This morning I participated in an online (for me at least) tea and chat event with #StrongWomenWrite founder and author Khrys Vaughan, who I’ve known for years in the St. Louis writing community. (In fact I don’t think I ever mentioned the interview I did with her back in March. Here’s the link if you want to hear me and author Sheri Fink talking about writing strong female characters.)
Anyway, Khrys has since moved to Atlanta. She surprised all of us with announcing a multi-step, multi-year plan to help women who have escaped human trafficking in St. Louis and Atlanta, two of the biggest hubs for this crime in the country.
The Plan 1. It begins with a book authored by women about women. Half of it will be the true stories of women who have experienced human trafficking and managed to escape their captors. Each of these profiles will be paired with a fictional short story (2-3 pages) written by a participating author. That story can be anything except erotica or gore and does not have to have anything to do with the profile it is paired with. But it must feature a strong female character. Participation is free to the author other than what you choose to spend on marketing it when the book comes out. Anticipated publication is September 1, 2020.
2. Proceeds from the anthology will help fund the next part of the project which includes a tea room and a tiny home outside of Atlanta. It will also be a place where they can recover and learn a trade/skill. Khrys has a location in mind. The hope is that the tiny home can be located on the same property as the tea room or on nearby land. The location will be determined by what Georgia law permits.
3. There will eventually be more than one house (one for women, one for orphans, etc.) and the land will be self-sustaining. It takes five years for a tea plant to mature. Tea can be grown in Atlanta, but the soil could be a problem. If so Khrys will draw on experience and contacts from her previous social enterprise projects for the best solution to help women here, but possibly abroad.
Why I’m Participating I am so all over this project for several reasons:
1. I used to want to be a nun/sister but none of the ministries of the orders I looked at interested me. I realized after watching several documentaries on human trafficking and prostitution when I was in my teens and 20s, that helping those women is something I would love to be involved with. If I could have found a religious order where that was their ministry, I would have been all over it. As a lay person, I knew being a social worker wasn’t for me (I don’t have the personality for it), so I didn’t know how I could help. And now with this project, I do.
Me at the House of Mercy in Dublin in 2012. The statue behind me depicts Catherine as a Sister helping a woman in need.
2. I ended up working for a non-profit Catholic health care organization (I’ve been there almost 16 years). Our ministry traces its roots to Dublin, Ireland, in 1827 when a woman named Catherine McAuley (now on her way to sainthood in the Catholic Church) opened a refuge for poor women and children called the House of Mercy. She was a lay person and wanted her ministry to involve other lay women. At the House, they gave shelter to poor women, those running from abuse, and orphaned children. They also gave them an education and taught them a trade. (Which sounds an awful lot like Khrys’ plan.
Eventually, the Church forced Catherine to become a nun (because in those days, lay women performing that kind of ministry was unthinkable). She ended up founding the Sisters of Mercy in 1831 to ensure her ministry endured.
Catherine’s tea cup in the House of Mercy archives in Dublin.
One of the earliest symbols of the Sisters was a cup of tea because it reflected the hospitality for all they were vowed to provide. (Plus, tea time was a tradition in Ireland.) On her deathbed, Catherine said about her fellow Sisters, “Make sure they have a comfortable cup of tea when I am gone.” She wanted them to have a way to deal with their grief and the bonding that takes place over a cup of tea was part of it.
To this day, each year on September 24, the date Catherine opened the House of Mercy, we celebrate Mercy Day with a cup of tea and cookies, among other celebrations. Interestingly, just yesterday, I was working on materials for our Mercy Day celebrations this year, and at dinner, one of my friends who also works for the same company said to me, “I think you are a Catherine McAuley.” She said it twice.
3. Since 2006 when I first visited the U.N. and became interested in what Angelia Jolie (and now Emma Watson) were doing with U.N. Women, I’ve said that when I become rich and famous, I want to be a U.N. ambassador. My goal was to travel around the world with a photographer and tell the stories of the women I met. I feel like this project is God’s way of letting me do this now on a smaller scale.
