Spiritualism: Victoria Woodhull, still today’s woman

The sin of all time has been the exercise of assumed powers. This is the essence of tyranny. -Victoria Woodhull

I kept a picture of Victoria Woodhull on my altar during my doctoral process at New York University. Victoria Woodhull with a whisper of a smile gazed at me benevolently in her silver case frame. I’d begun feeling her presence everywhere. My review of the literature led me to her. Granted that my topic was not originally about Spiritism or Spiritualism but that’s what happened. Because I was engaged in qualitative research, part of my study was to enter into the participants’ world without going native. I began exploring the world of spiritualism and eventually went native.

My gatekeeper invited me to misas, séances, where spiritual messages were channeled through mediums. I began reading on the topic and met channelers, mediums for the departed, and people who readily told me things about myself that they couldn’t possibly know. It reminded me of the backstory of my early life that had brought me much fear. As a very young child, my mother took my older sister and me to visit my sister’s paternal grandmother. She was in the middle of supposedly being spiritually possessed and yelled out that mother should break a leg. I don’t think she meant that in a stage performance celebratory wish of good luck! We had a hard time with that one since my mom did fall into a wide pothole on the way home and my sister’s initial illness started with subcutaneous hemorrhage of her legs. I had to work through that before I could embrace spiritualism and all the good it has brought me.

Victoria was born Victoria Claflin and was a role model for many women. From early childhood, she practiced as a clairvoyant and fortune-teller to augment her family’s income. She was a foreperson in the suffrage movement and her primary focus was promoting the idea of Free Love. Simply, free love was the notion that women should have choice in husbands, of having children, and the option of a divorce that was unheard of in those times. In 1870 she and her sister, Tennessee (Tennie), took Wall Street by storm when they opened the first female brokerage business. When I’ve walked along Great Jones Street I have imagined her walking along the cobblestone path in her long swishing skirts. Tennessee was close to Cornelius Vanderbilt and it was rumored that he made much of his fortune on her advice as a spiritualist.

Victoria and Tennie started a newspaper called Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly that addressed issues of equality for women such as free love, spiritualism, sex education and licensed prostitution.  While some of the other women’s rights advocates such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton saw her as a champion, others like The Beecher sisters who were powerful in those circles were not as open to her movement. In fact, Ms. Woodhull spent many a day incarcerated in the Tombs in New York City because she was such a threat.

Victoria was the first woman on the ballot for US Presidency in 1872. A major concern was that the female vote was not instituted until fifty years later. Frederick Douglass was nominated to be her running partner for Vice Presidency but did not acknowledge the nomination.  While they were both tirelessly fighting for the abolition of slavery, Ms. Woodhull’s prime focus was to promote the concept of free love.

Victoria Woodhull showed up on my pages in Coney Island Siren. One of the protagonist’s, Ellen, journals about her and is taken with her ways that leads to independence. The women of those times were in desperate need of hope that life could change and they wouldn’t have their lives dictated to them by people who never thought of them as people but as mere possessions. I believe there are many women who live under those conditions even today. I think it’s time for me to replace Victoria’s picture on my altar. Her sense of cause and action is one to be emulated still today.

Two wonderful books about Ms. Woodhull are:

Other Powers: the age of Suffrage and Spiritualism by Barbara Goldsmith and

Notorious Victoria: the Life of Victoria Woodhull by Mary Gabriel

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