After two years of COVID-91, the neighborhood is again assembling in my backyard for a cookout on Memorial Day. We’ll have about a dozen people and four dogs eating and visiting and playing ball. (Two of the neighborhood dogs are obsessed with chasing after a ball.)
But in the midst of the fun, we should remember why we celebrate.
This holiday dates back to 1865, shortly after the end of the Civil War, when people in both North and South put decorations on the graves of those who fell in what is still the bloodiest war in American history. The holiday was called Decoration Day before the name was changed to Memorial Day.
Two of my ancestors fought for the Union during the Civil War: one from Pennsylvania (my dad’s side of the family) and the other for West Virginia (my mom’s side of the family.) Both were wounded, one at Gettysburg, the other at the Battle of the Wilderness.
My father and brother both served in the Air Force, so in their memory, I will leave you with this image of the majestic the Air Force Memorial in Washington, D.C.
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.
As always, click on the graphic below for more great reviews in Barrie Summy’s Book Review Club.
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