June 2003

Laura Sorensen


Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored by Mary Gabriel

In 1872, the US was still twenty years away from having a state which allowed women to vote. Susan B. Anthony was arrested for attempting to vote for Ulysses S. Grant in the presidential election. Grant won that election by a landslide (even without Anthony's vote); but also in jail, awaiting a trial for distribution of obscene materials, was Victoria Woodhull, who had announced her decision to run against Grant for president. Victoria was too young to be elected president (she was only 35) and she would not have been allowed to take the office in any case, for no one considered women fit to run the country. However, nothing but arrest could have stopped Victoria from trying.

Notorious Victoria is the story of Victoria Claflin Woodhull's life, and it's the stuff of legend. Mary Gabriel, the author, notes that Woodhull was "ahead of her time" and credits Cady Stanton and Anthony for wiping her name out of the annals of suffrage; when they wrote their groundbreaking History of Woman Suffrage in 1887, they made not a mention of her, having ostracised her publicly and forbidden her attendance at official suffrage meetings. Certainly, as a casual student of feminist history, I had never heard of her yet by 1872, she was a hiss and a byword in most American homes, and became so famousthat her life was avidly followed by the paparazzi for forty years.

"The Woodhull," as she was known, grew up practicing spiritualism and clairvoyance, once making almost $700,000 from her divination business. She was divorced twice in the heyday of Victorian America, and lived with both her first and second husbands at the same time (though they did not all share a bed, as one reporter found out). She and her sister Tennessee ran a Wall Street brokerage firm, a weekly newspaper, and a Communist party section. But Woodhull was best known for three things: being the first woman to address Congress on the subject of suffrage, running as a presidential nominee in 1872, and breaking a scandal about Henry Ward Beecher which ended up expatriating her to England for the last fifty years of her life.

Gabriel conveys Woodhull's personality well, by illustrating her in her own words. Woodhull stood up for "free love," the lower classes, and women's rights in a world that could not bear to see a woman talk plainly. She despised hypocrisy, but eventually backed down and recanted all of her views to avoid the suffocating notoriety that hounded her from 1872 tothe turn of the twentieth century. Gabriel's admiration for Woodhull shows in the attention to detail and even the ability, hard as it is, to quote Woodhull's detractors.

It wasn't hard to find detractors in Woodhull's life, or supporters either -- the press of the time seemed to love her and hate her in equal measure. Gabriel has collected newspaper articles and quotes, letters, and pamphlets summing up the censure of Woodhull's principles and lifestyle. In fact, looking at Gabriel's bibliography, there seems to be a glut of workon Woodhull's life, and another book might be superfluous. But the strength of the book is twofold it has gathered together all the information necessary and put it together with current events in suffrage and politics; and, almost more importantly for the casual historyreader, it is extremely interesting.

Gabriel seems to love the lurid details: the petty thievery of Woodhull's father, the squabbles between the groups of suffrage fighters, the strange quirks that Woodhull herselfhad. It makes for an engaging story style, presenting someone who might have been the only honest upper-class Victorian in New York. Woodhull dressed plainly, with never a skirt above the ankle, but she lived wildly and ferociously, grabbing what she could and scrapping for it. Gabriel also presents many newspaper articles which illustrate how the press described a woman's endeavor in 1871: by her clothes, her demeanor, her jewelry, and with a sort of pat-on-the-head tone, a "you go girl!" to a ten-year-old. It grates on the modern reader's nerve, which is probably what Gabriel intends, because it would have grated on Woodhull's as well.

Even though Woodhull seems to have set herself up for many a disappointment, I still wantedher to keep fighting. Perhaps if she'd known in 1872 what she knew in 1927, right beforeshe died, she would have muted herself, kept quiet. And yet, perhaps not. She was a fighter, and she deserves to be remembered. "One of America's most fascinating women was left by the roadside of history to be forgotten," says Gabriel, and I agree. Cady Stanton and Anthony, by withdrawing their support of her, dropped her out of the official Good Girls Of Suffrage list and relegated her to casual mentions in "suffrage timelines" and scholarly studies of her influence on the nineteeth amendment.

What Gabriel memorializes instead is Woodhull's personality, drive, and far-reaching influence on a society that scorned her publicly for speaking about what it practiced privately. Gabriel thinks a lot of Woodhull hey, Woodhull thought a lot of herself and yet I also admire someone so staunch in their principles, however unpopular those principles were with the public. Gabriel might not have written the only biography of Woodhull, but she's certainly written a sensational one.

Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored by Mary Gabriel Algonquin ISBN: 1565121325 301 pp.

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