Skip to main content

The First Second-Generation Feminist.

Historian Ellen Carol Dubois teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles. She's the author of the new biography: "Harriot Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage" (Yale University Press). Blatch was the daughter of the famous suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. When her mother died, Blatch carried on her mother's work, encouraging women of all classes to participate. Dubois also edited "The Elizabeth Cady Stanton-Susan B. Anthony Reader" (Northeastern University Press)

21:35

Other segments from the episode on March 11, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 11, 1998: Interview with Barbara Goldsmith; Interview with Ellen Carol Dubois; Commentary on the use of Yiddish phrases.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 11, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 031101NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Other Powers
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today, we're talking with the biographers of two early feminists. My guest Barbara Goldsmith has written a new book about Victoria Woodhull, who in 1872 became the first woman to run for president. She was described in the press as the "prostitute who ran for president" and as "Mrs. Satan." She was also controversial within the women's movement because of her emphasis on free love and spiritualism.

In fact, Goldsmith says the most interesting discovery she turned up in her research was the extent to which spiritualism and the inception of women's rights were intertwined. Spiritualism was a popular movement of about 10 million people by the end of the Civil War. Spiritualists believed in the power to see into the future and to communicate with the dead -- powers Woodhull claimed to have.

I asked Barbara Goldsmith about the connection Woodhull made between spiritualism and feminism.

BARBARA GOLDSMITH, HISTORIAN, AUTHOR, "OTHER POWERS: THE AGE OF SUFFRAGE, SPIRITUALISM, AND THE SCANDALOUS VICTORIA WOODHULL": One has to remember that in a year, say 1848, women had absolutely no power in the real world. They couldn't vote, but more than that, they couldn't own property. If they divorced, they couldn't have custody of their children. Their husbands or fathers were allowed to beat them and physically abuse them.

Certain states even stipulated the size of the instruments that could be used to inflict punishment. And they were not allowed to speak in what you called "promiscuous assemblies," which meant men and women together.

So if they could speak with the dead, great people like Shakespeare or Aristotle or Demosthenes, and they could convey their thoughts at conventions, then they were empowered. And I think it was all about empowerment. Women who had no power were now empowered. They had "other powers" and that's the title of my book.

GROSS: This was pretty controversial among feminists, wasn't it? Victoria Woodhull's claim to have these clairvoyant powers -- a lot of people considered her a crank.

GOLDSMITH: No, it wasn't that that was so controversial in the women's movement. It was more her sexual views that were controversial.

GROSS: What were her views about what she described as "free love" and how did they come into conflict with the morals of the time?

GOLDSMITH: "Free love" -- it sounds like something scandalous even today. But what Victoria meant by free love was easier divorce laws. You could only divorce for -- if you caught your -- if you were a woman, if you caught your husband in adultery. A man could divorce for any reason if he wished to divorce. She thought that was unfair.

She thought the whole sexual standard where men could do anything they wanted sexually, but women were supposed to be pure and virginal. A man wouldn't marry a woman in the middle class or the upper-middle white class if she weren't a virgin. It was very primitive and she believed in equal standards for men and women.

And she said, you know: "why do you arrest prostitutes? Why don't you arrest the men who visit them if you're going to arrest them? They're equally culpable. Why do you put on trial a woman who's had an illegitimate child and the child has died because they weren't properly cared for -- and you don't put her seducer on trial?"

GROSS: Well, she had two marriages, Victoria Woodhull. Her first husband, she married when she was age 15. She wanted to escape from her family. That was a pretty bad marriage, which she -- which she got out of. And her second marriage was to James Harvey Blood (ph), and they both believed in free love.

So tell us -- tell us a little bit about how her marriages contributed to her views about relationships.

GOLDSMITH: Victoria Woodhull came from the worst kind of background. Her father was a con-man and a thief. He put her in his carnival show when she was a little tot of six. He billed her out as a clairvoyant. He didn't know that she was a clairvoyant. When she started manifesting "other powers," he was very surprised. And her mother was a religious fanatic, illegitimate, and illiterate.

She was one of eight children. And she really married her first husband, who was an alcoholic doctor, in order to escape from this squalid, terrible family life. And she escaped into a life that was almost as bad.

He was so drunk when he delivered her first child that the baby almost bled to death. She finally went to San Francisco. It was in Gold Rush times, but she didn't make much money because there wasn't much for her. So, she became an actress and a kind of casual prostitute.

