evicted from their luxurious East 38th Street townhouse, in 1876 the sisters Woodhull and Claflin sailed to England, where both of them successfully remarried—Victoria Woodhull to a conservative British banker.

Like Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton continued to lecture, but mainly she wrote; she composed a history of the entire suffrage movement and a monumental two-volume Women’s Bible. Susan B. Anthony kept traveling across America as a suffrage speaker. In Rochester, in the fall of 1872, she tried to cast her ballot in the presidential election. Arrested, convicted, and fined, she never served a day in jail and never paid the fine; rather, she trooped on, becoming the mother of us all.

Excerpted from "Ecstatic Nation" by Brenda Wineapple. © 2013 Brenda Wineapple. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

By Brenda Wineapple

Brenda Wineapple is the prize-winning author of several books, including "White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson," a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and a New York Times Notable Book.

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