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Other Powers: the Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull

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    Available in PDF - DJVU Format | Other Powers: the Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull.pdf | Language: ENGLISH
    Barbara Goldsmith(Author)

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Book details

  • PDF | 560 pages
  • Barbara Goldsmith(Author)
  • Harper Perennial; 1st edition (April 1, 1999)
  • English
  • 2
  • Biographies & Memoirs

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Review Text

  • By Jiri Severa on September 25, 2005

    As a conservative-leaning, male student of feminist history, and a Woodhull buff, I found Barbara Goldsmith's book quite disappointing. Goldsmith is a fine writer who has her own touch, no doubt, but those reviewers here and elsewhere who laud "Other Powers" as a breakthrough in historical research, casting a refreshing new look at the 19th century women's movement and social mores of the era strike me as hopelessly naive and easily prone to mistake cheap titillation for intellectual substance. Right off the bat, the central idea that "Spiritualism" comes somehow, inextricably, intertwined with the woman's movement of 19th century hopelessly misfires. The evidence is scant and centers around the Claflins' and Virginia's visions. Goldsmith tries to make what she can from little titbits of what she believes is "evidence" for spiritualist beliefs and practices among the suffragists but produces nothing of value. Aileen Kraiditor's two phases in the suffragist argument (from principle vs from expediency) stand and are in no way displaced or amended by Goldsmith's "discovery". Both wings of the movement, Stone's conservative, and Anthony-Stanton's radical feminist, were rationalist in their philosophical outlook, and for all their romanticizing of female qualities (complemented by overt or covert misandry) had no interest in spirits. Goldsmith misreading of Stanton's letter to Woodhull in which she asks her to summon the souls of dead female sages for an upcoming suffrage conference tells all of the writer's superficial grasp of the actors' character. The letter is a vintage Stanton: scathing, mischievous, intimidating. To anyone familiar with E.C.S.'s personna, it is more than obvious Elizabeth was pulling the leg of an intellectual inferior, in much the same, direct way she confronted S.B.A's. sexual hangups masquerading as principles. (When meeting Susan at the dock in Southampton in 1883, she exclaimed:' I came to London the moment I heard of your arrival on the 'British Prince'. To think of your choosing a 'Prince' when a 'Queen' was coming'.) Because Goldsmith's book is an upgrade of feminist propaganda, rather than reading history as the complex web woven by human characters, it rings hollow. Besides that, even though her bibliography is impressive, her command of the historical issues looks pretty weak. For example, Goldsmith labors under the illusion that the split between Lucy Stone and E.S.B.-S.B.A. came after the war at the E.R.A. conference in 1869. She cannot puzzle out the hostility of Lucy's troopers to Stanton as a "free lover", offering only that at the time Elizabeth had no contact with Woodhull and her entourage. In reality the split between the "family oriented" suffragists in Boston and the "free lovers" centered in New York occured almost a decade earlier, at a Woman's Rights convention in May 1860, where Stanton and Anthony tried to hammer through a resolution denouncing the existing institution of marriage. The opposition the two encountered was overwhelming and made them pariahs among 'respectable' suffragists. In rebuffing Stanton in 1860, Wendell Phillips branded her a "free lover", a label which stuck. Goldsmith seems to have no knowledge of this, Stanton's early obsessions with "complex marriages" and her life-long romance with Fourierism in general. The name "Charles Fourier" appears only once in the book (G. mistakenly names him as a follower of Swedenborg - he wasn't, perhaps this error relates to Emerson's list of similarities between the two visionaries), even though his social theories had wide use among social radicals like Stanton and Stephen Pearl Andrews. So visceral was the distaste of the public for Fourierism that a causual smear by a New York Times writer on Greeley's Tribune as a promoter of the doctrine tipped the public opinion and led to the acquittal of the unpopular Irish drunk, McFarland, in the murder of a Yankee war hero, Richardson, who was a lover of his wife. (Incidentally, E.C.S.'s editorials on McFarland in The Revolution, perceived by her readers as incitement to lynch, backfired and hugely contributed to the paper's demise. Even among the radicals, McFarland, flawed and unsavoury as he was, earned some sympathy as a man driven to despair by people who had their own way with legality and morality.)Incidentally, it was Fourier who coined the word "féminisme" in 1830's in the context of advocating the end of monogamous marriage. Goldsmith's story-telling is much better than her history. She pulls no punches around the unruly, half-insane brood of Claflins. Both Buck and Roxy get their just deserts, being made as gross as they undoubtedly were. But one soon gets the impression that the writer tries to compensate for the terrible parents Vickie and Tennie had by the habit of dismissing the latters' inferior sense of right and wrong, as sins of the parents visiting upon the innocents. Goldsmith even goes so far as drawing a line between what she sees as Buck's quackery and "tricks" versus Vickie's/ Tennie's "real powers" in their acts of healing and "medicine". This even against the word of Tennie herself dismissing her former career as "humbug on the people". The problem with Goldsmith' Woodhull becomes soon obvious. Vickie's succeses were real; her failures were not. She was a victim of horrendous lack of parenting and malicious gossip. What cannot be explained in this manner must be glossed over. Her nastiness in "divorcing" Blood, for example, merits in Goldsmith's view a single paragraph. Her mother is manipulating "weakened Victoria", even though Woodhull clearly sought to twist the knife into her loyal friend, benefactor and educator, in the most hideous way. The half-insane Roxy could not have possibly conceive of a lie more wanton than that which Victoria served her knight in shining armour, destroying Blood morally by accusing him of that which he desperately tried to shield her from: low-life. If Goldsmith missed that point, it is no surprise that she drew blank on the great irony of Woodhull's great "conversion". A re-invented Victoria went hunting in London for another suitable fool with Madonna complex who would believe in woman's innate moral superiority, even in a woman such as herself. Her social purity lectures in London that astonished Mr. Martin appear to have drawn heavily on the Plymouth Church flavour of Christian "agape". Only a haunted genius like Victoria Woodhull could have thought of marrying "Free Love" to Henry Beecher-Ward's theological concepts. It appears that the definitive story of Virginia Woodhull still remains to be written. Just as the earlier biographies of Sachs and Johnston did not quite manage squeezing some sympathy for a dominatrix, the newer attempts by Gabriel and Goldsmith to turn her into a misunderstood feminist martyr won't do it either. She was just too fascinating a figure, too free to be used by anyone. She was the master of all rackets !

