More Than Money
Issue #19

Women, Money, and Power

Table of Contents

“The Hazards of Being a Lady: The Victoria Woodhull Story”

Reprinted with permission from the essay, "The Masculinization of Wealth" in Gloria Steinem's Moving Beyond Words (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994)

Above 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.

"My 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."

I 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.

This 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...

At 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 Communist Manifesto , 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...

But 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.

In 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 husbands. Tennessee married a lord with a castle in Spain, Victoria 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 colorful past...

From 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...

I 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?

--Gloria Steinem


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