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.
AMONG THE hatchet faces of American feminism, Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin were exceptional not only in their beauty but in the effective use to which they put it. Their lives show how, in special cases, the new ideology of feminism grafted itself onto an older type of feminine careerism. An unusually efficient and clever courtesan might, on occasion, put on the disguise of a “new woman.” The remarkable thing about Victoria Woodhull is that she not only captivated lecherous old vulgarians like Commodore Vanderbilt, who besides dandling the lovely sisters on his knee took their spiritualism seriously (which must have amused them; but then the National Association of Spiritualists took it seriously too, twice electing Victoria president); she also captivated the official leaders of American feminism. Nothing could have been further from these ladies’ thoughts than free love. Yet at the annual convention of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association in 1871, Victoria dazzled the austere assembly, overcame the suspicions of Isabella Beecher Hooker (who lost no time in confiding to Victoria the details of her brother’s relations with his pious convert, Elizabeth Tilton), and even won the hearts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. A biographer of Victoria Woodhull, one might suppose, would attempt to explain how this unprecedented feat was possible. What was it in American feminism that capitulated so unexpectedly, and for a time so completely, to Victoria’s charm? The feminist, however strait-laced, shared with the courtesan a contempt for the opposite sex which might furnish the basis for temporary and rather shaky alliances. James caught the essence of this relationship in the curious friendship between the high-spirited Verena and the heartless Bostonian reformer, Olive Chancellor; and although The Bostonians hardly says the last word about the feminist movement, it tells us a great deal more than the standard histories of the subject, and a great deal more than biographies like these.
Johanna Johnston’s book has more substance than Mr. Marberry’s. Still, she is mainly interested in “color” for its own sake. Both these biographies, and Mr. Taylor’s also, are essentially defictionalized historical novels, written for a public that craves facts even more than it craves color, and for which novels—even novels like Gone With the Wind—make too great an imaginative demand. Miss Johnston has dug conscientiously into Victoria’s life but not very deep. She confesses, rather disarmingly, that she hasn’t even been able to establish whether Victoria could read and write. Since Victoria was a woman who spent so much of her time speaking in public and getting out a weekly newspaper that ran for six years, it might have been worth some extra effort to find out—if indeed the matter is really open to question. There seems to be no reason to doubt that Victoria was literate, except on the general principle that since she lied about practically everything else, she may have lied when she presented herself to a credulous public as an accomplished editor, lecturer, and pamphleteer.
Yet words were Victoria’s real talent, even more than the bed. She had the wit to see that respectable society not only craves sensations but relishes the kind of attacks on itself which treat forbidden subjects with apparent candor without threatening established conventions. Victoria’s celebrated address in Steinway Hall in 1873, in which she replied to the heckling of one of her sisters in the audience (the Claflins, although a close-knit family, were continually feuding with one another in public) by boldly declaring, “Yes, I am a free lover! I have an inalienable, constitutional, and natural right to love whom I may; to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please!”—this speech was a stroke of genius, worthy of a great showman like Barnum or Jim Fisk. “Free love” shocked and titillated people while leaving uncriticized the one feature of conventional sexual relations that was vulnerable to radical attack—the use of sex (on both sides of the sexual barrier) as an instrument of domination. Since Victoria herself used sex in this way, she was hardly in a position to criticize it; nor did she intend to. She made her mark; she created a sensation, won fame and fortune, and eventually achieved even respectability, for which she yearned even more than she yearned for the excitements of the carnival.
WHEN WE COME to Robert Peel’s Mary Baker Eddy: The Years of Discovery, we are confronted with a quite different sort of biography: the fulldress scholarly treatment, bulging with references and proceeding with such deliberation that by the end of the volume Mr. Peel has managed to get his subject no further than the brink of her emergence as a public figure. A certain amount of this abundant detail is padding, as when Mr. Peel pauses to tell the reader that 1848 was the year of the Communist Manifesto, the gold rush, and numerous other events having no connection with Mary Baker Eddy. Other details, even when they bear on Mrs. Eddy, are without significance. For instance, her poems, which Mr. Peel quotes at length, are thoroughly conventional and reveal almost nothing of the person who wrote them. For the rest, Mr. Peel, himself a Christian Scientist, labors to show that Christian Science was an original discovery of Mrs. Eddy’s and not an outgrowth of mesmerism or spiritualism, and that it represented “a bold new way of shaping experience.”
