Comes Naturally #70 (May 1, 1998):
Victoria Woodhull, Women's Suffrage, and the Politics of Free Love

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Spectator Magazine - May 1, 1998
(c) David Steinberg. All Rights Reserved.



Oh, the things about history they don't teach you in school!

I've just finished reading "Other Powers," Barbara Goldsmith's wonderful book on the life and times of "the scandalous" Victoria Woodhull, and let me tell you it's one delightful foray into the intricacies of how national political policy is affected by such things as who's sleeping with whom, who's being holier than which thou, and how that pesky little demon, sexual desire, insinuates itself into the minds, bodies, and politics of the great figures of the day. We have a wild and woolly history, folks, and Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, O. J. Simpson, and Jim Bakker have nothing on the public sexual dramas of the 19th century.

The time is shortly after the Civil War and two huge social movements are gripping the nation. One has to do with the status of the newly emancipated slaves -- whether they will be given the right to vote and regarded as full citizens, equal to whites. They will. The other has to do with the status of women -- whether they, too, will be given the right to vote and come to be regarded as equal to men. They won't -- not for another fifty years. The reasons that blacks got the vote in 1870 while women had to wait until 1920, are complex, but a major piece of the puzzle is that in the late 1860's the women's suffrage movement fragmented into two factions and fell apart in an orgy of self-destruction.

The issue that did the suffrage movement in -- at least for the time being -- was the politics of what was then being called free love -- the politics of sex. And the most brilliant and outspoken advocate of free love was the remarkable Victoria Woodhull, daughter of a brutal snake-oil salesman, sometime prostitute, friend and financial advisor to Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (one of the wealthiest men in the nation), the nation's first woman stockbroker, the nation's first woman to run for president.


By 1869, the women's suffrage movement had developed two factions. The radical wing, led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton was centered in New York. They believed the movement should only support a constitutional amendment to give blacks the vote if that amendment gave women the right to vote as well. They were also supporters, though somewhat hesitant to say so publicly, of the idea of free love.

The more conservative faction of the movement, centered in Boston, was led by Lucy Stone and Elizabeth Blackwell, the nation's first woman physician. They believed that the women's movement should support a constitutional amendment giving the vote to blacks separate from women. And they were quick to discredit their sisters in New York with the epithet of Free Loveism in the fierce internal political battles for control of the movement.

Free love was the omigosh bugaboo of the day, but the free love of the 1860's was hardly the free love advocated a hundred years later by pleasure-loving hippies in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.

It is hard for us, 150 years later, to even imagine what the status of women was in those times. If there is any question about whether women's lives have undergone radical improvement over the decades, all that's needed to gain a little perspective is a careful look at the realities of times gone by.

For women in mid-19th-century America, Goldsmith explains, "marriage meant the surrender of every right to property and person. A woman's wages were given directly to her husband.... Women could not testify in court or serve on a jury and were banned from universities, law schools, and medical schools.... No laws protected a woman from physical abuse at the hands of her husband or father unless such abuse resulted in death, though a few states stipulated the size of the instruments that might be used to inflict punishment.... A wife's body was to be used at her husband's will; she could not deny him sexual access. If she ran away, the law of the nation supported her recapture and return."

In 1848, when the historic first convention of the women's suffrage movement was called in Seneca Falls, New York, by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and a small group of other women, the women chose to have the convention chaired by Mott's husband, James. Even the most radical women of the time could not conceive of that role being assumed by anyone but a man. (Although the subsequent meeting of the gathered, two weeks later, was indeed chaired by a woman, over the objections of Susan B. Anthony.)

As for attitudes about women's sexuality, check this out: "In 1868, American gynecological surgeons began performing clitoridectomies to quell sexual desire in women, which was considered a form of derangement. Upper- and middle-class white women who had been taught that any sexual urges were sinful, willingly surrendered their bodies to these male doctors, who tested them for this abnormal arousal by stimulating the breast and clitoris; if there was a response, they surgically removed the clitoris."

In those times, being a woman sex radical meant simply believing that women had the right to sexual appetites of their own, rather than viewing sex as being entirely oriented around the desire and satisfaction of men. It meant believing that women should have equal rights with men with regard to choosing their sexual partners, in and out of marriage, and equal rights to end their marriages if those marriages were unsatisfactory to them, sexually or otherwise.

In the parlance of the day, supporting any of these basic rights for women branded a person a satanic Free Loveist, and subjected them to the harshest attacks of the church, the press, and those in political power. Advocating equal sexual expression for women was seen as an attack on the institution of marriage, and as such an attack on the very basis of social order.

