We Still Can’t See What Woodhull Saw

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Victoria Woodhull stands out among early American dissident journalists due to how staunchly she defended principles which were nowhere near being adopted as the status quo. While much of what she advocated for is now acceptable and seen as humane, much of it is still regarded as obscene or immoral.

While reading Rodger Streitmatter’s chapter on Woodhull, I was struck by his willingness to extoll Woodhull’s virtues while still allowing himself to be constrained by our modern concepts of sexual decency.

While Stretmatter points out that Woodhull herself proclaimed that she had an “inalienable constitutional and natural right to love whom I may … to change that love every day if I please,” a few pages later, He mentions Woodhull’s use of her clairvoiance abilities, saying that she “satisfied his lust by placing her sister Tennessee Claflin, and sometimes herself, in his bed.”

Later in the chapter Stretmatter talks of Claflin hand-delivering copies of the paper to Vanderbilt and then staying to read them “while propped up in his bed,” insinuating that the paper continued being financed only due to this arrangement.

If Claflin was having sex with the colonel as a direct arrangement to keep the paper financed, why not just say it? What was the nature of the arrangement exactly? How casual was the relationship, and how much did the Colonol believe in the cause of the paper?

This vague language seems ashamed to talk of what she was actually up to. Was Caflin willingly sleeping with Vanderbilt, or was her sister urging her to for financial gain? By being so vague on multiple occasions with these issues, I came away from the chapter unsure whether to think of Woodhull as a huckster or a free-spirited, yet level-headed opportunist.

Regardless of her tactics, many of the socially-ingrained concepts and customs that she railed against still stand today. While the marital institution doesn’t have the same status it used to, it is still possesses the ability to change the social status of the individuals involved–both legally and conceptually. The question of whether the LGBT community should have equal rights is no question in my mind–and the persecution for hate crimes against gays and lesbians should be vigorous. But the fact that the method for a long-marginalized group to become equal has been to become accepted within the old construct of what constitutes a healthy relationship (i.e. marriage), I believe to be unfortunate.

Then again, maybe it’s just a necessary step in a more gradual road to social equality absent this archaic legal arrangement for family structure we still adhere to.

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