He defends the first of these theses more convincingly than the second. A detailed narrative of Mrs. Eddy’s life helps to distinguish her doctrine from that of Phineas P. Quimby, clockmaker, animal magnetist, and Mrs. Eddy’s teacher and healer. But it does not show what was useful or bold about Christian Science. Even on the first point, Peel protests too much. In his eagerness to discredit poor Quimby as an influence, he is frequently embarrassed by statements of Mrs. Eddy herself crediting Quimby with starting her on the road to Truth. Even she, however, found it necessary to argue that Quimby “was growing out of mesmerism” at the end of his career. Like psychoanalysis, to which it otherwise bears only the most superficial resemblance, Christian Science had to repudiate it shady past and claim for itself scientific standing. But to assert that Christian Science in its beginnings had nothing to do with mesmerism makes no more sense than to say that psychoanalysis owed nothing to Freud’s early experiments with hypnotism.
In any case, recognition of a thinker’s debt to earlier influences does not detract from his originality, provided his own work has some intrinsic claim to our attention. Freud’s contributions speak for themselves. There is some question whether the same can be said of Mrs. Eddy’s. It is precisely in Peel’s handling of her relation to Quimby that we detect the hand of the apologist, who always ends by claiming more for his subject than a strict construction of the evidence will allow. This is not to say that Peel’s book is unreliable. On the contrary, it is a meticulous piece of work, far more valuable, as a result, than the other biographies under review. It does not, however, help us to locate Christian Science in American history, since Peel the apologist (as distinguished from Peel the historian) is less interested in making connections with other material than in breaking them down.
WHAT EXPLAINS Mrs. Eddy’s extraordinary success? To a Christian Scientist, the answer is self-evident. Mrs. Eddy’s writings became the basis of an important religion because they embodied Truth. Neither the historian nor the sociologist, however, can accept such an answer even for Christianity. They must ask what it was about this particular version of truth (if that is what it was) that commended itself to so many people at this particular time. Donald Meyer, in The Positive Thinkers, has shown that Christian Science addressed itself to a phenomenon which in the late nineteenth century was agitating doctors, psychiatrists, and clergymen, the problem of “modern nervousness.” It was no accident that Christian Science made healing the core of its doctrine; nor was it an accident that a woman founded Christian Science. Women—women of the genteel class—were the chief victims, it seemed, of “nervousness.” Feminists identified neuresthenia with “underemployment” and demanded that women find useful work. Mrs. Eddy identified it with loss of faith and self-discipline and proposed—self-discipline. She might have recommended, with William James (who shared her interest in “mind cure”), a relaxation of superconsciousness. But “far from letting-go into the subconscious,” Meyer notes, “in order to escape the cage of consciousness mind cure aimed at still greater control over the subconscious.” The feminist solution was equally self-defeating in the long run. If commerce corrupted, as it did by the feminists’ own reckoning, how could women save themselves by entering the realm of commerce?
The lives of Carry Nation, Victoria Woodhull, and Mary Baker Eddy share a number of common features which seem to be rooted in the social conditions of the middle and late nineteenth century. Each of them had a father of whom it could be said, as Mrs. Eddy’s brother said of theirs, that he was “the least qualified to make money of any man that I ever saw of his natural abilities.” Each married a ne’er-do-well from whom she was subsequently divorced. The combination of these experiences was not calculated to leave a high opinion of men, either as partners or as providers. The failure of their marriages, moreover, typically threw women of this class into the superfluous and despised category of widows and spinsters—people who were forced to live, like orphans, in other people’s families, and to move from one place to another with tedious regularity. Between 1866, when her husband deserted her, and 1870, when she finally settled in Lynn, Massachusetts, Mrs. Eddy changed her place of residence more than thirteen times. During the first fifty-four years of her life she had more than twenty different homes, not counting her lengthy visits to Dr. W. T. Vail’s Hydropathic Institute and to Dr. Quimby in Portland, Maine.
