Wednesday, March 3, 2010

If you think politics are disdainful now...

A couple of months ago my friend Maria of Sweet Thursday fame brought me a book she’d found at the Lafayette Library’s used bookstore. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull, by Barbara Goldsmith was published in 1998. “I thought this looked like something that might come in handy for Helen Pitts,” she said.

I knew a bit about the stunning Victoria Woodhull, of course – it was she, not Hillary, who was the first female presidential candidate, back in 1872. Without asking him first, and with virtually no hope of garnering a single vote, she named Frederick Douglass as her vice president even though the two had never met.

Helen’s travel diary of their trip to Europe in 1886 mentions Douglass' one and only meeting with Mrs. Woodhull, who was by then living in London as a proper English matron, Mrs. John Biddulph Martin. She came to their London hotel and, not recognizing the name, Helen and Frederick came down to meet her. Helen says only that when they realized who she was, they made polite but quick excuses to get back up to their room, where they probably laughed and did the Victorian equivalent of "OMG! OMG! That was so awkward!"

The 500 page paperback has sat on my nightstand for weeks, one of those “I should probably read it, and therefore I don’t want to” situations. But I threw it in for my North Carolina trip and as everyone in the world knows by now, THAT got extended. So I was able to read the whole thing and I'm telling you: read it.

First of all it's beautifully written and exhaustively researched, and even with a cast of about 800 movers and shakers in the era, from Henry Ward Beecher to Anthony Comstock to Susan B. Anthony to President Grant to my personal favorite, good ol' mom/pimp Roxy Claflin, you never lose track of who's who.

But even more compelling is the picture Goldsmith paints of the scandal and politics that were swirling in an era that modern history as virtuous, can-do, and genuine.

I mean, there were some crazy shenanigans, nay monkeyshines going on. Spirits speaking to Commodore Vanderbilt, swinging ministers, secret triumvirate agreements… and the details Goldsmith weaves about day to day life for women are truly tragic. Didn't matter your class: once you got married, you were kept pregnant and silent and the law protected everyone BUT the mothers and wives. Yet the early women's rights movement just couldn't seem to get out of its own way, and kept eating its own.

As for that vicious Beecher clan, don't get me started.

Anyway - if you're looking for a good meaty and entertaining read that will have you donating to Emily's List by the end, check out Victoria Woodhull and her syphilitic, alcoholic clan.

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