From Property to Power – A History of Women’s Rights in Marriage and Divorce in the U.S.

March is National Women’s History Month and March 8 is International Women’s Equality Day. Despite representing 50.8% of people in the United States[1] and coming a long way since our nation’s founding, women are still considered a minority group. That is because, like people of color of both sexes, they have fewer rights compared to white men. In fact, 85% of the constitutions in the world now contain wording that protects the equal rights of women.[2] However, despite being one of the oldest in the world,[3] the U.S. Constitution does not. The U.S. is one of only 28 U.N. member nations[4] that doesn’t guarantee equal rights between men and women in its laws. Overall, we are 53rd out of 153 countries that the World Economic Forum studies regarding gender equality.[5]

This is one of many reasons why we celebrate women’s history in March. I decided to write about how women’s power evolved in the United States for this blog. There was so much fascinating information that it turned into a three-part series.

  • Part 1 will focus on how women gained power within marriage.
  • Part 2 will cover women in the workplace.
  • Part 3 will show how women went from not even being considered citizens to holding the second highest office in the land.

Women Under Coverture
No discussion of women’s rights* in the United States can begin without an explanation of coverture. In 1769, the American colonies formally accepted the English system of law called coverture, which had prior to that time been in place informally but not committed to paper.[1] Under this system, women were “covered” under the law by a man from their first moment of existence. At birth, a woman’s rights were subsumed by her father. Upon marriage, they passed into her husband’s hands, so that during her entire life—unless she became a widow—she had essentially the same rights as a child, a slave, or a person declared mentally unfit.

The actual language of the law stated, “by marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage.”[2] Therefore, women did not legally exist. This made women highly dependent on the men in their lives for everything, especially as it related to money and the law. They couldn’t vote, enter into contracts, or be sued. As historian Catherine Allgor explains, “They could not own or work in business. Married women could not own land or any other property, not even the clothes on their backs, and upon the death of her husband, a woman’s legal agency would transfer to her nearest male relative…. [A husband] owned her labor and could even lease her to work for someone else, taking her wages. He had absolute ownership of his wife’s children. If he chose, he could take custody of children after a divorce and could refuse to allow his former wife to ever see them again; and he could seize her property from other heirs upon her death… And of course, a husband could legally beat his wife, or ask that she be remanded to prison or an asylum…When it came to their rights as specifically women and wives, legally the only difference between a slave and a married woman was that a husband could not sell his wife…and even these distinctions were sometimes shaky.”[3]

In the American colonies, ending a marriage was even more difficult than being in one. While some marriages were “dissolved,” divorce as it is defined today was rare until the late 19th century. For women in the southern colonies, divorce was not an option because they followed English law. However, women in the northern colonies had it little better; they could only divorce their husbands if they could prove adultery, desertion or bigamy.[4]

These restrictions eased somewhat after the Revolutionary War, partly because people began to think that if colonies could leave their king, why couldn’t a husband leave his wife?[5] However, proof of cause still had to be provided, i.e. that one spouse had committed the crimes listed above, or were physically cruel, had threatened their life, did not provide economically or refused their marital duty in the bedroom.[6]

Laws Begin to Change
The first American law that permitted a woman any control over her own property was passed in Connecticut in 1808. It allowed a woman to leave a will and have her bequests honored.[7] But that was power only after death. Similarly, widows had the right of “dower,” which is the right to property they brought into the marriage, as well as to one-third of their husbands’ estate.[8] But again, this power only came after his death.

From 1821-1931, a series of marriage reform laws began to chip away at the stranglehold coverture had over women’s lives. For most of the 19th century, states passed a series of marriage reform laws aimed at granting women greater property rights, but they varied widely by state. The first state to act, in 1839, was Mississippi, which granted women the right to hold property in their own names with the caveat that they had to have permission from their husbands.[9]

In 1849, New York issued one of the most sweeping changes to marriage law under the Married Women’s Property Act,[10] which granted a married woman separate control over any rent or profit earned from property she held at the time of her marriage and protected it from her husband’s creditors. In addition, if a married woman was given property during her marriage through a grant or bequest, such as inheriting from her father, it was under her control, not that of her current or future husband. New York expanded women’s rights in 1860 with a reform statute stating “the earnings of any married woman, from her trade, business, labor or services, shall be her sole and separate property.”[11] For the first time, women had full control over the money they earned.

