Exhuming Victoria: Schmidt and Bachmann tout radical eugenist Woodhull on House floor


A fairly common criticism levied against Planned Parenthood by anti-choice advocates is that the organization was founded by a proponent of negative eugenics, Margaret Sanger, and thus pursues a eugenic agenda today.

Minnesota’s conservative representative Michele Bachmann, for instance, cited Sanger as “a woman who promoted eugenics” in a 2008 speech on the House floor ( see .52-1.00 in this YouTube)

Imagine my surprise, then, to stumble across a pair of YouTube videos in which Ohio’s own Michele, Rep. Jean Schmidt, and our own resident thimblewit salute American feminist, socialist, free-love advocate, stockbroker and eugenics pioneer, Victoria Woodhull, the first American woman to run for President?

Such are the acrobatics of those using Women’s History Month to play politics, rather than seek a deeper understanding of women’s history. Here’s Bachmann including Woodhull in a litany of foremothers whose names she can barely pronounce:

Schmidt admits that she didn’t learn much about women’s history when she majored in history in college. Her remarks on Woodhull:

Perhaps Bachmann, Schmidt and Feminists for Life — which appears to be the chief source for the quote-out-of-context approach to women’s history, do indeed need to know more about Victoria Woodhull. I first ran across her while majoring in American Studies at Hamline, and later had the fortunate opportunity to romp through her writings when I was employed by the Library Company of Philadelphia (the library Ben Franklin founded), which includes Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly in its holdings, among other Woodhull titles.

Woodhull is a complex figure, worthy of study. However, I suspect that if Schmidt and Bachmann studied her life — especially her writings about reproductive rights — a bit more carefully, they’d talk about her a lot less on the floor of the U.S. House Representatives, regardless of which month it might be. There’s also the little matter of Woodhull being the first to publish the Communist Manifesto in the United States, as well as her early career with her sister as a spiritualist healer.

And then, there’s her advocacy of negative eugenics, explored in Lady Eugenist: Feminist Eugenics in the Speeches and Writings of Victoria Woodhull, published by Inklings Press, the outlet for the explorations of conservative Christian author Michael Perry. The the name of his press would suggest, Perry is a C.S. Lewis devotee; as an editor, he’s deeply fond of Chesterson.

Like Sanger, Woodhull opposed abortion. Like Sanger, Woodhull promoted eugenics.

As Perry’s collection of essays and speeches by the latter points out, Woodhull hoped to be thought a pioneering promoter of eugenics. Following the now-notorious Buck v. Bell decision by the Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of forced sterilization laws in 1927, Woodhull told a reporter for the Associated Press:

Mrs. Martin [Woodhull had remarried in England], who wrote and lectured for thirty years on eugenics, remarked that she was pleased to read that the Virginia Eugenics law had succeeded in establishing the right to sterilize the feeble-minded.*

“I advocated that fifty years ago in my book, Marriage of the Unfit.” she said. “I am also glad that parents are now beginning to instruct their adolescent children in the facts of life. . . . ” (Perry, Lady Eugenist, p. 9)

Perry explains that he came across the AP report, published in the New York Times, while looking at popular coverage of the eugenics movement for an earlier book that he published about Sanger. Intrigued, but skeptical of the self-promoting Woodhull, he later searched her early writings to so ee if she had been straight with the AP reporter:

I wondered at the time if she was being honest or just playing her usual “I was the first woman to…” game. I have since discovered she was right (Perry, p. 9)

Whether one sides with Perry’s analysis or not, his book reproduces the full-text of relevant texts by Woodhull, and after reading them, I’m come to the conclusion that anyone damning Sanger for her support of eugenic principles ought to do the same for Woodhull.

Indeed, given that she advocated extreme intrusion by the state into family life and individual reproductive rights — and held racist notions about “fitness” — anyone seeking a dead “pro-life” ally in the pioneering feminist should probably apologize to the House of Representatives for digging up Woodhull’s corpse.

