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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
Yet there was another element supplied by nobody but the woman herself, and it probably had more to do with the effect she produced than all the rest combined. This was a moral courage that did not blench before any implication of her doctrine. It was conspicuously a mealymouthed generation and Victoria Woodhull was not mealymouthed. If they charged her with advocating free love she met the charge head-on with an assertion that no infidelity could be as foul as for a woman to maintain marital relations with a husband she loathed.
About the year 1870 this was terrific, but it had an effect that the conventional did not expect and could not account for. It gave the impression of a fundamental honesty that all Victoria’s scarlet sins could not eradicate. Even the scandalized felt that, on this subject if on no other, Victoria Woodhull was telling the truth as she saw it and telling it with superb courage.
As for the enthusiasts, they went wild. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example, wrote: “The nature that can pass through all phases of social degradation, vice, crime, poverty and temptation in all its forms, and yet maintain a dignity and purity of character through all, gives unmistakable proof of its high origin, its divinity.”
The platform, however, soon became an inadequate medium for Victoria. In 1870 the sisters began publication of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, one of the most curious ventures in the history of American journalism, filled though that history is with fantastic incidents. The Weekly defies classification because there is hardly an adjective in the language applicable to any newspaper that does not apply to this one.
Its primary purpose, announced in the first issue, was to support Victoria Claflin Woodhull for President of the United States. But aside from that there was hardly a measure of social amelioration that it did not advocate brilliantly, and hardly a depth of depravity that it failed to touch. Blood and Andrews did the bulk of the writing, but they had effective assistance from other contributors, some of them exceedingly able people, others as crazy as anything outside of Bedlam.
Feminism was the Weekly’s dominant interest, but it assailed entrenched injustice in many forms. There was scarcely an issue in which it did not peel the paint off some whited sepulcher, often with great journalistic and literary skill; on the other hand, there was scarcely an issue in which it did not back some charlatanry that might have made Cagliostro blush. It argued the cause of labor with eloquence and skill; it presented some astonishingly acute judgments on economic and fiscal policy; it collected an honorable array of enemies among venal and corrupt politicians. But intermixed with this excellent and socially valuable journalism it ran articles publicizing some of the most outrageous quacks in the country, especially those pretending to deal with the occult.
The Weekly had an even darker side. As Victoria’s public life became busier, so Tennessee’s private—very private—life grew more active. Naturally there are no records, so exact information on the subject is nonexistent; but that Tennessee used the Weekly to put the bite on the boy friends seems established beyond a reasonable doubt.
The fury that such activities built up against the enterprising sisters was boundless, but for a long time it was impotent. Their magnetic charm rendered them invulnerable, and their shrewdness reached higher and higher. Victoria snared one of the most eminent journalists in America, Theodore Tilton, editor of the Independent, a quasi-religious journal of opinion with immense influence, and for six months, by her own account, the affair was torrid.
He was married, but her philosophy of free love made that no obstacle. True, this philosophy was not proof against emotion; once when she caught Jim Blood with his arms around another woman she threw a pair of shears at them. Freedom didn’t extend to Jim.
But the connection with Tilton brought Victoria to the great crisis of her career and betrayed her into the error of assailing the one invulnerable citadel in America, namely, piety. It was not religion. There is only too much evidence to support the belief that in 1872 genuine religion in the United States was almost at its lowest ebb; but the country’s piety—that is, its acceptance of the forms of religion—was colossal and impregnable.
It was so great that churches had come to be profitable commercial investments, much as movie houses were fifty years later. It was nothing uncommon for a wealthy real-estate operator to sink many thousands in a church building and to spend other thousands hiring the most popular preacher available to preach there. The real-estate man would then promote the organization of a congregation that would pay rent for the building, or purchase it at a very handsome profit.