Have you ever been asked the question, “If you could go back in time and live, which year/decade/century would you choose”? After reading Madame Presidentess by Nicole Evelina, I can, with certainty, tell you that I wouldn’t want to live in America during the 1850s and 1880s.
Forty-eight years before women were granted the right to vote, one woman dared to run for President of the United States, yet her name has been virtually written out of the history books.
Rising from the shame of an abusive childhood, Victoria Woodhull, the daughter of a con-man and a religious zealot, vows to follow her destiny, one the spirits say will lead her out of poverty to “become ruler of her people.”
But the road to glory is far from easy. A nightmarish marriage teaches Victoria that women are stronger and deserve far more credit than society gives. Eschewing the conventions of her day, she strikes out on her own to improve herself and the lot of American women.
Over the next several years, she sets into motion plans that shatter the old boys club of Wall Street and defile even the sanctity of the halls of Congress. But it’s not just her ambition that threatens men of wealth and privilege; when she announces her candidacy for President in the 1872 election, they realize she may well usurp the power they’ve so long fought to protect.
Those who support her laud “Notorious Victoria” as a gifted spiritualist medium and healer, a talented financial mind, a fresh voice in the suffrage movement, and the radical idealist needed to move the nation forward. But those who dislike her see a dangerous force who is too willing to speak out when women are expected to be quiet. Ultimately, “Mrs. Satan’s” radical views on women’s rights, equality of the sexes, free love and the role of politics in private affairs collide with her tumultuous personal life to endanger all she has built and change how she is viewed by future generations.
This is the story of one woman who was ahead of her time – a woman who would make waves even in the 21st century – but who dared to speak out and challenge the conventions of post-Civil War America, setting a precedent that is still followed by female politicians today.
First reason why I wouldn’t want to live during the second half of the 1800s (or the first half, really): everybody was dying during the war or from tuberculosis and dysentery (leading cause of death during all of my Oregon Trail efforts [RIP greenhorn]) and splinters and stuff. That being said, the atmosphere, grim though it may be, was perfect for spiritualism (you know, the Fox sisters? Ectoplasm? This post I wrote a few months ago?), and our dear Victoria Woodhull was a believer, nay! a practitioner of the art. Madame Presidentess explores Woodhull’s relationship with spiritualism throughout her life. Exploited by family, at a young age, Woodhull and her sister, Tennie, entertained clients by contacting the spirits from beyond. Then, during adolescence and early adulthood when she wanted to gain independence, Woodhull made a fortune as a traveling magnetic healer. (Later, she would earn another fortune after opening her own stock brokerage firm on freaking Wall Street. No bid deal.)
Second reason why I wouldn’t want to live during the second half of the 1800s: everybody seemed to be pretty awful to each other. Following the abolition of slavery, racial tensions soared (I mean, the KKK was founded). Luckily for business owners though, the Fair Labor Standards Act didn’t exist, so they were free to overwork and underpay their employees (who were frequently children). Women didn’t fare so well either. At times, Madame Presidentess was difficult to read because Woodhull was physically and sexually abused throughout her youth and young adulthood. Particularly devastating was the abuse by the hand of her first husband, Canning Woodhull, who was a womanizer with a penchant for alcohol and laudanum (damn Libertines!). “Penchant” is
probably definitely an understatement here. Woodhull was a fierce young women though and divorced that sucker.
Third reason why I wouldn’t want to live during the second half of the 1800s: women didn’t have the right to vote. Which is why Victoria Woodhull is such an important figure. She fought to give women a voice. She launched her own newspaper, through which she published articles advocating women’s suffrage, sex education, and free love. She rubbed elbows with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and infiltrated the male dominated world of business and politics. Then, she ran for president and named abolitionist leader, Frederick Douglas, as her Veep! (She lost though. Obviously. Which maybe isn’t the worst thing since she also promoted eugenics).
Fourth reason why I wouldn’t want to live during the second half of the 1800s: internet, video games, Jets BBQ chicken pizza, sneakers, Harry Potter, and Adagio tea did not exist. But, I digress…
If I had to sum up Madame Presidentess in one word, I would definitely choose “fascinating”. What a life this woman lead! I’m not saying her stances and actions were always ethical, but Woodhull was certainly a powerhouse, who for some reason was written out of the history books. If you’re looking for an engaging and fast-paced historical fiction novel about subject not often explored in the genre, be sure to check out Madame Presidentess by Nicole Evelina.