VICTORIA C. WOODHULL, “‘AND THE TRUTH SHALL MAKE YOU FREE.’ A SPEECH ON THE PRINCIPLES OF SOCIAL FREEDOM DELIVERED IN STEINWAY HALL” (20 NOVEMBER 1871)
- How did Victoria Woodhull speak out against the gendered social contract she observed in the 1870s? How, if at all, did she address issues of gender, race, ability, and economic status as they related to the idea of a social contact?
- Various social movements in the United States have appealed to “individualism” in fighting for suffrage, abolitionism, and spiritualism. Return to the explanation of Josiah Warren’s definition of individualism in the accompanying essay. How would you define individualism in your own words? Are there contemporary social movements that treat individualism as part of their core philosophy? If so, how do their arguments resemble or differ from Warren and Woodhull’s use of the idea?
- After reading Woodhull’s speech, discuss how Woodhull talked about sovereignty of the self in relation to the various movements she supported (e.g., abolition, suffrage, and spiritualism).
- The essay accompanying Woodhull’s speech at Steinway Hall reviewed some of the newspaper coverage of the free love movement prior to the speech. How did these articles portray free love? How did these news stories possibly influence the expectations for the audience members attending Woodhull’s speech? How do you think the news stories prior to the speech, and the press coverage after the speech, impacted public perceptions of Woodhull and the free love movement?
- Return to the discussions of nineteenth-century social norms in the essay. Given those norms, do you think Woodhull’s arguments for reforming gender relations were persuasive? Identify the strengths and weaknesses of her arguments given the historical context of the speech.
- Studying Woodhull’s Steinway Hall speech illustrates the complexity of authenticating historical speeches. According to the essay accompanying Woodhull’s speech on this site, what makes it difficult to identify the most “authentic” text of Woodhull’s speech? Compare and contrast the challenge of authenticating this speech with the controversy over another famous speech text featured on the Voices of Democracy website: Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” (see Michael Phillips-Anderson’s essay, https://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/truth-essay-pdf1.pdf). After also consulting the Sojourner Truth Project’s page on the controversy over the speech, (https://www.thesojournertruthproject.com/compare-the-speeches/), discuss why it is important to authenticate the texts of speeches by historical figures like Woodhull and Truth.
- Research the speeches of one or two activists who were contemporaries of Woodhull: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, or others. What ideas or arguments do they share? Do others invoke the idea of a social contract? Do they make similar arguments about individualism, liberalism, or civil rights?
- Compare and contrast Woodhull’s Steinway Hall speech with her address earlier the same year at the Apollo Hall (https://digital.hagley.org/08026898_speech_by_victoria_woodhull). Which speech strikes you as more “radical?” How would you summarize the main argument or thesis of each speech, and which speech addresses a broader range of issues affecting women? Do you sense differences in the style or tone of the two speeches? How would you describe those differences?
- Study the women’s rights movement in the U.S. in the 1870s. What were the major issues women’s rights advocates focused on at that time? What caused disagreements or divisions within the movement? Did women’s rights activists differ over political strategies or the proper agenda for the movement at that time? How would you describe those differences, and how, if at all, were they resolved? Finally, discuss where Victoria Woodhull fit into the women’s movement at this time. Would you consider her a major figure in the movement, or where her arguments too radical or on the “fringe” of the movement at that time?
- The essay about Woodhull’s Steinway Hall speech on this website mentions a famous cartoon published in Harper’s Weekly in 1872 (https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/95512460/). Research the role of political cartoons in the mid-to late-nineteenth century and compare this cartoon to other depictions of women activists in the political cartoons of the day. Would you characterize this cartoon as an especially negative portrait of Woodhull? What sorts of “arguments” did the cartoon make about her advocacy of free love, and what visual and verbal content helped make those “arguments.”
- According to suffrage activist Mary Davis, the spiritualist movement inaugurated the “era of the woman” in the late nineteenth century. Research “spiritualism” in the late nineteenth century and explain its relationship to the women’s movement at that time. Then consider how more modern, nontraditional religious movements or even cults have been linked to politics. Can you point to other, more recent religious movements that have impacted the views of political candidates or activists? In general, how would you describe the relationship between nontraditional religious movements and politics in the United States today?
- Do political leaders and women’s rights activists still discuss the gender equity issues that Victoria Woodhull addressed? How has our understanding of gender equity shifted since the nineteenth century? What recent congressional debates or Supreme Court decisions have focused on issues of gender equity? What new laws or policies addressing questions of gender equity have been enacted within your lifetime?
- How do the arguments about gender equality in the free love movement compare to more recent debates over LGBTQ rights and marriage equality? Do today’s LGBTQ activists make the same sorts of historical, legal, social, political, and ethical arguments that women’s rights activists made in the late nineteenth century? What, if anything, is different or unique in the arguments of today’s LGBTQ activists?
- In 2019, a record number of women launched bids for the Democratic presidential nomination. Yet, by early spring of 2020, all of the women candidates had suspended their campaigns. How do you think media coverage of women candidates today either helps or harms their prospects for success? Do you see similarities to the way Victoria Woodhull was treated in the press to the ways contemporary women politicians are treated?
- For decades, Victoria Woodhull remained a footnote in U.S. political history. However, over the past three decades, she re-emerged as a relevant historical figure. Analyze tribute websites like “Victoria Woodhull the Spirit to Run the White House” (http://www.victoria-woodhull.com/index.htm) or “Woodhull Rising” (https://www.woodhullrising.org/). How do these websites depict Woodhull as an American hero? What traits or accomplishments do they emphasize? How do they make the case for her commemoration?