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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Juliet Severance, Radical Victorian

We like to think that hippies invented free love, utopian communes, and health food in the 1960s, but as the author of Ecclesiastes remarked, there's nothing new under the sun. Like most others, those ideas have a history, and some of their proponents are part of our Wisconsin heritage.

Whitewater physician Juliet Severance was born in western New York in 1833, and became interested as a teenager in the anti-slavery movement, temperance, and women's rights. She became a school teacher, and used her rhetorical skills not only in the classroom but also as a speaker at rallies and conventions at a time when few women appeared in such public roles. Concluding that slavery, gender equality, and substance abuse were primarily moral issues rather than political ones, she joined the Baptist church.

When her health began to decline, Severance decided to study medicine and apprenticed herself to a local physician. She then attended college for three years in New York and graduated with her M.D. at age 25, in 1858. She believed that scientific medicine failed to explain or treat disease effectively, and explored then-new alternatives such as vegetarianism and psychic healing.

Throughout her career, Severance provided free medical care to working women. Encounters with a medium in college shook her faith in the traditional Christian explanation of the spirit world, and Thomas Paine and Charles Darwin (whose The Origin of Species she read as soon as it appeared) put an end to her career as a Baptist.

In 1862 Severance moved to Whitewater, Wis., where she quickly set up a flourishing medical practice. Whitewater at the time was a center of mystic experiments and the "spiritualist" movement, and her views on life, health, and politics found a receptive audience there. To her list of radical causes she added abolition of the death penalty (already a fact in Wisconsin but not elsewhere) and of the institution of marriage.

Like her better-known contemporary Victoria Woodhull, Severance argued that traditional marriage oppressed women and threatened their moral, legal, medical, and spiritual well-being. This didn't stop her from marrying and raising a family of her own. But then, her husband was a free-thinker, vegetarian ("He never eats meat, fine flour bread, or butter [but mainly] grains, fruits and vegetables, and cereals"), and a radical like herself.

After the Civil War, Severance moved to Milwaukee where she took up labor reforms in addition to her religious, health, and women's rights work. She became an official in the Knights of Labor and a delegate to three national conventions of the Labor Party, during one of which (1888) she introduced a plank for women's suffrage into the party platform.

All this political agitation and committee work gave her skills in parliamentary procedure that were much in demand, and she served as director, president, and board member of many organizations. For example, she was the president at various times of the State Associations of Spiritualists in Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and in 1880 was elected first vice-president of the Liberal League, a national organization of free-thinkers led by Col. Robert G. Ingersoll.

In 1891 Severance left Wisconsin for Chicago, where she continued to practice medicine. She ultimately moved to New York to live with her daughter, but kept up her reform activities literally until her death in 1919. A few days before she died she was volunteering at the Red Cross and writing an article for a radical magazine called The Truth Seeker.

At the height of her career, Severance's colleague Victoria Woodhull described her as "a radical of the radicals. In religion she is a Free Thinker of the Spiritualistic school. Politically, she believes in individualism against nationalism, and she is especially interested in the emancipation of women from every form of serfdom, in church, State or home." After her death a colleague recalled that she was "as admirable for her domestic, social and lovable qualities as for her public and professional services. She was a good writer, orator, parliamentarian; a good mother, a good friend, and a good woman. There is nothing more to be said."

:: Posted in Odd Lives on March 17, 2010

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