THH Episode 26: Giving Voice: Rachel Smith

Transcript for Giving Voice: Rachel Smith

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Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice, from Talking Hoosier History.

Beckley: On this Giving Voice, I had the absolute pleasure of chatting with Rachel Smith, an assistant lecturer on Women and Gender Studies at Ball State University. She studies the intersection of Modern American Spiritualism and Feminism. If you haven’t listened to the latest full episode, “Spiritualism: Beyond the Spectacle,” you might want to do that now before listening to our conversation, as it will give you a good base of knowledge about the history of Spiritualism in Indiana.

And now, Giving Voice.

(Music)

Beckley: I’m here today with Rachel Smith and I’m going to go ahead and let you introduce yourself, Rachel.

Smith: My name is Rachel, and I am an assistant lecturer at Ball State University in the Women and Gender Studies program. Um, I’m also a non-tenured faculty for the history department and I’m also the office manager for Historic Camp Chesterfield in Chesterfield, Indiana.

Beckley: And of course, that’s why you’re here talking with us today.

Smith: It is, yes.

Beckley: Um, so our most recent episode, just to fill you in a little bit, is about spiritualism, and kind of the history of that and it includes a history of Camp Chesterfield – a very brief history of Camp Chesterfield. But we don’t go into the intersection – I mention it briefly – the intersection of Feminism and the Woman’s Rights Movement and spiritualism and I brought you in today because you are an expert on the subject. How did you get interested in the intersection of those two, on their own, very fascinating fields?

Smith: Well, by nature I’m a feminist. And so, that shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. But also the fact that I teach Women and Gender Studies and my master’s degree is in history with an emphasis on religious history. When I started working at Camp Chesterfield, I actually worked part time when I was in grad school I got hired because of my interest in religious history. And, as time has now went on and it’s nearly 15 years later and I’m still there – they haven’t been able to get rid of me – and I’ve learned so much by being there that it’s about – especially of the areas in which feminism really played a role, and the suffrage movement played a role, in Indiana and the women of Camp Chesterfield playing a role in that suffrage movement and then nationally, so, it – it just piqued my interest.

Beckley: That was one of the things, as I was reading through some of the early history, I kept coming across all these women that are involved in ways that they’re not involved in other religions, so that really caught my interest and that’s how I came across you, actually. So, um, I was wondering if you could talk about the early history of spiritualism and how women’s rights and suffrage and, really, other radical movements kind of played a role in the early history.

Smith: Well, spiritualism itself, I mean, the birth of spiritualism happened in the mid-1800s, so, one of the things that did come naturally from that, and especially a large group of Quaker and having a Quaker background, a lot of these people – Quakers also naturally had a background of feminism within themselves and equality and so that kind of transferred over into Modern American Spiritualism. And so when spiritualism developed – it came about, that came with it. That aspect of it came with it. And interestingly enough – one of the things that seems kind of amazing and something that somebody at Camp Chesterfield said – a male resident at Camp Chesterfield said that spiritualism is matriarchal and that Camp Chesterfield is matriarchal. And you find that historically, spiritualism has given women the opportunity to become ordained. They’ve given them the opportunity to be leaders. They’ve given them the opportunity to be teachers. You know, during a time when women were supposed to be in the private sphere, they weren’t supposed to be in the public sphere, and they certainly weren’t supposed to be preaching or moving people religiously by any means. And even all those times when there were splits in mainstream churches – you know one of the big splits to happen, especially like in and around the 1980s of where main line religions they – women were pretty much told that you need to submit to your husbands, you need to go back to your homes, you need to get off the pulpit. Spiritualism didn’t do that to women and so you kind of find that women did flock to spiritualism – not just for the communication with spirit aspect, but also for the aspect that they were treated and were on a level playing field with the men. And of course, you have very famous spiritualists like Victoria Woodhull who definitely rocked the boat and spiced it up a little bit – more so than what people would like. But I was also reading not too long ago – Susan B. Anthony would actually write into spiritualist newspaper and particularly to the Sunflower Newspaper at Lily Dale, New York. And so, even prominent, you know, Women’s Movement, people like Susan B. Anthony, Anna Shaw – Reverend Anna Shaw – you know, and they would be writing into these newspapers and getting women involved.

