Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull
VICTORIA WOODHULL was, among other things, a fortuneteller, Spiritualist, writer, publisher of her own weekly newspaper, mother, "free lover," lecturer, blackmailer, and, allegedly, a prostitute. She was also the first female stockbroker and the first woman to address Congress. An outsider and outcast from the women's suffrage movement, she is best remembered, if at all, as the first woman to run for president (in 1872). Yet, she barely manages a mention in most American histories of the period; in fact, Woodhull is barely discussed at all in Susan B. Anthony's and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's six-volume history of the suffrage movement. How could a woman who helped create a time be accorded so little space in its history?
This question has inspired two books on the life of Victoria Woodhull: Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull by journalist Mary Gabriel and Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull by Barbara Goldsmith. The first can be classified as a standard biography; the second fits more comfortably under the category of social history, placing Woodhull in the rich tableau of the American political scene during the tumultuous and scandal-ridden years after the Civil War.
Woodhull was born into a large, poor Midwestern family. Her father was a thief and con man who encouraged his daughters to earn their livings as prostitutes. Her mother tended their souls and the family finances by training them as Spiritualists. (Victoria reported communicating with the spirits of Demosthenes, Napoleon, and Josephine throughout her life and even "predicted" such tragedies as the assassination of Lincoln.) Woodhull's disastrous marriage produced a mentally retarded son, and Victoria blamed herself for having wed an alcoholic. Gabriel describes the effects of this miserable marriage with some poignancy and quotes Woodhull's conclusion that the constraints imposed by such a marriage proved a more insidious institution than prostitution: "'I realized from that day,'" Woodhull wrote of her wedding "'that I should wage war against this seething mass of hypocrisy and corruption, existing under the name of the present social system.'"
Ultimately, Victoria's fervent belief in "free love" and her refusal to back away from the issue precipitated her fall from grace. It also made Woodhull's life more lurid than Gabriel portrays in her Notorious Victoria. By contrast, in Other Powers (whose subtitle might be The Really Notorious Victoria), Goldsmith details an ugly blackmail scam that precipitated a break with Anthony, up until then her ally and defender. Desperate to recruit support for her presidential bid, Goldsmith explains how "Victoria had...compiled a set of 'slips' detailing sexual behavior of various individuals in the suffrage movement who she felt maligning her." Victoria's sources were none other than her former comrades, the leaders of the suffrage cause.
Goldsmith's nonromantic view of her subject succeeds in illuminating the social and sexual politics Woodhull fought by detailing the lives of characters who are only peripheral in Gabriel's book: the famous clergyman and secret philanderer Henry Ward Beecher, the theologian Theodore Tilton, the co-founder of the suffrage movement, Stanton, and, of course, Anthony. Though all three of these suffragists lived to ripe old ages, ironically, only Victoria Woodhull survived to see women finally win the vote some 50 years later. In the final reckoning, where Anthony was the organizer and Stanton was the stabilizer, Woodhull would be the great agitator--the Thomas Payne of women's emancipation.