Today we are exploring the close association of Spiritualism and the women’s rights movement of the nineteenth century.

Transcription for: Ghosting the Patriarchy: Spiritualism and the Nineteenth-Century Women’s Rights Movement

Elizabeth: In 1898 at the annual meeting of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in Washington, D.C. the suffrage movement celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention. Displayed reverently on the convention stage was a small, round table covered in patriotic bunting. The significance of this small table lay in the fact that Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martha C. Wright, and Mary Ann McClintock had drafted the Declaration of Sentiments, based on the Declaration of Independence that gives the first real statement of women’s rights in North America, on that very table fifty years earlier. You can see the table for yourself at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.[1] However, what many modern museum-goers may not know is that that very table– so prominently displayed at the suffrage convention and ever since– has another history too. That table had been the means through which the spirits of the dead had communicated with the living through rapps and knocks against the table, and the tipping of the table from left to right, front to back. Numerous seances were conducted at that table at the McClintocks house in Waterloo, NY. Their neighbor, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had experienced the same knockings in her own house. The sounds and movements were the communications sent through the “spiritual telegraph” apparent at seances that were being conducted with increasing numbers beginning in 1848 and throughout the nineteenth century. The Declaration of Sentiments table, Smithsonian catalog number 26160, is also a séance table putting it squarely at the intersection between the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement and Spiritualism, a religious movement that took America by storm in the 19th century. .

Averill: 1848 was a momentous year. It’s one of those years like, say 1968, where major stuff is just happening all over the globe. In 1848 Frederick Douglass settled in Rochester, NY to be near his dear friends Isaac and Amy Post. Douglass and William C. Nell started the North Star newspaper that same year. Europe experienced a wave of revolutions throughout 1848, beginning in Sicily and spreading to France, Germany, Italy, and the Austrian empire. That same year Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Communist Manifesto, starting a worldwide phenomenon still important today. The Seneca Falls Convention, touted by many as the first women’s rights convention, was held in Seneca Falls, New York and proclaimed the “self evident” truth that “all men and women are created equal.” And in 1848, sisters Margaret and Kate Fox, only 15 and 11 years old respectively, began communicating with spirit in their home in Hydesville, NY. Their spirit communications went on to help launch Spiritualism, which grew as a religious movement right alongside the abolition and women’s rights movements that were also growing in the Rochester, NY region.

This mahogany tea table was used on July 16, 1848, to compose much of the first draft of the Declaration of Sentiments.

Elizabeth: One of the reasons the women’s rights and Spiritualism movements grew alongside one another was because of women like Amy Post. Post was at the center of developments in reform and radical religion around Rochester, NY. She was a critical figure in the growth of Spiritualism because of the degree of respect that she commanded. She became a kind of mentor to the Fox sisters and lent the movement credibility through her support and belief in the Fox sisters ability to talk to spirits. This is the same Amy Post who is good friends with Frederick Douglass. The same Amy Post that became friends with Harriet Jacobs and encouraged her to write her slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The same Amy Post who attended the Seneca Falls convention and who, along with two other women who eventually became Spiritualists, made the unheard of recommendation that a woman should preside as president of the follow-up convention to Seneca Falls that was held in Rochester. Spiritualism (as well as women’s rights and abolition) spread through her network of radical Quakers.

But why in most conversations regarding these nineteenth-century reform movements is Spiritualism left out of the history? For example, those of you who read the Pulitzer Prize winning, doorstop of a book about Frederick Douglass recently written by David Blight, you might flip back through it and notice that nope, Spiritualism is not discussed at all, even though Amy and Isaac Post are prominent figures in the book and their papers are heavily relied upon in the footnotes. Now this is in no way me harping on David Blight, it’s just to point out how much Spiritualism is left out of the history of these nineteenth century reform movements time and again. When Ann Braude published her groundbreaking book Radical Spirits in 1989, critics did not like that Braude prominently linked the women’s rights movement, particularly during the antebellum period, with Spiritualism.  And even now, thirty years on, many histories still gloss over these important connections.

Averill: So today we are exploring the close association of Spiritualism and the women’s rights movement of the nineteenth century.

