Victoria Woodhull's Sexual Revolution: Political Theater and the Popular Press in Nineteenth-Century America

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Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president, forced her fellow Americans to come to terms with the full meaning of equality after the Civil War. A sometime collaborator with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, yet never fully accepted into mainstream suffragist circles, Woodhull was a flamboyant social reformer who promoted freedom, especially freedom from societal constraints over intimate relationships. This much we know from the several popular biographies of the nineteenth-century activist. But what we do not know, as Amanda Frisken reveals, is how Woodhull manipulated the emerging popular media and fluid political culture of the Reconstruction period in order to accomplish her political goals.

As an editor and public speaker, Woodhull demanded that women and men be held to the same standards in public life. Her political theatrics brought the topic of women's sexuality into the public arena, shocking critics, galvanizing supporters, and finally locking opposing camps into bitter conflict over sexuality and women's rights in marriage. A woman who surrendered her own privacy, whose life was grist for the mills of a sensation-mongering press, she made the exposure of others' secrets a powerful tool of social change. Woodhull's political ambitions became inseparable from her sexual nonconformity, yet her skill in using contemporary media kept her revolutionary ideas continually before her peers. In this way Woodhull contributed to long-term shifts in attitudes about sexuality and the slow liberation of marriage and other social institutions. Using contemporary sources such as images from the "sporting news," Frisken takes a fresh look at the heyday of this controversial women's rights activist, discovering Woodhull's previously unrecognized importance in the turbulent climate of Radical Reconstruction and making her a useful lens through which to view the shifting sexual mores of the nineteenth century.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Covers all facets . . . of Woodhull's life, and much more."—Journal of American History

"Frisken provides fresh insight into Woodhull's significance to American culture by focusing on her skillful manipulation of an emerging popular media rather than on the controversy surrounding her exploits. . . [A] persuasively argued work."—American Historical Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812237986
  • Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/28/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.28 (w) x 9.22 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Meet the Author

Amanda Frisken teaches American studies at the State University of New York, Old Westbury.

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Table of Contents

Chronology of Events vii
Introduction: Victoria Woodhull, Sexual Revolutionary 1
1 "The Principles of Social Freedom" 24
2 "A Shameless Prostitute and a Negro" 55
3 The Politics of Exposure 85
4 "Queen of the Rostrum" 117
Conclusion: The Waning of the Woodhull Revolution 146
Notes 157
Bibliography 193
Index 209
Acknowledgments 223
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2008

    New Definition of Womanhood

    Amanda Frisken provides fresh insight into Woodhull's significance to American culture by focusing on her skillful manipulation of an emerging popular media rather than on the controversy surrounding her exploits. This persuasively argued work, which is based on Frisken's doctoral dissertation, draws heavily on images from such men's sporting newspapers as The Day's Doings 'New York', which portrayed Woodhull as both sex radical and sex object. Undaunted by such treatment, Frisken argues, Woodhull used her marginal status 'to create a new definition of womanhood in the nineteenth century,' one that expected women to have a public voice. Shattering the boundaries that confined women to private space and denied them access to a public 'political' arena, Woodhull refused to defend her reputation¿compromised by her public activities and the slander they engendered¿and instead insisted that her ideas alone mattered. Frisken wisely selected four episodes from Woodhull's life to illuminate her public persona and its impact on late nineteenth-century Americans: her free love and women's rights activism, her nomination for president, her role in the Beecher-Tilton scandal, and her evolution from a radical to a religious itinerant lecturer. Drawing upon countless contemporary newspaper and periodical articles, books, and tracts, she documents how a fragile coalition of socialists, sex radicals, spiritualists, and women's rights activists developed in the early 1870s in order to support Woodhull's challenge to the constraints limiting women's lives. Joanne Passet, American Historical Review

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