This story came out of my own spiritual quest. I was searching for a higher view of womanhood and a deeper understanding of marriage. I discovered a battle! Crossing swords were two opposing visions of womanhood. The very soul of marriage in the modern world was at stake in this epic conflict. I had stumbled upon America’s nineteenth-century culture war.
This marriage debate in America in the 1870s was new to me, and yet surprisingly familiar. I recognized so many social issues we are debating today. As I learned about the personal lives, professional careers, and political positions of Mary Baker Eddy and Victoria Claflin Woodhull—two historic women leaders representing completely different views, lifestyles, and philosophies—I found a clarity I previously lacked. This study of opposites became a new lens with which to view my own life experience.
Eddy and Woodhull were both among the most famous and influential Americans at the height of their careers, they were both extraordinary examples of female success, and they were both outspoken advocates of women’s rights. Yet most Americans know very little about either of them if they have even heard of them at all. In recent years scholars have been rediscovering both of these women—revisiting the records of their lives, reconsidering their cultural influence, and reconnecting them to American history. It is only because of this recent scholarship that Crossing Swords could be researched and written.
In this story, these two powerful women fight against the values and beliefs of the other in the civic dialogue. But Eddy and Woodhull never met. In October 1876 in the newspaper columns in Lynn, Massachusetts, they came as close as they ever would come to a direct confrontation. This exchange between these two very different women is virtually unknown. Even the most thorough Eddy biographer to date has relegated Eddy’s direct criticism of Woodhull to a mere mention in a footnote; I am unaware of any Woodhull biographer who has ever commented on Eddy’s attack. The event is worth exploring because of the influence of these leaders on the shaping of modern womanhood and consequently on our current day culture.
This story is less about historical events and more about the development of ideas. It begins with an overview of the evolution of culture and marriage law in America and from there explores alternative relationship models in nineteenth-century America. This background is useful for understanding the positions of Eddy and Woodhull on these issues. The heart of the story is a marriage debate as women entered the public sphere as outspoken leaders in religion, culture, and politics. The same changes in legal interpretation needed to allow women the right to vote would seem to shake the foundation of the male-female relationship. What would become of the institution of marriage? What about children and the family? Eddy and Woodhull had very different views.
I began my own exploration into this topic by searching the writings of Mary Baker Eddy on the subjects of love, marriage, sexuality, and gender. To better understand seemingly contradictory statements, I put Eddy’s statements in chronological order, along with events in her life and career. Through this process, I saw how she expressed her vision of enlightened womanhood throughout her career in her writings, in her life, and in the structure and rules of her church. To put her work into historic context, I immersed myself in the issues of nineteenth-century America with a focus on the women’s rights movement. I saw how Eddy’s statements and articles were often written in response to specific issues in the civic dialogue as well as in her own life.
Eventually I focused on Eddy’s article “Wedlock” which begins with a statement that her book Science and Health “crossed swords with free-love” in “about the year 1875.” I wondered what the term “free-love” meant to Eddy. I wondered what happened in the mid-1870s. I wondered how Science and Health crossed swords with free love. As soon as I began looking for answers to these questions, I discovered Victoria Claflin Woodhull.
Like most people today I had never heard of Woodhull, yet she had a remarkable career and was one of the most famous women in America—the first woman to run for US President! The more I learned about Woodhull’s life and her public statements, the more I realized what a fascinating antagonist for the viewpoints of Mary Baker Eddy she was. But more than this, I came to see Eddy and Woodhull as influential representatives of two opposing value systems which are still at odds today—two different ways of fulfilling the promise of the American Revolution, or two different models of female empowerment. Perhaps in some ways this book tells the story of a timeless struggle of the human condition.
I grew up studying the Bible and Eddy’s Bible-inspired writings. I benefitted in so many ways from the strong marriage between my mother and my father. In the contest between the values of Eddy and Woodhull, I cannot help being biased in favor of Eddy. And yet having grown up after the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, I also recognize the strong appeal to Woodhull’s views.
I know I am not alone in having felt at least partly torn at times between these two opposing philosophies. In my life, I have seen the conflict between Eddy and Woodhull expressed in so many ways, to the point that I can say that this story is mine—if only my own inner battle.
Could it be yours too?
Cindy Peyser Safronoff