4. I’m all about telling the stories of women in danger of being forgotten. Who is more vulnerable or likely to be overlooked than a woman in sexual slavery? No one wants to think about such a thing or admit that this very lucrative trade exists in the 21st century. I’m hoping to be involved in the interviewing and writing of the profiles of the women, and Khrys just asked me to write the forward, which is an honor.
Meant to Be For me, the parallels between these things and the project that Khrys is starting are too strong to ignore. I don’t believe in coincidences; I think everything happens for a reason and I feel like God and Catherine are guiding me to this project.
I actually already know what my short story is going to be about. I won’t give it away, but it comes from the life of Catherine and involves a domestic who was trying to escape an abusive master.
As I said, Khrys is looking for additional female authors (sorry guys, this is a women-only project) who would like to contribute. You can email her at ikhrys [at] gmail.com or I can try to answer your questions, but she obviously knows things better.
I’ll keep everyone updated as things progress. This may be the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. Thank you, Khrys, for inviting me to be a part of it.
The #MeToo movement began in 2006 as a way to empower survivors of sexual violence and then in late 2017 became a rallying cry against sexual harassment for all women. It occurred to me yesterday that the roots of the #MeToo movement reach back much farther in time than when Tarana Burke began using the phrase on MySpace. The original feminists, who were also the first suffragists, often took up issues of sex and sexuality. Victoria Woodhull, woman of so many firsts, was at the vanguard.
Despite being born in 1864 as the dirt-poor daughter of a con-man and a religious zealot and having very little formal education, Victoria raised herself up to become a self-made millionaire by the age of 30, as well as the first woman to:
Run for United States president (in 1872, 48 years before women were granted the right to vote)
Advocate of Prostitutes and Free Love
Having suffered physical (and according to some biographers, sexual) abuse at the hands of her father, and having endured marital rape by her first husband, Canning Woodhull, Victoria was an outspoken advocate of female sexual rights. In 1871, she declared publicly, “Sexual freedom means the abolition of prostitution both in and out of marriage, means the emancipation of woman from sexual slavery and her coming into ownership and control of her own body” (Sterns).
Victoria was a member of a Spiritualist splinter movement called the sex radicals, who believed, among other things, that “hypocrisy tainted the social order and made class and gender equality inaccessible to women” (Frisken 27). Like many others of this group, Victoria was known to be a supporter of the rights of prostitutes. (Some posit that she worked as one for a time, which I don’t believe, but it is known that her sister Tennie, was a prostitute, thanks to her father who forced several of the Woodhull girls into the sex trade.) Victoria was known to have heard the plights of prostitutes during her work as a clairvoyant healer and to have been deeply touched by their plight. Indeed, when she and Tennie opened their brokerage in 1870, Victoria ensured it had a special back room with its own separate entrance for women. Many have speculated that in addition to rich magnates’ wives, heiresses and honest businesswomen, the prostitutes and madams Victoria once helped came to try their luck in the stock market and so Victoria made sure they had a private, protected place to do their legitimate business (Goldsmith 191). Editorials in Victoria’s newspaper (possibly penned by her, but also equally possibly penned by her husband Col. James Blood or her close friend Stephen Pearl Andrews) stated “Remove the causes and the effects will cease. Give woman employment and you remove her from the need of self-destruction…We hope all our girls will soon be educated up to the standard of preferring the glorious freedom of self support, even as washerwomen or ragpickers, to holding legal or illegal sexual relations undictated by attraction. She who marries for support, and not for love, is a lazy pauper, coward and prostitute” (Frisken 27).
Victoria not only spoke about women’s rights, she lived her beliefs. She was famously a supporter of Free Love, a movement that the press liked to dress up as the wanton belief that everyone should be able to have sex with anyone, anytime, but which to Victoria meant that the religion and government should not be part of marriage. She believed that when two people fell in love, a marriage should begin, and if they fell out of love, it should end and both parties be free to take other lovers. This was her explanation:
“Two persons, a male and a female, meet and are drawn together by a mutual attraction—a natural feeling unconsciously arising within their natures of which neither has any control—which is denominated love. Suppose after this marriage has continued an indefinite time, the unity between them departs. Could they any more prevent it than they can prevent the love? It came without their bidding; it not also go without their bidding? It is therefore a strictly legitimate conclusion that where there is no love as a basis of marriage, there should be no marriage, and if that which was the basis of a marriage is taken away, that the marriage also ceases from that time, statute laws to the contrary notwithstanding” (Sterns).
