It seems almost too much of a coincidence, but September 23rd is the known date of birth for three pioneering women featured on our women’s history walking tour: (in order of birth) Victoria Claflin Woodhull, Emily Warren Roebling, and Louise Nevelson.
On our tour we highlight the great achievements of each woman: Victoria’s stop reveals that 111 Nassau was the location of her and her sister, Tennessee’s, newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly; Emily is forever memorialized with the Brooklyn Bridge; and Louise’s sculptures, Shadows & Flags, stand tall on her namesake plaza on Maiden Lane.
Still, the linking date September 23rd made me wonder what else these women had in common. I was surprised that it was not family background or motivations.
So I did some research into their childhoods. My inquiry centered on the question whether there was a similarity in their upbringings that caused Victoria, Emily and Louise to fight back against gender norms and expectations, and create lasting legacies of feminist leadership.
Here’s what I found out:
Victoria Woodhull, c. 1860s by Bradley & Rulofson, Licensed under Public Domain via Commons
Victoria Claflin, born September 23, 1838 in Homer, Ohio, was one of a large, unstable and impoverished family. Married at just 14 years old to an older man named Canning Woodhull, a physician and alcoholic, Victoria was exposed to hardships from a young age. Victoria, Tennessee and the other Claflin children were taught to be clairvoyants, spiritualists, and “healers” and put to work by their parents to contribute to the family income. Victoria and Tennessee were incredibly close and worked side by side as clairvoyants, stockbrokers, writers, publishers, activists, campaigners and suffragists. Their reputations, especially in their early years, were scandalous. They relocated several times to avoid prosecution and the bad reputations that accompanied them.
But it was these early experiences that caused them to be so extraordinary. Victoria divorced her first husband after eleven years of marriage, and went on to marry two more times in her long life. She was an active campaigner for divorce, free love and female independence. The ideals she championed as an adult mirror the confining experiences of her childhood.
Portrait of Emily Warren Roebling by Carolus-Duran, Brooklyn Museum
Emily Warren’s start in life had little in common with Victoria’s. Born in 1843 and raised by a successful, though also large, family in Putnam County, NY, she had the luxury of a childhood, unlike Victoria. They did have one important similarity: the devoted love of a sibling. The eldest brother, Gouverneur Kemble Warren took his younger sister under his wing and paid for her academic education. As a civil engineer and general in the Union Army he lived in Washington D.C. He enrolled Emily in Georgetown Visitation Convent to study history, geography, French, English, mathematics, and of course the domestic skills of housekeeping, tapestry and piano. It was Kemble who introduced Emily to Washington Roebling, who she married in 1865. Arguably it was the support and encouragement by her brother that enabled Emily to complete the Brooklyn Bridge and forever preserve the Roebling name in engineering history.
Nevelson (fourth from left) posing for a class portrait with her classmates, 1913, unidentified photographer. Louise Nevelson papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Decades later, at the turn of the century, Louise (Leah) Berliawsky, was born in Ukraine, although September 23rd 1899 was her chosen birthday. The Jewish family immigrated to Rockland, Maine when Louise was five years old. They brought with them the skills of their family business and started a successful lumber company. But Louise always knew she wanted to be an artist. And it was the forest environment, specifically wood, that inspired and mediated her early artwork. Unlike Roebling, Louise’s family did not support her ambitions of life as an artist. At the age of 21 she married Charles Nevelson and had her son and only child quickly after.
These brief accounts expose that there were few similarities in the upbringings of Victoria, Emily and Louise.
In fact, the only thing that these three women did have in common came about after their childhoods, when they reached an important stage in women’s life cycles: marriage. But it wasn’t the marriage itself; it was their move to New York City.
Victoria was 30, Emily was 26 and Louise was 21.
The City provided them with unique opportunities on a grand metropolitan scale. It gave them the platform to thrive.
All three took the best traits they had gained in their early lives to carve a niche for themselves in New York City.
- Victoria Claflin Woodhull: National Women’s History Museum; Encyclopaedia Britannica- Victoria Woodhull; M. M. Marberry, Vicky: A Biography of Victoria C. Woodhull (New York: Funk ôtWagnalls, 1967); Emanie Sachs, “The Terrible Siren”: Victoria Woodhull, 1838-1927 (New York: Harper, 1928).
- Emily Warren Roebling: Roebling Museum; American National Biography Online; Scandalous Women Blogspot.
- Louise Nevelson: The Art Story; Encyclopaedia Britannica- Louise Nevelson; The New York Times Obituaries- Louise Nevelson Sculptor is dead at 99, 04/19/1988; Louise Nevelson Foundation.