The Women's Movement, Free Love, and Spiritualism

From Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz -- Online Notes For The Book

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This Note discusses the connection between the women's suffrage movement and spiritualism, focusing on Foltz's connection to spiritualism and the lives of Addie Ballou and Victoria Woodhull.


Spiritualism and Suffragists Generally

Ann Braude in her comprehensive and very readable study of the connection between suffragists and spiritualism, RADICAL SPIRITS, SPIRITUALISM AND WOMEN'S RIGHTS IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA (1989) says there were more “mediums and radicals” in the West than elsewhere at the end of the nineteenth century. Id. at 195. At its inception, the California women’s movement “relied almost exclusively on trance speakers” such as H.M.F. Brown, Laura Gordon, and Addie Ballou. Id. at 193. Robert J. Chandler has written several informative and interesting studies of the spiritualists and their impact. In the Van: Spiritualists as Catalysts for the California Women's Suffrage Movement, 73 CALIFORNIA HISTORY 189 (1994); Emma Hardinge, A Spiritual Voice for the Slave and the Union, 29 DOGTOWN TERRITORIAL QUARTERLY 6 (1997) (name changed to CALIFORNIA TERRITORIAL QUARTERLY with volume 50; includes many references to Hardinge’s speeches).

Foltz and Spiritualism

Some of Foltz’s closest associates, Laura Gordon, J.J. Owen and Abigail Duniway were Spiritualists, as were some of her clients. Early in her career, Foltz’s pardon application for Charles Colby came through Spiritualist connections. See Chapter Two for more on Colby.

While in San Diego at the end of the 1880s, Foltz represented a woman who claimed that potential purchasers of her property had promised to build a Spiritualist retreat there and then reneged and planned to sell it to a large corporation. When she lost in the trial court on the ground that the facts did not support a legal claim, Foltz appealed and won rescission of the contract. Newman v. Smith, 77 Cal. 22, 18 P. 791 (1888); Spirit Thieves, L. A. TIMES, Apr 9, (1888); The Spook Home, L.A.TIMES, May 8, 1889. For more about this case and where cases like it fit into Foltz’s practice, see On-line Bibliographic Note, Law Practice in the West.

Foltz herself does not seem to have had Spiritualist leanings, though in her period of Bellamy Nationalism and Populism especially she worked closely with those who did.

Addie Ballou

Addie Ballou is an example of a person, like Charlotte Gilman (Chapter 2) and Anna Smith (Chapter 3) who were activist figures and Spiritualists that Foltz knew, probably well and worked with in many contexts. Addie Ballou is constantly in Clara Foltz’s story from her earliest suffrage activities to the Portia farewell ceremonies in 1895. Indeed, the two may have met first at the 1880 legislative session, where Foltz was a legislative clerk, and Ballou was a prominent member of the suffrage lobby. See e.g., S. F. CHROINCLE March 12, 1880 describing a suffrage meeting in the Assembly chamber and mentioning “Addie Ballou, Miss Clara Foltz, and others” as speakers. Further, Addie Ballou, a prison reformer, joined Foltz and Gordon in lobbying for the bill allowing women to be Notary Publics in California. REDA DAVIS, CALIFORNIA WOMEN 138-139 (1968). (This book is not annotated, but is obviously based on a scouring of many newspaper sources. It describes Ballou’s activities as both a suffragist and a spiritualist; like Laura Gordon, Ballou was also a medium and trance speaker.)

Addie Ballou was one of the few activist women at the farewell party for Foltz in the mid-nineties when she moved from San Francisco to New York. All Bade Her Godspeed, San Francisco Call, Nov. 5, 1895. Coming from Laura Gordon’s generation, a decade older than Foltz, Ballou appears as a footnote in many California and suffrage histories. See e.g., III HWS 755 noting that in 1870, she was one of the earliest speakers for suffrage in California (1870). But Ballou’s life is not fully covered in any of the major biographical indexes of either the nineteenth or twentieth centuries.