While that may sound reasonable to us now, in Victorian America, it was shocking. In those days, divorce was a religious issue, rendering asunder what God hath joined, and laws varied widely by state, resulting in uneven and unfair rules. Wisconsin and Indiana had the two most liberal divorce laws in country, and incompatibility was accepted as grounds, (Goldsmith 204) but in many states, the only grounds for divorce a woman could use were cruelty, the definition of which varied widely, and adultery, which it was hard to prove, so divorce was difficult for a woman.
Add to this the economic and cultural dependencies of women upon men and there were many unhappy marriages in which women were required to sexually submit to husbands they did not love. In that same 1871 speech, Victoria said, “Sanctioned and defended by marriage, night after night, thousands of rapes are committed under the cover of this accursed license. I know whereof I speak. Millions of poor, heartbroken, suffering wives are compelled to minister to the lechery of insatiable husbands when every instinct of body and sentiment of soul revolt in loathing and disgust. Prate of the abolition of slavery, there was never servitude in the world like this one of marriage” (Sterns). This is what she was fighting against with her very public ideals of Free Love.
Like many women who speak out today, Victoria was punished for her radical ideas. In 1872, Harper’s Weekly published a cartoon dubbing Victoria as “Mrs. Satan” because she urged women to fight back against sexual slavery and mistreatment within marriage, an image and a name that would dog her throughout the end of her presidential run and even hang on for decades after her death.
The Beecher-Tilton Scandal, The Original #MeToo If that wasn’t enough, Victoria famously called out the most famous and beloved preacher of her day – Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, a Victorian Harvey Weinstein, who was said to “preach to at least twenty of his mistresses every Sunday” (Goldsmith, xiv).
The first time, in May 1871, she simply alluded to him in her newspaper, writing that many of the men who judged her “preach against ‘free love’ openly and practice it secretly. I know of one man, a public teacher of eminence, who lives in concubinage with the wife of another public teacher of almost equal eminence. All three concur in denouncing offenses against morality” (Brody 83).
But by October 1872, Victoria had had enough and took steps that eerily foreshadowed Rose McGowan’s 2017 public social media declaration against Harvey Weinstein. Victoria brought back her failed newspaper for one incredibly scandalous issue in which she blew the lid off of one of the biggest sex scandals of the age. Her article, “The Beecher-Tilton Scandal Case: The Detailed Statement of the Whole Matter,” was written in the form of a mock interview in which Victoria, after a brief introduction, answered questions from a fictional reporter about the affair. In the article she revealed her long-held secret knowledge that Rev. Beecher had a sexual affair with Elizabeth “Lib” Tilton, the wife of Victoria’s former lover, Theodore Tilton. The reverend’s scandalous behavior was an open secret in their society, but Victoria’s public account brought it unequivocally into the light where it could no longer be denied, resulting in a court case that was the O.J. Simpson trial of its day.
Thomas Nast [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Accompanying Victoria’s article was one by her sister, Tennie, which detailed the rape of a young virgin (or two, depending on the source) at an annual night of debauchery called the French Ball many years earlier. It was Tennie’s use of the phrase “…to prove that he seduced a virgin, carried for days on his finger, exhibiting in triumph, the red trophy of her virginity” that landed the sisters in jail a few days later on charges of sending obscene content through the mail. Despite that phrase appearing in Book of Deuteronomy in Bible (and therefore everyone who had ever mailed a Bible being equally guilty), they remained in jail for several months, causing Victoria to miss the Election Day during which her name was on the ballot as the first ever woman to run for president of the United States. Both women were eventually acquitted of all charges against them. (See this article for more on the scandal.)
