Free Woman: The Life and Times of Victoria Woodhullby Marion Meade
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Victoria Woodhull is a historical figure too often ignored and undervalued by historians. Although she never achieved political power, her actions and her presence on the political scene helped begin to change the way Americans thought about the right to vote, particularly women’s suffrage, and she set the stage for political emancipations to come throughout the twentieth century.
Woodhull was a product of and a revolutionary within the socially conservative Victorian era, which predominated in the United States as much as it did in England. She was an anomaly within her time, an unlikely and unconventional woman. She came from a background of poverty and her careers prior to entering politics included fortune‑telling, acting, being a stock broker, journalism, and lecturing on women’s rights. She ran for president of the United States in 1872. At that time, she had twice been divorced and she outraged even the feminists of her day by refusing to confine her campaign to the issue of women’s suffrage. She advocated a single sexual standard for men and women, legalization of prostitution, reform of the marriage and family institutions, and “free love.” She shocked a nation largely because her plain‑speaking was designed to expose the endemic hypocrisy of “respectable” people in society.
Marion Meade has created a vivid picture of the colorful figure that was Victoria Woodhull, but she also fully portrays the era in which she lived, in all of its truest and often most unflattering colors. She makes the 1870s read in many ways like the 1970s, not just because Victoria Woodhull was far ahead of her own time but also because many people in the present era are still culturally behind the times.
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The Life and Times of Victoria Woodhull
By Marion Meade
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2011 Marion Meade
All rights reserved.
Those Crazy Claflins
If a girl could choose the kind of family in which to be born, she wouldn't pick the Claflins of Homer, Ohio. A loud, quarrelsome bunch, they were obsessed by status and money, probably because they had so little of either. They moved a lot, sometimes at the request of their neighbors, because the father, Buck Claflin, was not above pulling a shady business deal now and then. The fifth of his seven children (several more died in infancy), Vicky always regarded her relatives as her cross to bear.
Vicky was different from the rest of the Claflins. She was a winsomely beautiful child with cornflower blue eyes, silky brown curls, and a delicate profile. Her aristocratic bearing won her the nickname "Little Queen." Perhaps this was also due to the fact that Queen Victoria had been crowned ruler of England the year before Vicky's birth. More likely it reflected her unusual poise. She acted regal, like one born to command.
Sometimes she would round up several of the neighboring farmers' children and lecture to them. Standing atop an old Indian mound near her house, she would preach of what might befall them if they weren't good.
"Sinners, repent!" she'd exclaim, borrowing the juiciest phrases remembered from the religious revival meetings she attended with her mother. When the kids grew bored, Vicky would switch to a hair-raising tale of an Indian scalping. For a while the children would listen excitedly, but even so, she couldn't hold their attention for long. They didn't like her. Which was true of the way the adult citizens of Homer felt about all the Claflins.
Homer—where Victoria was born on September 23, 1838— hardly looked like a town at all. Slumbering among the rolling Ohio hills about forty miles northeast of Columbus, it existed mainly for the benefit of the surrounding farmers. There were a few homes, a store, a church, a post office, a log-cabin school, and a mill for grinding grain. Vicky's father owned the mill.
Like most rural villages, Homer was a quiet place inhabited by sober, respectable folk. Nothing very exciting happened there. The women cooked, sewed, and kept house. They raised their children to be well-behaved and say "yes, ma'am" and "thank you." The men tended their businesses and farms, shoed horses, split wood. Everyone went to church on Sunday.
As far as the villagers were concerned, the only good thing about the Claflins was that they lived on the edge of town. People said that Buck was shiftless and dishonest. Once, according to town gossip, he tried to spend some counterfeit money. When the sheriff came to arrest him, Buck pulled a $100 bill from his pocket and ate it.
The housewives of Homer clucked disapprovingly about the Claflin children, who always had tangled hair and smudged faces, wore filthy calico dresses, and generally ran wild. "Those young'uns aren't even properly fed," they declared because the Claflin youngsters were in the habit of showing up at their doors, asking for something to eat.