And she really suffered. When she finally made some money and finally hit it rich, so to speak, in a financial disaster in America known as Black Friday, she vowed that she would use this money so that other women would not have to suffer the way she did.

GROSS: How did she manage to become rich on Black Friday when everybody who was invested in the stock market lost their money?

GOLDSMITH: She had met Commodore Vanderbilt, and as it turned out Commodore Vanderbilt was also an ardent spiritualist. And in a trance, she told him that when gold reaches $150, sell it -- sell it short. So gold reached $150. He sold it and made millions and millions of dollars; gave her $700,000, which today would be like, oh, perhaps $12 million.

And, where did she get her information? She said she got it directly from the spirits. But one must remember that she had been a prostitute and she had access to every house of prostitution in New York through her father, who sold notions to those houses.

And the most powerful men, certainly the ones that were manipulating the gold market, would have dinner at Delmonico's. They'd have a brandy and a cigar. And they'd go to those houses. And they would think that the women that occupied their beds were just insensate creatures.

So, where did she get her information? You make up your own mind.

GROSS: What a life.

LAUGHTER

GOLDSMITH: What a life.

GROSS: Now, Victoria Woodhull has many firsts to her name. Probably among the most important is that in 19 -- in 1872, she became the first woman to run for president on an independent party, the People's Party. What did she stand for?

GOLDSMITH: Victoria Woodhull stood for what she called "universal suffrage," which meant equal rights for everyone; equal rights to sexually equal pay, equal in every way for all people. Her running mate was Frederick Douglass, who was a great black activist. It meant equal rights for black people who, one must remember, were only really freed by the 13th Amendment, not the Emancipation Proclamation, after the Civil War.

And so, she was for total freedom and autonomy and very little government control. And her party was actually called the Equal Rights Party.

GROSS: Was I wrong in saying it was the People's Party?

GOLDSMITH: No, it was -- it was -- the name was changed. It was first the People's Party and then changed to the Equal Rights Party.

GROSS: She was called, when she was running, "the prostitute who ran for president." You described her as a "casual prostitute." What does a "casual prostitute" mean?

GOLDSMITH: That means that when she had to support an alcoholic husband and she had to support a second child and her daughter, that she made money any way she could. She sewed. She became an actress. And she was a cigar girl in a bar. And if she spent the night with somebody who would give her $20 or a $50 gold piece, that was all right. She said later: "if I used my body for my cause, don't blame me. Later, I tried to free all women when I could."

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Barbara Goldsmith. She's written a new biography of Victoria Woodhull. It's called "Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull."

Let's take a short break and then we'll talk more about this 19th century feminist.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Barbara Goldsmith, the author of a new biography of Victoria Woodhull called Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull.

When Victoria Woodhull ran for president on an independent party in 1872, what was the reaction of the other leading women's rights activists of the time?

GOLDSMITH: She just split the movement in two as if she'd just taken an axe and put it down the middle. She was aligned with people like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who said: "let's defeat the 15th Amendment to the Constitution which gave black men the vote, unless they give women the vote at the same time."

And the Bostonians and the rest of the women's movement typified by someone like Lucy Stone in Boston said: "wait a minute. We're all in a terrible situation." And Lucy Stone said: "if anyone can out -- get out of this terrible pit, let them go. I will support them."

And so this schism between who should get the vote, who should be enfranchised, just split the party. And also, the Bostonians, who were extremely proper, didn't want anything to do with this free lover, head of this cult of free love, as they called it.

GROSS: But Susan B. Anthony didn't really like Victoria Woodhull, I thought; didn't really support her views.

GOLDSMITH: Susan B. Anthony did a total flip. At first, she was all for Victoria and she said "go forward, bright spirit." And she said: "she's brought new life to the women's movement." But then, Victoria, in order to make money, used her old carney tactics.

She began to blackmail people who she found out had sexual liaisons that were improper. And this made Susan B. Anthony totally turn against her. And Anthony said: "she's like the horsefly. She wants blood. She says 'gimme, gimme.'"

And it really offended this stately Quaker girl, who had such high morals.

GROSS: So, did Victoria Woodhull get any votes?

GOLDSMITH: No. At the time that she ran for president, first, women couldn't vote. And I believe only women and a few of the radical Republicans in Congress would have voted for her. But she was in jail on a charge of printing pornography, because just as she had blackmailed these women, she tried to blackmail the most famous preacher in America, Henry Ward Beecher into supporting her.

