Monday, May 19, 2008

Other Powers - a review

Other Powers by Barbara Goldsmith

In a century when men were free to treat women with the same detached cruelty as they did their slaves, when marriage meant surrendering every right to property, when no laws protected women from physical abuse (although a few states stipulated the size of the instruments that could be used to inflict punishment)...

Victoria Woodhull ran for President.

This is the nineteenth century that Barbara Goldsmith illustrates for us in Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull.

The daughter of a snake oil salesman, at various times in her life Woodhull was a child preacher, prostitute, and the founder of the first stock brokerage for women. The identity that was most important to her, however, was that of a spiritualist. Spiritualism was a religion that allowed you to speak to the dead through seances and ouija boards. Woodhull claimed that to tell her life without her spirits would be like writing Hamlet and leaving out his father's ghost. Under the guidance of Demosthenes, Napoleon, and Josephine, she believed that the spirits had chosen her to become the ruler of the world.

The nineteenth century was epidemic with hybrid social theories. Woodhull's campaign manager, Stephen Pearl Andrews, founded the community of Modern Times as a model to demonstrate his "New Age" ideals. This included free love, and as part of the practice, colonists tied a red thread around their index finger to announce that they were married, and untied it when they decided not to be.

Spiritualism, however, was the idealism of the 19th century. It mitigated the sting of death, helping to heal the pain of the civil war and rampant child mortality by reconnecting loved ones even after death. Spiritualism demanded universal suffrage... the equality of all human beings. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the suffragette manifesto on a spirit table (Although that isn't noted where the table is displayed in the Smithsonian). Women, no matter how ill-educated, could now transmit the wisdom of spirits as diverse as Socrates and Benjamin Franklin. Not surprisingly, the rights of women were very much on the minds of these great thinkers. A spiritualist even claimed that President Lincoln had been moved to emancipate the slaves through a spirit message she delivered to him. Lincoln's wife confirmed this.

Woodhull was the most unique product of her age. With her myriad of identities, ranging from Marxist to magnetic healer, she reflected the madness of her times and the struggle to acquire rights taken for granted by men. Much more than a biography of Victoria Woodhull, Other Powers is a biography of the mythic age she lived in.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

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