Buck's ramshackle house, badly needing a coat of paint, was considered an eyesore. Beds, invariably unmade, littered the porch and yard. Dirty, unkempt youngsters wandered in and out, while the house rattled with screams and fights. Roxanna Claflin was hardly a perfect housekeeper and mother. In fact, one of the loudest voices was hers. She had a violent temper.
Buck Claflin would not have gone along with modern notions of child rearing. He belonged to the spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child school. He was neither a patient nor a particularly kind man. When his children displeased him, he beat them. A braided switch was kept handy for this very purpose Apparently it got a lot of use. As Vicky would recall many years later, her father "was impartial in his cruelty to all his children. I have no remembrance of a father's kisses."
In her own way, Roxanna was somewhat more loving. At times, she'd nag her youngsters unmercifully or box their ears. Then, full of remorse, she'd caress them and tearfully croon prayers, thanking God for such wonderful children.
Having such parents must have been upsetting for a sensitive, intensely serious child like Vicky. Sometimes she hated them, and yet she vaguely understood that they were barely staying afloat in a sea of economic worries.
The first Claflin to come to the New World was a paid soldier who left Scotland in 1661. Despite the family's early arrival on these shores, none of them managed to distinguish themselves in any way whatsoever. Buck had tried a dozen different trades and not one of them had worked out successfully. A tall man with a jutting chin, he'd lost the sight in one eye from a childhood accident, playing Indians with bows and arrows.
As a youth, he liked to hang out with gamblers and horse traders who congregated in the river towns of eastern Pennsylvania. Desperately anxious to be a successful wheeler and dealer himself, he occasionally had a lucky card game or business deal. For a while he kept store, then traded horses for a living. Finally, he got a job as stablekeeper for a rich family in the town of Selingsgrove, Pennsylvania.
There he met and married Roxanna Hummel, whose father owned the Rising Sun tavern. Although Roxanna couldn't read or write, she had a quick mind and strong religious convictions, both of which appealed to Buck.
Life wasn't easy for the young couple. As they pushed on from town to town, trying to eke out a living, the babies came at regular intervals. One winter they were left homeless when a blizzard destroyed their house.
In spite of their difficulties, maybe because of them, the Claflins developed a very strong sense of family loyalty. They fought among themselves, but when criticized by outsiders, they defended one another fiercely. Mama Claflin was always standing up for her boisterous brood. Once, when they were sent home from Sunday school for acting bratty, she promptly trotted down to the church and gave the preacher a tongue-lashing.
Still, the quiet Vicky stood apart from her family. The only one she truly felt close to was her sister Tennessee, seven years younger. Humorous, spunky, and forthright, Tennie admired Vicky and followed her around like a worshipful puppy.
The days before the Civil War, when Vicky was a child, were an age of comparative innocence in American history. It was that period of primitive simplicity recalled so nostalgically by Mark Twain—a benign never-never land where boys like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer could drift, carefree, down the Mississippi River on a raft. By contrast, life was altogether different for a girl. At least for a girl like Vicky.
In those days, few parents believed in educating girls. Vicky's were no exception. Roxanna Claflin had not gone to school, and as far as she could tell, learning to read and write was a sheer waste of time.
"But, Mama, I want to go to school," begged Vicky.
"Why?" Roxanna demanded in exasperation. "I reckon it'd be different if you was a boy. Ain't no use under God's sun for girls to have book learnin'. God made women for raisin' young'uns and keepin' house."
Her determined daughter pestered and pestered. Finally, when Vicky was eight, Roxanna relented. Vicky began attending the one-room log schoolhouse in town. Some of the other children hated school, and when they acted up, the teacher punished them by putting wire clothespins on their noses.
Vicky, however, was a model student. She loved reciting her ABCs and doing sums on a jagged piece of slate. She had a quick mind, and the teacher paid a lot of attention to her. Her classmates, less admiring, would tease, "Teacher's pet, teacher's pet." Vicky ignored them.
What troubled her most was that she didn't get to school very often. Yes, her mother had consented, but when housework had to be done, it was a different story.