And when he wouldn't, she blew the whistle in her newspaper and said that he was having an affair of very long standing with his parishioner and the wife of his very best friend, who was a great abolitionist named Theodore Tilton (ph). And as a result, Tilton sued Beecher for alienation of affection and Victoria was thrown in jail. Her health was impaired. She was thrown in the Tombs. And eventually, she was driven out of the country in 1877.

GROSS: So, what was Victoria Woodhull's state when she died? What was her reputation? Did she have any money left? Did she have any power or credibility left?

GOLDSMITH: She was like a cat with nine lives. She went to England. She started to lecture there. And the richest banker in England heard her lecture, fell madly in love with her, and after a while, he married her. Henry James wrote "The Siege of London" about Victoria persuading the family of John Bidoff (ph) Martin of Martin's Bank to marry her. And Nancy Headway (ph) in Henry James' book says: "I'm going to change everything."

And she really gave up. She went for respectability. And she became the wife of this very prominent banker. She moved to a small village called Breedons Norton (ph) and she became an English matron, very, very wealthy. And she said she was really unfulfilled and unhappy, but comfortable for the rest of her life.

GROSS: What are your final thoughts on Woodhull? Do you see her more as a kook? As a serious thinker? What do you see finally as her place within 19th century feminism?

GOLDSMITH: Victoria Woodhull, I think, was the single-most important person in feminism. They've tried to block her from the history books. But, she was a woman 100 years ahead of her time. Almost everything we accept today was what she was for: no fault divorce -- we accept that today; a woman having custody of her children -- of course we accept that. We've gotten the vote as women.

I can go on and on. And you know, by the end of the book, I really knew Victoria so well. She was a woman who was -- really could have lived today and could have lived comfortably and successfully instead of being reviled and her speeches destroyed. And I'm so glad I was able, with this prodigious research, to recover all her letters, her speeches, her diaries. It took a long time, but my respect for her grew with every single piece of research I could find.

GROSS: It's hard to see Victoria Woodhull as a conventional heroine, in the sense that, OK, she not only fought for women's rights and for the right to vote -- she also believed that she could predict the future and talk to the dead and channel the dead. She blackmailed some of her enemies.

So, how do you reconcile the women's rights work that she did with some of the more questionable claims that she made?

GOLDSMITH: I don't. I don't reconcile anything. I just try to present this larger-than-life woman the way she was. If I were writing fiction, they would say: this is impossible. It's impossible that this girl who was brought up with not two cents, in squalor, starved, beaten -- would eventually make the equivalent of millions of dollars, run for president of the United States, then marry the richest banker in England.

I could not ever present a story like that. It happened. That's all I can tell you. It happened. And Victoria's belief in spiritualism came at a time when many, many women who were not at all cranks or faddists -- perhaps many women like women today who believed that they wanted to see their dead children in the bosom of the Lord; after a war where many, many people had been killed, wanted to know that they had not totally severed contact with these young man who had been so important. I mean, the Civil War was the bloodiest war America's ever known. We've never known a Civil War like that.

Those views that seem so strange today had very, very good rationales in their own day. And women felt that it empowered them in the society.

GROSS: You went back to a lot of Victoria Woodhull's own writings. Would you like to leave us with an excerpt of something that she wrote?

GOLDSMITH: Well, this is a very brief excerpt, and perhaps it will explain to you her belief in spiritualism, even though it's very short. I end the book in the following way:

"Perhaps what is true of Victoria Woodhull is that she was a woman before her time in a world that was not ready to receive her. Her soul, however, remains with us. A month before her death, she scrawled what might have been her epitaph:"

"'The deeper I delve for a sure footing, the higher I reach for light, the more convinced am I that only here and there do we find an instrument capable of responding to the hungry heart's desire for truth. On the retina of our brain, the outline of truth is revealed to those attuned to the music of the spheres. Therefore I feel well assured that whatever the misrepresentations to which I may be subject, the events must be committed to time, who relentlessly unravels all distortions and rights all wrongs. Whoever I am and whatever I have done belongs to the spirits.'"

GROSS: Barbara Goldsmith, thank you very much for talking with us.