I’m Elizabeth


And I’m Averill

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Averil: Happy summer, listeners! We want to thank all of our Patreon supporters, and especially our fabulous Auger and Excavator level patrons: Lauren, Edward, Iris, Denise, Susan, Agnes, Peggy, Colin, Maddie, Maria, Jessy, Hannah, and our newest patron, Karen! We can’t thank you enough. Listener, if you’re not yet a patron of this show, it’s easy: just go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more

Elizabeth: As always, I’ve relied on the important work of historians to craft this episode, particularly the work of Ann Braude, Trisha Franzen, and Molly Mcgarry. Please visit our website at digpodcast.org for citations, bibliography, and a transcript of this episode.

Elizabeth: In 1848 Margaret and Kate Fox first heard the rappings they attributed to the spirit of a dead peddler who had been murdered and then buried inside the walls of their small cottage in Hydesville, NY. After completely freaking their mother out, who in turn brought neighbors in to witness how the rappings were coming in answer to her daughter’s questions, the sister’s spirit communication was taken seriously by adults. What started out as a confined, neighborhood phenomenon quickly made its way into the public sphere and eventually formed into a new religious movement – Spiritualism.

Averill: The most immediate reason why news of the Fox sister’s spirit communication spread so quickly was because Isaac and Amy Post witnessed the Fox sister’s phenomenon, were convinced, and brought the sisters into their home, essentially giving them credibility in the public eye. The Posts were at the center of a large and active network of abolitionists, radical reformers, and radical Quakers. Word of the Fox sister’s spirit communication spread quickly through this network. Once the news of the spirit rappings was out, and once adults who were respected and known for their religious piety had taken it seriously, many were interested in hearing spirit communication from or through sources (like teenage girls) that they had previously not considered credible.

Elizabeth: Rochester, NY was in the area known as the Burned Over District in the first half of the nineteenth century because the flames of religious revivals — stemming from the Second Great Awakening — were burning through western and central New York. Typically we associate the Second Great Awakening with the 1820s – 30s, when we see religious authority and experience sweeping the country through revivals, and we see a declining emphasis on an educated clergy, on religious hierarchies, and on religious education. What we do see is an increasing emphasis on religious experience that was accessible to any individual. The flames of revival that passed through upstate and western New York left in their wake evangelical churches and religious communities like Mormonism, and Seventh Day Adventism, and other, new religious developments that found root and receptivity in that arena.

Averill: The Fox Sister’s mediumship was really one of many origins of Spiritualism. Mesmerism and animal magnetism were already ideas floating around in science, changing the way people thought about the human mind. In 1844 Andrew Jackson Davis, aka the Poughkeepsie Seer, was developing his ‘‘harmonial philosophy,’’ while channeling the spirit of Emanuel Swedenborg. Major advancements in communication technology were also changing people’s understanding of communicating across great distances. It’s no coincidence that central/western NY and Seneca Falls, in particular, which is a small village not far from Rochester, was an area that simultaneously gave birth both to spiritualism and to the organized women’s rights movement because there were a lot of individuals that lived in this region who were pressing radical ideas about individual agency

Elizabeth: Central and western New York was also a place very receptive to these types of new, even radical, ideas because it was at the heart of the technology and communication revolution going on in America during the 1830s and 40s. Transportation advancements like the Erie Canal and the railroad were literally changing the concept of time and space. Communication advancements like the telegraph and the massive spread of steam powered printing presses spread information in hours and days, not weeks and months. So time and space were literally being rearranged during this period. And so it’s not weird to think that people would believe that humans could find a conduit to speak to the spirits of the dead. All of a sudden humans were speaking to people on the other side of the country!! These technological advances were like magic for a society where they had not previously existed or were known. And things like the telegraph were poorly understood when they were introduced, particularly before someone could witness them personally. And so it’s not a crazy idea that there could be a spiritual telegraph that would connect communication through human mediums with the spirits of the dead. No crazier than there being a telegraph that would send communications across the country without anybody being able to hear them or see them. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that the first spirit messages that were communicated were transmitted through the sounds of knocks and raps bouncing off the furniture, floor, and walls. Morse code, which is what telegraphs use, is a series of rappings and knockings, so it’s not surprising that contemporaries called the spirit communications a spirit telegraph.