Beckley: That’s awesome. I actually – right before we came in here – I was reading the introduction of a book Radical Spirits and – it’s a great book – and she was talking about the book the History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement that is edited by Susan B Anthony and Cady B. Stanton, and in it, they say that spiritualism is the only religion that, from its beginning, has included women, and in fact, promoted women not only being in it but being at the forefront of it, which is, just such an amazing thing that I think often gets passed over in its quote unquote spooky beginnings and its ghostly tales and things like that so I’m glad we’re having this conversation to kind of bring that more towards the front.

Smith: Yea, a woman by the name of Amelia Colby-Luther actually, she was a nationally known suffragette, but she was also one of the founders of the charter for the Indiana Association for Spiritualists at Camp Chesterfield and at one time she was also Camp Chesterfield’s vice president of the association. And so, I mean, you have women like her who were known on a national scale for suffrage, but who religiously also participated in places like Camp Chesterfield and who help a leadership position. Not only just in the suffrage position but also then in their religious community as well. And so, you really don’t see that too often, even now.

Beckley: That’s extremely interesting cause then you look at somebody like May Wright Sewall, where she was nationally known for her suffrage and then at the very end of her life came out as a spiritualist for the last two decades, so, that’s such an interesting dichotomy of – you know – I think a lot of people think back to that and think that maybe May Wright Sewall’s reputation was overshadowed as a suffragist by her late revelations of spiritualism. But it went hand and hand so much back then that I think that being so far removed we often forget that now.

Smith: Well, and I also think too, especially for her case – for May Wright Sewall, I think for her case too, because of the profession that she was in – I mean, she was in education, right? – and even though spiritualism was very much at its peak and in its heyday and very much popular – it was still on the outside and it was still considered radical and so I think that there are people who argue, and I’d want to do a little more digging before I could definitively say, but I think she may have been a spiritualist for a lot longer than just the end of her life. I think that she just may have come out of the closet towards the end of her life because it was acceptable to do so.

Beckley: Well, she writes in her book that it was 25 years before, so I think she died in 1917, so – that would have been at the height, right? I mean, she says she was converted at Lilly Dale, which would make sense.

Smith: Well, in her book, she also talks about lily Dale. It is sad to me that, of course, Camp Chesterfield was literally right up the road, you know, and she didn’t make it up there. Or, at least, if she did she didn’t write about it. I’m still going through old hotel ledgers so, I’m looking to see if I could come across her name, which would be nice.

Beckley: That would be a good find.

Smith: That would be a good find, yes.

Beckley: Especially with the suffrage centennial upcoming.

Smith: That’s right. Yes.

Beckley: So, are you working on any specific projects in conjunction with the suffrage centennial?

Smith: We actually are. One of the things that we’re doing is at Camp Chesterfield is, we’re going to hold a suffrage and spiritualism conference. It will be a one day conference on August 22 and we’ll be sending out a call for papers soon. So, we would really like for people to come in and to really tour the grounds of Camp Chesterfield and, you know, it’s going to turn 134 years only this year, and it’s beautiful and it’s relaxing and it’s also a place with a very deep history and a very deep spiritualist and suffrage history for women and I think that often people get so wrapped up in the spookiness of spiritualism or the ghost aspect or the spirit aspect of spiritualism that they don’t pay attention that these people were real people and these people did real things. It wasn’t – their entire life was not just contacting, you know, they spirit world – they did, you know, tangible things that have benefited everyone.

Beckley: Absolutely. Um, I’m wondering how – ‘cause, you know, you said how, even at its peak and its heyday, it was still an outside movement, and I think suffrage is very much the same way, it was still a few “radical” women and men taking on the “norms” of society and I think that also, in the late 19th early 20th century, people often lumped them together and said: “here, look, this is what’s wrong with society. These radicals are coming in and trying to change the whole fabric of our life.” So, from our vantage point looking back, do you think that the tight association between spiritualism and suffrage, over all, hindered or helped suffrage: did it promote it, did it further the cause, or did it, maybe – was it a hindrance?

