Thursday, January 04, 2024

Was the feminism of the 1870s any better?

If we were to go back to the 1870s, and look at progressive politics in the US, what would we find? 

I stumbled across a newspaper that was published at this time by two suffragettes, called Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly. The editors were sisters, Victoria Woodhull (who was the first woman to run for President) and Tennessee Claflin. 

Victoria Woodhull

Reading through it, I drew the conclusions that, first, progressive politics was extraordinarily radical in that era and, second, that amongst all the failures the key one was a false understanding of freedom.

In what sense was the politics radical? Well, it comes through especially clearly in attitudes to marriage and to nation. 

Victoria Woodhull gave a speech in 1871 at Steinway Hall. She declared to the 3000 in the audience that,

Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere. And I have the further right to demand a free and unrestricted exercise of that right, and it is your duty not only to accord it, but, as a community, to see that I am protected in it.

She did not, in other words, respect the ideal of marriage as a lifelong union. She also advocated for women to be independent of men. She said of women that,

Their entire system of education must be changed. They must be trained to be like is a libel upon say this world is not calculated to make women...self-reliant and self-supporting individuals.

The attitude to nation was worse. There was a notion that the world was progressing to global government and that American borders would soon be open to hundreds of millions. With the exploration of the last corners of the world complete:

We have begun the unitary culture and administration of this human habitat and domicile, instead of the fragmentary and patchwork management which has prevailed through all the past ages...And we are talking glibly of unitary weights and measures, of a unitary currency, of a common and universal language, and finally of a Universal Government

Elizabeth Cady Stanton thought that teeming millions from China would soon be arriving:

We shall have at the end of this century one hundred million of people. With the purchase of territory now proposed, we shall add greatly to this number. Forty thousand Chinese are already on the Pacific coast, but the entering wedge of 400,000,000 behind them.

Victoria Woodhull understood progress as meaning a merging of races in the US to form a new race that would ultimately lead to a world government:

These two processes will continue  until both are complete - until all nations are merged into races, and all races into one government...the people, who will no longer be denominated as belonging to this or that country or government, but as citizens of the world - as members of a common humanity.

So the question is why these women fell into such a radical politics. There are many mistakes to point to, but I don't want to confuse the issue by examining all of them, not when there is a foundational one that needs to be highlighted.

The foundational problem is freedom. Victoria Woodhull takes as a starting point here a position a little similar to that of Hobbes. She does not assert the idea of a God given free will. Instead, she sees individuals as natural agents whose actions are determined by how they are acted on by external forces. As these external forces differ for each person, then each person is uniquely determined:

But what does freedom mean? "As free as the winds" is a common expression. But if we stop to inquire what that freedom is, we find that air in motion is under the most complete subjection to different temperatures in different localities, and that these differences arise from conditions entirely independent of the air...Therefore the freedom of the wind is the freedom to obey commands imposed by conditions to which it is by nature related...But neither the air or the water of one locality obeys the commands which come from the conditions surrounding another locality. 

Now, individual freedom...means the same thing...It means freedom to obey the natural condition of the individual, modified only by the various external forces....which induce action in the individual. What that action will be, must be determined solely by the individual and the operating causes, and in no two cases can they be precisely alike...Now, is it not plain that freedom means that individuals...are subject only to the laws of their own being.

She has established a metaphysics here from which much else follows. In this view, there can only be individuals pursuing things their own way (and allowing others to do the same). There are no substantive goods that humans might rationally seek, nor are there common goods (i.e. my own good realised in common with others). 

You can see how difficult Victoria Woodhull's metaphysics makes the defence of both marriage and nation. She defends free love on the basis that we are simply acted on to have feelings for someone else, and that similarly we are simply acted on to lose those feelings. These things are passively determined by our own being or by external conditions upon us. If true, then there is no possibility of actively upholding love and respect within a marriage, and so an expectation of fidelity becomes an illegitimate, external imposition on my own being, a tyranny. 