"Victoria," her mother would announce sharply in the morning, "it's bread-bakin' day. You hear me!" That meant Vicky would stay home and bake bread. Another day, she would make soap and candles.
By this time, her oldest sister, Margaret Ann, was married and already had several small children. She, too, needed help. Roxanna generously offered Vicky's services. Vicky, of course, was not consulted. She had no choice but to trudge over to Margaret Ann's house where there was always something to do; Vicky made fires, washed and ironed, cut wood, spaded the vegetable garden, and took care of her sister's babies.
She resented it. She didn't even like her sister that much, and she certainly didn't appreciate being Margaret Ann's maid. Oh, why couldn't she go to school where she could imagine worlds of beauty and adventure far removed from her own bleak life in Homer?
For three years, Vicky went to school whenever she could. Then, one day, her education ended abruptly. So did living in Homer. Buck Claflin, always on the lookout for ways to make a fast dollar, had discovered a new idea called "fire insurance." By paying the insurance company a few cents a year, he would get back the full value of his gristmill should a fire occur.
Practically nobody in Homer had any property they thought worth insuring and when Buck insured his mill, the news soon traveled all over town. It became the chief topic of gossip. People gossiped even harder when Buck's mill happened to burn to the ground one Sunday night. In fact, they acted downright suspicious.
When Buck tried to collect his insurance, he learned it wouldn't be quite so easy as he'd imagined. There were questions, lots of them. People in Homer hadn't the slightest doubt that Buck had set the fire himself. They said he'd always been a crook. "He should be tarred and feathered!" they cried.
Faced with a major scandal, Buck quietly dropped his insurance claim and slipped out of town. Homer was delighted to see him go. Unfortunately, there was one small problem. He'd left his family behind. Did that mean he would be returning? Not if the citizens of Homer had anything to say about it.
Some of the more practical folks hit upon a perfect solution. They decided to hold a benefit bazaar and raise money to send this poor abandoned family to join its scalawag husband and father. What could be more charitable? And what easier way to get rid of undesirables?
Afterward, the people of Homer had no regrets. They discovered that Buck, who had run the post office in his spare time, thoroughly deserved his bad reputation. The man who took his place as postmaster found a trunk full of letters, each one stating that money was being enclosed. All the envelopes were empty.
At the age of eleven, it isn't pleasant to be uprooted from your home and practically escorted out of town in disgrace. Nor is it easy to know you're not wanted. For several years the Claflin tribe roamed around Ohio, stopping at one town and then another. How long would they stay? Vicky never knew. It depended on whether Buck thought there was an opportunity to make money. Sometimes he'd go into partnership with other men, but the businesses never lasted long. And, once again, the Claflins would move on.
Finally, traveling almost full circle, they came to a halt in Mount Gilead, a small town not far from Homer. It wasn't because Mount Gilead offered such lush pickings for Buck's business schemes. Rather, it was because Margaret Ann and her husband had recently settled there.
On the surface, the humiliations of such a chaotic existence appeared to wash over Vicky. She remained as she'd always been—solemn and soft-spoken. All the hurts became unimportant because she had a secret. Once, when she'd been younger, she had seen a vision. A beautiful young man in a dazzling white Grecian tunic had appeared to her. He looked like an angel.
"You will know wealth and fame one day," he promised gently. "You will live in a mansion, in a city surrounded by ships, and you will become ruler of your people."
That, Vicky later insisted, was how she first got the idea she might be an important person someday. Far from disbelieving the incredible prophecy, the enthralled little girl thought it sounded quite reasonable. Hadn't she always felt special, like she didn't belong to the Claflins? This proved it.
When she told her parents of the vision, they saw nothing extraordinary about it and soon forgot. Not Vicky. She felt sure that a special destiny awaited her. Somewhere. Someday.
Actually, the Claflins paid no attention to her miraculous vision because Vicky was always seeing things. From the age of three, she showed signs of being clairvoyant. She had the rare ability of being aware of distant objects or events which could not be known through ordinary sight, hearing, taste, or touch. Sometimes she would scare other children by reading their minds or telling them where lost objects could be found. She could also describe events before they happened.