Let’s look at some choice tidbits from the body of her writings, readily accessible in Perry’s anthology, available online as a pdf. To prove Woodhull’s anti-choice position, Schmidt reads off a passage from the Dec. 24, 1870 Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly,

“The rights of children as individuals begin while yet they remain the foetus.”

The passage is cited online by Feminists for Life, but the article from which it is drawn isn’t available outside of libraries.

Perry’s anthology reprints “Children — Their Right and Privileges,” the text of a September 1871 speech by Woodhull,  printed in  the October 7, 1871 Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly. This document includes a sentence strikingly similar to the one Schmidt recited on the House floor. Woodhull said:

The rights of children, then, as individuals, begin while yet they are in foetal life.( Perry, p.33)

In the speech, first delivered to a Spiritualist convention, Woodhull also said:

So also is abortion a practice which spreads damnation world-wide. Not so much, perhaps, in those case where it is accomplished, but in those much more numerous cases where it is desired and attempted, but not reached. When a woman becomes conscious that she is pregnant, and a desire come up in her heart to shirk the duties it involves, that moment the foetal life is the unloved, the unwished child. Is it to be wondered that there are so many undutiful children — so many who instinctively feel that hey are “encumbrances” rather than the beautiful necessities of the home? (Perry, p. 39)

Given this notion of maternal influences in utero, it’s not surprising that Woodhull strongly believed in teaching sex education; she also believed that women should be in charge of determining when they should get pregnant, and do so only when certain of their fitness for parenthood and the fitness of their male partner.

However, in the same speech, she advocated the “right” of children to be reared to fulfill their duties as citizens, and this “right” was more important than that of parents:

The fact that children are born and grown to be citizens, and not to remain children of the parents simply, is overlooked.

. . .For ourselves we make the distinction assertion that we are thoroughly convinced that fully one half the whole number of children now living between the ages of ten and fifteen, would have been in a superior condition — physically, mentally, and morally — to what they are, had they been early entrusted to the care of the proper kind of industrial institutions. (Perry, p. 40)

This is not the last time Woodhull would recommendation state intrusion in the life of individuals. Perry’s anthology includes her 1890 essay, “Humanitarian Government,” an exercise in extreme nanny-statism.

In her 1891 essay, “The Rapid Multiplication of the Unfit,” Woodhull advocates even more interference with marriage and child-bearing. “Unfitness” for whites is largely defined by class and disability, while other races are “less developed” by definition.

There are those among our contemporary anti-choice movement to scold the pro-birth control (but anti-abortion) Sanger for racism. Decades before the controversial Sanger statements, Woodhull wrote of the threat posed by “the rapid multiplication of the negroes [sic] in America.” She was quite scornful of children born with severe disabilities (cited in Perry, p. 228).

Two years later, in 1893, Woodhull outlined the three means to achieve “The Scientific Propagation of the Human Race”:

1) By individual sense of duty strengthened by educating men and women to the responsibility of becoming parents.

2. By educating public opinion on every possible occasion as to the importance of intelligent breeding, until there is a reaction in public sentiment against the crime of perpetuating infirmities.

3. By the absolute isolation from society of irresponsible or unfit individuals. ( Perry, p. 303)

It’s hard to see how Bachmann and Schmidt (or their aides) managed to overlook Woodhull’s pioneering role in the dissemination of eugenic ideas a generation before they became widely popular in Sanger’s time.  Perry’s book comes up near the top of a Google search.  

The anti-choice movement has been quick to demonize Sanger. What’s surprising is the celebration of the woman who promoted even more extreme ideas about human breeding decades before Sanger began her work for safe and legal birth control.  Perhaps they’re drawn to Woodhull’s advocacy of sex education and free love outside of wedlock, as well as  her opposition abortion?

Or maybe it’s just the right that gets to cherry pick heroes’ opinions?

For a defense of Sanger as a product of her times, check out Daily Politics’  Margaret Sanger: The Other Side of the Story. Update: Robin Marty passed along an RH Reality Check excellent article Women of Color and the Anti-Choice Focus on Eugenics.