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Dynamic Victoria Woodhull
Her past was shady but her conscience was excellent, and all in all she played a big part in the emancipation of women
June 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 4
But the discarded Woodhull hit the downgrade. He became a drug addict and a human derelict, incapable of taking care of himself; whereupon Victoria took him back into her household, although not as a husband. Naturally the regime caused comment, and it was undoubtedly the sting of the comment that turned her mind more and more to the invidious position to which women were relegated by the manners and customs of the times.
Victoria was a feminist not because the position of women in 1868 was unjust and disabling to half the human race but because it was unjust and disabling to a specific individual, to wit, Victoria Woodhull. But for the very reason that she was pleading her own case her attack was direct and driven home with tremendous emotional power.
It was her passionate resentment of injustices perpetrated upon her that made this woman a genuine firebrand. Blood was an able ghost writer who could supply her with smoothly turned phrases to which her emotional intensity lent a tremendous impact; and shortly after her arrival in New York she picked up another henchman, equally useful.
This was Stephen Pearl Andrews, himself an oddity worthy to be bracketed with Woodhull or any other eccentric. Andrews was of the intellectual aristocracy and had considerable intellectual capacity, but he lacked balance. He was an astounding linguist. It was said that he knew 32 languages, and he invented a thirty-third, called Alwato, a forerunner of Esperanto and other universal languages. At the age of nineteen he went to New Orleans, studied law, married a southern girl, and became a thundering abolitionist. Removing to Houston, Texas, he became a leader of the bar, but ruined his prospects by his violent opposition to slavery. In 1843 he was mobbed and driven out of the town, whereupon he went to England and tried to interest the British government in a scheme for emancipation by purchase of the slaves. He failed in that but he discovered the Pitman system of writing shorthand and introduced it into America.
In 1847 he removed to New York and imitated Sir Francis Bacon by undertaking a compendium of universal science. His social system, which he called “Pantarchy,” included odds and ends of every radical idea that was floating around. The rights of women had a prominent place in it and he included in those rights sexual freedom. This interested Victoria Woodhull and she sought out Stephen Pearl Andrews, whom she charmed as effectively as she did most men. Soon he was putting his skill at her service.
Now Victoria was equipped to go to town in a really big way. With Blood to give her utterances a smooth and flowing style, with Andrews to touch them with quite genuine learning, and with her own personal charm, she could speak and write with great effectiveness. More than that, she had an audience, for between them she and Tennessee had achieved a notoriety that forced them upon the notice of every resident of New York. Among those curious enough to look them up was Cornelius Vanderbilt, known as the Commodore, the tough and powerful founder of the Vanderbilt fortune.
In 1868 the Commodore was 74 years old and he was thinking much oftener of the other world than he had thought in his twenties. So when this new pair of occultists appeared in the city it was inevitable that he should be interested; and when he met them he was as completely charmed as other men and, to a certain extent, was conquered.
But Vanderbilt even in his old age was of much tougher fiber than the men whom the Claflins enslaved. He enjoyed their society and admitted it. He gladly loaded them with favors. Apparently there was a moment when he seriously considered marrying Tennessee, and he constantly demanded her services as a mesmeric masseuse; but the sisters never took the old boy completely into camp.
He made them rich in a spectacular way. They set up the brokerage house of Woodhull, Claflin & Company in Wall Street. Old Vanderbilt, hugely amused, probably furnished some of the capital, and certainly gave them valuable tips by which they cleaned up handsomely in the stock market.
The furor created by this crashing frontal assault on the prevailing mores is beyond description, especially as the unregenerate caste of newspaper reporters found it an inexhaustible source of amusing stories. Then Victoria seized every opportunity to inflame the stodgily conventional by increasing activity in public life. She became a popular lecturer on women’s rights.
The usual concept of a feminist at the time was that of a mannish creature with the build of a stevedore and the voice of a foghorn, a caricature of womanhood revolting to every male instinct. So when the crowds saw appear on the platform an exquisite and apparently fragile figure, feminine to the fingertips, the effect was a titillating shock. Add, then, an address couched in Blood’s suave and supple prose, and studded with arguments historical, anthropological, economic, and philosophical drawn from Andrews’ enormous store of learning, and the effect was redoubled. She was a smash hit.