with permission from the essay, "The Masculinization of
Wealth" in Gloria Steinem's
Moving Beyond Words
York: Simon & Schuster, 1994)
the desk where I write, there is a framed letter from
Victoria Woodhull, the most controversial suffragist of
them all. People who see her big scrawled signature assume
I must be looking for inspiration in her life as the first
woman to address Congress, the first to run for President,
the first to originate and run her own weekly newspaper,
and the one of the few women to live out in public the
principles of female emancipation and sexual freedom that
were not only unusual in her day but illegal. All of that
is true, but hiding within her spidery script is a lesson
I think I and many other women need even more: how not
to be ladylike about money.
Dear Mr. Wilson," she begins this letter to a man who
must have refused her lecture fee and offered her a percentage
of the house instead. "I have propositions from several
places in the far east, which makes it possible for me
to amend my proposition to you. I will speak for you at
some agreed night for one hundred dollars. I do not like
to arrange for any part of net proceeds. Hoping this may
meet your views, I remain--Yours truly, Victoria Woodhull."
don't know about you, but I would've added apologies and
explanations to such a request, and probably gone off
in a corner to give myself a pep talk first. Women have
had centuries of training to consider money impure, undeserved,
mysterious, not our worry, or, as this mind-set is sometimes
reflected even inside current feminism, a male-imitative
and politically incorrect concern. Yet Victoria Woodhull
seemed free of all that. Though she was writing in 1873,
when husbands and father could claim any wages their wives
and daughters earned, she was negotiating for herself.
She wasn't trusting this Mr. Wilson by relying on proceeds,
knowing from experience that promoters didn't always count
them honestly. Furthermore, she was demanding a large
fee for public speaking, an act that was still illegal
for women in some states.
was just the tip of the iceberg. A few years earlier,
she had opened a Wall Street brokerage house with her
younger sister, Tennessee Claflin, which made them the
first women stockbrokers. It was backed by Cornelius Vanderbilt,
whose proposal of marriage Tennessee had refused (she
seemed to understand the power difference between wife/chattel
and mistress/stockbroker, and probably remained his mistress),
but the sisters did surprisingly well on their own...
the same time that Victoria Woodhull was becoming an exception
within the economic and social system, however, she was
preaching its overthrow. Her popular weekly published
the first American edition of Marx's
and her speeches advocated the one thing more shocking
than Marx or suffrage: Free Love, a serious movement against
marriage law and the double standard...
that framed letter is also a reminder of something else.
Even Victoria Woodhull fell victim to the lady trap once
she entered into its most powerful stronghold--the world
of inherited wealth. This began with a growing vulnerability.
She was arrested, imprisoned, and her newspaper was shunned
for exposing the hypocrisy of one preacher and respected
man too many... Forced to choose between a scandalous
female accuser and a respectable male accused, society
made a choice that would be familiar today.
the aftermath of this scandal that was described as the
biggest story since the assassination of Lincoln,
she took her sister, parents, and grown children, and
escaped first to Paris
and then to London.
Tired of fighting, with a household that included a brain-damaged
son requiring constant care, she must have looked upon
the life of the English upper classes as safe and enviable.
She and Tennessee
began to trim their sails to attract rich and respectable
married a lord with a castle in Spain,
found a wealthy banker, whom she had to wait years to
marry (his mother disapproved), and the sisters settled
into a life of expurgating and simply lying about their
a chaotic childhood and a painful early marriage, to public
censure and a financial burden far beyond that imagined
by most men, no force had been able to tame Victoria Woodhull--until
she decided to become a lady. The woman who had become
a public legend when a lady's name was supposed to appear
in the papers only twice--when she was married, and when
she died--now insisted she had never espoused Free Love,
never believed in radical causes; it was all a misunderstanding
due to articles written by others under her name... Only
after her English husband's death did some of the old
Victoria come back--driving full speed around her estate
in a sports car, opening a progressive kindergarten for
children of the town, and becoming a benefactor to the
poor in the surrounding countryside...
think of this outrageous woman when I talk with the wives
and daughters in families of inherited wealth who are
beginning so bravely to rebel. To me, she symbolizes the
strength they've often been denied and the seductive power
of the ladylike training against which they must struggle...
What would happen if these women through whose wombs pass
the concentrated power of this and other nations were
to catch the spirit of the real Victoria Woodhull--not
the other way around?
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