Indeed, the radicals in New York did see the institution of marriage as one of the most powerful forces in the oppression of women. Some even saw reform of marriage laws as more fundamental to improving the lives of women than winning the right to vote. The proper Bostonians, on the other hand, went out of their way to make clear to the public that in fighting for women's right to vote, they had no interest in "undermin[ing] or destroy[ing] the sanctity of the marriage relation." At the divisive convention of the American Equal Rights Association in 1869 that fractured the suffrage movement irreversibly, the Bostonians proclaimed that "while we recognize the disabilities which legal marriage imposes upon woman as wife and mother... we abhorrently repudiate Free Loveism as horrible and mischievous to society, and disown any sympathy with it."


Victoria Woodhull's great virtue and her great failing were one and the same -- her refusal to remain silent about the sexual empowerment of women and about the sexual hypocrisy she saw all around her among important political figures of her day, both within and outside the suffrage movement. Frequently overtaken by the "spirits" from whom she drew her inspiration, she insisted on speaking uncompromisingly about what she believed and, when hypocritically attacked for her sexual views, about the dalliances of the people around her.

With regard to women's sexual appetites, she was both indignant and uncompromising: "Some women seem to glory over the fact that they never had any sexual desire and to think that desire is vulgar. What! Vulgar!... Vulgar rather must be the mind that can conceive such blasphemy. No sexual passion, say you. Say, rather, a sexual idiot, and confess your life is a failure... It is not the possession of strong sexual powers that is to be deprecated. They are a necessary part of human character... they are the foundation upon which civilization rests."

With regard to marriage, Woodhull was equally outspoken: "Why do I war upon marriage.... because it is, I verily believe, the most terrible curse from which humanity now suffers, entailing more misery, sickness, and premature death than all other causes combined.... Sanctioned and defended by marriage, night after night there are thousands of rapes committed.... There was never a servitude in the world like this one of marriage."

For Woodhull, women's 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" included women's right to exchange sex for money, if they so chose. "If our sisters who inhabit Greene Street [New York's most notorious brothel district]... choose to remain in debauch," she declared, "and if our brothers choose to visit them there, they are only exercising the same right that we exercise in remaining away.... I can see no moral difference between a woman who marries and lives with a man because he can provide for her wants and the woman who is not married but who is provided for at the same price."

Indeed, Woodhull had many friends among New York's elite women of the night. When financiers Jay Gould and Jim Fisk conspired (with the help of President Ulysses S. Grant) to corner the gold market, they made their plans right in the boudoir of prostitute Josie Mansfield. (The men had no trouble talking about these manipulations in front of their paid companions as they didn't believe any of these women had the wits to understand what they were talking about.) Mansfield forwarded news of the gold scam to her dear friend Victoria, who promptly advised her paramour, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, railroad baron, steamship tycoon and firm believer in Victoria's spirits, exactly when to buy and sell gold during the ensuing "Black Friday" gold market crash of September 24, 1869. Vanderbilt, who promised Victoria half of his profits if her spirits came through for him, made a cool $1.3 million that day. True to his word, he gave half to Woodhull. In 1869, when women typically worked for $3 a week in wages, $700,000 was an unimaginable sum of money for a woman to control.

The morally disreputable, offensively outspoken, and disturbingly lower-class Victoria Woodhull now found herself the recipient of all the influence and respect that wealth inevitably magnetizes, both from established social figures and from the struggling suffrage movement. Together with her equally disreputable sister, Tennessee Claflin, she established "Woodhull, Claflin & Co.," the nation's first woman stockbrokerage firm, with the vocal support of Vanderbilt, himself an illiterate of working class roots who loved to ruffle the feathers of the aristocracy. As Goldsmith puts it, "society women and heiresses, small-business owners, writers, teachers, and housewives who had saved modest amounts hidden from allowances supplied by their husbands" rushed to invest their savings with the glamorous women who made such enticing copy in the press. With Vanderbilt's influential support, and ongoing inside information supplied by the prostitutes frequented by the financial elite, the two women prospered.


The ongoing political intrigues of the suffrage movement became increasingly complex. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton split away from the American Woman Suffrage Association to form the rival National Woman Suffrage Association. The two groups vied for political influence, variously supported and denounced by other politically influential people, including Horace Greeley (editor of the "New York Tribune" and eventual presidential candidate), and the great revivalist preacher of the day, Henry Ward Beecher. When Greeley and Beecher found it politically expedient to attack Woodhull's advocacy of free love and to raise the specter of her tarnished past, Woodhull struck back by exposing in her own newspaper, "Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly," what became the great ongoing scandal of the time. Woodhull announced and fully documented that the famed moralist and anti-free-love campaigner Henry Ward Beecher, who preached weekly to thousands at his monumental Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, and was spiritual leader to millions nationwide, had long been having an affair with Lib Tilton, devoted parishioner and wife of another influential journalist of the day, Thomas Tilton.

In taking on one of the most powerful figures of the day, Woodhull was careful to challenge not Beecher's sexual behavior, which she fully supported, but his hypocrisy in carrying on the affair while excoriating her for her own advocacy and practice of free love. While outing Beecher sexually, she defended both his character and that of Lib Tilton. "Mr. Beecher is today," she said, "as good, as pure and as noble a man as he ever was in the past, and Mrs. Tilton is still a pure, charming, cultured woman. It is... the public opinion that is wrong and not the individuals."

