I haven’t talked much about this book because it will be of interest to a very niche group of readers, but the book I wrote for the St. Louis Metro League of Women Voters is out! We’re celebrating its release this coming Sunday. So if you live in St. Louis, I’d love to see you!
“Raising Our Voices: League of Women Voters of Metro St. Louis 1960-2022” demonstrates how League members advocated for change during six decades of tremendous upheaval. As a sequel to Avis Carlson’s history “The First 40 Years,” this book covers the next 62 years of League work. It includes member advocacy on controversial issues such as busing and school discrimination, the Equal Rights Amendment, election and campaign finance reform, voter suppression, and the National Popular Vote.
In addition to these headline-makers, the book chronicles the everyday work of the League to improve the St. Louis community and protect the rights of its citizens. Each decade includes information on League efforts focused on:
Key issues such as education and the environment
In addition, the book profiles more than 20 key League members in honor of their contributions that made a difference in those decades. Not just an essential read for League members, “Raising Our Voices” is an important resource for the entire St. Louis area and will inspire women’s history buffs from coast to coast. Part local history, part collective memoir, it captures the valuable and ongoing work of this organization to educate and empower voters and improve the status of women in the St. Louis area, the state of Missouri, and nationwide.
Buy the book
Please note that all proceeds go to the League of Women Voters of Metro St. Louis.
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.
You may have seen this article in The Huffington Post, but in case not and because I’m so proud of it, I had to republish it here.
When we think of women in politics, their inclusion in places of power seems to be a recent occurrence, but women have been raising their voices since the 1840s in support of women’s suffrage. For some, this led to running for office even before their fellow women could vote for them. In 1870, less than a decade after the Civil War ended and 50 years before women would be granted the right to vote, Victoria Woodhull announced she was running for president in the 1872 election, a move never before attempted by a female in the United States. In 2016, we have our first female running for president on a major party ticket in Hillary Clinton. Let’s take a look at what’s changed and what hasn’t in those 146 years.
1872: Women didn’t mettle in business or political affairs. It was unthinkable for a woman to vote, much less run for office. As anti-suffragist Catharine Beecher once wrote, “the Holy Scripture indicates for women a sphere higher than and apart from that of public life because as women they find a full measure of duties, care and responsibilities and are unwilling to bear additional burdens unsuited to their physical organization.”
Victoria Woodhull set out to prove this mindset was flawed. She and her sister Tennie opened the first stock brokerage on Wall Street owned and operated by women and were successful at it. Women weren’t allowed at the New York Stock Exchange, but Victoria found a way around that, relaying her business transactions through men, and making millions of dollars.
2016: Women are regularly leaders in companies and are elected to office, but not on par with men. We have a long way to go before we see equal representation. While 46.8% of the total labor force in the United States is female and women hold 51.5% of management and professional positions, women currently hold only 4% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies and only 19.2% of all board seats at those companies. (See Catalyst.org for more.)
According to Rutgers University, “in 2015, 104 women held seats in the United States Congress, comprising 19.4% of the 535 members; 20 women (20%) served in the United States Senate, and 84 women (19.3%) served in the United States House of Representatives. Four women delegates (3D, 1R) also represent American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Virgin Islands in the United States House of Representatives.” The Nation estimates that “at the current rate of progress, it will take nearly 500 years for women to reach fair representation in government.” More optimistic researchers have estimated “it will be 2121 before women reach gender parity in Congress…and [the estimate for when we’ll reach] pay equity is like 2058.”
1872: Women weren’t supposed to run for office. In the nineteenth century it was not even considered proper for a woman to speak in public because it was believed by doing so, she drew shame upon her father/husband, much less run for elected office.
That didn’t stop suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Victoria Woodhull joined them in speaking out for that right, but she also vehemently supported workers’ rights, the humane treatment of prostitutes, and the rights of women to not be sexually subservient to their husbands within marriage. From 1871 on, Victoria was a regular fixture on the lecture circuit along with famous women like Anna Dickinson, traveling around the country to speak her controversial ideas. Victoria took the idea one step further by running for the highest one in the land in 1872. That same year, her sister Tennie ran for Congress as part of a small district in New York. Neither woman won, but they set a precedent thousands later followed.