Most of us have a small amount of this intuitive talent—we call it having a "premonition" or a "hunch." A few people, like psychic Jeanne Dixon who warned of President Kennedy's assassination before it occurred, seem to have highly developed powers of intuition. Both Vicky and her sister Tennie had this extra sense of perception.
The late 1840s was a period in American history that abounded with new ideas. People eagerly sought ways to perfect their own lives or to improve the world. Some thought vegetarianism or eating health foods was the answer. Others crusaded against alcohol. The Abolitionists insisted that America would be Utopia if the slaves were freed.
And in Seneca Falls, New York, a small group of women had embarked upon a passionate struggle for equal rights. In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott had organized the first Women's Rights Convention. They were determined to change the conditions that had made women into second-class citizens, indeed had denied them the right to behave as full human beings. For their trouble, the feminists who congregated at Seneca Falls were bombarded with ridicule.
The Reign of Petticoats, scoffed one newspaper headline.
Blasphemy! squealed another.
But twelve-year-old Vicky, in the backwoods of Ohio, knew nothing of these events. Nor were her parents the kind of people who might be attracted to new intellectual ideas; their interests revolved solely around making money. That's why it is not surprising that one new idea did catch their attention.
At that time, there was enormous interest in the occult. Serious, educated people discussed reincarnation; tried to communicate with the dead through mediums; and patronized psychics who could tune in to their past, present, and future. Two of the most famous psychics were Kate and Margaret Fox, a pair of New York sisters who were collecting bushels of publicity and money from their seances. So widespread were reports of the Fox sisters' feats that their success even reached Mount Gilead and the notice of Buck Claflin.
Two sisters who told fortunes? Two sisters who were said to be making a fortune? Buck suddenly realized that he was sitting on a gold mine. Didn't he have two daughters who were clairvoyant?
Before Vicky and Tennie knew what was happening, he'd installed them in the parlor of a Mount Gilead boardinghouse where they soon were busily reading people's futures. Although the Claflin sisters received a good deal of attention, Vicky did not feel entirely comfortable. She took her gifts of prophecy quite seriously. Also, she couldn't turn on her power of insight whenever she pleased. It doesn't work that way, she protested.
In that case, Buck advised his daughters, they should fake it.
And so Vicky and Tennie shrugged and did their best to give the customers their money's worth.
After a while, it wasn't much fun at all. When they weren't telling fortunes, there were the endless chores and the petty quarreling at home. Vicky longed to wear pretty clothes, to dance and have a good time. Secretly, she dreamed of getting away from the rowdy Claflins, of escaping from a tackv little town like Mount Gilead. Where was her Prince Charming, a beautiful young man who would swoop down and carry her off to his castle in the clouds? But she kept such thoughts to herself.
Now she was fourteen and had developed into a young woman. Not surprisingly, the boys in town began to notice her. It wasn't her blue eyes and delicate features, but her royal manner which made her stand out from the rest of the girls. She acted like a "lady." But Vicky wasn't interested in any oafish farm boy. None of them fitted her fantasies, nor the prophecy of wealth and fame.
Excerpted from Free Woman by Marion Meade. Copyright © 2011 Marion Meade. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Marion Meade studied at Northwestern University in Illinois and later received a master’s from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. She worked as a freelance writer and her articles have appeared in leading magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, McCall’s, the Village Voice, Ms. Magazine, and Cosmopolitan. Meade has written novels, biographies, and nonfiction books. Bitching was a significant contribution to the second phase of development in the feminist movement. She has written biographies of Victoria Woodhull (Free Woman), Eleanor of Aquitaine, Madame Blavatsky, Buster Keaton (Cut to the Chase), Woody Allen (The Unruly Life of Woody Allen), and Dorothy Parker (What Fresh Hell Is This?). She has published two historical novels: Sybille, which narrates the life of a woman troubadour in thirteenth century southern France, during Europe’s first great holocaust, the Albigensian crusade; and Stealing Heaven, The Love Story of Heloise and Abelard. She lives in New York City.
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