Nevertheless, she had driven a stake into the heart of aristocratic male privilege and she quickly came to see just how powerful and viscious the men she had challenged could be. Despite all Woodhull's documentation, and the corroborating testimony of numerous other witnesses, Beecher was cleared of any wrongdoing by the hand-picked church commission appointed to investigate the charges against him. Meanwhile the great anti-pornography moralist Anthony Comstock was summoned by the powers that be to investigate Woodhull. Comstock, who was about to begin his long campaign to rid the nation of pornography, "the electrical wires connected to the inner dynamite of obscene thoughts," found in the idiosyncratic Woodhull a perfect first target for his efforts. Woodhull was promptly arrested and charged with sending obscene matter through the mail, namely the very newspaper that had published the charges against Beecher. The story that Comstock objected to was one that exposed a man, Luther Challis, who had raped a young woman in the aftermath of New York's licentious annual French Ball. What Comstock deemed "disgusting and obscene" was the statement that Challis had displayed to friends "the red trophy of [the young woman's] virginity," a phrase that Woodhull pointed out came from the book of Deuteronomy. (At Woodhull's trial, Comstock claimed that the nearly identical phrase in the Bible was not obscene. "Even if they say the same thing?" Woodhull's lawyer asked incredulously. "Yes, even so," Comstock replied.)

It was the first use by Comstock of the obscure postal law which was to become the hallmark of his decades-long campaign to rid the country of the scourge of pornography. Woodhull, refused permission to testify at her own trial because she was a woman, was convicted and served a 30-day sentence in New York's seedy Ludlow Street Jail. When she wrote about her stay in the jail, she was arrested by Comstock again, and Challis was further convinced to sue Woodhull for libel. (When a courageous madam, outraged at the legal assault on Woodhull, went public to corroborate Woodhull's story, Challis quickly dropped his charges.)

Under such continuing attack, Woodhull's spirit, reputability, and finances all began to crumble. She increasingly became a liability to the suffrage movement that had courted her while she was rich and famous. When her bitter diatribes against her accusers became more and more vitriolic, even Anthony and Stanton deserted her. Still, Woodhull would not hold her tongue or renounce the more controversial aspects of her past. Asked at one point if she had ever "prostituted herself," she answered proudly, "I have never had sexual intercourse with any man whom I am ashamed to stand side by side before the world with the act.... If I want sexual intercourse with one hundred men, I shall have it.... When I came out of prison I came out a beggar.... I went to your bankers, presidents of railroads, gamblers, prostitutes, and got the money that has sent you the paper you have been reading.... If I devoted my body to my work and my soul to God, that is my business and not yours."

Eventually, Woodhull fled to England where, by another twist of fate, one of that nation's wealthiest bankers heard her speak, fell madly in love with her, and married her, raising her once again from the depths of poverty to the heights of aristocratic wealth. Financed by her husband, Woodhull even returned to the U.S. to mount a nominal second campaign for the presidency in 1892.

Woodhull outlived her husband, and used her inherited wealth to "endow a local elementary school, repair rutted roads, and modernize the cottages of tenant farmers, who for generations had lived without electricity or running water." She died in 1927 at the age of 89.


Then, as now the punishment for being truthful about sex was extreme, especially for women. Then, as now, leading political figures were quick to brand their opponents as sexual deviants, rather than simply debate them on the substance of the policy issues of the day. Then, as now, the rare public figure who stood conscientiously behind his or her unpopular sexual belief and lifestyle was usually destroyed by others whose sexual practices were no less taboo, but who were able to hypocritically campaign in the name of conventional notions of morality and sexual purity. Then, as now, sex -- though it occupies precious little space in the indexes of history books -- was an important force both in shaping specific issues of public policy, and in affecting the shifting alignments of political, economic, and religious power and influence.

As long as the realities of sexual desire and sexual activity -- among both regular folks and the social elite -- differ vastly from popular myths about how people are supposed to think and act about sex, there will always be dozens of public scandals waiting to be exploited for political ends -- sexual stories that must be kept secret because there is no way to integrate the theory of sexual ethics with its practice. As long as the reality of sexual desire is defined as demonic, the Victoria Woodhulls -- who dare to speak openly about who they are and what they believe -- will continue to be vilified for their honesty, while the Henry Ward Beechers will continue to be glorified by virtue of their hypocrisy.

Veritas et Libido -- Truth and Passion -- might well be an appropriate rallying cry for the struggle for sexual sanity, a slogan for the "coat of arms" of the sexual revolution whose roots clearly extend back at least to the mid-19th century. To be able to lead lives that fully embrace both truthfulness and sexual passion -- this is the goal to which Victoria Woodhull dedicated her life, and toward which we are still struggling today.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

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