Book Review Club: Madame Presidentess by Nicole Evelina

Madame Presidentess coverThe topic for my March readers group was Girl Power, so I read

Madame Presidentess
by Nicole Evelina
Fictionalized Biography

Forty-eight years before women were granted the right to vote, one woman dared to run for President of the United States, yet her name has been virtually written out of the history books.

Madame Presidentess is a fictionalized biography of Victoria C. Woodhull, spiritualist, stock broker, suffragette and the first woman to run for President of the United States in 1872. Yes, that’s right. 1872. She challenged against President Grant, who was running for a second term.

Victoria was born into the infamous Claflin clan, a family of spiritualists and grifters. She grew up poor, her family sometimes run out of town because of her father’s scams. As a teenager, she and her sister Tennessee, who achieved her own fame, were forced to give spiritual readings to line the family’s coffers. According to the book, Victoria and Tennessee inherited their mother’s ability to speak to spirits. Victoria’s spirit guide was none other than the Greek philospher Demosthenes.

To escape her abusive parents, Victoria married “Doctor” Canning Woodhull, who seemed like the answer to her dreams, but she soon learned that he was abusive as well. She eventually divorced him and met another man, James Blood, who was connected with the suffragette community. Victoria was a great believer in the need for women’s rights, given her own history.

In New York, she and Tennie met Commodore Vanderbilt, who was interested in spiritualism. The became confidants, and Tennie became his mistress. The sisters learned a lot from him about the stock market, after he asked them to consult the spirits for financial advice. (Victoria found another way to help him.) Thanks to what they learned, the sisters were set up as stock brokers in their own right and were successful for a while.

Victoria Woodhull was a fascinating woman, clearly far ahead of her time. In my opinion, had she stuck to spiritualism and women’s suffrage, she might have gone down in the history books as one of the most influential women of the 19th century. Her downfall was her belief in free love, which she espoused openly. This led to her downfall, her ostracism by the suffragists, and legal troubles.

In the author’s notes at the end of the book I learned that Victoria and Tennesse went to England where they both married well, Tennessee to a viscount! Victoria received only brief mention in Susan B. Anthony’s opus on the history of the movement.

I heard the author speak at the 2017 Historical Novel Society Conference in Portland, Oregon, and bought a Kindle copy.

I found the book quite interesting and readable. I wish it had ended on a higher note for Victoria, rather than her fall from grace, but I understand the need for drama and conflict in even fictionalized biography. This is a powerful portrait of a remarkable woman, one nearly lost to history. Recommended for anyone interested in women’s history.


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Book Review Club: A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea

A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival
by Melissa Fleming
Biography (for adults and young adults alike)

hope more powerful than the sea

A friend recommended this book to me in conjunction with an AAUW (American Association of University Women) program about refugees in Greece.

The book tells the story of a young Syrian woman, Doaa Al Zamel. It begins with a story of her fear of the water, to the point that she refused to go swimming with the other children. One day, an older cousin threw her in the water and she nearly drowned. That phobia stayed with her.

A shy teenage girl, Doaa is probably the last person anyone would have expected would morph into a revolutionary, but she did. The Syrian civil war started in her home city of Daraa after teenage boys painted revolutionary slogans on the walls of their schools. Instead of treating the incident as a teenage prank, Bashar Al Assad’s regime acted with typical authoritarian tactics, including arresting and torturing the boys. A spark was lit and protests broke out. Doaa was very brave in taking part in the protests, despite the danger to herself. Her father disapproved of her actions, in part because of the danger to her, but also the danger to the family at large. As the situation in Daraa worsened, he took the family into exile in Egypt.

In Egypt, Doaa met a young man named Bassam and they fell in love. The situation for Syrian refugees was deteriorating in Egypt and so the young couple made the fateful decision to pay smugglers to get them across the Mediterranean to Europe, a truly dangerous undertaking. There, Doaa was once again faced with her deepest fear of drowning. What happened to her is a story of love, loss, courage and compassion, as well as a story of how criminals take advantage of those desperate to escape danger in their homelands.

I recommend the book to Americans who don’t know much about the Syrian conflict and the difficulties faced by the refugees. Our news media has done a poor job of educating the public about what is going on over there. Reading a book about one refugee’s experience gave me a better view of the situation. I found Doaa’s story compelling, dispiriting and ultimately inspiring.

About the Author:

Melissa Fleming leads communications for the United High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). For her job, she travels to war zones and refugee camps to give voice to the millions of people forcibly displaced from their homes. She told one remarkable refugee story on the TED stage about an extraordinary young Syrian woman who, with the baby she saved, was one of the only survivors of a boat wreck that killed 500 refugees. That story became A Hope More Powerful than the Sea.

You can find out more about Melissa at Goodreads.

Linda McLaughlin

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