Spiritualism and Feminism – Part 2

by Janet Hosmer, PhD

At that time, abolitionists who were Quakers were having a difficult time with their faith, as it supported slavery.  Many left the Quakers and formed a group that they called the ‘Congregational Friends’. Wikipedia corroborates the connection between Spiritualism and the women’s movement with the following entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritualism, “Amy and Isaac Post, Hicksite Quakers from Rochester, New York, had long been acquainted with the Fox family, and took the two girls into their home in the late spring of 1848. Immediately convinced of the genuineness of the sisters’ communications, they became early converts and introduced them to their circle of radical Quaker friends.”

Trish Wilson writes on the website, Feminista: The Journal of Feminist Construction, “Women and children of the Victorian era were considered the legal chattel of fathers and husbands. Spiritualism provided them with a means of obtaining their own power and financial security.”  In a similar vein, Ann Braude tells us in Radical Spirits – Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (2001), “What distinguished spirit mediums from other religious women who rose to public roles at certain moments of enthusiasm within their religious communions was their commitment to women’s rights.” Braude also states, “At a time when no churches ordained women and many forbade them to speak aloud in church, Spiritualist women had equal authority, equal opportunities, and equal numbers in religious leadership. While most religious groups viewed the existing order of gender, race and class relations as ordained by God, ardent Spiritualists appeared not only in the women’s rights movement, but throughout the most radical reform movements in the nineteenth century.”

In Other Powers-The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull (1998), Barbara Goldsmith writes, “By the 1850s, a group of female trance speakers were among the first women permitted to speak in ‘promiscuous assemblies,’ which meant gatherings of both sexes. Speaking with the authority of the spirits but without personal responsibility for what they said, these women could not be censored for their statements. Since the spirits were guiding them, they had courage, for they spoke the truths of a greater power. Women, no matter how ill-educated, could now transmit the wisdom of spirits as diverse as Socrates and Benjamin Franklin: Not surprisingly, the rights of women were very much on the minds of these great thinkers.” Robert Egby, in an article found on his online Parapsychic Journal entitled, ‘The Footsteps of the Foxes’, states the following, “The events at the Corinthian Hall promoted the cause of Spiritualism and clairvoyants and mediums who had been quietly working in private came out into the open adding to the growing power of this fledgling religion — Modern Spiritualism.”  And as spirit continued to speak, women began to speak as well. They learned to trust their own feelings, and stand up for the equality that they felt was their right.

When talking about the Women’s Movement, Todd Jay Leonard in Talking to the Other Side: A History of Modern Spiritualism and Mediumship (2005) says, “From the very beginning of the movement, Spiritualism has served to empower women to be independent and has given them a platform in which to pursue a professional life as clergy, mediums, and businesswomen. The movement has always treated women equally, and many Spiritualism women were instrumental in demonstrating to get the right to vote for women during the Suffrage Movements in the United States.”  Nancy Rubin Stuart tells us in The Reluctant Spiritualist – The Life of Maggie Fox (2005), “Several Quaker abolitionists had gathered first at the home of Jane and Richard Hunt and than at the M’Clintock’s fine brick house in Waterloo.  The organizers, who included Mary Ann McClintock, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Wright, formalized their ideas for women’s suffrage around the mahogany parlor table where the raps would later reportedly be heard.”  She continues, “The subsequent meeting at the Seneca Falls Universalist Wesleyan Church on July 19-20 would ignite the women’s suffrage movement, setting the stage for a seventy-two year battle that resulted in the 1920 passage of the Twenty-First Amendment. Among the hundred men and women who ultimately supported its resolutions, some were already sympathetic to Spiritualism – Amy Post, Sarah Post Hallowell, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Ann and Thomas M’Clintock, and Sarah Burtis.” The name that is most associated with regards to the women’s movement in later years is of course Susan B. Anthony. Although not a Spiritualist herself, she was a close friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton for years, and was a frequent speaker at women’s conventions in LilyDale, New York, a Spiritualist community founded in 1879.

Additional confirmation of how spirituality and spirit communication played a large part in the women’s movement is found in Judith Wellman’s The Road from Seneca Falls (2004).  She writes, “In their search for wholeness, the M’Clintocks and several other Congregational Friends went beyond worldly concerns.  In the new spiritualist movement, they explored the permeability of boundaries between life and death. As early as 1841, they had experimented with ‘animal magnetism,’ a kind of clairvoyance which transported them to other places within this world. Now impressed by the rappings heard by the Fox sisters outside Rochester, New York, they began to hold regular séances in their home. Other women’s rights supporters, especially among the Quakers, also joined this movement. Isaac Post, Amy Post’s husband, collected testimonials from people who had attended the Fox sisters’ séances and concluded that, indeed, the rappings they heard came form the spirit world. By 1851, Isaac Post himself had become a medium.”

Interestingly enough, information on the Women’s Rights National Park website at (http://www.nps.gov/wori/) makes no reference to Spiritualism or spirit communication, although many of the names listed on the site as leaders and visionaries in both the women’s movement and the anti-slavery movement in that time were regular attendees at séances, if not mediums themselves.