GOLDSMITH: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Barbara Goldsmith is the author of Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Barbara Goldsmith
High: Historian Barbara Goldsmith. Her new book is both biography and a history of the time. It tells the story of the 19th century feminist and spiritualist Victoria Woodhull, "Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull." Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for president. She was an ardent feminist who championed for women's rights, but her spiritualism put her outside the mainstream suffrage movement, as well as her attempts to blackmail her enemies. Goldsmith is also the author of the biography of Gloria Vanderbilt, "Little Gloria... Happy At Last."
Spec: Women; Victoria Woodhull; History; Culture; Feminism
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Other Powers
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 11, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 031101NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Harriot Stanton Blatch Biography
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention at which organizer Elizabeth Cady Stanton called for women's suffrage. Stanton didn't live long enough to see women get the vote, but her daughter Harriot Stanton Blatch did.

In fact, Blatch helped bring the women's suffrage campaign into the 20th century. She led the suffrage campaign in New York, and in 1916 co-founded the National Women's Party. She was also among the first women to be a second-generation feminist.

Ellen Dubois has written a new biography called "Harriot Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Women's Suffrage." Dubois also edited an earlier book called "The Elizabeth Cady Stanton-Susan B. Anthony Reader." Dubois is a professor of history at UCLA.

Harriot Stanton Blatch was born in 1856, eight years after her mother led the Seneca Falls Convention. I asked Dubois how Elizabeth Cady Stanton dealt with her responsibilities as a mother and suffragist.

ELLEN CAROL DUBOIS, HISTORIAN, AUTHOR, "HARRIOT STANTON BLATCH AND THE WINNING OF WOMAN SUFFRAGE," EDITOR, "THE ELIZABETH CADY STANTON-SUSAN B. ANTHONY READER": On the one hand, she was completely thrilled to have a daughter. And yet she is -- it's 1856 and politics are accelerating, particularly anti-slavery politics are accelerating at an incredibly rapid rate and she writes to her already-close friend Susan B. Anthony that she's very eager to get out of the house.

And yet, here is a new child that's being born and she's -- I think she says "I'm pacing up and down like a caged lioness." She dealt -- for the first few years, she dealt with the conflicts by -- in particular -- enriching and depending on this close relationship with Susan B. Anthony, who was like her legs. Susan B. Anthony traveled around the state of New York carrying petitions -- basically doing the hands-on organizing to create a women's rights movement.

And Elizabeth Stanton stayed back in Seneca Falls writing, thinking, developing ideas; writing articles; writing speeches -- to fill out the content of women's rights.

GROSS: You make it seem like Elizabeth's daughter Harriot kind of resented her mother's activism when Harriot was young, and resented Susan B. Anthony for the pressure she was putting on Elizabeth Cady Stanton to remain active and remain in the public arena.

DUBOIS: I think, though -- I think that what little evidence have suggests that one of the challenges of this biography is that one of the things Harriot learned from her mother is privacy, just like women's suffrage meant women entering the public realm. It also meant sort of creating a zone of privacy. And so there is a very -- she's actually quite reticent.

But in the few things she says, she seems like any child to long for her mother, miss her mother. She spent a lot of time with her grandmother and her aunts, and to some degree resents some of the other demands on her mother. I think the important thing about this is that as she grew, how she resolved this dilemma, which was to -- to identify with her mother's public purposes and thus at least at one level resolve the conflict between her longing for her mother and her mother's broader interests.

I -- I was struck with this because I was interested in using this biography to move beyond a simple romance of a feminist upbringing; to have the greatest feminist of the 19th century be your mother -- that must have set you on a simple and straightforward path to emancipation.

And -- and it didn't. I think that these dilemmas about mothers and children or women's lives getting broader, and yet the -- the intensity of their relationships with their children, and especially with their daughters, is not an easily resolvable one. And it can be seen even or especially in this life.

GROSS: One of the things I like about the book is how you describe Harriot Stanton Blatch as being one of the very first second-generation feminists; one of the first feminists who is born of a mother who was a feminist. So in a way, you know, she's following in her mother's footsteps.

Men are often -- men were often in the position of following in the footsteps of fathers who had had great achievements, but this is quite unusual for a woman of that time. I think this is something a lot of women today will relate to. Did she have to work hard to differentiate herself from her mother?

DUBOIS: Yes, I think she did. She does have to create her own self. She leaves the country. She lives in England for 20 years. And until she finds a political environment that's appropriate to her, and it's appropriate to her historically, and that's the environment of Fabian Socialism, she's really unable to raise herself up to her mother's expectations of her to become a reformer and to become a progressive person.

