Filed under: Gender politics | Tags: Election2016, Gilded Age, Marge Piercy, patriarchy, president, Sex Wars, suffragette, Tennessee Claflin, Victoria Woodhull, women
Ever since I read Marge Piercy’s Sex Wars: A Novel of Gilded Age New York, I have been obsessed with Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president. I’ve read numerous biographies of her and her sister, Tennessee Claflin. Despite there being no shortage of plays, stories and movies written about them, I have been unable to resist writing my own version of their story. (It’s either called Public Women or Hamlet, Without the Ghost.)
When I read these histories, I see this extraordinary moment when women ALMOST got the vote, when Victoria Woodhull could advocate for “Free Love” and when women’s rights ALMOST happened in an expansive and profound way. And it didn’t happen. The backlash was forceful and intense and rather than ushering in a new age for women, it led to a more repressive age and women didn’t get the right to vote for another 38 years.
Victoria Woodhull was a very modern woman in the late 1800s. She was a fierce advocate for women being able to divorce their husbands, for women to have access to birth control and to be able to control their own lives. With their newspaper, she and her sister wrote about the cruelties many women were compelled to endure at the time. They told truths others were afraid to report. She insisted that she be allowed to speak to Congress. She and her sister were the first woman to run a stock brokerage, one specifically created to serve other women. (How many of those have there been since?)
Woodhull wasn’t perfect but she was inspiring and a kicker open of doors. Part of my despair at the election results this year has been related to my sense of history. Hillary Clinton got much closer to being president than Woodhull ever did but I fear the blacklash will be the same or maybe worse because of it. History is full of these moments of women lifting their heads out of the fray and then being fiercely pushed back down.
For one short day in November, before the horror kicked in, I could imagine what life would be like if we had a woman as president. And not just any woman. A highly capable, intelligent woman. And on that day, I felt like my life might be valuable, that I might finally be able to make a contribution to the world in a meaningful way that there was hope for us. And then the hammer came down. And I am afraid that the repression that will follow will be a lot like what happened all those years ago. The same tropes have already emerged – punishing women for getting abortions, decriminalizing sexual assault, making birth control less available. It’s an old old strategy. And I am very afraid that the glorious freedom and future I imagined is now beyond the scope of my lifetime. That’s what history suggests. I hope it will be different this time. But….history is history.
In the end, Victoria Woodhull landed on her feet. She moved to England and had a jolly time of things with her third husband. But…but – what could have been for the rest of the country? That’s the heartbreaker.
The stories that have moved me the most in the aftermath of this election are all the little girls who watched their mothers devastated by the news and who will grow up to do something about it. I have heard numerous stories of tiny daughters proclaiming their candidacy for the future. This is gorgeous and encouraging and I have faith that those little girls will make a better world for us. But we’ll have to wait for them to grow up. I assume, given history’s likelihood to repeat itself, that we will have to shoulder the burden of the patriarchy another 38 years just as the women of the 1880s did. I hope it will be sooner. But given the circumstances —I doubt that it will.
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