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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

The Victorian Women Who Pierced Glass Ceilings by Speaking to the Dead

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Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice
By Emily Midorikawa

Small groups gathered for séances, some in ornately furnished parlors, others in humbler settings. They held hands or placed their palms on a table, then fell silent or uttered a prayer or sang a hymn. They tried to include equal numbers of men and women, among them, ideally, someone scarcely out of girlhood. Young women, they believed, were most receptive to messages from another realm, and some might even discover that they were mediums who could decipher knocking noises or speak in the voices of the dead or write as those spirits directed.

For many Victorians in both the United States and Britain, those parlor gatherings were a passing diversion, but for others, efforts to commune with the dead proved more sustained and far more serious. Spiritualism — the belief that the living could communicate with the dead — gave comfort to the bereaved, assurance of an afterlife to the anxious and support for faltering Christian faith. But some among a select group of mediums discovered in Spiritualism the chance to perform, to profit and to emerge, in the words of Emily Midorikawa’s title, “Out of the Shadows” and have a public voice.

Modern Spiritualism started in the Finger Lakes region of New York, for years a crucible of evangelical revivalism, new religions and reform movements. Early in 1848, members of the Fox family began to hear mysterious rapping sounds in their Hydesville home, a sign, they suspected, that a ghost was reaching out to them. When the adolescent Fox daughters, Maggie and Kate, revealed that they could commune with this spirit, their elder sister, Leah Fox Fish, monetized the girls’ claims, staging public performances and scheduling private readings.

Although they inspired many imitators, the Fox sisters did not number among those mediums who subsequently developed Spiritualism as an organized movement in both the United States and Britain. Their ranks included Emma Hardinge Britten, who wrote its history and traveled the public lecture circuit as a trance medium in the late 1850s, delivering opinions about the issues of the day as dictated by the spirits. By contrast, Victoria Woodhull had cut her ties to Spiritualist groups when her claim to clairvoyant powers persuaded the tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt to back her in founding the first female brokerage firm on Wall Street. But shortly thereafter she managed to recruit both Spiritualist and women’s rights organizations to support her bid for the presidency in 1872. Meanwhile in Britain, Georgina Weldon — not a medium herself but a stage-struck Spiritualist — fought the efforts of her husband and his squad of doctors to commit her to an asylum. She challenged Britain’s lunacy laws with more than a decade of agitation, which included parading sandwich-board men as pickets, scattering leaflets from a hot-air balloon, giving theatrical performances and offering antic testimony in court.

Midorikawa’s chosen Spiritualists are a colorful bunch, and her lively writing makes their careers fun to follow. But why bring them together in a book? The author ventures that these six women acquired a “voice within a patriarchal society” and, as such, belong in our accounts of “the journey toward female empowerment.” True, every one of those visionaries knew how to draw a crowd. It’s true, too, that Spiritualists as a group played a major role in spreading the message about women’s rights throughout the 19th century and that merely by standing up and speaking in public they were defying Victorian gender norms. Yet the goal of advancing feminism played little role in prompting the careers of the women described by Midorikawa.

Leah Fox Fish, a single mother deserted by her husband, needed the means to support herself and her daughter, and once a third marriage guaranteed her economic security, she retired. Neither she nor her sisters lent their support to any women’s rights organization. Emma Hardinge Britten — who from youth supported her widowed mother — turned to mediumship when her star as an actress faded on Broadway. Women’s rights numbered among her many lecture subjects, but Britten’s most consistent aim was to seize on any topic that would grab the attention of a paying audience. It’s hard to say what causes, if any, Victoria Woodhull took to heart because ghostwriters — especially her very corporeal second husband, Col. James Harvey Blood — wrote her speeches and articles. She latched onto the Spiritualist movement to gather support for her presidential campaign when business reversals and personal scandals threatened to derail her ambitions and remove her from the public eye. Many Spiritualist and feminist leaders condemned her opportunism and ultimately both movements ended their connection with her. As for Georgina Weldon, although she excelled at confounding her male adversaries, her main goal was basking in the limelight, and she vied for it ferociously — even with other women.

Other Spiritualists would have made a much better fit as feminists, but Midorikawa’s ensemble do belong together in a different book — one that explores the making of popular entertainments in the 19th century and the origins of celebrity. Kate and Maggie, Leah and Emma, Victoria and Georgina: Victorian Kardashians all. They were pioneers in show business strategies, media manipulation and advertising techniques, and their spirits still lurk among the many people intent on making a spectacle of themselves.

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