Similarly, how can there be a defence of nation if the underlying understanding of man is that we are all sovereign individuals acting for our own uniquely formed individual goods? Where in this is the understanding that humans are social creatures who naturally form thick bonds with those they are closely related to by culture, language, religion, custom and lineage?

And what is the telos of man in this metaphysics? If we are all dissimilar in the goods we pursue because we are all determined uniquely by the forces acting upon us, then what does it mean to be fully formed as a man or a woman? What are the roles we should ideally fulfil in life? What are the spiritual experiences that constitute a higher point in human life? These questions lose sense in a world in which there are only uniquely determined, self-sovereign individuals.

What Victoria Woodhull chooses to emphasise at the beginning of her Steinway Hall speech is telling in this regard. She sets out a liberal framework for society in which individuals have an equal right to act in any way they wish as long as they do not encroach upon the rights of others to do likewise:

It means that every person who comes into the world of outward existence is of equal right as an individual, and is free as an individual, and that he or she is entitled to pursue happiness in what direction he or she may choose...But just here the wise-acres stop and tell us that everybody must not pursue happiness in his or her own way; since to do so absolutely, would be to have no protection against the action of individuals. These good and well-meaning not take into account...that each is free within the area of his or her individual sphere; and not free within the sphere of any other individual whatever...the most perfect exercise of such rights is only attained when every individual is not only fully protected in his rights, but also strictly restrained to the exercise of them within his own sphere, and positively prevented from proceeding beyond its limits, so as to encroach upon the sphere of another...

I have before said that every person has the right to, and can, determine for himself what he will do, even to taking the life of another. But it is equally true that the attacked person has the right to defend his life against such assault. If the person succeed in taking the life, he thereby demonstrates that he is a tyrant and that every individual of the community is put in jeopardy by the freedom of this person. Hence it is the duty of the government to so restrict the freedom of this person as to make it impossible for him to ever again practice such tyranny...

I would recall the the true functions of government - to protect the complete exercise of individual rights, and what they are no living soul except the individual has any business to determine or to meddle with, in any way whatever, unless his own rights are first infringed.

What can we say about all this? First, the "freedom" she claims to be upholding is a limited one as it is justified on the grounds that we are all different in being as we are all determined differently by external conditions. So we are not really "choosing" to act in any direction, but are rather being left free to act in the ways we are uniquely conditioned to act. 

Second, the freedom is limited, rigorously, to our own "sphere" - i.e. the space in which we do not impinge on others acting freely. This is more radical than it sounds. Can a wife then have expectations of what a husband might do in a marriage, or does that impinge on his freedom to act according to his own uniquely determined self? If she does have such expectations, even reasonable ones, is she then a tyrant? And how big is a sphere that is self-enclosed? Yes, I can choose what to have for dinner without impinging on someone else. Or what music concert to attend. But what can I ask or expect of others in terms of creating a well-ordered, stable, pleasant, prosperous community? In theory, very little - since others should be free to act within their own sphere however they like.

Then there is Victoria Woodhull's treatment of crimes like murder. She states that I have a right to act in any way, and therefore I have a right to commit murder. The government only prevents me from committing murder because in acting on this right I am impinging on the rights and freedoms of others. Again, this is a radical take. Yes, governments do act against murder, in part, to protect the freedoms of others in the community. But where is the sense of there being a moral issue at play here? Perhaps it is disregarded because if an objective moral dimension is introduced it might have to be acknowledged that there are principles of action that apply to all humans as moral truths - and that therefore place limits on what "self-sovereign" individuals might rightly choose to do.

Here is another significant problem with this liberal framework. In theory, it is meant to maximise my freedom. But it assumes that I am an individual level actor who is free to the extent that I can be my own uniquely conditioned self. As the 1970s campaign put it "free to be you and me". This campaign was focused on "liberating" boys and girls from....being boys and girls. And this makes sense within the given metaphysics. If I am uniquely conditioned, then I can only be free as "myself" and nothing more. But what if I am constituted, in part, by my given sex? Or by the longstanding communal tradition I am born into? Then I am free not just as "me" but as a man, or as an Englishman or as a Christian. These things form part of my self, and so I cannot be free unless I am free to be these things.