Averill: The antebellum communication revolution also helped Spiritualism spread through print. The Spiritualist press of the nineteenth century was crucial to the spread of Spiritualism. Now, all of these radical-minded people across the U.S. were able to subscribe to periodicals and receive them through the mail. They were able to get information about Spiritualism and form connections with other spiritualists, and were not bound by their geographic locations. Communities of like-minded people begin to form what we would today call virtual communities, where time and space did not hinder communication. These periodicals would also print the names of other subscribers in your town or state, opening the potential to create a network in your community. The spiritualist press would also inform you when speakers might be coming to your state or city; where you could go and hear and meet other like-minded people and receive further information about the religious movement.

Elizabeth: Spiritualists were seeking proof of the immortality of the soul by communicating with the spirits of the dead, usually through the intervention of a human medium who was receptive to spirit communication. And those spirits might be the spirits of deceased relatives, loved ones, or friends who had passed to the world beyond. Or the spirit rapping on the table might be a public figure. Spirits could also be from other cultures or civilizations long past. Usually, the spirit that communicated through a human medium was understood to be the spirit of one individual. Many people held seances in their homes because they were looking for consolation; perhaps they wanted to reunite with a loved one who had been ripped away too soon. This was a time when families were becoming more connected to younger children. Although still astoundingly high, infant mortality was on the decline throughout the nineteenth century and families became more invested in their love for infants and young children. And because death was still very much within the purview of women, it was women who cared for the dying, women whose children died in their arms, and so  women were looking for consolation after the death of their children.

Averill: Many early seances were conducted by writing the alphabet out on a piece of paper and the spirit medium would pass their hands over the alphabet until raps were heard and then stop on that letter. Essentially they crafted a rudimentary ouija board without the planchette. Sometimes mediums had a hard time separating these letters into words and the messages weren’t always clear.  But this attempt at spirit communication really replicated the types of technologies that were springing up during the period. The first seances were not party games, but real attempts to reconnect with loved ones through the scientific tools available at the time. 

Elizabeth: In the summer of 1848 the Fox Sisters relocated to Rochester and it’s the first time they publicly displayed their talents in Corinthian Hall. For context, this is the same hall that Frederick Douglass delivered probably his most famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.” That same summer the Seneca Falls convention met, roughly 50 miles away to work on the “social, civil, and religious” rights of women. When Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton put out the unprecedented call for the Seneca Falls convention it was to discuss their rights in the religious sphere just as much as their rights in the civic and political spheres. Women were for the most part denied votes in their churches, just as they were for state and national elections. Women were excluded from ordination in the churches, the same way they were excluded from elective office in civil society. So the religious sphere was very much on these reformers minds at the time.

Averill: Reformers at the Seneca Falls convention declared that when men usurped the rights of authority in the church by excluding women from the clergy and from religious office, they were stepping into the place of God by excluding women from religious rights. So not only was Seneca Falls the birth of the women suffrage movement, it was also women demanding equality in the churches and the religious sphere. These women were looking to dismantle the patriarchal hierarchy in established religions, and so it’s not really surprising that numerous participants of the Seneca Falls convention eventually became Spiritualists.

Elizabeth: Spiritualism and women’s rights spread simultaneously through the network of Quaker abolitionists that produced the first supporters for both movements. A group of Progressive Friends attended the Seneca Falls Convention and three of them, Amy Post, her sister Sarah Hallowell, and Sarah Fish also made the historic recommendation that the Rochester Woman’s Rights Convention elect a female president, something that had not been done before. Susan B. Anthony’s writings and correspondence are full of the connections between Spiritualism and the women’s rights movement.

Averill: One way that the women’s rights movement and Spiritualism grew together was through lectures by trance mediums. These were human mediums where, different from the rappings and knockings of a private seance, trance mediums gave lectures guided by a spirit who spoke through the medium in a public setting. The trance lecturers were a very important development in American history because they were the first large group of American women to mount the podium and speak in public. There had been other instances of women who had done this, most of them under some kind of spirit guidance, whether that be the holy spirit or spiritual inspiration connected to the Bible. For example someone like Anne Hutchinson, a Puritan woman in New England who essentially spoke to God, did this but of course was run out of town for it. Quakers already had a notion that the individual contains within themselves a perfect transcript of ultimate truths. That each individual is a transcript of the mind of god and we should look within ourselves to know the inner light or the mind of god. The inner light was very close to what spiritualists would do when they looked to individual mediums to hear the voices of spirits. But trance speakers who saw themselves as communicating messages from spirits were the first significant group of American women to go on tour as public lecturers. 