Unfortunately, the dark shadows that were cast upon Spiritualism at that time, and even in current times, are more than likely the reason.  We do know that Kate and Maggie Fox were interrogated and tested over and over again to prove the legitimacy of their supposed communications with spirit. From their first public demonstration in Corinthian Hall in Rochester, the two young girls – led by their older sister Leah, were continually sought after for readings and at the same time harassed and tested relentlessly by those who believed they were frauds. And the public had good reason to worry!  The greedy and less than honorable of the people of the time saw an easy way to prey on those who had recently lost a loved one and wanted to believe in proof of the afterlife.

In later years, Maggie, after living an adult life plagued with alcoholism and harassment, told the world that the rappings heard in Hydesville when she was just a child were all a charade cooked up by her sisters and herself. She later recanted her admission of fraudulent behavior, but the damage had already been done. It all started out with disagreement among the sisters after alcohol abuse had become a part of their lives some thirty years after the initial spirit communications from Mr. ‘Splitfoot’.  The atmosphere during those years of turmoil where blame-casting and revenge, and a break in the family finally ensued. Much like any family quarrel, each of the women wanted only peace for herself.  Arthur Conan Doyle states in The History of Spiritualism (Echo Library 2006) when referring to how the women behaved throughout the more difficult times, “Let it then be clearly stated that there is no more connection between physical mediumship and morality than there is between a refined ear for music and morality. Both are purely physical gifts.”  What Doyle meant I believe was that the women’s public embarrassments had nothing to do with their ability to transmit spirit communication.

Regardless, even though Spiritualism claimed to have two million followers by the late 1800’s, it was condemned by leaders of organized religions, and there were attempts to get laws passed to prevent mediums from practicing.  Todd Jay Leonard in Talking to the Other Side: A History of Modern Spiritualism and Mediumship (2005) writes about the troubles encountered, “Many mediums were ostracized by family and friends, mainly because of the religious ban. Starting in the late 1850’s in Great Britain, and in the 1880’s in America, investigators began looking into and exposing the many fraudulent mediumship schemes that were operating in both countries, further sullying Spiritualism’s image.”

It’s understandable that historians wanted to keep any connection to spirit communication limited or completely out of our history books and classrooms.  Most always the strange happenings occurring during that time in our history were attributed to the craziness and religious frenzy of the era, or just plain fraudulent behaviors and fame seekers. It is truly unfortunate however, that spirit isn’t given more credit for having had such an integral role when making these great strides in equality for humanity. Strides not only based on gender, but on race and creed as well.

We’ll never really know what went on inside those dark séance rooms in Upstate New York in the mid 1800’s. Were the attendees only asking to communicate with loved ones who had passed to the other side, or were they asking for advice from powers that they realized were greater than themselves? Were they made aware of ‘who they really are’ and given the confidence to move forward? Were those Victorian women led by the spirits of women who had gone before them and wanted to share their own voice as well? We really don’t know.

But, we do know that Amy and Isaac Post, strong in the anti-slavery movement with a busy house on the Underground Railroad, and signers of the Declaration of Sentiments in Seneca Falls, were close friends of the Fox family, and brought the girls to their home regularly. We also know that Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a strong voice in the movement, a regular at séances, and a good friend of Susan B. Anthony, one of the most prominent leaders of the women’s movement.  And we know that the M’Clintocks, also very active in both the women’s as well as the anti-slavery movement were many times found around a table in a darkened room waiting for spirit to speak. Putting all of the pieces together certainly suggests that spirit and Spiritualism, although not totally responsible, can be touted as a considerable catalyst in the movement that gave women the right to vote in this country.

And where are Spiritualism and Feminism now? Some religious scholars believe that a Fifth Great Awakening, (the Third and Fourth happening in the 1880’s – 1900 and 1960’s – 1970 respectively) is imminent in the foreseeable future, as these periods of heightened spiritual activity are typically seen during times of social unrest and confusion. There is a growing list of events occurring simultaneously at this time in our history, all of which unfortunately are too extensive to be covered fully here.  However, they include, but certainly are not limited to, the ongoing translations and interpretations of the Dead Sea Scrolls found in the middle of the 1900’s; the uncertain role of Mary Magdalene in Christian history – and Christian history itself – based on recently uncovered gospels; the massive changes to our planetary environment through global warming and the depletion of its resources; the discovery by Quantum Physicists that there is indeed an unseen controlling force at the very core of our being; and the predictions of the changes to come in 2012 by the ancient Mayans. Without a doubt, the time is definitely ripe for an Awakening. And, interestingly enough, as we move into the year 2008 there is a female candidate for the office of Commander in Chief of these United States. The women who fought hard and long for their equal rights in 1848 must be so very proud. Who do you think will hear their rappings this time?

This document was submitted in 2008 as a final dissertation for Janet’s Doctoral Degree. Many of the web references do not exist any longer,
therefore no links have been provided.