This weekend the Texas Storyteller’s Association held its annual festival in Denton. One of the featured teller’s, Willy Clafin prepared a stellar historical presentation. The operative word here is prepared. The man knows his stuff- backwards, forwards, inside out to the point it appears effortless. That degree of preparation is his greatest gift to us, the audience. It allows us to sink into the story, completely at ease, without ever having to worry about him or about being jerked out of our suspension of disbelief by some gaffe. Willy is a consummate performer – funny, engaging, wise, but best of all, the historical personage he picked was a woman. March being Women’s History Month, it makes sense. But this presentation was ninety minutes long. Ninety (count ’em, folks) minutes devoted to a woman by a male performer. And he did it with respect.
Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to own her own weekly newspaper and her own brokerage firm. She was the first woman to run for president of the United State. It took Willy Claflin well over a year to create this piece and prepare himself to perform. He didn’t limit himself to talking about Victoria; he honored her by memorizing her words and delivering excerpts of her speeches in a way that did her proud.
As it happens, Victoria has always been one of my heroes. I read about her as a girl, somewhere. I thought it might have been in one of those fabulous Signature biographies but sadly she’s not included on that list – too wild by half, no doubt.
Her story would make a great graphic novel. She began life surrounded by poverty and death, beaten by a drunken father, cursed at and prayed over by a crazy mother as the family rambled around the countryside selling snake oil. No wonder she began, at an early age, to commune with the dead and speak to spirits. Along with her sister Tennessee, a purported psychic, she left home as soon as she could get away. The two girls took to the road as spiritualists. A lucky encounter in New York City with Cornelius Vanderbilt, the great tycoon, provided the wherewith all to set up the first American Stock-brokerage firm owned and run by women.
Her hard life had made her an impassioned advocate of the poor and down trodden. Energetic, out-spoken, eccentric and brave, she became a formidable activist both for labor and free love. “Free love” to Victoria meant the right of unmarried women to engage in sex and the right of married women to refuse it.
These controversial views all found expression in the newspaper she started, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. was off limits; it promoted the elimination of the gold standard, graduated income tax, legalized prostitution, spiritualism, vegetarianism and women’s rights.
Victoria soon became active in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Unfortunately, due to her brutal up-bringing and lack of socialization (she attended school for only three years) Victoria did not play well with others. She could lead like a champ, but following was not her forte. Soon, she fell out with Anthony and Stanton. About the same time, Victoria’s scurrilous family became involved in a notorious court case in which all the sordid details of her hitherto successfully disguised past came tumbling out to the closet. Her paper published Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and she had an unfortunate run-in with Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent preacher and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. All these factors led to the downfall of her campaign.
Undaunted by setbacks, Victoria picked herself up and booked space on the next boat sailing for England. In London she met a wealthy upper-class gentleman, married him and continued her career as a writer and lecturer.
Victoria, born in 1838, lived until 1927. Many of her views, so controversial at the time have become standard in our day. Though we have yet to legalize prostitution or offer equal pay for equal work.
She‘d have something to say about that!