During this period, divorce became increasingly common, though adultery or cruelty still were really the only grounds.[12] This was due in part, at least to the increasing economic independence changes in marriage law gave to women. Divorce was expensive, so previously only the higher classes could afford to bring suit, which many did not out of fear for their reputation and social standing. But now some women’s rights advocates—including Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States in 1872—began to advance the belief that the law and religion should have nothing to do with marriage or divorce.[13] Woodhull famously proclaimed that she believed a marriage occurred when two people fell in love and dissolved when they were no longer in love.[14]

In 1871, cruelty, one of the most common reasons for divorce, became illegal for the very first time when Alabama became the first state to outlaw the beating of one’s wife. Previously, according to lore, a husband was only allowed to whip his wife with a switch no bigger than his thumb (which is where we get the phrase “rule of thumb”).[15] Other states attempted to follow, with mixed results. Maryland made wife-beating illegal in 1882,[16] but it wasn’t until 1920 that it was formally illegal in all states, and not until 1970 that domestic violence was treated as a serious crime under the judicial system.[17]

20th Century Progress
By the year 1900, every state had passed legislation granting married women the right to keep their own wages and to own property in their own name.[18] The fight for the next three decades (1907-1931) was to allow women to marry foreign men (especially Asian men) without losing their own citizenship, which began with the Expatriation Act (also known as the Married Women’s Citizenship Act) of 1907.[19] The Cable Act of 1922 (also called the Married Women’s Independent Nationality Act), partially reversed this ruling, stating “the right of any woman to become a naturalized citizen of the United States shall not be denied or abridged because of her sex or because she is a married woman;”[20] however, a wife’s nationality was still dependent upon her husband’s status. This law was amended four times and repealed before the Nationality Act of 1940[21] allowed women to marry men of any nationality without loss of citizenship and restored the status of all affected by previous laws.[22]

In 1967, interracial marriage (meaning Black and White) was legalized in the Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia,[23] but is still not accepted in some places today. Two years later, California adopted the nation’s first “no fault” divorce law, allowing divorce by mutual consent. By 1975, no-fault divorce was common in all states.[24]

But the ability to own property, keep one’s wages and marry and divorce at will is just the beginning of how modern women gained the rights we have today. In the next edition, we’ll look at women in the workplace and how we went from being regarded as the “angel of the house” in Victorian times to working women, wives and mothers today.

Please keep in mind that women’s history is very complex, so these articles can only scratch the surface. In addition, these articles are written in general terms. In reality, women of the upper classes experienced the world very differently from those of the lower and each race of women has their own history and their own struggles that continue to this day.

[1] https://www.nyhistory.org/sites/default/files/newfiles/cwh-curriculum/Module%201/Resources/Resource%201%20Couverture.pdf

[2] https://www.jstor.org/stable/2123970, 360

[3]Allgor. Catherine. “Remember…I’m Your Man”: Masculinity, Marriage, and Gender in Hamilton.” Historians on Hamilton. Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter, eds. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rugters University Press, 2018, 104-106.

[4] https://www.routledgehandbooks.com/doi/10.4324/9781315820880.ch3

[5] https://www.routledgehandbooks.com/doi/10.4324/9781315820880.ch3

[6] https://www.routledgehandbooks.com/doi/10.4324/9781315820880.ch3

[7] https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/married-womens-property-act-1848

[8] https://www.library.hbs.edu/hc/wes/collections/women_law/#:~:text=These%20marriage%20and%20property%20laws,legal%20existence%20from%20her%20husband.&text=Widows%20did%20have%20the%20right,third%20of%20their%20husbands’%20estate.

[9] https://mississippiencyclopedia.org/entries/married-womens-property-act/ and https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2017-01-20/timeline-the-womens-rights-movement-in-the-us

[10] https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/married-womens-property-act-1848

[11]https://www.law.yale.edu/sites/default/files/documents/pdf/Faculty/Siegel_TheModernizationOfMaricalStatus.pdf

[12] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1966/11/divorce-and-the-family-in-america/305942/

[13] MacPherson, Myra. “The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age.” New York: Twelve, 2014, 132-133.

