Vessel of Wrath: The Life and Times of Carry Nation
Vicky: A Biography of Victoria C. Woodhull
Mrs. Satan: The Incredible Saga of Victoria C. Woodhull
Mary Baker Eddy: The Years of Discovery
The nineteenth century produced a new and distinctive social type: the woman as reformer. Defying convention, she was nevertheless the product of one of the most popular conventions of the period, the sexual division of labor, which assigned commerce and politics to men and “culture” to ladies. In the orthodox version of the Victorian social myth, this same division of labor justified women’s confinement to the home. But in the 1830s, the reformers began to draw a different conclusion: If women were more “spiritual” than men, as the prevailing sexual stereotypes so clearly implied, to restrict their influence to the home was a criminal waste of resources.
Critics of feminism complained that exposure to the masculine world would unsex women, causing them to lose that fresh-eyed innocence which was the pride and pinnacle of Western civilization; but their solicitude, it turned out, was singularly inappropriate to the women on whom it was lavished. Their innocence, when put to the test, proved to be invulnerable. Nor did they lose the consciousness of themselves as women. On the contrary, they based their claim to be heard on the superior virtue of their sex, as well as on various communications received directly from God—and these, unpredictable as they were, were not likely to be communicated, it seemed, to anyone so indifferent to spiritual appeals, so immersed in the sordid business of making money, and so besotted with the world’s enjoyments, as a man.
Although they rejected the advice to stay at home, nineteenth-century women reformers did not reject the view of women on which this advice was based. Given the kind of family experiences that most of them seem to have undergone, both as daughters and as wives, they might pardonably have washed their hands of the whole business. In Europe, a certain kind of feminist reacted to domestic distress by trying to live as a “free woman.” The feminism of Mary Wollstonecraft sprang from a squalid childhood, and George Sand’s from a bad marriage, but neither proposed to reform the male sex, nor did they come to equate the subjection of women with sexuality itself. Instead they tried to free sexuality from the conventions that stifled it.
In America, however, unhappy homes commonly left a passionate sense of the wrongs of woman, a sense of the sisterhood of suffering which in turn nourished a tradition, handed down from mother to daughter, of masculine brutality. The female reformer, taking quite seriously her role as the custodian of official morality, threw herself into public causes in the belief that the influence of women would purify politics, abolish slavery, stamp out the demon rum, and lead to a general revival of religion. Finding themselves discriminated against even in such advanced circles as the abolitionist and temperance movements, American women, meeting at Seneca Falls in 1848, organized their own movement for “independence.” From then on, feminism in the United States was solidly aligned with the civilizing mission of women, even more than it had been before. It represented, among other things, a translation into political emotions of the whispered grievances that women confided to each other in their parlors—dark tales of sexual exploitation, of wives used up by repeated pregnancies, of wives abandoned, of infidelity, of indifference and neglect.
SOME OF THIS still survives as an undercurrent in American society, but for reasons which none of the present authors goes into, it no longer produces reformers like Carry Nation, the saloon-smashing temperance agitator who terrorized the drinking public from 1900 until her death in 1911. Mrs. Nation attacked alcohol in general, but she specifically attacked the saloon, symbol of masculine independence and irresponsibility. (The general problem to which she was addressing herself was finally “solved,” in a manner of which she could hardly have approved, by the integration of the saloons.) Mrs. Nation’s taste of domestic life, as Robert Lewis Taylor makes clear, was of the most discouraging sort. Her father, though “an angel on earth” in his daughter’s eyes, was “an incorrigible migrant,” “happiest,” Taylor writes, “when the furniture was being piled into the wagons and carts.” A failure in the classic American tradition of failure, he moved from Kentucky to Missouri and then to Texas in search of a windfall that would retrieve the family’s declining fortunes. His wife believed she was Queen Victoria and conducted herself accordingly. Carry’s first husband, who died shortly after she left him, was a drunkard. Her second husband, David Nation, divorced her after years of bickering.
It is not surprising that Mrs. Nation, surrounded by such a babble of strife and madness, began to be visited with more congenial voices, hearing which she would sometimes fall on all fours and gallop about her house barking like a dog. (She once described herself, in another connection, as “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn’t like.”) On June 6, 1900, following one of these visitations, she sallied forth into the streets of Kiowa, Kansas, armed with rocks and brickbats, and smashed the interiors of three saloons, telling the startled customers, “Men! I have come to save you from a drunkard’s grave!” Some years later, a journalist, after explaining unnecessarily that Mrs. Nation “was no glamour girl”—“she wore layers and layers of long ull black skirts, capable of concealing any sort of weapon”—characterized her as “the motherly type gone wrong.”