Perhaps the time that Foltz and Ballou were the closest ideologically was when they were both Bellamy Nationalists at the end of the1880s. MARI JO BUHLE, WOMEN AND AMERICAN SOCIALISM, 1870-1920 (1981) has a passage illustrating the appeal of this movement to women, especially to Addie Ballou. She describes Ballou as the “dynamic president of the state’s banner club in San Francisco.” Relating her own history, Ballou “saw in Nationalism the culmination of a long search for a universal reform movement." Recalling her father’s part in the underground railroad, her own work with the wounded during the Civil War, the call she signed for Victoria Woodhull’s Equal rights party in 1872, her stints as a spiritualist and suffrage lecturer, Ballou claimed that Bellamy nationalism trumped all previous causes because as far as women were concerned it was aimed at “a slavery more prevalent and more destructive than even that of the negro.” Id. at 78.

EVERETT W. MCNAIR, EDWARD BELLAMY AND THE NATIONALIST MOVEMENT 217-20 (1957) describes the scene in April 1890 when the Nationalists made their only attempt at a political convention and were faced with instant schism. Addie Ballou and Laura Gordon played big roles in the proceedings. Ballou was a painter and a poet. Her most notable painting was of Emperor Norton, a legendary San Francisco character. Addie L. Ballou, Personal Recollections of Norton 1, Emperor of the United States, reprinted from the SAN FRANCISCO SUNDAY CALL, September 27, 1908. ROBERT ERNEST COWAN, ANNE BANCROFT, ADDIE L. BALLOU, THE FORGOTTEN CHARACTERS OF OLD SAN FRANCISCO (1938).

In 1896 she published a collection of her (very undistinguished) verse, titled DRIFTWOOD. By feminist accounts she was the author of a popular song and hymn “Where is my wandering boy tonight?” See Reda Davis, at 139. (Several men are credited with the song on a Google search, though some sources say the author is unknown.) Ballou had a husband and children but her family seldom figures in the public record.

Victoria Woodhull

Victoria Woodhull was the best known Spiritualist in the country in the seventies. Her activities are well documented in a number of biographies. MARY GABRIEL, NOTORIOUS VICTORIA: THE LIFE OF VICTORIA WOODHULL, UNCENSORED (1998). BARBARA GOLDSMITH, OTHER POWERS; THE AGE OF SUFFRAGE, SPIRITUALISM AND THE SCANDALOUS VICTORIA WOODHULL (1998); LOIS BEACHY UNDERHILL, THE WOMAN WHO RAN FOR PRESIDENT (1995). MADELEINE B. STERN, THE PANTARCH: A BIOGRAPHY OF STEPHEN PEARL ANDREWS, (1968); THE VICTORIA WOODHULL READER (1974). See also Geoffrey Blodgett, NOTABLE AMERICAN WOMEN (Woodhull entry) for a fine short account. OTHER POWERS has a gripping description of the free love speech in 1871 and its circumstances. Id. at 303 (quote in text); see also descriptions in WOODHULL READER at 23-24. NOTORIOUS VICTORIA at 143-50. On Woodhull’s connection with Beecher -Tilton scandal, covered in Chapter Six, see in addition to other sources, DEBBY APPLEGATE, THE MOST FAMOUS MAN IN AMERICA: THE BIOGRAPHY OF HENRY WARD BEECHER (2006).

DARCY G. RICHARDSON, OTHERS: THIRD –PARTY POLITICS FROM THE NATION’S FOUNDING TO THE RISE AND FALL OF THE GREENBACK-LABOR PARTY (2004) has a chapter on Victoria Woodhull and the Emergence of Feminist Politics focusing on her 1872 campaign for the U.S.Presidency.

The Beecher-Tilton Scandal

In the midst of the Beecher-Tilton scandal, two of the Beecher sisters, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catherine Beecher (an educator, home economist and anti-suffragist) sided with their brother. Isabella Beecher, however, took Woodhull’s part, prompted by her own Spiritualist beliefs, including free love. See Chapters 1 and 6 for more on the connections between Spiritualism, free love, and suffrage. Isabella Beecher is a well documented woman and plays a role in many nineteenth century biographies. Most sympathetic to her and attentive to her contributions to the women’s movement is BARBARA A. WHITE. THE BEECHER SISTERS (2003).

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