[14] MacPherson, Myra. “The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age.” New York: Twelve, 2014, 132-133.

[15] https://www.jstor.org/stable/2702468 2144 – This has not been proven as a fact but is accepted into American and English folklore.

[16] Under the Rule of Thumb: Battered Women and the Administration of Justice. United States: The Commission, 1982., 2

[17] https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences-and-law/law/crime-and-law-enforcement/domestic-violence

[18] https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2017-01-20/timeline-the-womens-rights-movement-in-the-us

[19] https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/03/17/520517665/that-time-american-women-lost-their-citizenship-because-they-married-foreigners#:~:text=In%20March%20of%201907%2C%20Congress,naturalization%20process%20to%20regain%20citizenship.

[20] Cott, Nancy F. (December 1998). “Marriage and Women’s Citizenship in the United States, 1830–1934”The American Historical Review. New York, New York: Oxford University Press for the American Historical Association103 (5): 1440–1474.doi:10.2307/2649963

[21] https://ballotpedia.org/Nationality_Act_of_1940#:~:text=The%20Nationality%20Act%20of%201940%20outlined%20the%20process%20by%20which,acquire%20U.S.%20citizenship%20through%20naturalization.&text=The%20law%20reserved%20naturalization%20for,individuals%20of%20Native%20American%20descent.

 [23] https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2017/05/18/intermarriage-in-the-u-s-50-years-after-loving-v-virginia/

[24] https://www.stlouisfed.org/publications/regional-economist/january-2008/splitsville-the-economics-of-unilateral-divorce

[1] https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/LFE046219

[2] https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.12657/22984/advancing-equality-how-constitutional-rights-can-make-a-difference-worldwide.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y, 60

[3] https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.12657/22984/advancing-equality-how-constitutional-rights-can-make-a-difference-worldwide.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y, 58

[4] https://ph.ucla.edu/news/press-release/2020/jan/us-protections-constitutional-rights-falling-behind-global-peers

[5] https://www.brookings.edu/essay/100-years-on-politics-is-where-the-u-s-lags-most-on-gender-equality/

The Melodrama of History (or Yes, They Really Said That)

quoteWhen question of history or research arises that I am aware of I will break my rule of not responding to criticism because I want to present the facts. A few people have been mentioned that some of the dialogue in Madame Presidentess is melodramatic or over the top. While I don’t know for certain which parts they are talking about, I can think of three areas that may be the culprit and the reason is the same for all: they are actual historical quotes. There certainly could be places where I, as the author, am guilty of being too dramatic, but I have a feeling these are the areas in question. The links in the story below will take you to documents that show the conversations in question.

1) Rev. Henry Ward Beecher/Steinway Hall Meltdown
Drama must run in the Beecher blood because not only was Harriet Beecher Stowe (Henry and Catharine’s sister) a famous novelist, but Henry was very much an over-the-top performer. As a preacher, that makes sense because it would help him get his message across. But his flair for the dramatic also appears to have carried over into his every day conversations. “He was unabashedly theatrical, using his whole body to communicate the full range of human emotion, with dramatic gestures and subtle facial expressions (Applegate 211).” He was also known for his “blunt, colorful language” (Applegate 194) and had a propensity to cry and be overly emotional (Macpherson 121).

In a documented interview with a reporter in the November 2, 1872 issue of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly and later reproduced in several biographies of Victoria, she recalled one of their most dramatic conversations, one which took place when she asked him to introduce her before her speech at Steinway Hall and which I have reproduced with only minor alterations in my novel. The context is that Victoria and  Theodore told Rev. Beecher that it would be best if he publicly espoused the Free Love he practiced in his private life by endorsing Victoria; otherwise it would come to light in some other way.  The historical conversation is as follows:

Theodore Tilton: “Someday you have got to fall; go and introduce this woman and win the radicals of this country and it will break your fall.”

