Other Powers

The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull

by Barbara Goldsmith

Review by Cathleen Myers

Long before Bill, Monica, and Ken was the far more shocking national scandal of Henry, "Lib," Ted and Victoria - the 1876 Beecher/Tilton trial that fascinated both the American public and press for months.

Henry Ward Beecher was America’s most respected preacher, Universal Suffragist, and Civil Rights leader. Victoria Woodhull was American’s most notorious free love advocate, spiritualist, financier and radical feminist. What exactly did they have in common and why did she find it necessary to expose his inappropriate relationship with parishioner Elizabeth ("Lib") Tilton, wife of his journalist-partner Theodore Tilton? And why did this amazing scandal, its elaborate attempted cover-up and Beecher’s resulting trial for adultery not only dominate the newspapers for months (in a manner unprecedented in American history) but also succeed in nearly destroying the women’s rights and universal suffrage movement? And what had such respectable early feminists as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to do with such a notorious woman as Miss Woodhull and why did they predict - correctly - that the Beecher/Tilton trial would set the women’s rights movement back 50 years?

Barbara Goldsmith’s fascinating book is both a biography of Victoria Woodhull and a history of the intertwining histories of the spiritualist, feminist and free love movements in America. After amassing a huge personal fortune first as the "spiritualist" advisor of multi-millionaire tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, then as the first female stock brokers on Wall Street, Woodhull and her gorgeous sister Tennessee first came to the attention of the Anthony and Stanton after the clear, cogent memorandum that Woodhull presented to Congress, arguing that the Constitution already gave women the right to vote. Woodhull became the first woman to testify before Congress, gaining the support of the country’s leading feminists and a number of liberal and moderate politicians. It looked as though Women’s Suffrage was just around the corner. But Woodhull had another agenda - Free Love - which Beecher supported privately (and often!) but refused to support publicly -and their quarrel precipitated his "outing" by Woodhull. Though Beecher eventually won his lawsuit against Tilton (who had sued him for "alienating his wife’s affections") and continued his career as the spiritual pillar of the Republican party, the Women’s Suffrage movement received a near-fatal blow.

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