As you read this, I’m freshly back (and brain dead, in a good way) from the Historical Novel Society conference. Will post about that once my brain has downloaded all the new knowledge. Until then, we’ll explore some of the reform movements that influenced the culture and society of mid-to-late 19th century America.
Abolition/Post-War Role of Former Slaves
Abolition of Slavery by Thomas Nast (1840-1902), Umpehent, J. W. (Bibliothèque numérique mondiale) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
When my book begins (August 1868), the Civil War was only five years in the past, and its hot button issues of slavery, race and the meaning of freedom and citizenship were still very much in the public sphere. In fact, the 14th
Amendment, which granted citizenship to former slaves, had just passed a month before.
It was a conflict that dated back to the time of Thomas Jefferson and in many ways, still continues today. Many of Victoria’s friends and contemporaries began their forays into reform through the abolitionist movement, including Theodore Tilton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Fredrick Douglass.
When Victoria attended her first suffrage meeting in January 1869, she witnessed a very contentious debate between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Fredrick Douglas, who had differing opinions on the 15th Amendment which was being debated in Congress and would give former slaves the right to vote. Mr. Douglass said, “The right of women to vote is as sacred in my judgment as that of man, and I am quite willing to hold up both hands in favor of this right. But I am now devoting myself to a cause not more sacred, but certainly more urgent, because it is one of life and death to the long enslaved people of this country, and this is Negro suffrage. As you very well know, woman has a thousand ways to attach herself to the governing power of the land and already exerts an honorable influence on the course of legislation. She is the victim of abuses, to be sure, but it cannot be pretended, I think, that her cause is as urgent as ours.”
Tennie Claflin (Victoria’s sister, seated in center) with suffragists, circa 1920. Photo by Bain Collection (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Closely related was the issue of women’s suffrage, which many suffragists believed was as important, if not more important, than suffrage for former slaves. Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued at that 1869 convention, “At this very moment, Congress is debating the Fifteenth Amendment. If it is passed, it would give black men the right to vote. But I ask you, how are we, as women, any less important? How are we to be left out of such legislation? Shall American statesmen make their wives and mothers the political inferiors of unlettered and unwashed ditch-diggers fresh from the slave plantations of the South?”
(As you can see, bigotry against former slaves and immigrants was very common at the time. Both she and Susan B. Anthony were known to refer to them as “Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung,” something we would never condone today.)
The Suffrage movement dates back to 1846, when the first debate on women’s rights was held at Oberlin College. It is thought by some historians that if not for the Civil War, women would have gained the right to vote in the mid-1800s. But as it stood in 1868, women were still fighting, having suffered a setback in 1866 with the passage of the 14th Amendment, which introduced the word “male” into the Constitution as a qualification for voting. The debate as to whether women were citizens according to the Constitution – and therefore legally allowed to vote – would continue for the next decade, promoted by Victoria herself as well as Virginia Minor, but eventually defeated. As we know from history, women would not get the right to vote until August 1920 under the 19th Amendment.
An example of one style of reform dress from the mid-19th century
One of the lesser known reform movement of the period was led by the so-called “Sex Radicals” who believed in Free Love, usually in conjunction with utopian communities, in protest of the sexual slavery experienced by women. This sounds a lot like the hippies of the 1960’s, but the big difference is that in the 19th century, it meant the end of legal interference in marriage, in its binding or dissolving of ties between husband and wife. This idea allowed for divorce, as well as freedom for both husband and wife to take other partners as life presented them, but did not endorse promiscuity. (There’s a great article on Free Love on the American Experience site.)
Victoria and her sister Tennie, as well as Victoria’s second husband, James, and her lover, Theodore Tilton, were all a part of this movement. Victoria and Tennie wore their hair short and adopted a more masculine form of dress (without the bustles and corsets common at the time) in protest of the sexual inequality between men and women. For example, at the time, it was considered commonplace, even accepted, that young men would frequent prostitutes, but their wives could do no such thing or raise a complaint. Furthermore, while their male patrons were sometimes from the highest levels of society, the prostitutes were considered the lowest, too vile even for a Christian burial.
In France, the Communards were revolting, installing their own form of government that called for the economic, social and political equality of women with men; gender and wage equality; the right of divorce; the abolition of the distinction between married women and concubines; an end to labeling children legitimate or illegitimate; the closing of legal brothels and an end to prostitution. What made this movement so frightening was that it was workers rising up against those in aristocratic positions, thus threatening the “normal” balance of power.
American businessmen were scared to death of this movement, seeing how it inflamed groups like the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), which used the situation to demand an eight hour work day. Victoria’s friend and mentor, Stephen Pearl Andrews, was part of the IWA, and her husband was part of the American Labor Reform League. It is likely they were responsible for Victoria’s interest in the worker’s movement, which she eventually held on even ground with women’s suffrage.
The IWA was closely linked to Karl Marx, so Victoria felt it was important that the American people understand what they were fighting for. In July 1871, Victoria and Tennie became co-presidents of the IWA. In December 1871, she published the first English translation of his Manifesto in her paper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. That same month, she, Tennie and Stephen led a highly controversial parade in New York, protesting the murder of five Communards in France. She may have become a major player in the movement, had her philosophy of individual rights meshed more closely with Marx’s communal vision. In 1872, Marx himself disbanded Victoria’s section of the IWA, effectively ending her association with the group.
What is your understanding or familiarity with these groups? Had you heard of the sex radicals or IWA before? If so, how? What questions do you have about any of them?
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Brody, Miriam. Victoria Woodhull, Free Spirit for Women’s Rights
Gabriel, Mary. Notorious Victoria.
Gilfoyle, Timothy J. City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920.
Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull.
Havelin, Kate. Victoria Woodhull.
MacPherson, Myra. The Scarlet Sisters.
Underhill, Lois Beachey. The Woman Who Ran for President.
Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, ed. One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement.