SOCIAL LIFE IN THE 19th CENTURY
April 21, 1998
David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, converses with Barbara Goldsmith, author of Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull.
DAVID GERGEN: Barbara, you've written an eye-opening book about social life in the 19th century, but nothing surprised me more to hear in full detail about the conditions of women.
BARBARA GOLDSMITH, Author, Other Powers: Well, in "Other Powers" it starts in 1838, when Victoria Woodhull is born, and at that time, sure women couldn't vote, but they also couldn't own property; they couldn't go to college. If there was a divorce, they couldn't get custody of their children. If they ran away, there were laws on the books that said, if you sheltered them, you went to jail, and more than that, this was very shocking. In sixteen states they stipulated the size of the instruments you could beat your wife or child with if you were mad because they didn't want these women and children being killed. Women were chattel, and they could not deny their husbands sexual access. So many of them were pregnant yearly. They died young. And it was a pretty tough condition for women in 1838, when Victoria was born. And it didn't improve much for a long time.
DAVID GERGEN: Many of these women turned to other powers, to spiritualism.
BARBARA GOLDSMITH: Yes.
DAVID GERGEN: To find more power in their own life?
BARBARA GOLDSMITH: Yes. Well, I think even the strongest women, the suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, they were up against it, and they needed such--to find strength somewhere. And in a belief in the spirit they felt empowered, and anyone could now say--not only do I say this--but Demosthenes says it, Plato agrees with me, and they really felt empowered in a world where they had no war power.
DAVID GERGEN: And yet, when the women who were trying to break out of this condition of servitude, seeking women's rights in the 1850's and 1860's, when it came to the phase just after the Civil War and the debates occurred about blacks and freeing slaves, it was interesting how women were pitted against blacks and whose rights would go first.
BARBARA GOLDSMITH: It was really fascinating because many of these women had been among the most forward-looking abolitionists. They hated slavery. Many of them had run stations on the underground railroad. But when it came to getting the vote, the 15th Amendment gave it to black males and not to women. And it broke the women's movement apart, because certain women said why, you're going to let somebody who was property three years ago, now walk through that gate and not have women walk through with him, and the others--the New England group said, oh, look, if anyone can get out of this terrible pit, let them go first. And Horace Greeley said, this is the Negro's hour; women will have to wait. And it split the women's movement in a very divisive way.
DAVID GERGEN: But they did go forward with the black rights, first with the 15th Amendment.
BARBARA GOLDSMITH: Yes.
DAVID GERGEN: And it took some time then before women got the right to vote.
BARBARA GOLDSMITH: Yes. It took another 70 years till 1920 till the 16th Amendment, the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, and women were given the vote.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, onto this scene in the 1860's, 1870's, bursts Victoria Woodhull, one of the most colorful characters of the 19th century. Who was she?
BARBARA GOLDSMITH: Well, she was very complicated. She was a woman who had been brought up in abject poverty, beaten, starved, sexually abused by her father, and when she came to New York, and "Other Powers" tells you about her adventures, she made a lot of money under the auspices of Commodore Vanderbilt. And she decided to relieve the condition of women and of society. She said, I'm going to create "a social revolution." And she sure did. But in 1872, she ran for president against Horace Greeley and Ulysses S. Grant. And that was her downfall because all of her past was revealed. She became known as the prostitute who ran for president.
DAVID GERGEN: The social revolution that she tried to create, tell us about her relationship with that and how far she got.
BARBARA GOLDSMITH: She wanted to have a society where women would get equal wages; they would marry for love; there would be custody rights and divorce. She wanted absolute equality. If a man committed adultery, it didn't mean anything. If a woman committed adultery, she wore a scarlet letter over her heart and could get a jail sentence. Victoria said everybody should love anyone they want any time. That was pretty radical even for today. She wanted--she was a discipline of Karl Marx and printed the Communist Manifesto in her own newspaper. She would be considered a woman at least a hundred years ahead of her time and maybe even radical for today when you read about the colorful life she had and how it interacted with the politics and the social history of that period.
DAVID GERGEN: She had her own newspaper with her system.
BARBARA GOLDSMITH: Yes.
DAVID GERGEN: Did she have a larger following than Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the two women we do remember so well today?
BARBARA GOLDSMITH: At first her standing was because they allied themselves with her and they really put her on this trajectory of climbing and climbing. But then they broke with her when they found out about her scandalous reputation and the fact that she was trying to blackmail people who would not support her, and then they broke with her. But Elizabeth Cady Stanton later wrote she has done more for women than any one of us could possibly imagine, and then she said she struggled through brambles and leaped fences we wouldn't even try.
DAVID GERGEN: You--in writing about it with so much passion, you clearly think that her life, Victoria Woodhull's life has relevance for today.
BARBARA GOLDSMITH: Yes, I think it has relevance as a life. I also feel that she stood up the establishment, and anyone who comes forward and really challenges the status quo is somebody that should be heard because it makes people think, and then I also think she was brought down by the oldest methods in the world, which could apply today, which were this kind of sexual scandalous thing, which was used to pull politicians down. And so I think she was a very modern woman and a very flawed woman. I don't want you to think that I think she was some sort of storybook heroine, but she was very human. And I think she did a lot for society and for women, and she certainly was the guide for me to illuminate this enormous age of suffrage and spiritualism. At one point there were 10 million spiritualists in this country. And I think right now the spiritualist movement is gaining impetus again. And I think if you read "Other Powers," you'll find out why.
DAVID GERGEN: Can we ask you why. Last question.
BARBARA GOLDSMITH: You certainly can. I love it.
DAVID GERGEN: Last question.
BARBARA GOLDSMITH: Because in a time when there are strange forces that people cannot understand, it started when Morse Code was coming to Rochester, people couldn't see it, they couldn't understand it. I think we live in a time of technology that a lot of us can't understand, in a time when people feel they cannot control their own destiny, that the individual no longer makes a difference, and a time when Emerson wrote there used to be community, and now there's distance. People need to feel there's something out there that empowers them and makes it all right. And spiritualism is an answer.
DAVID GERGEN: Barbara Goldsmith, social historian, thank you very much.
BARBARA GOLDSMITH: Thank you.
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