The defining undercurrent of conflict within the woman’s movement was established early in its birth; it was the great rivalry between Susan B. Anthony and Victoria Woodhull. The rivalry was a great clash of personalities but also a clash in priorities; must women vote first and then gain greater equality through the established political process or is the process so broken that women must fight on multiple fronts simultaneously? On the moderate side was Susan B. Anthony, a powerful political figure who having fought for abolition, desired unity within the movement with her at the helm as women strove to make small steps towards liberation. On the radical side was Victoria Woodhull, a woman who having been at the bottom of society had nothing to lose by fighting for complete political, societal, and sexual equality.
Anthony began her career of agitation as a teacher. In 1848, one of her male colleagues told Anthony that he was earning $10/month as a teacher. Anthony was only earning $2.50 per month. Equal pay for equal work is an issue that Anthony first brought up at the New York Teachers Union one hundred and seventy years ago and is one that we are still fighting for. When Anthony wanted to bring up this issue it sparked a half-hour debate as to whether it was proper for women to speak in public. Finally allowed to speak, Anthony said, “Do you not see so long that society says a woman is incompetent to be a lawyer, minister, or doctor, but has ample ability to be a teacher, that every man of you who chooses this profession tacitly acknowledges that he has no more brains than a woman.” Anthony continued to speak out for equal pay for teachers at conventions for years. She also advocated that women be allowed to be educated at the university level. One opponent called the idea, “a vast social evil…the first step in the school which seeks to abolish marriage, and behind this picture I see a monster of social deformity.”
Before and during the Civil War, Anthony turned her attention to abolition, even becoming part of the underground railroad. Facing mobs everywhere she went, the police often had to escort her. In Syracuse a newspaper editorial stated, “Rotten eggs were thrown, benches broken, and knives and pistols gleamed in every direction.”
After the Civil War, Anthony was outraged that African-Americans were granted the right to vote ahead of women. Many of the men that Anthony worked with such as Henry Ward Beecher to demolish slavery had abandoned her quest for female political emancipation. And it wasn’t only the men who did not want women to vote, many prominent women did not want the right to vote. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example signed a petition that read: the majority of women in this country believe Holy Scripture inculcates for women a sphere higher than and apart from that of public life; because as women they find a full measure of duties, cares and responsibilities and are unwilling to bear additional burdens unsuited to their physical organization.”
It was against this backdrop of resistance to female emancipation that Susan B. Anthony soldiered on. It was also against this backdrop that an even bolder reformer appeared; Victoria Woodhull.
Victoria Woodhull, born in poverty, sold into marriage had through sheer willpower and manipulation acquired a fortune and powerful friends. The first woman to own a brokerage firm on Wall Street, Victoria pushed for equality of the sexes in all spheres; marital equality, right to ownership, equal pay, and the right to vote. The most controversial stance Woodhull took was as an advocate of “free love” meaning that, like the men, women should be able to marry and divorce whom they want and when they want without legal interference or societal penalties. Victoria saw the right to vote as just one piece of liberation, noting that many political candidates are not worth crossing the street to vote for (and I am sure many of us still feel that way). Anthony, in contrast, envisioned women banding together and voting as a monolithic group, putting pressure on male politicians to enact laws to improve the lives of women.
While Anthony tried to unite supporters behind her, many broke away preferring the more radical, holistic approach to equality. Anthony, however, remained more powerful and influential. Through their great rivalry, Woodhull was ultimately forced out of the women’s movement despite being the first woman to run for President. And when Anthony was commissioned to write the multi-volume history of the woman’s movement, Victoria’s name was left out entirely.