On the other hand, she never fully -- she never breaks with her mother and continues an identification with her mother that is evidenced first in returning to the United States and finishing her mother's task. And secondly, in becoming quite preoccupied at the end of her life with her mother's historic role as well as her own in establishing the centrality of her mother's leadership in her own period.

GROSS: Harriot didn't return to the states from Europe until after her mother's death. How did Harriot Stanton Blatch's sense of tactics compare with her mother's? You know, Harriot is working into the 20th century. Elizabeth Cady Stanton is a 19th century feminist and suffragist. And you know, times -- times were changing pretty rapidly then.

DUBOIS: It's a very nice question. I think it gets at one of the reasons I wanted to do this biography in this way. I've started my history of women's suffrage with Elizabeth Stanton, who I, like many people, love for her insight and her radicalism and her feminism. And yet, I felt very obligated and compelled to get to the end of the story.

With Harriot Blatch, I was able to find a way to establish a sort of continuity with her mother's radicalism, but a modernization of it as well. There were a couple of elements here that I think were most important. One is moving -- literally moving -- the agitation for suffrage into the public arena and in her case, literally moving it onto the streets -- parades, streetcorner speaking.

Secondly, turning suffrage into what it could never have been in her mother's day, which was a mass movement -- a movement capable of bringing 10- to 20,000 women in disciplined formation onto the streets of, in her case, New York.

And then the third thing, which really underlines the capacity to make suffrage a mass movement, is Harriot's recognition of the centrality of working women to women's future and women's emancipation.

GROSS: You say in your book that Harriot thought that political equality had to be won politically; that you couldn't rely on education or moral improvement or civic uplift or any of the other women's traditional methods of social action. Was that another difference between her and her mother?

DUBOIS: I don't know if it was so much a difference between her and her mother. I actually think she learned politics from her mother, although interestingly enough, she credited her knowledge of politics, by which she meant partisan politics -- the ability to move in and around parties -- to her father.

I do think it distinguished her from many other suffragists of her generation. I guess I would say she's not uncomfortable with the play of power in politics, and as a result she's very, very good at moving in and around the male politicians -- in her case, in the state of New York, in the legislature -- and particularly the sort of young politicians of the new Democratic Party -- young men like Franklin Roosevelt and Robert Wagner, who she had to work with in order to move her cause forward.

GROSS: So, did Harriot Stanton Blatch try to have a more political show of force by organizing women in great numbers and showing how much power they could have? And if they got the vote, how much power they could put behind you, the politician who had supported them in their struggle?

DUBOIS: Yes, this is true. She was -- her sort of signature contribution to suffrage in the United States was the creation of the disciplined suffrage parade, which reached its highest manifestation in New York, where there were a series of public suffrage parades running from about 1911 to 1915. And here she sort of has a vision of a women's army parading in -- in tight discipline; being able to show its size, its conviction, its seriousness to politicians -- literally and figuratively.

And then, she would march her troops -- literally take them -- parts of them, put them in trains; take them up to Albany and march them into the state legislature, carrying their picket signs, to demonstrate their -- their numbers and their power.

And she would even bring them into -- in a wonderful story -- into the offices of politicians. There's one story where she's trying to get Robert Wagner, who she feels -- this is Robert Wagner the elder, who's the majority leader of the New York Senate -- and who, even though he has a reputation for being a progressive, he's refusing to put women's suffrage on the agenda so that there can be a vote. She's not even ready to expect a winning vote. She just wants people to vote on it so she can tell which legislators are for and against suffrage and which ones she has to push on.

And he keeps on evading her. And finally, she -- she brings her forces right into his office. And the way she tells this story is -- what she threatens him with is less the actual -- there's no physical threat -- but she threatens with publicity, to indicate that he's been cornered, physically cornered, by women and she -- she knows he won't want this.

So instead, the story they agree on is that he'll graciously agree to put women's suffrage on the agenda. So she actually forces him to -- to do what she wants politically, not simply by use of numbers, but by a very skillful manipulation of the gender assumptions that she knows he's dependent on.

GROSS: Right. "Give us our way, or we'll make you look like a wimp who caves into women."

DUBOIS: That's exactly right.

LAUGHTER

That's exactly right. I included a picture. I don't know if you noticed it. There's one where these sort of women who were very formidable. It's a period in which they're wearing these giant hats that about three-feet wide. And these are -- some of these are pretty wealthy women, too. They're swathed in furs. And they're surrounding this politician who looks sort of quite cowed, and looks like they could sort of grab him by the shoulders and take him and put him anywhere they wanted him to go.