Elizabeth: In the first half of the nineteenth century, the idea of a woman appearing in public was a breach of proper decorum. Reasons proscribing against women speaking in public were many, but from a woman’s perspective, she did not want to speak in public in front of a promiscuous audience because she would not want to be the object of the male gaze. In a promiscuous assembly, an assembly of men and women, men could look at women freely but women (caveat white women) were considered to be appropriate only to the private sphere. There were moral equivalencies associated with the private and public sphere and a women entering the public sphere became a “public woman,” which was often another word for a being a prostitute. Remember the first women who spoke as abolitionists, the Grimke sisters, had rotten fruit thrown at them because of the scandal of a woman lecturing or preaching in public. It was considered to be immoral.

Averill: But  what was interesting is that the attributes that made one a “true” woman during the antebellum period also made her a superb medium. Historians refer to the “cult of true womanhood” as ideals, mostly unattainable for the majority of women, that conceived of women as, by nature, pure, passive, and pious and reflected the qualities of a perfect Christian better than men did. Women were supposedly untainted by the competitive values of the marketplace and of the economic sphere and therefore they reflected the values of the home: the domestic values of Christianity, the home as a place of charity, of nurture, of retreat from the marketplace and politics where men got dirty through competition. Women mediums kind of pushed this idea to its extreme. If women had these “innate” spiritual qualities more than men did, then it stood to reason that women could sense spirits more readily than men. Essentially that women’s innate purity and religiosity made them perfectly suited to be vehicles for divine knowledge. This of course was completely opposite of what established Christian churches recognized as spiritual guidance. Established religions recognized the authority of theological education, the authority of scripture, the authority of male priests and pastors.The idea of a spirit medium presented a very different possibility of religious authority.

Elizabeth: In Spiritualism, the word of spirit is not coming from scripture, it’s not coming from a male preacher, it’s coming directly through the medium. However, women mediums walked a delicate line between maintaining their moral stature and allowing spirit to speak through them. But trance speakers had a kind of “out” that other women didn’t have if they spoke in public, because trance speakers were not claiming to speak for themselves, they were claiming that an external intelligence was speaking through them. In this way, trance speakers were not speaking their own words, their words came from an intelligence that they did not control. This allowed them to forgo some of the limits on women speaking in public. So when spirit mediums spoke in public, they were in the intermediate space where they were not speaking for themselves, they were speaking for someone else. 

Averill: The ideal medium was a young girl, someone who was understood as being naïve, innocent, and therefore incapable of deceit. The Fox Sisters fit this bill, they were young, white, and female and therefore perceived to be innocent.  Cora L.V. Scott was one of the most successful trance speakers of the nineteenth century, and fit this description as well. After beginning her life in Western New York in 1840, Cora’s family relocated first to the utopian Hopedale Community in Massachusetts and later to Wisconsin to found a similar utopian community. It was in Wisconsin where the eleven-year-old Cora began to fall into trance and speak with the voice of spirit. In 1852 at the age of twelve, she joined the Spiritualist lecture circuit. Audiences  adored her “golden curls” and angelic voice. She was written about in the newspaper and became an enormously desirable and appealing figure.

Elizabeth: When questioned whether trace mediums were indeed just vehicles that spirits used to communicate, the medium’s gender, perceived innocence or piety, and age were often touted as proof that they were in fact channeling the voices of the dead. When spirits inspired trance lecturers they often delivered communications on subjects they were concerned about during their own lifetime. For example, Benjamin Franklin was often channeled for the communication of scientific information. The notion that spirit mediums could communicate complex ideas was understood as evidence of spirit presence because most of the mediums were people who did not have formal education. Cora Scott was so popular and trusted because everything rested on the “fact” that a young woman could never produce the kinds of talks and speeches that she delivered. It had to be the voice of spirit because a young girl is just too dumb to come up with this stuff herself. Being in trance allowed women to say things that they could not say in the general public.

