Mrs. Satan for President

As she passed around an article, our French conversation teacher suggested in a mild way, that we might find it controversial.

Controversial?  Sacré bleu!  That’s quite the understatement. 

I was blown away!

Since I grew up in England, where there is a vast sweep of British and European history, I learned very little American history until I moved to the US and settled in Concord, MA, where the first shot, under command, in the War of Independence was fired. (Or perhaps not, as folk from nearby Lexington claim!)  My American-born children were surprised that I couldn’t recite the list of US presidents or enlighten them on developments in the Civil War. The fact that I know the six wives of Henry VIII can tell them when and where the Magna Carta was signed and what Guy Fawkes was up to was of no consequence. And, until my French class, I didn’t know who was the first female candidate for the US Presidency. Do you?

As you know, I’ve written a few short stories and now a novel and wrestled to develop convincing characters. In the case of the first female candidate for the Presidency, truth is definitely stranger than fiction.

Victoria Woodhull, the seventh of ten children, was born in Ohio in 1838. Her mother was illiterate, and her father dallied with an array of dubious practices to try and scrape together a living, selling “snake oil” and committing arson.  At the age of eight, he promoted Victoria as a child preacher, and a couple of years later, Victoria and her sister, Tennessee, as spiritualist mediums. They earned more than the rest of the family put together at a time when people were hungry for contact with their relatives who had died in the Civil War. Victoria married Canning Woodhull at the age of fifteen, presumably to escape her unstable family, especially her father, who may have sexually abused her and certainly starved her and Tennessee. If that’s so, then it was a case of “out of the frying pan and into the fire” as her husband was a womanizer and an addict. Divorce, at the time, was utterly scandalous and, in some states, barely legal, but after eleven desperate years and two children, Victoria took this radical step. There are rumors that around this time, she and Tennessee ran a brothel. Victoria met and married James Henry Blood and, together with him and her sister, moved to New York for a fresh start. Once established, her knowledge of spiritualism brought her in the company of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was hoping to get in touch with his dead mother. Cornelius had an affair with Tennessee and bankrolled both sisters in setting up a stock brokerage, the first women on Wall Street. They were also the first women to set up a newspaper (in 1870), the “Woodhull and Claflin Weekly.”  It became a very popular publication and gave Victoria the ideal platform to promote her ideas on equality, free love, spirituality, and labor relations. Her many speaking engagements included an address to Congress where she argued there is a constitutional basis for voting rights for all men and women. Inevitably, she came to the attention of the suffragists, including Susan B. Anthony, who first courted and then spurned her once Victoria’s shady background and her extreme views and choices regarding free love became known. There was general uproar, and “Harpers Weekly”  went so far as to publish a cartoon of Victoria decked with horns and black wings denouncing her as “Mrs Satan.” She made the feisty declaration that she intended to run for the Presidency in her newspaper.  Was she serious? Apart from the minor issue of being a woman, she wasn’t old enough at thirty-four to hold the office. Did she aim to re-energize voting rights?  We cannot tell as she was languishing in jail the night Ulysses S. Grant was re-elected.

Concerned that there were different sexual norms for men and women, Victoria exposed pastor Henry Ward Beecher’s affair with Elizabeth Tilton  in the “Woodhull and Claflin Weekly.” There was a public outcry, and polite society was appalled – not at the adulterous, hypocritical reverend (who apparently had engaged in several such liaisons), but with Victoria’s audacity in suggesting such a state of affairs. Court cases ensued; the sisters were imprisoned and, although found innocent, were bankrupted. The moment had arrived to escape poverty and infamy. Where better to flee than the refined parlors of English society?

Quite how the transformation was achieved and, despite snubs from some circles, both sisters made highly advantageous matches, and settled into lives of at least outward conformity.  Victoria retired to the English countryside where she died aged eighty-eight.

What are we to make of this woman who, in her early years, defied convention who, in spite of a meagre education, ran two successful businesses in a world dominated by men, was a cogent speaker, addressing Congress, and who was unafraid to confront inequality and wrong-doing. I am made of far feebler stuff, and I suspect I would not have much liked Victoria, but I cannot help but admire her spirit and courage and hope that when we do finally have a female President, she combines these qualities with diplomacy and compassion.

 

News Flash!

A Glass Darkly

Together with Transcendent Publishing, we are making very good progress. Soon, we’ll be working on internal design, an alternate cover, and a marketing strategy.
Watch out for more updates next month.

End Notes

Reading

The Branches We Cherish by Linda Sexton

The Branches We Reach
Linda Sexton

Viewing

The Biggest Little Farm

Pilgrimage
Jean Goulden at New Vision

Listening

Cheap Flights
Fascinating Aida

Reincarnation
Victoria Wood

Poetry

The White Town
Daljit Nagra

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