2016: Women can run for office, but are still discriminated against. In the 21st century, the “woman card” shouldn’t even exist – all candidates for office should be evaluated by voters (and other candidates) based on their experience, platform and positions. Yet, as Mr. Trump’s now-famous quote shows, women are treated differently when they run, though not in the way he seems to have implied with his statement. The media are more likely to talk about a female candidates’ appearance, specifically her hair and clothing, than a man’s (the exception may be Mr. Trump’s hair.) While some argue that bias is all in our heads, nearly three in four of the women interviewed as part of a report recently released by Political Parity said they had felt discriminated against in politics. (See also Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in US Politics for additional reasons why women may feel discriminated against.)
According the Political Parity report, women often lack funding and support from their political parties. “Two-thirds of women say it is difficult to raise the money needed to run effectively and nine in ten women saying fundraising influences their decision to try for a national or statewide seat.” They have the confidence and ability to ask for it, but having the network to ask is a roadblock. Could this be the remnants of the “old boys club” in politics? While the report doesn’t say, it stands to reason.
1872: Women did not have the right to vote. Even though women had been campaigning for suffrage since the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 and the Nineteenth Amendment was introduced in Congress in 1878, it wasn’t ratified until August 18, 1920. Even then, it took 12 states (not counting Alaska and Hawaii) anywhere from another month to 64 years to ratify it. (Mississippi was last, finally ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment on March 22, 1984). In some Southern states, African American women were harassed, attacked and in other ways prevented from voting into the 1960s. On August 6, 1965, The Voting Rights Act was signed into law, finally allowing all women, regardless of race, to vote as full citizens.
2016: Women have the right to vote. Victory! According to VoteRunLead, 53% of voters in the 2012 election were women.
1872: The media attacks female candidates by calling them names and digging into their personal lives. Newspapers analyzed every move political candidates made, including, in the case of Victoria and Tennie, their clothing, bearing, family lineage and suitability as public figures. Just as today, the candidates attacked one another in the papers and were in turn attacked by them. When Victoria’s mother, Anne, sued Victoria’s husband in 1871, the newspapers lapped up every dirty secret that came out in court, often blowing them out of proportion. 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.
2016: The attacks have moved to TV and the internet. Since the 1990s, we’ve watched the media dig into Hillary Clinton’s personal life, even going so far as to attack the then-teenaged Chelsea Clinton, which prompted Hillary to ask the press not to cover her daughter. Of course, throughout her husband’s sex scandals, Mrs. Clinton’s every move and word was chronicled and her motivations and thoughts speculated on in both mainstream media and tabloids. In this most recent campaign, Donald Trump has dubbed Hillary as “Heartless Hillary” and “Crooked Hillary,” because she came out in favor of gun control and because she was attacking him in ads.
This is a long way of showing that while women made some great strides in some areas of politics and society, in others, the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same. Perhaps that will change over time naturally as more women run for office and attain power. Perhaps if Hillary Clinton wins the November election and becomes our nation’s first female presidential candidate, it will happen more rapidly. But as a female, I find it sad that our advances haven’t been greater in a century and a half. But then again, that gives my generation something else to fight for. Maybe someday our daughters and nieces will be asking us why such issues ever existed.
What are your thoughts? How do you see things having changed or not changed? What change do think is most pressing?
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.
Worker’s Rights 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?
Please don’t forget: you can sign up for my newsletter on the right. I’ll be putting out the first issue in a few weeks. It’ll have news I haven’t shared here, so if you don’t want to miss anything, please sign up here.
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.
Victoria C. Woodhull, first American woman to run for President. Ran against Grant and Greeley, 1872.
After keeping this under my hat for almost a year, I’m very excited to announce the main character of my next historical fiction novel is none other than Victoria C. Woodhull, the first woman to run for president, in 1872. I chose today to finally reveal who I was writing about since Hillary Clinton made her candidacy announcement yesterday and my book is out in the world (not published, but it’s circulating, trying to get published).