Averill: Spiritualist and biographer Harrison D. Barrett wrote of Cora: “If you can imagine the picture,—a child of twelve years of age standing before crowds of people, discoursing to them upon the most abstruse questions in ethics, philosophy, science and theology, in a scholarly, dignified manner!  What did it all mean? This was the question asked by the multitudes who listened to her, and to which the more thoughtful among them could find but one solution — it meant that the spirits of the departed had the power to return to earth, and by means of some psychic law could control the brain of a human being for the purpose of giving their testimony to prove that death was but the gateway to life immortal.”[2]

Elizabeth: Another observer opined on the medium abilities of Emma Jay in 1855, “That a young lady not over 18 years of age should speak for an hour and a quarter, in such an eloquent manner, with such logical and philosophical clearness” proved the presence of “a power not natural to the education or mentality of the speaker.”[3]

Averill:  Spiritualism was antithetical to institutional religion because it alleged that truth came directly to the individual without mediation by a minister. Spiritualists were pushing the idea of the autonomy of the individual. The appeal of a form of religion that could forgo religious authority through mediumship. You, the individual, can find out directly the ultimate truth. They pressed the idea of the autonomy of the individual, in both a spiritual and the political sense. This is what we see in the radical wing of the abolition movement. People like William Lloyd Garrison, who viewed abolition as an extension of the idea that it is heretical for one individual to assert ownership over another individual because only God has the authority or the ability to hold that control.

Elizabeth: Taking this further, spiritualists argued that society imposed an immoral theology and an immoral structure of relations between human beings. This is why spiritualism worked hand in hand with the abolition and women’s rights movements. Spiritualists argued women needed to be freed from societal structures that limited their education, that denied them ownership of their property or their children, and from restrictions that forced them into economic dependency on men. In 1859 during a trance, medium Emma Hardinge proclaimed that “The present marriage law is a failure..” Spiritualists argued that the same state that supported slavery also made laws that conflicted with women’s self ownership. Spiritualists argued that marriage laws “robbed the wife of her child, her property, her name, and of her individuality.”[4]

Averill: Spiritualists also argued that marriage denied women power over their own bodies. Marriage granted a husband sexual access to their wife’s body and she had no legal right to refuse. They likened marriage to prostitution or rape. The leading spiritualist periodical, The Banner of Light, proclaimed in 1864 that “Rape is punished out of wedlock but in it paid no attention to.”[5] These were very radical ideas at the time. And so people who were abolitionists and those fighting for women’s rights, often became Spiritualists because ideas about one person’s domain over another human being resonated with them. 

Elizabeth:Spiritualism became the major vehicle for spreading women’s rights during the antebellum period. Many of the movers and shakers of the suffrage movement were in fact Spiritualists. Stanton and Anthony? No, although they participated in seances. But women like Anna Blackwell (Lucy Stone’s sister-in-law), Sarah Anthony Burtis (Susan B. Anthony’s cousin), Mary Ann and Thomas McClintok (Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s neighbors and owners of the house in which –and table which upon– Stanton drafted the Declaration of Sentiments), and tons of Lucretia Mott’s friends were all Spiritualists. Susan B. Anthony commented in her diary how “Spiritualism as usual [was] the principle topic” at a dinner party amongst a group of Quaker abolitionists in the early 1850s.

Averill:  The Civil War was really a turning point in the nineteenth century and we begin to see changes in Spiritualism and the women’s rights movement after the war. During the war most reform groups dropped everything and turned their attention to the war effort. However, Spiritualists kept having conventions and meetings where not only Spiritualism was discussed but also women’s rights, dress reform, animal rights, vegetarianism, free love, etc.. All of the radical reform movements and radical spiritualist reformers were still advocating for women at a time where most of the nation’s attention was on the war.

Elizabeth: And understandably. There was a huge amount of carnage during the Civil War, which inevitably generated a lot of interest in communication with the dead. Ideas about death and dying were changing. Drew Faust has an excellent book on Americans changing ideas about the deceased body and there are other movements going on, like the rural cemetery movement, that changed the way people buried their dead and thought about the corpse after the soul or spirit has left it. But this also drew more people towards communicating with those spirits and so they might go to a seance or a spirit medium to do that.

