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Living Free

OTHER POWERS: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. By Barbara Goldsmith . Alfred A. Knopf: 536 pp., $30 : NOTORIOUS VICTORIA. By Mary Gabriel . Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill: 372 pp., $24.95

March 29, 1998|ELINOR LANGER | Elinor Langer is the author of a biography of the American radical writer Josephine Herbst. She is working on a book about the 1988 skinhead killing of an Ethiopian man in Portland, Ore., "The Death of Mulugeta Seraw."

Of all the fabled 19th century characters on whose works the relative emancipation of American woman can be said to rest, none was more famous in her own time, nor more forgotten later, than Victoria Claflin Woodhull. Spiritualist, suffragist, editor and financier, Woodhull achieved a string of female "firsts" that included opening a Wall Street brokerage firm in 1870, addressing a congressional committee in 1871 and running for president in 1872. Yet in the written histories of the women's movement, she barely exists.

The reason for her excision is not hard to grasp: Woodhull was a sexual, political and economic radical for whom the vote was only a detail in a sweeping vision of social freedom whose central tenet was free love. "Yes! I am a Free Lover!" she proclaimed in a widely publicized speech in New York's Steinway Hall. "I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love for as long or as short a period as I can, to change that love every day if I please!" "Died of Free Love . . . The Woman Suffrage Movement," reported one newspaper headline soon after.

Woodhull was also the first American publisher of "The Communist Manifesto," the head of an American section of Karl Marx's International Workingman's Assn. and the leader of a parade of 10,000 people down the Bowery in honor of the fallen Paris Communards: Lady Liberty leading the people practically into riot. Her radicalism was too much for the single-minded Susan B. Anthony, not only politically but doubtless personally as well. In spite of their earlier alliance, Woodhull was virtually purged from the definitive six-volume "History of the Woman Suffrage Movement" that Anthony compiled with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from Anthony's first authorized biography and from all that followed. Marx did not like her either. Her section was expelled from the association in 1872.

Woodhull's convictions did not come from books; they came from experience. An ecstatic child given not only to seeing visions but to beguiling audiences with them, she was pitched by her Midwestern drummer of a father at Ohio revivals as a medium, a role in which she saw so much of the suffering of poor 19th century women that she was never able to forget what she learned. Nor was her own life much different. Married at 15 to a dissolute doctor nearly twice her age, she was no stranger to the drunken claims on her body and the pleading retrievals of her husband from saloons that were the common lot. Soon she became the breadwinner, supporting a retarded son, a daughter and their drug-addled father by means that crisscrossed the thin line between stage and brothel. A second marriage to a St. Louis spiritualist and social reformer, with whom she formed a free-ranging partnership of love and ideals, was the cornerstone of Woodhull's successful transition to New York. But even at the peak of her influence, she was dragged down by the predations of her family: an appalling array of Dickensian leeches who lived off her and husband No. 2 in a splendid menage on 38th Street and who were never satisfied, periodically undermining her accomplishments by dragging her into the headlines with sensational accusations.

As high as Woodhull rose in her utopian aspirations, she was never far from the muck in which she began. The brokerage firm; her newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly; and her role in the suffrage movement were all underwritten by her sister Tennessee Claflin's seduction of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was very fond of Woodhull as well. Her life was dotted with the timely return from lovers of "Burn This!" letters, of which she had quite a few. Somehow she transcended these circumstances, accomplishing a gradual moral transformation beautifully described by Barbara Goldsmith in "Other Powers" as a movement "from self-aggrandizement to selflessness" with remarkable grace. Equally remarkable is her sheer intellectual courage. When American women in the late 1960s and early 1970s formulated a sexual, economic and political analysis of the exploitation of women by men, they were a movement. When Woodhull did it, she was a vanguard.

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