Who was Victoria Woodhull? Meet the first woman to run for president of the United States

Independent Staff
Friday 02 October 2020 16:45 BST
(Public Domain)

The first woman to run for president of the United States was unable to vote, too young to be elected, ignored by her chosen running mate, and ultimately thrown into prison on election day.

Yet Victoria Woodhull, a thrice-married mother of two, was not someone to be easily dissuaded.

"You’d be forgiven for thinking that Hillary Clinton was the first woman ever to run for the nation’s highest office," wrote Carol Felsenthal, author of Power, Privilege & the Post: The Katharine Graham Story. "Far from it."

She described Woodhull as a "beautiful, colorful and convention-defying woman" who was the first to put a little crack in that glass ceiling.

She announced her candidacy in 1871 - 50 years before women could vote.

There was no law preventing women from running for office, however, and the fact that she would have been 34 - a year too young - at the time of the election was apparently ignored.

Woodhull was officially nominated by the newly-formed Equal Rights Party on May 10, 1872, and her nomination was ratified at the party convention on June 6, 1872.

They also nominated the former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass for vice president, but he never acknowledged the nomination.

Woodhull's independent spirit was evident right from birth.

Born Victoria Claflin in the rural frontier town of Homer, Ohio, on September 23, 1838, she was the seventh of ten children and had to hustle to survive.

Myra MacPherson, a biographer of Woodhull, writes that the lives of the six surviving children were “filled with Dickensian debauchery.”

Her father, Reuben Buckman Claflin, was a con man who came from an impoverished branch of the Massachusetts-based Scots-American Claflin family.

When he was found to have set fire to the family's grist mill as an insurance fraud, they were forced to leave town in a hurry.

Woodhull, who had always boasted of her clairvoyance and fortune-telling skills, helped provide for the family and spent most of her youth traveling with her family's medicine show, telling fortunes and selling home-made medicines.

Hillary Clinton was the first woman nominee for a major party (EPA)

In 1853, at age 15, she eloped with Canning Woodhull, a medicine salesman who also claimed to be a doctor, and who had treated her when she fell ill aged 14.

The couple had two children, but it was not a happy marriage, and in 1860 they moved to New York City where her younger sister Tennessee was already living.

The sisters set up practice as mediums.

In 1864, in search of new clients, the Woodhulls and Tennie moved to Cincinnati, then Chicago, keeping on the move to avoid complaints and legal proceedings.

By the end of the year Woodhull would divorce her husband, tired of his drinking and womanizing.

A woman leaving her husband was considered scandalous at the time, but Woodhull was uninterested in public opinion.

She became an advocate of free love - the idea that you would remain with a partner as long as you choose, and then move on. She met Colonel James Harvey Blood, who had served as a Union soldier in Missouri during the Civil War, and the pair were married.

Woodhull and her sister set up literary salons in New York City, where the great ideas of the day would be debated, and where her belief in women's rights took shape.

The sisters around that time became spiritual advisers to 76-year-old Cornelius Vanderbilt, the wealthy railroad magnate whose wife had just died, and served as mediums to help him contact the spirit of his dead wife.

In exchange, Vanderbilt backed their blossoming financial ventures on Wall Street. They opened the first female-owned brokerage house - Woodhull, Claflin & Company - in 1870 and made a fortune at the New York Stock Exchange.

They used the money to start a newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, which for six years promoted women's suffrage and labor reform, as well as controversial opinions on taboo topics such as sex education, free love, short skirts, spiritualism, vegetarianism and licensed prostitution. It also published the first English translation of The Communist Manifesto.

Woodhull's salons, newspaper and financial acumen were gaining attention.

In January 1871 she became the first woman to address a House committee, delivering a speech before the House Judiciary Committee about women’s suffrage.

Joined by famed women’s suffrage advocates Susan B. Anthony and Isabella Beecher Hooker, she argued in her address that the 14th and 15th amendments implicitly afforded women the right to vote, because they did not mention gender.

She implored the committee to draft legislation giving women the right to vote, but they rejected her appeal.

Woodhull pressed on, but other crusaders such as Anthony and Beecher Hooker's two sisters, author Harriet Beecher Stowe and teacher Catherine Beecher found her too liberal and unconventional.

Shortly after her appearance at Congress, Woodhull announced her presidential run, challenging the incumbent Republican, Ulysses Grant, and Horace Greely, the Democratic nominee, in 1872.

The party platform included abolishing monopolies, a single form of currency, an end to war, direct and equal taxation, help for the unemployed and free trade.

“While others of my sex devoted themselves to a crusade against the laws that shackle the women of the country, I asserted my individual independence," Woodhull wrote, in an article in the New York Herald announcing her candidacy.

"While others prayed for the good time coming, I worked for it; while others argued the equality of woman with man, I proved it by successfully engaging in business; while others sought to show that there was no valid reason why woman should be treated socially and politically as a being inferior to man, I boldly entered the arena of politics and business and exercised the rights I already possessed.

“I therefore claim the right to speak for the unenfranchised women of the country.”

The press coverage of her presidential run was highly critical.

Cartoonist Thomas Nast described Woodhull as "Mrs Satan" and drew her dressed as a demon.

Election day was dramatic for Woodhull - who, probably as expected, received zero electoral votes. (There’s no record of how many popular votes she received.)

She was, of course, unable to vote for herself - and even if she was, there was a problem. She was in jail.

Spurred on by attacks on her support of free love, Woodhull in the month of the election published in her newspaper a detailed account of an adulterous affair Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent Protestant minister in Brooklyn and the brother of the Beecher sisters, and a parishioner, Elizabeth Tilton

The minister had condemned free love in his sermons, and Woodhull was determined to point out his hypocrisy.

Publication of the story sparked a scandal, and she was charged with obscenity and thrown into jail the week before the vote, along with her husband and sister.

Tilton's husband sued Reverend Henry Beecher for "alienation of affection" and the minister stood trial in 1875 for adultery.

The trial was one of the most sensational legal episodes of the era, holding the attention of hundreds of thousands of Americans, according to an account of Woodhull's life published by Ohio State University. The trial ended with a hung jury.

Blood divorced Woodhull and, in 1877, the now-bankrupt Victoria Woodhull and her sister left to start a new life in England.

She began giving lectures in London, and caught the eye of wealthy banker John Biddulph Martin.

The pair were married on October 31, 1883 - to the disapproval of his family.

She published the magazine The Humanitarian from 1892 to 1901, remained active in the British women's suffrage movement and various causes, and worked to distance herself from her former radical ideas on sex and love, OSU writes.

After her husband died in 1901, she gave up publishing and retired to the country, establishing residence at Bredon's Norton in Worcestershire, England.

She died on June 9, 1927 at Bredon's Norton at the age of 88.

Her presidential campaign, despite its spectacular failure, did leave its mark, academics argue.

“I think it did send a signal to political elites and members of our political institutions that this was an issue they would need to address,” said Jennifer Lawless, a politics professor at the University of Virginia.

“Questions of women’s political inclusion were not only going to be about the right to vote.”

Teri Finneman, an associate professor in the University of Kansas’s school of journalism and author of Press Portrayals of Women Politicians, said there were similarities between the press' depiction of Woodhull and both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin.

“Being the first is always difficult, and so the fact that she did that, that she put herself out there, she definitely put the crack in the ceiling,” said Finneman.

“What is frustrating today is how some of that same media vilification that she faced in 1872 has continued to be a thread in culture and media coverage of women even to this day.”

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