Over the next several weeks, I’ll share information with you on this fascinating woman, who was born the dirt-poor daughter of a con-man and an insane Spiritualist, but by the age of 33, was a self-made millionaire and had racked up an impressive list of “firsts:”
First woman to run a stock brokerage on Wall Street
First woman to testify before Congress
One of the first women to run a weekly newspaper
First female presidential candidate
She is quite a character, and so is her family. Seriously, they could have been on Jerry Springer. Maybe next week I’ll introduce you to the whole cast of characters in Victoria’s life – they made for interesting writing. She is one of those cases that proves you couldn’t make up a story as juicy as the truth history gives you. Like Hillary, she had her fair share of detractors, and also her fair share of qualities we wouldn’t think would make the ideal Presidential candidate. But on the balance, I think she was a good person who really did want to change the country for the better.
Why haven’t you heard of her? Good question. I hadn’t either until one day my friend Liv Raincourt pinned a picture of her on Pinterest. The caption, “Known by her detractors as ‘Mrs. Satan,’ Victoria Claflin Woodhull, born in 1838, married at age fifteen to an alcoholic and womanizer. She became the first woman to establish a brokerage firm on Wall Street and played an active role in the woman’s suffrage movement. She became the first woman to run for President of the United States in 1872. Her name is largely lost in history. Few recognize her name and accomplishments.” captured my imagination, and as I began to research this fascinating woman, I knew I had the subject of my next book.
No one knows for certain why she has been lost to the pages of history. But two things are likely to blame: 1) the first “biography” published about her shortly after her death in 1927 painted her as a brazen, manipulative whore, so no one wanted her held up as an example of feminine capabilities and 2) she really pissed off Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the ladies who literally wrote the 900+ page book on the history of the suffrage movement. In revenge, they relegated her to a literal footnote. What did she do to make them so angry? The short answer is what didn’t she do, but that’s the subject of another week’s post…
Are you interested in learning more about her? Have you heard of Victoria Woodhull before now? If so, how/where? If not, what do you want to know about her? Let me know and I’ll make sure to answer you over the next few weeks as we dive deeper into this fascinating woman’s story.
As we close out National Women’s History Month, I thought I’d give a brief history of the suffrage movement, mostly focusing on the pre-1900s time period because that is when my book is set. I haven’t done research later than that and will leave it others to tell the fascinating stories of the women who finally got us the right to vote. This list is by no means all-inclusive and is only meant to capture the high points. (I have also left out things that my main character did because I still don’t want to say who she is, though there is a hint in this post. Hopefully within a month, I can.)
1846 – First public debate on women’s rights at Oberlin College.
1847 – First public address about women’s rights.
1848 – First convention on women’s rights held in Seneca Falls.
1850 – First national women’s rights convention.
The Revolution 1868-1872 Paper run by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
1860 – Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association. They were the more radical arm of the suffrage movement. Their group opposed the 15th Amendment and called for a Federal agreement for women suffrage. They believed that the enfranchisement of black and immigrant men would make it more difficult for women to be given the vote. They also believed the educated shouldn’t have to submit to slaves to ask to vote (hence, their opposition to the 15th Amendment). They also believed that divorce was justified in some cases, which set them at odds with their more conservative women’s rights peers.
Lucy Stone, who didn’t oppose enfranchisement of freedmen but still wanted universal suffrage, founded the American Womans Suffrage Association, supporting the 15th Amendment and working for women’s suffrage. They endorsed suffrage state by state, and were more conservative than the National Woman Suffrage Association.
1866 – Congress passed the 14th Amendment, introducing the word “male” into the Constitution as a qualification for voting.
1868 – The 200+ women of the spiritualist town of Vineland, New Jersey, cast their votes in a separate box and tried to get them counted among the men’s, an event they repeated for several years.
1870 – Fifteenth Amendment passed, giving black men the right to vote.
1875 – Virginia Minor took women’s suffrage to the Supreme Court in Minor V. Happerstatt, arguing that the Constitution already gave women the right to vote by declaring them citizens and giving all citizens the right to vote. The Court said citizenship did not imply the right to vote, but that the power was left to the states unless the federal government could be persuaded to amend the Constitution.
1880 –The National Woman Suffrage Association realized the state by state approach was probably best and focused on that, rather than Federal reform to get women the right to vote.
1890 – The National Woman Suffrage Association and American Womans Suffrage Association reunited as the National American Woman Sufferage Association
1920 – Women finally get the right to vote. (August 18)
Gabriel, Mary. Notorious Victoria. Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, ed. One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement.
Do you have thoughts or questions about the early suffrage movement in America? It’s not my strongest subject, but I will definitely try to get answers.
