Barbara Goldsmith is a freelance writer who has contributed articles to many magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar, New York, and Esquire, and who has published a study of the contested will of J. Steward Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune, in Johnson v. Johnson (1987). Her Little Gloria . . . Happy at Last (1980), a study of the sensational 1934 lawsuit over the custody of Gloria Vanderbilt, won several awards. While researching material on Cornelius Vanderbilt, who founded the family fortune, Goldsmith became aware of Victoria Woodhull’s activities during the nineteenth century.
Although obscured for much of the twentieth century, Victoria Woodhull’s impact on life and politics in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, and on the fortunes of the women’s rights movement, were significant. A spiritualist, a suffragist, a magazine editor, and financier, she was the first woman to open a Wall Street brokerage firm (in 1870), to address a committee of Congress (in 1871), and to run for president (in 1872). A social and political radical, Woodhull demanded sexual equality for women, called for reform of divorce laws, and headed an American section of Karl Marx’s International Workingmen’s Association.
Victoria was born in Homer, Ohio, on September 23, 1838, the daughter of Roxanna and Rueben Buckman Claflin. She was the seventh of ten children; her sister Tennessee Celeste, born in 1845, would remain closely associated with Victoria throughout her life. Their father left Homer when he was accused of robbing the mail and committing arson. The family became, in effect, a traveling medicine show, roaming the Middle West peddling nostrums; one brother posed as a cancer doctor, while Victoria and Tennessee held séances and claimed to be clairvoyant. Charges of fraud, blackmail, and prostitution surfaced during the family’s travels. In 1853, Victoria married Canning Woodhull, a physician; they had two children. In 1864, she met and fell in love with Colonel James Harvey Blood, a veteran radicalized by his experiences during the Civil War. The two divorced their spouses and were married in 1866, although Victoria continued to use her first husband’s name. Blood, a dedicated spiritualist and utopian socialist who had been active in the antislavery and suffragist movements, took over the management of Victoria’s clairvoyance practice, serving as mentor and speechwriter for the next decade.
In 1868, Victoria claimed that the spirit of Demosthenes had instructed her to go to New York City, where she moved with her entire family—parents, siblings, children, and both husbands. Soon after arriving, Victoria and Tennessee arranged an interview with wealthy steamboat and railroad promoter Cornelius Vanderbilt, a lonely multimillionaire whose wife had recently died. Victoria held séances in which Vanderbilt communicated with his mother, the only woman he truly loved. According to Goldsmith, Victoria’s spirits provided stock-market advice, and her sister Tennessee shared Vanderbilt’s bed. He helped the two set up the brokerage firm of Woodhull, Claflin, and Company, which prospered by attracting curious men and providing financial services to its women customers. In May, 1870, the sisters started Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, in which they advocated equal rights for women, revision of divorce laws, free love, and legalized prostitution, as well as tax, housing, and dietary reforms. When Karl Marx’s International Workingmen’s Association formed a New York section in 1871, Victoria joined the leadership, and the Weekly published the first English translation of The Communist Manifesto to appear in the United States.
Goldsmith stresses the extent to which spiritualism and women’s rights were intertwined. She notes that although “not all women’s rights advocates became Spiritualists . . . Spiritualism embraced women’s rights.” Séances were commonly held in family and home circles, places that women controlled, and the spirits were uniformly friendly to women’s aspirations. Goldsmith reports that Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments” for the 1848 Seneca Falls convention (which began the organized women’s rights movement) on a table used for séances. “Miraculously the ideas began to flow,” Goldsmith asserts, as soon as Stanton “placed her paper on the spirit table.” Victoria herself found it easy to move from spiritualism to the women’s rights movement.
In April, 1870, Victoria announced that she would be a candidate for the presidency in the 1872 election, running on a platform calling for equal rights for all Americans. On January 11, 1871, Victoria presented the “Woodhull Memorial” on women’s...
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