Averill: Spiritualism morphed and changed over the nineteenth century, as all movements do. By about the 1870s, a schism was developing within Spiritualism between trance mediums and materialization mediums. Trance mediums communicate the presence of spirits through their words and the wisdom they want to give to the living. Materialization manifestations claim to prove spirit presence through the physical presence of the spirit in the room. Different materialization mediums demonstrated the physical presence of spirits in various ways. Some would have spirit perhaps touch a loved-one’s face or shoulder inside a darkened spirit closet. Others would have musical instruments in the room and they would invite the spirit to drum, or blow a horn. Some materialization mediums demonstrated the physical presence of a spirit by expelling a substance from their bodies, called ectoplasm. And of course all of these attempts to demonstrate the physical presence of a spirit provided many opportunities for fraud. Serious accusations of fraud against both mediums and Spiritualists who accepted communications through materialization manifestations were bandied about during the Gilded Age. Both Ave and Marissa’s episodes in this series touch on materialization mediumship.

Elizabeth: Because spiritualism was a religion that never had an orthodoxy or a religious hierarchy that could say who was legit and who was not, Spiritualists were really free to respond to these accusations of fraud any way they chose. Certainly these exposures created a crisis of faith for some. For some people, it simply meant that while some mediums were tricksters, they would continue to search out mediums who were legit.

Averill: It is at this time that there is a small but vocal minority of Spiritualists who are pushing for a more organized religion. According to Ann Braude, “In its first decades, Spiritualism’s insistence on individual freedom in all things prevented its adherents from establishing formal structure, organization, or leadership of any kind. Faith alone bound believers together.” However, advancing a nationwide movement with no formal organization was pretty much impossible. Spiritualists couldn’t do things like massively organize schools or colleges, erect monuments or buildings, or have any type of formal governing body.

Elizabeth: As we mentioned earlier, one of the foundational tenets of Spiritualism was really a belief in the self and an eschewing of all structures of authority. Most mediums objected to organization because it threatened their role as the most valuable assets in Spiritualism. And many specifically saw the attempt to organize as a masculine suppression of female leadership in the religion. Medium Lizzie Doten said the push for organization was “man’s work, the production of men’s brains…. I see nothing of woman about this plan.”[6] However, there were enough Spiritualists interested in a formal organization to create the American Association of Spiritualists in 1865.

Averill: The national organization attempted to run with the election of delegates, who would be sent to a national conference to lobby for their “constituents.” But the qualities one would look for in a delegate — well-spoken, good with money, a good organizer or leader– these are not the same qualities that one would value in a medium. And so the qualities of a spirit medium like innocence, purity, passiveness, femaleness, were becoming less important and the more masculine characteristics that mediums were not supposed to possess, became more important. .

Elizabeth: Spiritualism wasn’t the only movement having an organizational crisis at this time. At the end of the Civil War the suffrage movement divided over the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. The debates over these two amendments pitted votes for white women against votes for Black men.  The Fourteenth Amendment proposed to only protect the voting rights of “male inhabitants.” In fact, the amendment was the first time that “male” was inserted into the Constitution at all. Then, the Fifteenth Amendment declared that states could not deny the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” – the amendment did not mention sex. These were deliberate omissions and led to fierce debates amongst advocates for women’s suffrage of whether they should support the amendments.

Averill: This is where Victoria Woodhull enters the scene. We’ve already done an entire episode on her and her wild life, which we’ll link to on the blog, so check that out for a deeper dive into Woodhull. When Victoria Woodhull traveled from NY to Washington DC in 1869, she went to the women’s rights convention in Washington and she came away frustrated with these internal divisions going on in the women’s movement. Ever resourceful, Woodhull announced she was going to run for president, which brought her the notoriety she seemed to seek out. She became fast friends with congressman Benjamin Butler, whom she convinced to secure her the opportunity to speak before Congress about women’s suffrage. This helped to cement Woodulls’s place in suffragist circles, although the old guard was a little unsure of what to make of her. Victoria was beautiful, had a flashy background, and helped draw attention to the movement. Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were initially enamored with her. In May 1871, Victoria was the keynote speaker at the National Woman Suffrage Association’s annual convention in Washington, DC. She spoke about the need for women’s rights and for suffrage, but also talked about her campaign for president, taking her previous speeches on the subject one step further.

