OTHER POWERS: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. <i> By Barbara Goldsmith</i> .<i> Alfred A. Knopf: 536 pp., $30</i> : NOTORIOUS VICTORIA.<i> By Mary Gabriel</i> .<i> Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill: 372 pp., $24.95</i>
Of all the fabled 19th century characters on whose works the relative emancipation of American woman can be said to rest, none was more famous in her own time, nor more forgotten later, than Victoria Claflin Woodhull. Spiritualist, suffragist, editor and financier, Woodhull achieved a string of female “firsts” that included opening a Wall Street brokerage firm in 1870, addressing a congressional committee in 1871 and running for president in 1872. Yet in the written histories of the women’s movement, she barely exists.
The reason for her excision is not hard to grasp: Woodhull was a sexual, political and economic radical for whom the vote was only a detail in a sweeping vision of social freedom whose central tenet was free love. “Yes! I am a Free Lover!” she proclaimed in a widely publicized speech in New York’s Steinway Hall. “I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love for as long or as short a period as I can, to change that love every day if I please!” “Died of Free Love . . . The Woman Suffrage Movement,” reported one newspaper headline soon after.
Woodhull was also the first American publisher of “The Communist Manifesto,” the head of an American section of Karl Marx’s International Workingman’s Assn. and the leader of a parade of 10,000 people down the Bowery in honor of the fallen Paris Communards: Lady Liberty leading the people practically into riot. Her radicalism was too much for the single-minded Susan B. Anthony, not only politically but doubtless personally as well. In spite of their earlier alliance, Woodhull was virtually purged from the definitive six-volume “History of the Woman Suffrage Movement” that Anthony compiled with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from Anthony’s first authorized biography and from all that followed. Marx did not like her either. Her section was expelled from the association in 1872.
Woodhull’s convictions did not come from books; they came from experience. An ecstatic child given not only to seeing visions but to beguiling audiences with them, she was pitched by her Midwestern drummer of a father at Ohio revivals as a medium, a role in which she saw so much of the suffering of poor 19th century women that she was never able to forget what she learned. Nor was her own life much different. Married at 15 to a dissolute doctor nearly twice her age, she was no stranger to the drunken claims on her body and the pleading retrievals of her husband from saloons that were the common lot. Soon she became the breadwinner, supporting a retarded son, a daughter and their drug-addled father by means that crisscrossed the thin line between stage and brothel. A second marriage to a St. Louis spiritualist and social reformer, with whom she formed a free-ranging partnership of love and ideals, was the cornerstone of Woodhull’s successful transition to New York. But even at the peak of her influence, she was dragged down by the predations of her family: an appalling array of Dickensian leeches who lived off her and husband No. 2 in a splendid menage on 38th Street and who were never satisfied, periodically undermining her accomplishments by dragging her into the headlines with sensational accusations.
As high as Woodhull rose in her utopian aspirations, she was never far from the muck in which she began. The brokerage firm; her newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly; and her role in the suffrage movement were all underwritten by her sister Tennessee Claflin’s seduction of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was very fond of Woodhull as well. Her life was dotted with the timely return from lovers of “Burn This!” letters, of which she had quite a few. Somehow she transcended these circumstances, accomplishing a gradual moral transformation beautifully described by Barbara Goldsmith in “Other Powers” as a movement “from self-aggrandizement to selflessness” with remarkable grace. Equally remarkable is her sheer intellectual courage. When American women in the late 1960s and early 1970s formulated a sexual, economic and political analysis of the exploitation of women by men, they were a movement. When Woodhull did it, she was a vanguard.
What Woodhull wanted was not only for women to be able to love freely but for men, who already did so, to own up. Within the suffrage movement, as elsewhere, married men were forming passionate liaisons with women who were not their wives, but when the affairs were discovered, they were denied. Of her relationship with journalist Theodore Tilton, Woodhull acknowledged that he was her “accepted lover” for more than half a year, but of a similar relationship with Tilton’s wife, the influential Brooklyn minister Henry Ward Beecher--rumored to preach “to twenty of his mistresses every Sunday"--admitted nothing. The Beecher-Tilton scandal was at the heart of Woodhull’s public life. A drama of presidential proportions, it began with Beecher’s seduction of one of his parishoners and grew to be an open secret in the suffrage movement, culminating when Beecher was cleared of the A-word by an investigating committee of officials of his church, in part by heeding the counsel of one of his clergyman brothers: “Perjury for good reason is for advanced thinkers no sin.”
More than anyone else, Woodhull brought the issue to a head. Stung by repeated insults from an entire gallery of righteous Beechers, including Henry’s famous sisters, Harriet and Catherine, who guarded his reputation like Fu dogs, she told what she knew, first broadly in a series of allusions in public speeches, then in a full-scale edition of the weekly published in November 1872, known as the “scandal issue.” Inevitably, she got the worst of it. While Beecher himself and the powerful financial and political interests of his Plymouth Church were unharmed, Woodhull went straight from the “scandal issue” into the clutches of another 19th century Fu dog, Anthony Comstock, and then to jail. It was not the adultery but the writing about it that was judged “obscene.” In later life, Woodhull too became a hypocrite. In a third marriage to a respectable English banker, she lopped some offending branches off her family tree, denied she had ever believed in free love and satisfied her impulses to social reform by local, unpublicized good deeds. But she had had a good run.
Biography is a deceptive business. Unlike academic works whose specialization tends to make them look more complicated than they are, biographies look simple. Concealed in their details are a host of assumptions about human nature, society and the relationship between the two. Time is another factor in biography. It is the medium through which every character inexorably moves, and not only the character but also the author, guaranteeing that, except in the case of a living subject, the world of the biographer and the world of the subject are dissimilar.
Mary Gabriel’s “Notorious Victoria” does not take either character or society to great depth. A modest book, its greatest strengths are a clear chronological organization, a generous enough sampling of Woodhull’s speeches (so that her integrity can be truly appreciated) and a poignant portrait of her old age in England. “Other Powers” is much more ambitious. Not only a life of Woodhull but a detailed history of the spiritualist and suffrage movements of the time, it re-creates the characters and politics of post-Civil War American society with such immediacy that they are practically resurrected. If anything, it is a little too profuse. Drawing on seemingly bottomless sources, Goldsmith is an omniscient narrator in almost the fictional sense, telling us more about the lives of her characters than they can possibly have known themselves. She is also a master of quotation, smoothly extracting from one after another lengthy letter or transcript the nub that captures the human heart of the matter being addressed.
Yet for all its pleasures, there is an aspect of “Other Powers” that gives pause. Extracting the human nub worked well for Goldsmith’s best-selling saga of high society, “Little Gloria . . . Happy at Last,” but in using the method for characters whose lives revolved around principles and ideals, she risks historical accuracy. The balance between public and private was different in their time than in ours. Her Woodhull, Beecher and the rest are like magnetic dolls stripped of their 19th century fashions and left in 20th century nakedness. She also risks diminishing their stature. As juicy as it is to learn of Horace Greeley’s callousness toward his wife, orator Anna Dickinson’s secret lover or the emotional ups and downs of Anthony, it leaves them somehow smaller than life.
Gossip in the archives is still gossip. With Goldsmith’s emphasis on the private lives of all concerned, there is something of the contemporary checkout stand about her book. Considering that gossip sold then as well as it does now, it is perhaps not surprising that the revival of Woodhull should focus so exhaustively on the things that drove her out of the country in the first place. But it is unfortunate: There was more to Woodhull than scandal.