Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Juliet Severance, Radical Victorian

A Good Mother, a Good Friend and a Good Woman

Juliet Severance, Radical Victorian | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeQuarter-length portrait of Dr. Juliet Severance.

Juliet H Severance, 1893

Quarter-length portrait of Dr. Juliet Severance. View the original source document: WHI 109849

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. As a teacher, she used her rhetorical skills not only in the classroom but also at rallies and conventions in a time when few women appeared in such public roles. Because Severance believed 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 new alternatives such as vegetarianism and psychic healing.

Success in Medicine

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 after coming in contact with the work of Thomas Paine and Charles Darwin (whose "The Origin of Species" she read as soon as it appeared) she left the Baptist Church.

In 1862 Severance moved to Whitewater, Wisconsin, 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  both the death penalty (already enacted in Wisconsin but not elsewhere) and the institution of marriage.

Severance's Radical Beliefs

EnlargePolitical cartoon depicting a woman on a rocky path carrying two children and a drunken husband on her back being tempted by Victoria Woodhull depicted as a devil.

Get Thee Behind Me, Mrs. Satan, 1872

Political cartoon depicting a woman on a rocky path carrying two children and a drunken husband on her back being tempted by Victoria Woodhull depicted as a devil. Ms. Woodhull holds a sign reading, "Be saved by free love." February 17, 1872. View the original source document: WHI 110054

Like her better-known contemporary Victoria Woodhull, Severance argued that traditional marriage oppressed women and threatened their moral, legal, medical and spiritual well-being. Despite her beliefs, Severance married and raised a family of her own. Her husband was a free-thinker, vegetarian and a radical like herself. She said of him "He never eats meat, fine flour bread, or butter [but mainly] grains, fruits and vegetables, and cereal."

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 earned Severance 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.

Death and Legacy

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 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."

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