These patterns in the lives of women reformers—and one could point to many other examples—do not explain why women became reformers (for every divorcee or widow or spinster who threw herself into reform, there were presumably dozens who did not), but they help to explain why feminine reform took one shape instead of another—why the woman reformer, in the nineteenth century, became a sort of universal maiden aunt, “the motherly type gone wrong.” The reformer’s censoriousness, her need to rebuke and exhort (as Mrs. Nation put it), was the censoriousness of the outsider in the family circle, born of deprivation but also of a certain primness, a sense of superiority to one’s immediate environment. “It was an unfortunate fact,” said one of her disciples, “that Mrs. Eddy with her small income was obliged to live with people…who were without education and cultivation.” Such people, he explained, seldom appreciate the more sensitive spirits with whom it is their privilege to come into contact. “Simple-minded people who take life as it comes from day to day find any one with so fixed an object in life a rebuke to the flow of their own animal spirits.” This rebuke—the rebuke of the “lonely woman past her prime” (as another contemporary described Mrs. Eddy) to l’homme moyen sensual with whom she finds herself obliged to live—it was the historical mission of the female reformer to institutionalize. Mrs. Nation used a hatchet, so that no one would mistake her meaning. In Mrs. Eddy’s case, the rebuke took a more rarefied form, as befitted a daughter of New England—a magisterial assertion, breathtaking in the sweep of its condemnation, that once and for all put sensuality in its place: “What is matter? Nothing.”
THE REBUKE turns up, in still another guise, in the movement for woman suffrage. Thanks to Mr. Grimes’s excellent short study, we can now see that woman suffrage triumphed in the western states not because it was associated with radical democracy but because it was associated with “civilization” as represented by Aunt Polly—the civilization from which Huckleberry Finns have always found it necessary to light out. Grimes takes up one of the hoary clichés about feminism—that feminism was a product of the ‘frontier”—and subjects it to sustained and devastating analysis. His main thesis, which he demonstrates convincingly, is that woman suffrage in the West, far from springing from frontier conditions, came about after the frontier stage had already passed and was part of an effort, in which women were prominently involved, precisely to subvert frontier conditions and to reestablish order and refinement. Conceptually, the great value of Grimes’s study is that it draws a clear distinction between the feminist movement, which originated in England and in the eastern United States, and the triumph of woman suffrage in the West, which came about for reasons having little to do with feminism. In this sense The Puritan Ethic and Woman Suffrage does for American feminism what J. A. and Olive Banks, in a very different way, did for English feminism in their Feminism and Family Planning in Victorian England—it enables us to distinguish between two things that are usually confused, the feminist movement on the one hand and the “emancipation” of women on the other. “Emancipation,” coming about for reasons that had very little to do with feminism, gradually freed women from unrelieved domesticity, excessive child-bearing, and the extreme sexual reserve which a fear of “consequences,” together with other influences peculiar to the Victorian period, imposed. None of these changes struck at the confusion of sex with power, which feminism at its most radical attacked; nor did they even make it possible for women to compete more effectively for jobs. They merely gave women time to be ladies.
Feminism itself was ambiguous on some of these points. It too associated itself with the civilizing work of women. That is one reason why the feminists did not clearly perceive that “emancipation” of women did not necessarily equalize the relations between men and women. Grimes shows how the feminist movement gradually departed from its early egalitarianism and embraced the “puritan” values that were associated with the coming of woman suffrage in the West—prohibition, racism, opposition to immigration. Aileen Kraditor makes a somewhat similar point in her recent study, The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement.) The Puritan Ethic would be a better book if its two themes—the irrelevance of feminism to woman suffrage in the West, and the growing conservatism of eastern feminism itself—were more carefully distinguished, and if both were dissociated from the concept of puritanism, which, strictly speaking, has very little to do with the censoriousness of female reformers. Aunt Polly was a Victorian, not a Puritan. The Puritans would have been appalled by her.
In spite of these conceptual flaws, Grimes has written one of the few studies of women and woman suffrage that advance beyond guesswork and anecdote to real historical analysis. His work contains no “color,” but it is worth a stack of colorful biographies.
July 13, 1967