Smith: I think that’s a double edged sword. Because women like Victoria Woodhull, I mean, honestly, I don’t think she would have been able to do what she did had she not been so popular because of spiritualism and through her mediumship and then her connection to the Vanderbilt’s. And so, even though people looked down on her, and even the more proper spiritualists, you know, very much looked down on her for her behavior and for the things that she said or would write in her newsletter, I think, though, that she would never have been able to do what she did – I don’t think that she would have been the first woman to run for president, had she not had that background and I think that also at the same time, spiritualism and suffrage go hand in hand. I mean, you have a religious organization that views women as equals. And yet you had at the time, a national government who most certainly did not. And so, it’s a double edged sword – I think that in some ways it helps and some ways it hinders because of both being on the outskirts and both being considered radical ideas and notions. But I don’t think that it could be one or the other. It’s a mish mash of both.

Beckley: Right. For the listeners at home, can you just explain a little bit about Victoria Woodhull?

Smith: Victoria Woodhull, she was an interesting woman and if ever get the chance to read on her, she was amazing. But she was very loud, she was ver boisterous, she had several husbands, she was also a very huge advocate of free love, which also did not go over very well during the Victorian era. She had associations with the Vanderbilt’s and, actually, she was able to create a brokerage firm because of a loan that she had received from them. And so, she was a savvy business woman and she was a spiritualist and she was a medium and she was known for this and she actually became the first woman to run for president in the United States, which is in and of itself, I mean people always like to – and don’t get me wrong, it was great that Hillary was so close last time, but, she wasn’t the first, you know. And so, I think that people have a tendency to forget her because she was so much on the outside and she was so radical and so people really didn’t appreciate her candor as much as she gave it because, boy did she ever, yes.

Beckley: Yes, I know I’ve read a little on her, not as much as I’d like, but she’s definitely an interesting figure.

Smith: Yes. Yes. She was.

Beckley: So, is there anything ongoing – would you say that spiritualism now is still in the realm of feminism, is it still working for some of the same equal rights as it was, you know, in the 1800s and early 1900s?

Smith: I do believe so, yes, absolutely. I think that if you look back at the numbers and if you look at Camp Chesterfield, for example, has a seminary which is the Chesterfield Spiritualist College, these people will go through classes and training in order to develop mediumship and get certifications, but even become ordained spiritualist ministers. And if you look at the numbers, you will see that far more women are actually becoming ordained than males. And so that’s not to say that it’s for women and men need not apply, you know, but it is saying that it very much is a place where women can thrive. And in a world – especially in a religious world – that often times wants to push women to the sides and say that you don’t belong here.

Beckley: So you think that is a direct outcome of spiritualist’s history of being accepting of women, it’s just continuing.

Smith: It is. And I think that it pushes not just for women, but it pushed that whole equality thing, whether it’s for the LGBTQ community, the Trans community – it pushes diversity always. And they really are huge advocates and proponents of equality and making sure that people are treated equally. You know, because quite frankly when it comes to spiritualists and in the spiritualist mind, a spirit comes through when they come through and quite frankly, it doesn’t matter – sex and race and all of that stuff, it just happens.

Beckley: Yea – so, if people are interested in learning more about the history of spiritualism, your work, or about spiritualism in general, could you give them some places to go to learn more about that?

Smith: Yep, absolutely. Of course, naturally the first place you can go is CampChesterfield.net, the website for historic Camp Chesterfield in Chesterfield, Indiana. There is also Camp Chesterfield’s Facebook page as well as a twitter account, an Instagram account, were trying to – we’re the best kept secret of Indiana and so, we do have an online and a social media presence, but at the same time, the spiritualist community, they don’t recruit, and so people will find it when they need to find it or when they are ready to find it. But that’s definitely a good place to start – at Camp Chesterfield, there is a book store and of course, there’s book stores everywhere so if you just pick up any book on Modern American Spiritualism, it’s always a really great place to start, but if you’re really specifically wanting to know about Indiana History, spiritualism in Indiana, then a good trip up interstate 69 is going to be your best bet.

Beckley: Awesome, well, thank you so much for coming in today. This has been a wonderful conversation.

Smith: Yes, Thank you very much.

(Music)

Beckley: I want to thank Rachel once again for taking the time to come talk with us for this episode. If you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend the book Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America by Ann Braude. It’s a fascinating read and delves deep into some of the topics we covered today. We’ll be back next month with another episode of Talking Hoosier History. IN the meantime, follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and twitter for daily doses of Indiana History tidbits. Subscribe, rate and review to Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening!

Useful Links

Spiritualism: Beyond the Spectacle 

Camp Chesterfield Website

Camp Chesterfield Facebook Page

More about Victoria Woodhull