Mr. Taylor, the author of The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters and several biographies, makes the most of the comic possibilities in his material—material which suggests, once again, that life is stranger than fiction, even if its meaning is sometimes a little obscure. Mr. Taylor does not linger over the meaning of Mrs. Nation. He gets on with the story, narrating with numerous witticisms, some good and some bad, the singular career of the Kansas crusader; her abandonment of brickbats in favor of the hatchet, thereafter the approved tool of her trade; her memorable assault on Wichita’s Hotel Carey Bar, with its unspeakable painting of “Cleopatra preparing for her bath”; her innumerable jail sentences; her visit to Yale, where she pronounced the students “the toughest proposition I ever met.” “I never saw anything,” she wrote in her memoirs, “that needed a rebuke, or exhortation, or warning, but that I felt it my place to meddle with it.”
Mr. Taylor admires this astuteness about herself, as well as “her warm, down-to-earth gift for making herself companionable with people of diverse origins.” He makes a good case for the presence of these qualities in his subject. But in the end he is as puzzled by Mrs. Nation as he was in the beginning. It is disconcerting to find him, after 308 pages, still describing her as “a paradox of fury wrapped in an enigma of love.” His final judgment is hardly a judgment: “With all her faults [the “extremism of her methods,” etc.]…she fought what thousands considered to be the good fight.” Does Mr. Taylor himself think it was a good fight? A few years ago, a reviewer of an ostensibly political play noted that American writers, in dealing with political material, almost invariably reduce it to the level of the personal—a habit of mind, it is hardly necessary to add, that characterizes the attitude toward politics of Americans in general. Mr. Taylor has dealt with Carry Nation, a political figure, by ignoring the political questions raised by her life: What was gained and what was lost by making alcohol a political issue, an issue, moreover, in which the element of sexual antagonism was the principal component? She appeals to Mr. Taylor, obscurely, because she showed “a resolve that makes one wonder if today’s willingness to give in, compromise, cringe before an enemy, gear progress to the weakest and worst, can assure the country’s survival.” Americans tend to admire “resolve” and “survival” for their own sake (while ritually deploring “extremist methods”), regardless of the values to which they happen to be attached; and Mr. Taylor is no exception.
THE SAME UNCERTAINTY of judgment, and the same ineptitude in handling political material, can be seen in two new books on Victoria Woodhull, one of the more sensational of the nineteenth-century feminists, now almost forgotton. Born in Ohio in 1838, Victoria grew up in a large, migratory family of eccentrics. Her father, “Buck” Claflin—a notable ne’er-do-well—left Ohio when his neighbors began to suspect that he had set fire to his barn in order to collect the insurance in which he had prudently invested. The Claflin family resembled the Nations—shiftless father, mad mother—except that Buck Claflin was not only shiftless, he was a charlatan who advertised Victoria and her sister Tennessee as clairvoyants and toured the country with them. This early exposure to show business, together with their good looks, helps to explain why the Claflin girls turned out to be “adventuresses,” as they were known among their contemporaries, instead of saloon-smashers. Eventually they both married English gentlemen and lived, as wicked people often live, to a ripe old age. Henry James described Victoria’s “Conquest of London” with understandable relish, and he made use of her early career as a medium in The Bostonians, in which Victoria appears, distantly, as Verena Tarrant.
Victoria was married at fifteen and divorced ten years later. With her lover James Blood (whom she also married and divorced) and her sister Tennessee (sometimes, by her own preference, known as Tennie C.), she drifted to New York in 1868, followed by the rest of the family, and launched herself, with the help of the infatuated Cornelius Vanderbilt, as America’s first female stockbroker. In 1870 the enterprising sisters founded Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, from which they preached both women’s rights and sexual freedom, a novel combination in the 1870s. It was through the efforts of these imaginative journalists—though at first glance it was hard to see what their efforts had to do with either women’s rights or sexual freedom—that the world first learned of the Beecher-Tilton scandal. (With fine impartiality, Victoria hinted that she herself had enjoyed sexual relations with both of the principals in the case.) It is proof of her genius for public relations that she managed to convert the affair into another battle in the sex war—an interpretation, it should be noted, which the leaders of organized feminism readily accepted, in spite of the doubts some of them entertained about Victoria’s commitment to the cause.
M.M. Marberry’s Vicky dashes through Victoria’s early life, lingers over the familiar details of the Beecher-Tilton episode, and finally arrives at this feeble conclusion about its heroine: “What the ultimate judgment of posterity on Victoria C. Woodhull will be, no one knows. Yet surely few people today will deny that she was sui generis.” The only thing Mr. Marberry is really sure of is that Victoria was beautiful—an opinion with which no one is likely to quarrel. Indeed the most impressive thing about this book is the frontispiece, a dashing photograph that shows to good advantage Victoria’s elegant profile, her clear eyes, and the trace of condescension in her expression—the expression of a woman conscious not merely of her beauty but of her general superiority among members of her sex.