Once Aryan Skynet Goes Live It Doesn't Matter Who Pulled The Switch
“If, as Angela Davis has argued, ‘the last decade of the nineteenth century was a critical moment in the development of modern racism,’ the same can be said of the development of modern feminism,” writes Stephanie Athey, pointing to the parallel and intertwined histories of women’s activism and the push for scientific understandings of race1. Last week Skynet spotlighted feminist pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s inconvenient engagement with race-based politics and theories of eugenics. This week we feature Victoria Woodhull, who, in addition to being a suffragist, free love advocate, and one of Wall Street’s first female stockbrokers, was the earliest woman candidate for the American presidency. Notwithstanding her status as an icon of the women’s liberation movement, however, Woodhull still manages to make number one on Janet Bloomfield’s list of “5 Feminist Heroes Who Were Actually Terrible People” – even beating based exterminationist Margaret Sanger!
On the surface, Woodhull seems pretty badass. She was a stockbroker, a newspaperwoman and the first woman to run for President of the United States of America. She went head to head against Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 arguing for women’s suffrage, legalized prostitution, short skirts and free love. Not much to argue with there. Unfortunately, her ideas didn’t extend to everyone. Just to the right people. In fact, Woodhull thought that a central role for government was to limit who could get married and thus reproduce (her knowledge of how humans reproduce seems sketchy – it doesn’t require marriage), writing that a compassionate government would “legislate to prevent the birth of the criminal rather than legislate to punish him after he is born.” Woodhull was a big, huge, super excited fan of eugenics, and really felt there was potential for the “scientific development” of the human race.2
Her “intellectual guru” in this regard was radical lawyer, sociologist, and linguist Stephen Pearl Andrews, a constituent of the “democratic mix of capitalists and anarchists, business leaders and politicians, preachers and social theorists” in which Woodhull moved in New York. Andrews, who “wore the flowing beard of an Old Testament prophet”, “could casually mention Herbert Spencer’s sociology and Charles Fourier’s communal phalanxes in the same sentence; he argued the ideas of all the European social theorists, Bakunin, Proudhon, Saint-Simon, Hegel, and Comte, and then promoted the American Josiah Warren’s ‘sovereignty of the individual’ and ‘equitable commerce’ or John Humphrey Noyes’s stirpiculture and free love.” Andrews’s “philosophy of individualism,” writes Woodhull biographer Lois Beachy Underhill, “enabled her to interpret her own life through a new theoretical frame.”3 As Athey contends, however, flirtation with radical individualist ideas did not prevent Woodhull from seeing herself as a vital part of a greater, collective, and racially defined body:
Woodhull […] was an extreme voice in the 1890s […] and her ideas on free love and socialism were not legitimated or promoted by the same broad political base that Frances Willard enjoyed as head of the WCTU [i.e., Women’s Christian Temperance Union]. In fact, Victoria Woodhull’s economic and sexual philosophy was far in advance of suffragist positions and in direct conflict with WCTU’s doctrines of “home protection” and “moral purity.” Though viewed, respectively, as more “radical” and “conservative” than most suffragist strategy in this period, Victoria Woodhull and Frances Willard offer excellent examples of disparate feminist projects founded on common eugenic philosophies. Both are important for precisely this reason. They demonstrate how a spectrum of seemingly incompatible feminisms mobilized the same connection between eugenic science, imperialism, whiteness, and the female body. Both forge a particularly feminist brand of white supremacy. They argue that white women’s political and sexual empowerment and autonomy, their “sovereignty,” is central to the national well-being. This was so because, both women argued, the white female’s unique role as citizen was in retaining white supremacy in the face of challenges at home and abroad. The white woman retains white supremacy and strengthens the white race through social reform and “educated” sexual choice.4
Woodhull’s magazine The Humanitarian “tackled politics and women’s rights issues, but with a new emphasis on theology, scientific farming, eugenics, and health,” recounts Myra MacPherson:
Victoria had shrewdly contracted experts to write for the magazine and fought for astounding changes in society that did not happen for decades: Laboratories should analyze food and drink for impurities. Doctors should examine children in schools. The poor should be provided government services. Birth control was a necessity. Her emphasis on a form of eugenics, stirpiculture, took Darwinism to an odious level by today’s standards, arguing that there should be “selective breeding” as in livestock, with only the physically and mentally “pure” allowed to bear children. In her era, however, this was in fact tried, at Oneida Community, with mates selected for their superior qualities. […] H.G. Wells […] wrote admiringly of Victoria and her views.5
“Wherever eugenics was discussed,” furthermore, “racism lurked not far beneath the surface,” writes reactionary Michael W. Perry. “We should not forget that Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species has as its subtitle: By Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. That certain races and classes ought to [be] ‘favoured’ was one of eugenics’ most deeply held beliefs, although it was typically discussed in coded language, so target populations would not be warned.”6 Citing the circumstance that the Equal Rights Party’s delegates nominated Frederick Douglass as Woodhull’s presidential running mate in 1872 – an honor that Douglass never accepted – some, no doubt, would like to delude themselves that the pioneering feminist was also a trailblazing anti-racist. “Woodhull became one of the greatest lecturers of her time, with [her sister] Tennie running a close second. Both sisters were so charismatic that as many as ten thousand people rushed to hear their avant-garde lectures on sex, politics, business, race, prostitution, marriage, divorce, and free love,” Myra MacPherson writes in the introduction to her book The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age, disingenuously leaving readers to assume that those “race” lectures must have been in keeping with twenty-first century standards of political correctness7. The fact of the matter, however, is that Woodhull held blacks in particularly low esteem. “It is a mistake […] to imagine that natural selection always acts in the direction of progress,” Woodhull wrote. “A negro survives in the interior of Africa where the European succumbs: is the negro, therefore, the fittest to survive? An unfavourable environment may foster the undesirable individual, whereas it would kill the ideally fittest.”8
Woodhull married her third husband, the British banker John Martin, in 1883, and retired in England, where she labored “to foster Anglo-American alliances, flying both flags and meeting with English and American dignitaries who gladly visited the grande dame at her country estate,” MacPherson writes of her final years. An aviation enthusiast, she “announced she would give $5,000 to the first man or woman who flew across the Atlantic. Charles Lindbergh made his solo flight just three weeks before she died, with no time for a reward from the ailing Victoria”9 – proof of a chilling chain of shadowy eugenicist connections linking the nineteenth-century feminist movement with the crypto-fascist America First Committee and – through its divisive and hate-engendering ideological legacy – President Donald Trump himself!