Note too the role of government in the Victoria Woodhull system. It exists only to force people to stay within their own individual spheres. It does not exist to represent a particular people and to promote the continuing existence of this people over time. It cannot do this as its sole reason for existence is to uphold individual rights.

Finally, once accepted, this system ties the hands of those who would defend their own tradition and attempt to transmit the best of it to future generations. It becomes difficult, within such a system of individual spheres, to defend goods that require cooperation between people communally. It becomes difficult to expect people to have the volition or understanding to discern and to uphold rational goods in life (because goods are thought to be unique to each individual, hence their freedom to act in any direction). It becomes difficult to assert the existence of higher, transcendent ideals that might elevate the life of a community (because, again, the one operative good is a freedom to act in any direction in order to be "oneself").


  1. Its not clear whether Victoria Woodhull was jewish, but her ideology of one world government and the destruction of all racial groups by miscegenation or otherwise (she wanted 400 million Chinese in America in the 1870's) is straight up Jewish utopian thinking since forever. Its really remarkable to hear it.

    She had backers for many of her public campaigns in NY and elsewhere, and some of them look to be jewish. So the pattern of this ideological mindset repeats again and again.

    It appears from her history that she repudiated a lot of her early

    Interesting, she repudiated a lot of the feminist ideology in later life

    "in 1875, Woodhull began to publicly espouse Christianity and she changed her political stances.[36] She exposed Spiritualist frauds in her periodical, alienating her Spiritualist followers.[37] She wrote articles against promiscuity, calling it a "curse of society".[38] Woodhull repudiated her earlier views on free love, and began idealizing purity, motherhood, marriage, and the Bible in her writings.[39][40][41] She even claimed that some works had been written in her name without her consent."

    That some of her works were written without her consent (and hence by people pushing her behind the scenes) would not surprise me. Such patterns repeates itself in the women's liberation'/sexual liberation movements of the 1920's and 1960's, as documented well in the E Michael Jones book 'The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit'.

    There's very much a political and non-spontaneous pattern to this culture war.

    Interesting article!

    1. Cecil, thanks. But I think the lesson here is that it is not really Jewish or any other kind of lobby or power group that is ultimately responsible for Western decline. It was the mainstream political ideology or narrative current in the US (and elsewhere) that was careering the West toward its own suicide. Woodhull and Claflin are very useful in this regard, because they gave lectures in which they tried to set out their understanding of this politics in a systematic way. I will write a follow up piece on this soon, but the understanding of religious freedom that developed in the 1600s, was extrapolated to a political freedom and then to a social freedom. It led to a radically individualistic mindset that individuals were to be controlled by the government into their own limited individual spheres. The role of government itself was limited to the function of this control. There did not exist anymore a notion of the "double nature of the good" in which it was important to the individual that the good of the community they belonged to and were literally "members" of was upheld. It could not be upheld because of the way the role of the state was framed & because of the way individuals in pursuit of the good were limited strictly to their individual spheres. Furthermore there could be no common good because of the metaphysical underpinnings of all this. There was a modernist, Hobbesian understanding (a vehement rejection of the longstanding Western understanding) in which creatures did not have an essence, which might then provide a deeper connectedness between them, but instead were determined by external forces acting upon their senses, and so were unique in their being and their desires and so had to pursue the good in their own individual way. Why was this whole framework adopted? It was not the intention of those who framed much of early modern thought (e.g. Descartes/Bacon) to destroy the double nature of the good - in fact, they defended it - but nonetheless the logic of the emerging world picture pushed in this direction.

  2. Read Igor Shaferavich’s “socialism in our past and in our future.”

  3. My previous comment calling them devil worshipers was rejected by the site.