Henry Ward Beecher: “Do you think that this thing will come out to the world?”

Theodore Tilton: “Nothing is more in earth or heaven, Mr. Beecher, and this may be your last chance to save yourself from complete ruin.”

Henry Ward Beecher: “I can never endure such a terror. Oh! If it must come, let me know of it twenty-four hours in advance, that I may take my own life. I cannot, cannot face this thing!’

I couldn’t make this stuff up, folks.

2) Catharine Beecher/The Carriage Ride

Whereas Henry was dramatic, his sister Catharine had a mean streak. Victoria and Catharine Beecher fought often through letters and articles. But there is one particularly dramatic event that is documented by Victoria herself. Isabella Beecher, Catharine’s sister and Victoria’s dear friend, thought the two might be able to get along if they just met in person. (A noble, but misguided notion.) Catharine and Victoria ended up taking a carriage ride through Central Park, in which they discussed several of their philosophical differences in thinking about the proper role of women. Toward the end of the conversation, Catharine freaked out and Victoria told her where to shove it. As recounted by Victoria in the May 17, 1873, issue of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly and reproduced in Marion Meade’s biography of Victoria, as well as those written by Barbara Goldsmith, Mary Gabriel and many other biographers, here is the actual conversation:

Catharine Beecher: “Evil! I know my brother is unhappy, but he is a true husband. I will vouch for my brother’s faithfulness to his marriage vows as though he were myself.”

Victoria: “But you have no positive knowledge that would justify your doing so.”

Catherine: “No…No positive… I know he is unhappy. Mrs. Beecher is a virago, a constitutional liar, and a terrible woman altogether, so terrible my brother’s friends and family seldom visit. But unfaithful—no. I will hear no more of it.”

Victoria: “You will hear. In concubinage with his parishioner’s wife—it is common knowledge. And if you were a proper person to judge, which I grant you are not, you should see that the facts are fatal to your theories.”

Catharine: “Victoria Woodhull, I will strike you for this. I will strike you dead.”

Victoria: “Strike as much and as hard as you please. Only don’t do it in the dark so I cannot know who is my enemy.”

This is when Catharine yelled for the driver to stop and let her out. Myra MacPherson continues the conversation with Catharine adding, “I will strike at you in every way; I can and will kill you, if possible” (117).

The rest of their conversation in my novel is pulled from letters between the two. A historical cat fight is better than a fictional one any day!

3) Tennie’s Courtroom Testimony

When Anne Claflin (Victoria’s mother) sued Col. Blood (Victoria’s second husband) for alienation of her daughters’ affection, all of Victoria’s dirty laundry came out in open court, a misfortune that dogged her all the way through the end of her candidacy. Despite her mother’s overwrought testimony, the oddest testimony comes from Victoria’s sister, Tennie. She was supposed to be supporting Col. Blood’s side of the case, and she did at first, but through a series of bizarre ramblings, ended up defending her mother.

The following comes from actual court testimony, originally reported in the New York Herald and reproduced in The Woman who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull by Lois Beachy Underhill p. 140 and Mary Gabriel’s Notorious Victoria: The Uncensored Life of Victoria Woodhull p. 104:

“I have humbugged people, I know. But if I did, it was to make money to keep these deadheads. I believe in Spiritualism myself. It has set my mother crazy because she commenced to believe when she was too old.” She turned to the judge. “But, Judge, I want my mother. I am willing to take my mother home with me now or pay two hundred a month for her in any safe place. I am afraid she will die under this excitement. I am single myself, and I don’t want anybody with me but my mother.”

Tennie then collasped in sobs and made such a scene that the judge called both lawyers to the bench.

There is no reason given in any of my sources Tennie’s odd behavior, so as a novelist, I chalked it up to her using some of the drugs her sister was addicted to (her sister was an addict, that part is true) to calm her nerves before testifying.

Sources:
Applegate, Debby. The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher
Doyle, John E. P. “Plymouth church and its pastor,: or, Henry Ward Beecher and his accusers” 
Gabriel, Mary. Notorious Victoria: The Uncensored Life of Victoria Woodhull
Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull
MacPherson, Myra. The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age
Meade, Marion Free Woman: The Life and Times of Victoria Woodhull
Underhill, Lois Beachy The Woman who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull

Reform Movements of 19th Century America

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

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.”

