Sexual Power, “Other Powers,” and a Strange Saturday Coincidence

Evernote Snapshot 20140726 145514I’m neither superstitious nor religious, but a coincidence so strange occurred this morning that it definitely seemed like someone somewhere was telling me to stick my butt to my chair and do some writing today.

My friend Claudia and I were chatting over breakfast about Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance, because all I can talk about lately is the upcoming Sexual Freedom Summit. She asked about Victoria Woodhull, for whom the alliance is named. I took Barbara Goldsmith’s excellent biography, Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull, off the shelf. It was very dusty. “I read it ages ago. Early 2000s, before we moved off the boat”, I told her, and asked her if she’d like to borrow it. Standing at the kitchen table, where we’d been sipping coffee, I leafed through the book. What I found caused chills to run down my spine.

Tucked in between pages 22 and 23 were three checks written by my mother. In an eery coincidence, all three were written in July of 2004, exactly 10 years ago.

To make it even stranger, and somehow more prophetic, the pages they were marking were in the chapter called “A child without a childhood.” Adult responsibility in childhood is a theme that runs through the the story of my mother and me. And then, to add a bit of humor to this exceptionally strange moment, there is a picture on p. 23, one of the two pages that the checks marked, of Catherine Beecher, eldest sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher, and who is characterized as an “unmarried virgin” who was “considered America’s prime expert on child-rearing and ‘domestic economy’. “

Coincidence, meet irony.

The checks I found are for the basics: food, rent, and a work-related expense, but look at the numbering and dates:

  • Check 608, dated July 30, 2004 with the date Aug 30 crossed out, is for July and August’s rent.
  • Check 649, dated “7/22/04” is to her employer for “conference expenses”
  • Check 654, dated “7/5/04” is to the supermarket she used.

While I am suddenly curious about what else she bought that month, there is no way she wrote 46 checks between July 5 and July 30. Organization was clearly not her thing, either: with the highest number having the earliest date, it’s likely that the checks even came from different books.

My mother was hardly a goddess of domestic economy, and neither am I. The stains on the cover of Other Powers is just one bit of evidence. While I am better at managing my money, and more organized and disciplined in pursuing professional goals, I shared with my mother an abhorrence of dusting and general housecleaning, and I shared with her, and with Victoria Woodhull, a sentiment that Beecher would have found heretical: Women’s desire is important, powerful, and unlikely to cause the downfall of organized society.

I’m proud of my mother for ultimately finding her sexual power, even while it makes me sad that she found it only a few years before she died. Those were powerful years for her. They were years when a home dialysis machine gave her an unexpected feeling of control over her body that she’d struggled to have in the past, and when an assortment of whips and canes and corsets let her feel erotic power she’d previously thought impossible.

Victoria Woodhull was a spiritualist, at least for a time. Barbara Goldsmith called her biography of Woodhull Other Powers, a reference to spiritualism, but also to political and sexual power. Ten years ago, my mother was reading this book. Five years ago in the summer, possibly in July but more likely in August, I got involved with Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance. Two years ago this month, my mother was exactly in the middle of the eight months between her terminal cancer diagnosis and her death.

I’m neither superstitious nor religious, but I can’t help but perceive a message here. Today, I pulled this Woodhull biography off the shelf and found words written in my mother’s hand, representing the running of her daily life. In just a few weeks, at the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit, I will be talking about my mother, and about the lessons our relationship taught me about adult caregivers confronting the sexualities of their aging and ill parents. The pages marked by my mother quoted advice that she, herself, would have found abhorrent, so the opposite advice must be meant for me. If there is a message, then, it must be this: Put down your frivolous household worries, get your brain in gear, and get to work!

Page 23 of Goldsmith's "Other Powers" contains the words of Catherine Beecher who believed that "The physical and domestic education of daughters should occupy the principal attention of mothers ... and the stimulation of the intellect should be very much reduced..." Goldsmith explains that Beecher believed that women "must sublimate all personal ambition and desire, which were evil, and devote herself to perfecting the hearth and home."
p. 23 of Goldsmith’s “Other Powers.” Clicking on the image will enlarge it enough for many to read.

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This post is part of a Sex In The Public Square series called “My Mother’s Cross.” For an introduction to the series, click here. For other posts in the series, click here.

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