A rebel against the sexual double standard

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A rebel against the sexual double standard

Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull
By Barbara Goldsmith
Granta, 1998 — 531 pp., $35.00 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for president of the USA, in 1872. She was also a spiritualist, an advocate of "free love", a disciple of Karl Marx, a "trance medium" for America's wealthiest capitalist, Cornelius Vanderbilt, a campaigner for women's suffrage, a one-time prostitute, and the founder of America's first stockbroking firm for women. Her views on free love brought her bucket-loads of scandal and persecution, courtesy of the political establishment and the "moral crusaders" of the day, who would make Fred Nile look like a broad-minded liberal.

Barbara Goldsmith's biography of Woodhull recounts the life of one of the most striking pioneers of the feminist suffrage struggle. Born Victoria Claflin in 1838 in Ohio, to an illiterate fortune-teller mother and a con-man and thief father, the young Victoria was "worked like a slave and whipped like a convict". For solace she turned to the world of "the spirits", seeing visions that promised deliverance from the violent slavery of her childhood, talking with the ghosts of her dead sisters and other experiences of the fantasy life of children.

At age 15, she eloped with the alcoholic Dr Woodhull and lived off her "para-normal" talents as a clairvoyant, a "medium" for "channelling" the dead and a faith healer. She even claimed the ability to perform resurrections!

Unable to endure her drunken husband, she married Colonel Blood, Civil War hero and spiritualist, supplementing her income from her para- normal bag of tricks with prostitution in her struggle to survive — until she met Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt was a notorious "robber baron" from the age of dynamic US industrial expansion. Vanderbilt bought up and looted existing railroads and everything else he could lay his hands on, making a fortune whilst creating nothing, a leech on the capitalist leeches who fattened off the labour of the worker.

Woodhull claimed to be able to "channel" Vanderbilt's mother and, in trance states, to deliver financial advice for Vanderbilt, who by 1877 had a personal fortune greater than the US government had in its treasury. Woodhull shared in Vanderbilt's profits.

Whilst her path to riches was being smoothed, however, Woodhull continued her advocacy of free love — a recognition of female sexual desire and satisfaction, the right for women to refuse sex inside or outside marriage, the right to free choice of different sexual partners, a revolt against the constraints of marriage and domestic slavery, and a protest against the treatment of women as property.

Woodhull pursued women's suffrage to achieve these rights. In 1871 she was invited to present her case for the female vote to the Judiciary Committee, composed of representatives of both houses of Congress, where controversial bills or issues were killed by study or neglect. Woodhull's plea fell on the stony ground of privilege.

A counterpoint to the failure of official channels in 1871 was the inspiration of the Paris Commune in March of that year. A workers' insurrection installed a revolutionary socialist government committed to, amongst other democratic principles, women's economic, social and political equality. Woodhull caught the fire of socialism, allied herself with American socialists and anarchists, and was made honorary president of Section 12 (one of two sections in the US) of the International Workingmen's Association headed by Marx and Engels, which organised the international solidarity of workers' struggles.

Woodhull reached out to the American proletariat, turning on her once benefactor Vanderbilt and other corporate titans: "It is a crime for a single person to steal a dollar, but a corporation may steal millions of dollars and be canonised as saints." Her newspaper, the Woodhull and Claflin Weekly, was responsible for the first publication in the US of the Communist Manifesto.

Woodhull also became involved with the National Women's Suffrage Association, the more radical of the two US women's suffrage bodies. The association combined calls for the vote for women with the struggle for the eight-hour working day for all workers, equal pay for women, marriage and divorce law reform and, under Woodhull's influence, free love.

Woodhull's radical socialist phase was short-lived, however. section 12, which she dominated, was an embarrassment to the International because Woodhull tried to convert it to spiritualism and tried to turn it from a working-class organisation for socialist struggle into an all-class organisation for liberal reform.

By 1872, it had become the home for all manner of fads, and its membership was almost exclusively middle class. Other sections of the International noted that the section 12 members were "more interested in Victoria Woodhull's 'dazzling eyes and free love' than the eight-hour day".

After section 12 was expelled from the International, Woodhull formed her own party — the Equal Rights Party — to become its candidate for president against the "utterly corrupt" Republican and Democrat parties in the 1872 election (women could not vote but they could run for and hold elected office).

The press and the "moral crusaders" all closed in on her, demonising her as "the Prostitute who ran for President". Speaking engagements were cancelled and her stockbroking firm went bust. Without labour movement support, Woodhull was forced to abandon active campaigning, receiving no votes (or none that were counted) in the wash-up.

Her treatment, however, fired her up for one last radical fling. She caused a major sensation by exposing as a hypocrite one of her main detractors Henry Ward Beecher. Woodhull revealed that Beecher, a prominent New York preacher of puritanism and sexual restraint, had had a secret affair with the wife of one of his parishioners.

Woodhull, the high priestess of free love, had the courage to practice openly what her critics practised covertly. Press, pulpit and the state all swung into action to punish Woodhull for her exposure of the double standard, persecuting her through the courts on draconian obscenity charges.

As Ulysses S. Grant was being elected on polling day, Woodhull was locked up in jail. Even though unable to testify in her own defence (women were not allowed to testify in court trials), Woodhull was found not guilty by a jury which had been won over by a tide of popular opinion that saw Woodhull as the victim of a frame-up.

The campaign against her had taken its toll, however, and she began a quick retreat from all she had stood for as a feminist and socialist. She lectured in favour of marriage and against free love. She went to England where she married a wealthy banker, began a conservative paper and attempted to purify her past. She died in the odour of respectability in 1927.

Goldsmith's book is disappointing. Her chatty journalese skims lightly over the core political issue, namely that Woodhull, the feminist, was an incomparably better radical when she was in touch, however briefly, with the trade union and socialist movements. After she forced a break with Marx's International and reverted to her middle-class ways — which promised rights to only women of wealth — Woodhull's support dwindled to the numerous but politically inconsequential spiritualists. The vote for women in the US was not won until 1920.

Despite this, Victoria Woodhull — suffragist and feminist rebel against the sexual double standard — has a colourful place in the fight for women's rights. Her "para-normal" aberrations and political meandering can distort but not detract from what was historically positive in her fascinating life.