I’m getting closer to being able to tell all of you exactly who my next historical fiction book is about. I sent it off to the freelance editor whom I worked with on the first Guinevere book yesterday, as well as the first reader. I should get edits back in 4-6 weeks, then I’ll put it out for a quick beta read and be able to finally reveal her identity.
Until then, I thought I’d give you a brief taste of what life was like for a woman during the period of my novel (mid-late 1800s in America). As with my previous post about the new book, I’m not listing my sources yet because their titles would give away who my main character is. I’ll come back and add them as soon as I can.
The early 19th century had seen mostly traditional female roles centered around hearth, home and babies. But as war always seems to do, the Civil War gave some women an additional measure of independence, mostly out of necessity while her husband/father/brothers/sons were off fighting. However, after the cannon fire stopped echoing through the valleys and the guns went silent, she was expected to resume her traditional role.
Behavior Personal ambition in a woman was considered evil. She was expected to obey her father or her husband without complaint. The less she showed intelligence, the better off she was. In fact, the quieter and more sickly looking a woman was – frail, thin, pale, prone to fainting – the more attractive she was. (Ironically, she had little recourse if she actually was sickly. Many male doctors believed all women were inherently diseased and refused to treat them.)
There were social taboos against women speaking in public. To call attention to oneself in public was unladylike and considered a form of treachery to one’s husband because when she strayed from her proper place in the home, a woman caused him shame. An interesting exception to this rule was made for mediums, who were exempt because they were instruments of God’s will. (More on the Spiritualism craze of the day in a future post.)
Laws Unsurprisingly, the law was not on a woman’s side, especially if she was unmarried, divorced, or widowed. Women couldn’t vote, serve on juries or testify in court.
Beating a woman was not illegal, but some laws stipulated how large of an object could be used. (Thanks for that, lawmakers.) A married woman had no recourse if she was beaten and she couldn’t deny sex to her husband. As a result, families were large. Unwanted infants were wrapped in rags and abandoned on doorsteps or tossed in the river.
Women were considered property of their husbands. Divorce was legal, but the laws by which it was enforced or allowed varied by state. In many, adultery was the only reason a woman could ask for a divorce. And if she did, she faced steep consequences: she could lose her property, children and reputation.
Work Some women did work, usually out of necessity, and many made barely enough to keep themselves alive. Acceptable occupations included teaching (there were even some schools for girls by the second half of the century), factory work and domestic service. Wages paid to married women went straight to their husbands.
Prostitution was very common and in many ways, much accepted, at least for men. It was expected that young, unmarried men would frequent brothels. It was also acceptable for married men to go there. After all, sex within marriage wasn’t about pleasure; it was about procreation. In many areas of the country, guidebooks to the local brothels were created and disseminated among the male population, rating the establishments, profiling certain women and giving a summary of ambiance and services offered.
Sex In polite society, parts of the body normally covered by clothing were referred to only in whispers. Words related to sex – even pregnancy, rape and abortion – weren’t used in among anyone with class.
While a man could do as he pleased within or outside of marriage, a woman adultery was highly shamed, as was a woman who wasn’t a virgin on her wedding night.
Despite the acceptance of prostitution, the prostitutes themselves were considered the lowest class of woman. They were forbidden a Christian burial and could not get proper medical care. (Another ironic medical assumption of the day: women could carry sexually transmitted diseases, but could not become infected with them. Some doctors believed that all sexually transmitted diseases originated with women. The condom was originally developed to shield a man from diseases a woman might be carrying, not as contraception.)
Suffrage Movement I’ll do a detailed post on the early years of the suffrage movement soon, but for now, let’s just say it was a haven for women who didn’t believe in the status quo. Most the exceptions to societies norms were involved in the suffrage movement. Women who were the first to receive degrees of higher education (especially in the areas of law and medicine) were involved. These women were not only campaigning for the right to vote; they were voices for change for women on all fronts.
If a woman was clairvoyant, she could find a degree of power because she was allowed to speak and people listened. Spiritualists also sought temperance laws to protect women from abuse by drunken husbands and favored vegetarianism because they saw the killing of animals as a form of male violence. Many were involved in creating Utopian communities were women and men were considered equal and Free Love was the norm. (More on that to come as well.)
What questions do you have about women in the 19th century? What did you already know? What surprises you?