GROSS: So finally, how successful was Harriot Stanton Blatch in her campaign to win the vote for women?

DUBOIS: Well, one of the interesting parts of the story is that her actual -- the actual campaign that she devoted the better part of her middle years to was in the short run a failure, although I think in the long-run, it was fundamental.

In order to explain this, I want to explain something I think is important about this story and that often gets missed. Even though the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920 -- was ratified in 1920 and was necessary for the enfranchisement of all of the women of the United States, there were plenty of women who had full voting rights prior to the ratification of the 19th Amendment. And this is because starting in the 1800s, a series of states amended their own state constitutions to give women full voting rights.

The campaign that Harriot was devoted to was to amend the constitution of the biggest and most powerful state in the country in that point, and that was New York. It's that election which she loses in 1915. And in some ways because it's lost, her own authority in the larger movement is somewhat undercut.

That's the short-range defeat. The long-range success is that first of all, two years later, votes for women goes before the men of New York again, and this time it passes. And that's 1917, and the passage of votes for women in New York, I think, was the turning point of the national movement. Because with that, the entire congressional delegation of the largest -- the largest congressional delegation in the United States became obligated to the votes of women.

And from then on, it's a pretty straight shot, certainly for the House of Representatives to vote its necessary two-thirds votes for the 19th Amendment, which it does within three months of the New York victory and somewhat more slowly and laboriously for the Senate to do the same.

GROSS: My guest is Ellen Dubois, author of a new biography of suffragist Harriot Stanton Blatch. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with historian Ellen Dubois, author of a new biography of suffragist Harriot Stanton Blatch, the daughter of suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Well Harriot, like her mother Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had children. She had to balance being a mother and being an activist. Did she write at all in her journals about the difficulties of balancing the two?

DUBOIS: She didn't really keep very many private papers. And actually that, itself, is a little telling. But I know her grandchildren, and through them I feel like I know her parenting and grandparenting skills. And she was a -- a tough task-mistress as a mother and a grandmother.

She really wanted her -- particularly her daughters and granddaughters to grow up as strong-minded women. And her granddaughters felt that although they really loved and appreciated her, sometimes they felt that she was so careful on these grounds that she didn't allow the nurturant side of her personality to come out.

There's also a lot of tension between her and her one surviving daughter. She had two children, one of whom -- both girls -- one of whom who dies as a toddler. And I didn't speculate on this, but it may have influenced and made more intense her relationship with her one remaining child -- her daughter Nora (ph).

Nora follows her mother, much as Harriot followed her mother, into the suffrage movement. And they had their tensions. I think they were similar to the tensions between Harriot and Elizabeth. And I think I said in this book that there's a sort of lovely pattern that I see over the now many generations. I think I now know, either historically or personally, I think five generations of women in this family.

And the stronger bond -- not the stronger -- the -- the sweeter bonds seem to be between grandmother and granddaughter. That also means that this is one of the ways, I think, that these women solved or -- or came to terms with the tension between motherhood and their larger demands, so that their mothers help them with their children, allowing them more public lives. And then conversely, these women -- Harriot and Elizabeth and even Nora -- can express their capacities for maternity at a later point in their lives through their grandchildren. It's actually a very interesting model we might think about.

GROSS: Now, both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her daughter Harriot Stanton Blatch remained married through the lives of their husbands.

DUBOIS: Yes, that's right.

GROSS: So would you consider them good marriages? Did they consider them good marriages?

DUBOIS: There's a lot of debate about this. Their marriages were very different. Elizabeth married a man -- I don't know -- I think he's 15 years older than her when she marries him. When she marries him, he's a sort of big deal in the abolitionist movement, Henry Stanton, and she's the novice.

And within about 20 years, their roles have changed and she's the one whose career and whose visibility is taking off. And his star has been eclipsed. He actually is a sort of not very -- he's not a very impressive figure -- reformer, political, or otherwise -- in the last decades of his life.

Harriot makes a very different kind of marriage, and actually it's one of the biggest differences between her and her mother. The man she marries is -- is not a public person. He's actually a very domestic person. At one point earlier in her young womanhood, she imagines that she could have the kind of support in her life that women -- that men have usually had from their wives.

