Women Spiritualist mediums and Harry Houdini converged on Washington, D.C. in 1926 for a raucous, but previously little-studied, Congressional hearing on fortune-telling. This article examines that hearing and contextualizes it within the larger historiography of American women and feminism in the interwar years. With the disintegration of the suffrage movement, 1920s American feminists were faced with a difficult choice: demand full equality with men and downplay female solidarity, or emphasize women’s difference from men and defend the special prerogatives they had already won. Only with the advent of women’s liberation in the 1960s were women activists able once again to contain the equality-difference dichotomy within a single movement. This article, however, argues that 1920s Spiritualist mediums formed a critical vanguard of women able to anticipate the later multiplicity of feminisms by virtue of their presumed passivity. By declaring themselves mere vessels through which spirit personalities could speak and be heard, Spiritualist women could perform a variety of transgressive gender roles, both masculine and feminine, while remaining traditionally feminine in their non-séance lives. In defending themselves against Houdini’s gendered attacks, and in actually convincing a Congressional panel that Houdini himself was gender-transgressive, the Washington mediums drew power from their passivity and proved they could simultaneously be both egalitarian and maternal feminists—thus foreshadowing the pluralistic feminism of the later twentieth century.


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pp. 341-362
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