The Victorian Era was a difficult time for women. Legally, their status was essentially chattel property — with husbands (or fathers) as “owners.” 19th century America ran on a rigid patriarchal system that suppressed the standards of living, expectations and options available to women. They were second-class citizens, repressed politically, financially, sexually, and socially. Powerless and marginalized, their interaction with much of the world was as mute observers.
Yet big adjustments were on the way. One driver of change, often overlooked, was the vital role that the paranormal — specifically spiritualism — played in the Feminist Awakening and Women’s Suffrage.
Spiritualist practitioners traveled from place to place and, for a small fee, would use their “spirit guide” — an otherwordly advisor of all affairs — to deliver messages from Beyond. The spiritual medium could contact dead relatives, conjure spirits, cause rooms to fill with mysterious tapping sounds, or make the writings of a ghostly hand appear on chalkboards. Spiritualists of the Victorian Era were highly sought out for comfort, advice and to rekindle memories of long-lost friends and family members.
Primarily, most spiritualists were women. Their role as medium offered an escape from the persistent indignities of domestic life. Spiritualism gave women a platform, one that came with certain degrees of power, freedom and equality absent in contemporary society. The practice also cultivated an air of mystery around the medium, which in turn drew the attention of both men and other women in ways seemingly impossible in other professions. It conferred wealth and fame. In looking at the early years of the feminist movement, you could justifiably point to the séance table as a symbol of equality.
The names of female Victorian-era spiritualists remain synonymous with the profession: Emma Hardinge Britten, Victoria Woodhull (the first woman to run for President, with Fredrick Douglass on the ticket, no less!), Leah Fox Fish and Cora L. V. Richmond — a woman whose exquisite features personified the Victorian male definition of virginal beauty.
All of these women would test the boundaries of feminism before women’s suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Lucy Stone came along. In fact, many female spiritualists would ultimately abandon the profession to directly empower the feminist movement without the obfuscation of the paranormal.
The women of spiritualism used the field as a means to empower themselves and counter the hegemonic rule of men. At a time when divorce and adultery were considered in league with prostitution, women could explore aspects of their sexuality at the séance table through the aforementioned “spirit guide” — a connection to another party that transcended typical matrimonial relations. These spirit guides often “took over the body” of the female medium and the actions — often physical — were not deemed harlotry on the part of the female.
Still, the uptight and conservative society of the day was reluctant to change. Despite its popularity, spiritualism was regularly condemned as a danger to the family and the sanctity of marriage. Writer Henry James despised the burgeoning sexuality and power among women of his era. Inspired by the beautiful Cora Richmond, he created (and condemned) the character Verena Terrant in his novel The Bostonians. Regardless of its editorializing, the novel forever pegs spiritualism to the rising feminist movement of the 19th century.
Over time, the original spiritualists were mostly deemed frauds and con-artists, and today, séance tables are few and far between. Gone are the papier mache “ghosts” materializing out of curtained corners, ecto-plasm and mysterious tappings on tabletops. Yet the role of the spiritual psychic advisor, tarot reader, etc., is to this day often filled by a woman.
The world finally caught up with the those women who, nearly two hundred years ago, sought a better life of equality and justice through the world of the paranormal. Yet even now, many see the empowerment of the marginalized as a threat to a certain way of life and attempt to thwart progress and social change.
Maybe it’s time to fire up those séance tables.