And on Through the Decades
Unlike the #MeToo movement, the Beecher-Tilton scandal did not result in an outpouring of similar accusations; Victorian society would not stand for that, so women stayed silent. In the end, the lurid headlines did little to change things. After a six-month trial that ended in a hung jury, Rev. Beecher walked away unpunished and his congregation paid his trial costs, leaving him richer than before Victoria spoke up (McMillen 193). He may have been one of the first, but he certainly wasn’t the last. Throughout the remainder of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century, women were routinely abused at home, in their places of worship, and increasingly in the workplace. According to Time magazine, “By the 1920s, working women were advised to simply quit their jobs if they could not handle the inevitable sexual advances” (Cohen). In fact, discrimination against women in the workplace only became illegal with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In 1970, Lynn Povich and the women of Newsweek sued their employers for sexual harassment and discrimination, citing the withholding of advancement because they were female. (This is the subject of the unfortunately canceled but excellent Amazon series Good Girls Revolt.) According to Time, “the phrase “sexual harassment” was coined in 1975, by a group of women at Cornell University,” after a woman named Carmita Wood “filed a claim for unemployment benefits after she resigned from her job due to unwanted touching from her supervisor.” After the university refused her a transfer and denied her benefits, a group called Working Women United was formed. At the group’s events, “the women spoke of masturbatory displays, threats and pressure to trade sexual favors for promotions” (Cohen) – all things cited 42 years later when Hollywood women spoke out about men in the entertainment industry.
Sexual harassment was a major issue of the Second Wave of Feminism, which took place in the late 1970s and 1980s in the United States. In 1991, Anita Hill famously testified against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, alleging sexual harassment when she worked for him at the Education Department. This moment is said by many to mark the beginning of the Third Wave of feminism. Thousands of cases followed, some picked up my the media, but many not. And of course, in 2017, #MeToo happened.
One hundred and twenty years before Anita, nearly 150 years before #MeToo, Victoria Woodhull uttered words that still hold true today, “Women are entirely unaware of their power.” She continued, “If the very next Congress refuses women all the legitimate results of citizenship, we shall proceed to call another convention expressly to frame a new Constitution and erect a new government” (Sterns). Perhaps such a revolution is exactly what the #MeToo movement will bring about in our own day – not by a literal overthrowing of the government, but by a re-writing of the rules of society that allow sexual harassment and rape to go unspoken about and unpunished. Victoria raised the cry nearly 150 years ago; it is time that women are finally heard.
Nicole Evelina is the author of Madame Presidentess, an award-winning historical fiction account of the life of Victoria Woodhull. She is currently researching a book about the history of feminism in the United States.
Brody, Miriam. Victoria Woodhull, Free Spirit for Women’s Rights.
The blog challenge topic few weeks ago was “your biggest dream in life.” I know you know I want to be a New York Times Bestseller and a full-time author, so I’m going to talk about something closer to my heart that I haven’t been very public about. It is my dream to be a goodwill ambassador for UNWOMEN, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.
As many of you know – and I doubt no one is surprised about, given the nature of my books – I’m a feminist, which I trace back to my parents for always assuring me I can do anything, and to attending a Catholic all-girls high school. I’ve been supporting women-based charities since I was in college, including Women for Women International (where I’ve sponsored more than a dozen women survivors of war), UNIFEM (which is what UNWOMEN used to be called) and local all-girls schools for women of various ages.
I’ve wanted to work at the UN for years, ever since I heard about Angelina Jolie becoming a goodwill ambassador (I hadn’t heard of them before that, but they date to the 1950s). The UN was the first place I visited on my first trip to NYC. What has kept me from applying for a job there is 1) I can’t afford to live in Manhattan, and 2) I don’t speak any other languages (sadly my high school French is all but gone). But I figure when my books take off, they might be interested in having me as a spokesperson. When I look at the women who are ambassadors now, Emma Watson, Nicole Kidman and Anne Hathaway, I think, “yeah, that’s company I want to join.”
My ultimate dream is to create a book that captures women’s stories and struggles around the world. I’d love to base it on people I meet on those goodwill trips, and partner with a photographer to bring their faces and voices to greater light in nations like the US and in the UK/mainland Europe, where we don’t pay nearly as much attention to women in Syria, Sudan, Congo, Afghanistan and other war-torn countries as we should.
That, I feel, is an expansion of the mission I have started by telling the stories of women in danger of being lost to history. I may only be able to do little things toward my dream right now, but each one gets me a step closer.