Free Lover: Sex, Marriage and Eugenics in the Early Speeches of Victoria Woodhull
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Free Lover: Sex, Marriage and Eugenics in the Early Speeches of Victoria Woodhull [Paperback]

Victoria C. Woodhull , Michael W. Perry
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

This book is part of a series of books on the history of eugenics that includes G. K. Chesterton's Eugenics and Other Evils, one of the few books to criticize eugenics in the 1920s, as well as The Pivot of Civilization in Historical Perspective, Margaret Sanger's 1922 birth control bestseller with 31 additional chapters to explain the eugenic and race suicide context in which she wrote.

The companion volume to Free Lover is Lady Eugenist: Feminist Eugenics in the Speeches and Writings of Victoria Woodhull. It includes the full text of her most important published speeches in support of eugenics. These were, for the most part, later speeches with a more scientific foundation than those in Free Lover. The two books are best read together and followed by those by Chesterton and Sanger.

Lady Eugenist also suggests that there is evidence to support two ideas that are rarely, if ever, mentioned by the historians of eugenics. First, that eugenics in America had a different beginning than that in the U.K. It began before Charles Darwin's Origin of Species with radical 'free love' sects on the American frontier. Only later was its sexual mysticism replaced by more scientific ideas about eugenics. Second, Victoria Woodhull deserves at least as much of the credit for pioneering eugenics as Francis Galton. It was she who brought those radical free love ideas before a general audience, both in the U.S. and the U.K. And she did so almost thirty years before Francis Galton began to promote eugenics in earnest after 1900. You might even say that she retired from promoting eugenics before the movement's alleged but more cautious and respectable founder took up the cause.

For students and others in a hurry, most of these books are or will be available in a downloadable Adobe PDF ebook format that has no restrictions on printing.

From the Author

For those wonder what the relationship is between Victoria Woodhull as the author of most of this book's pages and myself as the author of the introductions to each of her four pamphlets, I'll just note that my purpose was to get people to think critically about her remarks. Woodhull was quite intelligent and a clever debater. I suggest ways readers can look beneath the surface to what she was really saying. And, since all her remarks are there in facsimile precisely as she published them, you can evaluate the fairness of my arguments for yourself.--Michael W. Perry

About the Author

Victoria Woodhull's life (1837-1927) was an impressive series of firsts. She was the first woman to run for U.S. President and, with her sister, the first woman stockbroker on Wall Street. But not often included in her biographies or in the histories of eugenics is a startling fact. In the 1870s, she would be the first to promote eugenics, calling for a "humanitarian government" that would create a "perfected humanity" by breeding "perfect children." She was, as a London newspaper would put in it 1912, the "Lady Eugenist" and the "Introducer of the Movement to England." And, as Free Lover demonstrates, it all began when she began to defend her free love lifestyle before a skeptical nation.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

From Chapter 1

In early May of 1871, Victoria Woodhull's life seemed to be going marvelously. Under the patronage of Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the nation's wealthiest men, her brokerage firm, Woodhull, Claflin & Company, was a financial success, providing the money for lavish parties where she met the most important people in New York City. She was also active politically. A year earlier, she began a newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly, to promote herself as a candidate for President and to support voting "without distinction of sex."

Then disaster struck. On Monday, May 15 her mother Annie went to court, complaining that Woodhull's second husband, James Blood, had alienated her from her daughters and threatened, "not to go to bed until he had washed his hands in my blood." The trial was the talk of the town. In the end, there seemed to be little to the mother's charges beyond a fear she was inconvenient and might be sent to a "lunatic asylum" like Mrs. Vanderbilt.

But trials can spin out of control, particularly with a sensation-hungry press. From Blood's testimony, the public learned that Canning Woodhull, who was Woodhull's first husband, was living in the same house with her second husband, something that era found shocking and that even today might be regarded as odd. From the testimony of Tennie, Woodhull's sister, some picked up hints of sexual affairs in her claim that, "Many of the best men in [Wall] Street know my power. Commodore Vanderbilt knows my power." She meant her skill as a fortune teller, but it wasn't the wisest choice of words for an attractive woman to make, particularly since what was hinted was true. She was having an affair with the same Vanderbilt who had sent his wife to an insane asylum, so the mother's fears made sense.

As she often did, Woodhull decided that the best defense was to take the offensive. As Lois Underhill notes, since the secrets of Woodhull's unconventional lifestyle would come out anyway, it was better to announce them herself and claim her behavior was based on principle. Saying nothing would lead the public to suspect she was driven by mere lust or (more likely) was using sex with powerful men to enrich herself.

Woodhull made her first move in a pair of letters published in the New York Times. She issued a warning to the hypocrites among her critics, those who "preach against 'free love' openly, practice it secretly." In particular, she mentioned, "one man, a public teacher of eminence, who lives in concubinage with the wife of another public teacher of almost equal eminence." Some suspected the first was the popular liberal preacher of that generation, Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887), pastor of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York. The second was thought to be Theodore Tilton (1835–1907), a member of his church and editor-in-chief of the influential Independent, a newspaper with as many as 500,000 readers.

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