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In nineteenth century America, the forms of popular entertainment are changing. Such hoary staples as bear-baiting and public flogging have fallen victim to shifting mores, although hangings still draw crowds. Circuses bring exotic animals, daring acrobats and assorted novelties to cities and towns across America. Charles Stratton, a very small man who becomes rich as P. T. Barnum’s “General Tom Thumb,” is one of the most celebrated persons in America; Abraham Lincoln invites him to the White House. Musical orchestras and dramatic troupes do a lively business. New York supports several opera houses, with each new theater striving to outclass its predecessors for luxury and attention to detail. Touring artists attract large audiences and handsome fees; Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” earns a quarter-million dollars for a ninety-performance tour arranged by Barnum.
Public lectures entertain even as they edify. The most popular speakers—men like Theodore Tilton—combine physical appeal with an ability to stir emotions. Famous authors traffic in their fictional characters; a reading tour by Charles Dickens packs houses—including Henry Beecher’s Plymouth Church—up and down the East Coast. Humorists provide comic relief: Artemus Ward makes Lincoln and many others laugh during the darkest days of the Civil War. Mark Twain takes over from Ward as America’s funny man; Twain’s wry wit and irreverent appearance—tousled hair, unruly mustache—fill auditoriums wherever he speaks.
Victoria Woodhull isn’t as funny as Twain; in public she isn’t funny at all. But she is more irreverent, in a seriously radical way, besides being more better looking, and after her appearance before Congress she becomes a star of the lecture circuit. The name of no woman appears more often in the pages of American papers than hers; no name falls more readily from the lips of women and men on the streets. Her beauty, boldness and intelligence captivate many; her self-claimed links to the spirit world draw others; the notoriety of her living arrangements pulls yet others.
She hires Lincoln Hall in Washington for a lecture to be delivered on February 16, 1871. The capital city thrums with anticipation as the evening approaches; thousands fill the building as Victoria mounts the platform.
She has never addressed such a large gathering, and her nervousness shows. “When Mrs. Woodhull commenced speaking, her face was perfectly colorless,” an eyewitness records. “She was obliged to stop an instant between each sentence to gain strength to utter the next. It was a grand exhibition of will.” But gradually she finds her voice. “As she progressed and became warmed in her argument, much of the fire and freedom of her ordinary conversation returned, her face flushed, and she was herself.”
She gives the audience all they have expected, and more. Although a minority of the House Judiciary Committee, led by Ben Butler, has registered its support for Victoria’s position on woman suffrage, the majority of the committee has opted to set her petition aside. Victoria observes that even the minority vote of the committee has frightened traditionalists. “That a proposition involving such momentous results as this should receive a one-third vote upon first coming before Congress has raised it to an importance which spreads alarm on all sides among the opposition. So long as it was not made to appear that women were denied constitutional rights, no opposition was aroused. But now that new light is shed, by which it is seen that such is the case, all the conservative weapons of bitterness, hatred and malice are marshaled in the hope to extinguish it before it can enlighten the masses of the people, who are always true to freedom and justice.”
She acknowledges that public opinion stands against equality for women. “But it is simply from prejudice, which requires to be informed to pass away,” she says. “No greater prejudice exists against equality than there did against the proposition that the world was a globe. This passed away under the influence of better information; so also will present prejudice pass when better informed upon the question of equality.”
In any event, she continues, human rights are not susceptible of negation even by a majority. “Were it true that a majority of women do not wish to vote, it would be no reason why those who do should be denied. If a right exist, and only one in a million desires to exercise it, no government should deny its enjoyment to that one.” It has never occurred to anyone that the decision of some men not to vote should be cause to deny the vote to all men. “If there are women who do not desire to have a voice in the laws to which they are accountable, and which they must contribute to support, let them speak for themselves; but they should not assume to speak for me or for those whom I represent.”
She again likens the cause of women to the cause of the colonies in 1776. “I and others of my sex find ourselves controlled by a form of government in the inauguration of which we had no voice, and in whose administration we are denied the right to participate, though we are a large part of the people of this country. Was George III’s rule, which he endeavored to exercise over our fathers, less clearly an assumed rule than is this to which we are subjected? He exercised it over them without their consent and against their wish and will, and naturally they rebelled. Do men of the United States assume and exercise any less arbitrary rule over us than that was? No, not one whit less!”
The defenders of inequality hold that this analogy is overdrawn, Victoria says. But it is not. “I am subject to tyranny! I am taxed in every conceivable way. For publishing a paper I must pay, for engaging in the banking and brokerage business I must pay, of what it is my fortune to acquire each year I must turn over a certain per cent. I must pay high prices for tea, coffee and sugar”—which were subject to import taxes. “To all these I must submit, that men’s government may be maintained, a government in the administration of which I am denied a voice, and from its edicts there is no appeal.”
She refers again to slavery as an analogy to women’s bondage. “Slavery will be regarded by all our descendants as a foul blot upon the escutcheon of this country’s honor, which ages alone can wash away. Congress know this, but they do not yet know how much more foul will this greater wrong be regarded by future ages.” Women, after all, greatly outnumber the former slaves. Women long labored to free the slaves; now they must labor to free themselves. “Woman must be her own advocate. Few of the male sex—few of those who battled so manfully for the negro—now come forward and lift their voices against this thrice greater, this terrible wrong.” The Democratic party is hopeless on the question of equality, having sold its soul decades before. But the Republican party is no better. “Having delivered us from one damnation, shall they be permitted to sell us to another, compared to which the first is but a cipher? They have told us that the Southern slave oligarchy had virtual control of the government for many years, and that the terrible war which we waged was the only means by which this power could be humbled. But do they tell us of a still more formidable oligarchy which is now fastening upon the vitals of the country?”
The political system has failed the women of America. The women of America must take matters into their own hands. “We will have our rights! We say no longer by your leave. We have besought, argued and convinced, but we have failed. And we will not fail!” If Congress refuses to act, in the next session, women must act for themselves just as the founders acted. And they will. “We shall proceed to call another convention expressly to frame a new constitution and to erect a new government, complete in all its parts, and to take measures to maintain it as effectively as men do theirs.”
This is strong language, Victoria knows. But she makes it even more explicit. “We mean treason! We mean secession!—and on a thousand times grander scale than was that of the South. We are plotting revolution! We will overslaugh this bogus republic and plant a government of righteousness in its stead, which shall not only profess to derive its power from the consent of the governed, but shall do so in reality.”