And I think in some ways, she gets that kind of support from her husband. So in some ways, I think I call him a sort of wifely husband -- something like that. So, he really helps to create a domestic environment that she doesn't particularly have the taste or the energy for.

The children think very warmly of him because he provides the kind of nurturance that she doesn't. It is interesting that our sort of vision of the suffragist or the feminist doesn't include a life-long marriage, which is the case with both of these women -- a life-long marriage in which both of them struggle for, and I think achieve, well-developed, independent public lives.

GROSS: Your biography of suffragist Harriot Stanton Blatch starts on her 80th birthday celebration in 1936. And you write that then, in 1936 -- when she's turning 80 -- "the issue of women's rights which had permeated political rhetoric and preoccupied legislative debate for so long, and which had drawn tens of thousands to the streets, was now only a minor theme of public discussion, and the larger speculation on the future of womanhood, which had once been the mark of modernism, was now regarded as out of date."

I read that, and I thought: gosh, that sounds like what a lot of people think of feminism today...

DUBOIS: Familiar.

GROSS: ... that it's out of date...

DUBOIS: Yeah...

GROSS: ... it doesn't count anymore; it's really from the past. So it's interesting that your book should start that way back in 1936.

DUBOIS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What resonance to you see between then and now?

DUBOIS: In one way, I'm offering this story as an antidote to the fact that feminist effort and achievement seems to pass from historical memory so quickly. As you point out, once again we have this situation in which the achievement of a more egalitarian relationship between men and women, and greater autonomy and independence for women, which is so hard-fought and so hard-struggled for by many women, when it comes, seems so inevitable and right that the work of the -- the feminist work behind it is lost.

So in some ways, I'm starting with these women in the 1930s speaking to a generation that hasn't yet come into being, and that generation is my generation -- the generation of the 1960s that picked up this story and picked up women's history and returned to -- to revive and pursue this tradition.

GROSS: Do you have any theories about why even the word "feminism" seems, oh, slightly repugnant to -- to a lot of young women today?

DUBOIS: I do think that one of the things that's happened in the '80s as American politics has moved to the right is that so has, in some ways, feminism. So that it no longer makes enough of a connection to a sort of larger vision of social justice, which itself is pretty much in retreat. And seems to be an issue that stands alone -- a single-issue movement; women's equality without links to other forms of social justice.

And I think this is not a good approach. I saw it happening in the story I wrote about, and I see it happening in our own society. And I do think that that contributes to some of the prejudices that feminism must meet in the popular arena.

GROSS: So, it looks more like a special interest movement...

DUBOIS: Yes, a special interest -- exactly -- instead of a wing, a side, a facet of a larger and more coherent vision of social justice, which is the way I think these two women, mother and daughter, saw it, and what I most appreciate about them.

GROSS: Well Ellen Dubois, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

DUBOIS: Well thank you, Terry Gross.

GROSS: Ellen Dubois is the author of Harriot Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage. Dubois is a professor of history at UCLA.

Coming up, why nearly everyone eats bagels with a schmeer (ph), wears schmat (ph) is, and has plenty of syrus (ph).

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Ellen Carol Dubois
High: Historian Ellen Carol Dubois teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles. She's the author of the new biography: "Harriot Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage." Blatch was the daughter of the famous suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. When her mother died, Blatch carried on her mother's work, encouraging women of all classes to participate. Dubois also edited "The Elizabeth Cady Stanton-Susan B. Anthony Reader."
Spec: Women; History; Harriot Stanton Blatch; Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Suffrage
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Harriot Stanton Blatch Biography
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 11, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 031103NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Yiddish Words
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Yiddish is the language that held together Jewish immigrants from different countries when they came to America. But the language has been in decline for many years. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has noticed that Yiddish words seem to be in increasingly common use these days -- and not just among Jews.

GEOFF NUNBERG, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: There was a front page article in the New York Times not long ago that talked about how the New York City police force was not enforcing jaywalking laws, which was saving people a lot of "turis" (ph). It was sort of funny to see that word there, particularly in a story that the Times ran in its national edition.

You figure maybe they ought to have run a little footnote for their readers in Boise or Little Rock who aren't used to hearing Yiddish words bandied back and forth across the deli counter. "Turis" from Yiddish -- trouble or aggravation.

But when I did a database search, I was surprised to find over 400 press citations for the word over the past 10 years or so under any of six different spellings. And by no means all of them were from the New York papers, or were used in particularly Jewish contexts.