  • By Mark 5000 on May 26, 2010

    Many of us push on with books even when discovering a bias in the author. If the book is thorough and sufficiently annotated, there's no reason to stop reading; we can make our own judgment from the facts.This book flies in the face of that logic. Goldsmith is not just biased; she intentionally misleads.She intentionally modifies her sources to support lies. For example, she manipulates the text of Catherine Beecher's "Treatise on Domestic Economy" to suggest that Beecher is against education of women. She "quotes" from Beecher's book:"The physical and domestic education of daughters should occupy the principal attention of mothers ... and the stimulation of the intellect should be very much reduced"So, "stimulation of the intellect should be very much reduced" really does sound terrible - what kind of person calls for reducing the intellectual stimulation of girls? Well, what Goldsmith omits, by using "..." is that Beecher is talking about children under 6! The entire paragraph is about children of that age!Goldsmith continues the excerpt:"Needlework, drawing, and music, should alternate with domestic pursuits. One hour a day devoted to some study, in addition to the above employments, would be all that is needful to prepare them for a thorough education"This time Goldsmith really takes the cake. She has slyly removed the beginning of the sentence, which is"In the early years of female life, reading, writing, ..."and then she capitalized "Needlework" to make the reader believe it is the beginning of the sentence! So she omits reading and writing, and leaves needlework and drawing, and omits that it refers to the early years; all this to further the impression that Beecher is against intellectual development of girls.Ironically, Catherine Beecher was a pioneer in higher education for women, founding numerous successful colleges training women for the teaching profession and home economics.Goldsmith also has terrible issues with logic. She believes in the supernatural powers of spiritualists, and her attempts to convince the reader are juvenile. On page 50, she describes numerous ESP powers of five-year-old Tennessee Claflin, then writes:"All of this skeptics might explain away, but there was more: Newspaper accounts at the time relate how Tennessee awoke one night screaming in terror. She had seen a vision ..."Goldsmith goes on to describe how the girl predicted a fire. Skeptics can't explain away newspaper accounts?She also makes the "convincing" statement that "No one has yet fully explained the extraordinary feats mesmerized subject could perform". Wow.Gee I'm sounding caustic. Anyway, in my opinion, we still need a genuine biography of Woodhull.By the way, this is a New York Times Notable Book and a Boston Globe Best of the Year in Nonfiction. Go figure.

  • By Mary Mertz on July 6, 2014

    I did not order this book!

  • By musicforever on June 7, 2013

    I never particularly like American History as it was taught when I was growing up (memorizing lots of names of men, battles, and dates) - it was boring and didn't make a lot of sense to me. But this book brought that whole period of the 1800s alive because it's dealing with what drives history - the kind of spirituality and inquiry that flooded the country then, with women's lives and their push for equality, as well as nitty gritty information on the intertwining of the lives of power players at that time. Who knew there were so many politicians consulting mediums, or the degree of sexual and utopian-living experimentation going on. It's clear to me that the 1960s-70s were a resonant echo of what was begun then. So well written.


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