A black and white engraving of people crowded around a table while a woman dressed in black and standing speaks from a prepared text
Victoria Woodhull speaking before Congress, 1871 | Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper/ US Library of Congress

Elizabeth: Woodhull had a loose association with Spiritualism. At the age of ten (in 1848) Woodhull fell into a trance and healed her baby sister of pneumonia. Her father capitalized on her healing abilities and began to shill his daughters as attractions. Victoria and her sister later became personal clairvoyants for Cornelius Vanderbilt (yes her life was bonkers), but she was never a medium on the lecture circuit or anything like that. Her association with Spiritualism was tenuous at best.

Averill: In 1871 Woodhull was high on her fame in the women’s suffrage movement. She was invited to the first convention of the American Association of Spiritualists and was surprisingly elected president of the controversial organization. Remember, Spiritualism at this time was having a lot of internal division. However, just because Woodhull was president of the organization, did not really make her a leader in the religion. She was elected president in the years 1871 through 1874, winning by less and less votes each time (we are talking about 30-40 votes here, not thousands). At the time that Victoria Woodhull was elected to the presidency of a “national” organization of spiritualists, it was really not a meaningful or representative body. By the time she stepped down from the presidency in 1874 she was through with Spiritualism and the American Association of Spiritualists was defunct. It’s not until later in the century that Spiritualists have an organization with some power behind it. To many, Woodhull’s foray into Spiritualism seemed opportunist. The same year she was elected president of American Association of Spiritualists, suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton repudiated her for her behavior and increasing scandal-filled life.

Elizabeth: As some of the strictures against women speakers were loosened in the late 19th century, the need for trance mediums to promote women’s rights became less radical. However, Spiritualism and the women’s rights movement continued to have close ties well into the 20th century. Susan B. Anthony traveled to Lily Dale, NY, a spiritualist community started in 1879, almost yearly to deliver speeches and participate in the annual Women’s Day festivities there. Anna Howard Shaw, Anthony’s protege and later president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association continued the tradition, speaking and staying at Lily Dale well into the 19-teens. Many of the founders and board members of Lily Dale were ardent suffragists as well as Spiritualists. This is an area I’ll be diving into in our book due out next year from Cornell University Press.To this day Lily Dale is still an active Spiritualist community. It hosts the headquarters of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches (NSAC), founded in 1893, and proudly celebrates its historic support of women’s rights with a yearly Women’s Day celebration.

Averill: In 1885, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wrote in the History of Women Suffrage that  “The only religious sect in the world, unless we except the Quakers, that has recognized the equality of woman, is the Spiritualists. They have always assumed that woman may be a medium of communication from heaven to earth, that the spirits of the universe may breathe through her lips messages of loving kindness and mercy to the children of earth.”[7]

Elizabeth: That’s all we have for you today. Make sure to visit digpodcast.org to learn more. There you’ll find educator resources, bibliographies, show notes, and links to all of our social media. Thanks for listening!

Further Reading


Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. Second Edition. Indiana University Press, 2001.

Cox, Robert S. Body and Soul: A Sympathetic History of American Spiritualism. University of Virginia Press, Reprint 2017.

Franzen, Trisha. Anna Howard Shaw: The Work of Woman Suffrage. University of Illinois Press, 2014.

Hewitt, Nancy A. Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post and Her Activist Worlds. The University of North Carolina Press, 2018.

McGarry, Molly. Ghosts of Futures Past: Spiritualism and the Cultural Politics of Nineteenth-Century America. University of California Press, 2008.

Seeman, Erik R. Speaking with the Dead in Early America. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.

 Notes


[1] History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. IV, Susan B. Anthony, and Ida Husted Harper,eds., (Rochester, NY, Susan B. Anthony:1902) 288.

[2] Life Work of Mrs. Cora L.V. Richmond, Harrison D. Barrett, ed., (Chicago: Hack & Anderson Printers, 1895) 123.

[3] Quoted in Anne Braude, Radical Spirits, 85, n.210.

[4] Quoted in Braude, Radical Spirits, 118.

[5] Quoted in Braude, Radical Spirits, 119.

[6] Quoted in Braude, Radical Spirits, 166.

[7] History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. III, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage,eds., (Rochester, NY, Susan B. Anthony:1886) 530-531.


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