For example, there was one story in the Washington Post that talked about all the "turis" that Queen Elizabeth has had to deal with with her family. That one brought me up short, because I had a little trouble imagining the Queen herself using the word: "oh, Philip, if you knew the turis I've had with my mishbocha (ph)." Then again, you never know.

Yiddish words and expressions seem to be increasingly common these days, and it's not only Jews who are using them. Not long ago, I heard an Irish American real estate broker say: "once you get finished paying the taxes, you won't be left with bupkis (ph)." I was impressed that he knew the word, though I doubt whether he knew that it originally had a meaning of "goat turds."

It's true that American English has always been pretty open about borrowing words from other languages. But we tend to stop borrowing from a language once its use begins to wane, and the words it already has given us become thoroughly Americanized.

You look at all the words that we borrowed from Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries, and nobody has any idea that they were once foreign -- words like waffle, boss, stoop, poppycock, even Yankee. Whereas the Yiddish words in English retain a foreign feel. In fact, we seem to have a preference for borrowing the ones that sound particularly Yiddish, like schlemiel (ph), schmooze, and chutzpah.

And what's more, their use seems to be spreading at a time when Yiddish itself has pretty much disappeared from view. It would be going too far to call Yiddish a dead language, but most younger Americans Jews now know only a couple of dozen words of it, and have no memory of the lively, secular Yiddish culture that was so prominent in politics and the arts in the early years of the century.

Actually, that may be connected to the reason why Yiddish words are on the upswing. It's as if something happened in the American imagination that transformed Jews from an ethnicity to a character type -- the slightly self-deprecating sardonic observer who gets to say things that Gentiles can't say about themselves.

You think of Woody Allen having dinner with Diane Keaton's family in "Annie Hall," or all of the TV comedies that are more or less modeled on that movie, like "Anything But Love," "Mad About You," even "Seinfeld" -- that gives non-Jews a new license to use Yiddish words themselves as if to signal their own ironic detachment from the passing scene.

It's not that people all think of themselves as Jews now, but that they all think of themselves as schichses (ph). Of course, people don't always use the Yiddish words correctly. Take "schmuck." In Yiddish, it's a name for the penis that's also used to mean a stupid person, as in: "what a schmuck I was not to buy Intel at 27."

But nowadays, I keep hearing people use it to mean something like "bastard" -- as in: "he's a real schmuck to his employees." My theory is that Gentiles hear "schmuck" used in such a vehemently disapproving way and they think it must mean something stronger than merely a fool, not realizing that Yiddish culture considers stupidity as one of the cardinal vices.

The linguist Ellen Prince (ph) has pointed out that Yiddish seems to have more words for stupid and foolish people than the Eskimos are supposed to have for snow. There's schmuck, schlemiel, schlamazel, schmendrich, schmegegish, schnook, putz -- not to mention less well-known items like "nah," "flaracup," and "moishakapoia" -- which is a nice way of describing somebody who does everything backwards.

And I suppose this sort of reinterpretation is inevitable when these ethnic items are adapted for general consumption. And these intermarriages do have their charms, whether they involve language, sex, or food. You walk into a bagel shop nowadays and it's hard to suppress your sense of wonder. Who'd have thought you could take those dense, hard rings of boiled dough and cook them up into these agreeably fluffy concoctions stuffed with blueberries?

Enjoy.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the Xerox-Palo Alto Research Center.

Dateline: Geoff Nunberg, Palo Alto; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: Linguist Geoff Nunberg considers how Yiddish words have entered the everyday speech of even non-Jews.
Spec: Culture; Religion; Judaism; Language
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Yiddish Words
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

43:54

Chef David Chang On Depression, Being A Dad And The Burden Of 'Authenticity'

David Chang has won James Beard awards as a chef and restaurateur. His first and best known restaurant Momofuku started as very modest noodle bar in Manhattan’s east village. The food was influenced by the food he grew up with--food that used to embarrass him when he was growing up. His parents are from North Korea. He now has restaurant in NY, LA, Vegas, Toronto and Australia. He’s had bipolar disorder for many years and credits cooking and his restaurants with saving his life. He has a new memoir.

52:30

Vaccine Expert: Once A COVID Vaccine Is Available, 'Don't Overthink It. Don't Wait'

Dr. Peter Hotez is co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital, and says that a vaccine release could begin for selected populations by the middle of December — and that a broader vaccination effort could soon follow.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue