Radicalesbians and Victoria Woodhull
Feminism, according to Merriam-Webster, “is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities” (Credit). This simple idea has been expressed and fought for in many different ways over the years. We separated the phases of feminism into waves, each with its own unique fights and desires. The first wave of feminism happened from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. This wave focused mostly on woman’s suffrage, or the right to vote. It was also mainly driven by straight, white, cisgender, middle class women (Credit). These women knew that they needed to be able to make political decisions if they were going to be able to do anything about the other problems they wanted to fix. Once the right to vote was acquired, it prompted the second wave of feminism (Credit). Which was from the 1960’s to the 1990’s (Credit). The second wave focused mostly “on the workplace, sexuality, family, and reproductive rights” (Credit).
Victoria Woodhull was a part of the first wave of feminism. She was born in Homer, Ohio in 1838. As a child, she worked as a clairvoyant in her abusive father’s traveling carnival show. She got married at fifteen to escape her violent father, but left her husband after only five years because he was an alcoholic (Credit). She remarried in 1866, and two years later, her and her family moved to New York City. Because of her talents as a clairvoyant, her sister and she became the spiritual advisers to Cornelius Vanderbilt, who in turn helped with their finances on Wall Street. The sisters opened a brokerage house in 1870. In the same year, they started a newspaper that promoted women’s suffrage, and Victoria announced that she would run for President of the United States. She got nominated in 1872 for the Equal Rights Party. Although popular with other women who believed in her platform, she lost because those women could not actually vote yet. After divorcing her second husband, she moved in 1878 to England where she married again. She stayed active in the woman’s suffrage movement until she died in 1927 (Credit).
Victoria Woodhull was a free love advocate, believing sex shouldn’t be confined to marriage, and wrote “The Elixir of Life: or, Why Do We Die?” which suggested that women’s sexual desire was just as important as a man’s. This meant she though sex should be enjoyed by both men and women. She felt that the idea that sex is all about the man’s pleasure was ridiculous. She said, “It is a fact terrible to contemplate, yet it is nevertheless true, and ought to be pressed upon the world for its recognition: that fully one-half of all women seldom or never experience any pleasure whatever in the sexual act” (Kolmar & Bartkowski, 2010, pp. 86-88). Because of her belief in “free love,” Woodhull was legally charged with adultery. To combat the “personal attacks from political enemies” during her campaign for presidency, she reported on the sexual scandals of Luther Challis and Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher was a respected minister and Challis was a stockbroker. This got her “arrested and tried for sending obscene information through the mail” and she “spent the election night in prison” (Credit).
During the second wave of feminism, Betty Friedan, the first president of the National Organization for Women, or NOW, said that lesbians were threatening the feminist movement, because “they distracted from the goals of gaining economic and social equality for women.” Many feminists in NOW “felt that lesbian issues were irrelevant to the majority of women and would hinder the feminist cause, and that identifying the movement with lesbians and their rights would make it harder to win feminist victories.” Many lesbian feminists split off from NOW and made their own groups. One group, founded in 1970, was the “Lavender Menace” which ambushed the Second Congress to Unite Women, which was sponsored by NOW. The congress had left out lesbian rights issues from their itinerary. The Lavender Menace group turned the lights off at the conference and when they came back on they had shirts with “Lavender Menace” on them. They then handed out “The Woman-Identified Woman” manifesto (Credit).
“The Woman-Identified Woman” was about how the word ‘lesbian’ was used to insult women and keep them in line with social norms. An important piece of this manifesto was as follows:
For in this sexist society, for a woman to be independent means she can’t be a woman-she must be a dyke. That in itself should tell us where women are at. It says as clearly as can be said: women and person are contradictory terms. For a lesbian is not considered a ‘real woman.’ And yet, in popular thinking, there is really only one essential difference between a lesbian and other women: that of sexual orientation-which is to say, when you strip off all the packaging, you must finally realize that the essence of being a ‘woman’ is to get fucked be men. (Kolmar & Bartkowski, 2010, pp. 197-200)
When given the context of why this group came to be, it is clear that the lesbian feminists are angry that they were denied a spot in NOW because of their sexual preference; they didn’t want to be fucked by men, so they weren’t ‘women’ enough.
Victoria Woodhull and the Radicalesbians both were fighting for sexual freedom. The only difference was their sexualities.
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Kolmar, W. K., & Bartkowski, F. (2010). Feminist Theory (Third ed.). New York: David Patterson.