Women’s Suffrage

Tennie Claflin (Victoria's sister, seated in center) with suffragists, circa 1920. Photo by Bain Collection (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Sex Radicals

An example of one style of reform dress from the mid-19th century

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.

Worker’s Rights
180px-FRE-AIT.svgIn 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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Sources:

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.

Strange, But True: The French Ball in Mid-19th Century New York

The 1869 French Ball. From Barbara Goldsmith's book, Other Powers

The 1869 French Ball. From Barbara Goldsmith’s book, Other Powers

One of the craziest moments in Victoria’s life – and the one that has tripped up more beta readers and agents than any other in my novel – is the French Ball that was held in New York City. No one seems to believe it is real, but I swear it is. The famous female journalist Nellie Bly reported on the tradition, and it’s even the subject of testimony before the New York State Legislature in 1895.

The French Ball was an annual tradition that is in direct opposition with the staid, laced-up view we have of Victorian society – and that’s what makes people think it’s fiction. It began after the Civil War, when a group (either the Cercle Française de l’Harmonie or the Societe des Bals d’Aristes, depending on your source) began hosting masked balls at the American Academy of Music during which the rich of the city would mingle openly with the city’s prostitutes and courtesans.

It didn’t take long for the French Ball to become a by-word for public drunkenness and debauchery. According to Timothy Gilfoyle’s City of Eros, “The Times described it as ‘the naughtiest of the respectable masked balls.’” Both men and women dressed in masks and costumes, the women opening flaunting their bare ankles and shoulders, and showing significant cleavage. One of the most scandalous costumes was that of the ballerina because of the highly revealing tutu – presumably with nothing underneath. The town’s madams were the queens of the night, occupying the boxes normally reserved for men of good name, covered in jewels and basking in the praise of hundreds of male patrons. Over time, fewer and fewer men chose to disguise their identity, openly flaunting their presence at the lurid event, especially if they were well-known public officials or wealthy businessmen/bankers.

Reports paint a scene reminiscent of a Roman orgy, with drunken men seducing half naked women (who likely also were drunk) on the floors and in the halls. In Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull, Barbara Goldsmith writes, “Victoria glanced into the box to her right where a girl lay on the crimson velvet couch, her ballet skirts pulled up over her head while two men mounted her in full view of the public.” Men commonly got into fights inside and outside the Academy and many arrests were made each year, though unrelated to public indecency.

Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennie attended the ball in 1869, with or without Victoria’s husband, James, depending on the source. Victoria’s thoughts on the night were made clear in her letters and newspaper articles. In 1873 she wrote that the boxes at the event were used “for the purpose of debauching debauched women; and the trustees of the Academy know this.” We know Tennie was greatly disturbed by what she witnessed, because in an 1872 article in Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, she wrote about the deflowering of a young girl that night by a man named Luther Challis. “And this scoundrel, Challis, to prove that he seduced a virgin, carried for days on his finger, exhibiting in triumph, the red trophy of her virginity.” This article quickly landed both Tennie and Victoria in jail on charges of libel and sending obscene material through the mail (thanks to Tennie’s description of the night and its aftermath).

I haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly when the tradition of the French Ball ended, but given that the State Senate was still taking about it in 1895, it’s safe to assume it wasn’t until at least the turn of the century.

In my novel, I have dramatized the events of the French Ball based on my sources. Even though it’s a bit jarring, I wanted to include it so that by the time you get to Tennie and Victoria being arrested, you know what they experienced and why Tennie was incensed enough to risk her reputation by writing about it. Plus, it’s a fun tidbit of history I couldn’t bear to not include.

Have you heard of the French Ball before this? If so, how? What do you think about it?

Sources (in addition to those linked above)

Bly, Nellie. “Jolly at the French Ball.” The New York World, February 10, 1889. http://dlib.nyu.edu/undercover/sites/dlib.nyu.edu.undercover/files/documents/uploads/editors/Jolly-at-the-French-Ball.pdf

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.