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May 3, 2017

Before Hillary Clinton, There Was Victoria Woodhull: The Strange Tale of the First Woman to Run for U.S President

In the 19th century, Victoria Claflin Woodhull was many things: a clairvoyant, a businesswoman, an advocate for women's rights and sexual freedom, and a magnet for media attention and scandal. But she is best known as the first woman to run for president. Her 1872 campaign came at a time when most women did not even have the right to vote.

Early Life and the First Marriage

Born in 1838 to an impoverished Ohio family, Victoria Claflin was a precocious child who claimed she had supernatural abilities. Her parents eagerly exploited her. She travelled with her siblings as part of a medicine show in which her faith-healing and fortune-telling skills and spiritualist powers were honed and marketed. At 14, she married Dr. Canning Woodhull, a notorious drunk and womanizer who was 12 years her senior. The unhappy union, which produced two children, lasted until 1864. She kept the Woodhull name.

Cabinet card of Woodhull by Mathew Brady, between 1866 and 1873.

The First Female Brokers on Wall Street

Accompanied by her younger sister, Tennie, Woodhull relocated to New York, where the two young women befriended the septuagenarian railway baron, Cornelius Vanderbilt. Depressed after the death of his wife, as well as losing millions of dollars to stock speculators, he was taken by them, especially 23-year-old Tennie, who offered him physical and spiritual comfort. He is rumored to have been her sister Tennie's lover, and to have seriously considered marrying her. By 1870, he had helped them to establish the first female brokerage house in New York and then supported their newspaper venture.

Victoria Woodhull, ca. 1860s.

Free Love

Woodhull was a provocative personality. She was a feminist, supporter of the suffrage movement and labour rights and a proponent of "free love." She often spoke about sex on the lecture circuit, saying, among other things, that women should have the right to escape bad marriages and control their own bodies. Even more shocking to Victorian sensibilities, she espoused free love. “I want the love of you all, promiscuously,” she once declared. “It makes no difference who or what you are, old or young, black or white, pagan, Jew, or Christian, I want to love you all and be loved by you all, and I mean to have your love.” Woodhull practiced what she preached, at one point living with her ex-husband, her husband and her lover in the same apartment. Yet she also knew when to hold back her amorous affections. “Let women issue a declaration of independence sexually, and absolutely refuse to cohabit with men until they are acknowledged as equals in everything, and the victory would be won in a single week,” she wrote.

Portrait photograph of Victoria Claflin Woodhull by Mathew Brady, between 1866 and 1873.

In her newspaper and on the lecture circuit, she "took a positive view of sex" and campaigned for birth control and legalized prostitution — and did so while being fashionably avant-garde for the era. She kept her hair short, wore ankle-length skirts, and "mannish cut" jackets and neckties.

Women's Rights Advocate

Early in 1871, she was invited to address the House of Representatives judiciary committee. She gave a convincing presentation that the recently adopted 14th and 15th Amendments to protect the civil and suffrage rights of African-Americans could be extended so women could be granted the right to vote. Though that was not to happen for close to 50 years, she attracted sufficient attention from the newly formed National Woman Suffrage Association. A year-and-half later at the NWSA’s convention in New York, the delegates formed the Equal Rights Party and selected Woodhull as their presidential candidate.

Victoria Claflin Woodhull asserts her right to vote. (MPI/Getty Images)

Spent Election Day in jail

On Nov. 2, 1872, three days before that year’s election Woodhull was arrested and incarcerated in a New York City jail. Her crime: she published (and then violated state law by using the postal service to distribute) allegedly scandalous articles in her weekly newspaper. One of the articles was about an alleged affair between Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, a popular Brooklyn minister, and Elizabeth Tilton, the wife of Beecher’s friend, journalist Theodore Tilton (who wrote a fawning biography of Woodhull and in all probability had an affair with her).

"Get thee behind me, (Mrs.) Satan!" 1872 caricature by Thomas Nast: Wife, carrying heavy burden of children and drunk husband, admonishing (Mrs.) Satan (Victoria Woodhull), "I'd rather travel the hardest path of matrimony than follow your footsteps." Mrs. Satan's sign reads, "Be saved by free love." (Library of Congress)

Presidential Candidate

Like Clinton, Woodhull was insulted by her enemies in the press as a "witch" and portrayed in political cartoons as "Mrs. Satan." In 1872, she was 34 and hence one year shy of the 35-year-old constitutional age requirement to be U.S. president. The Equal Rights Party had selected as her running mate Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist, except it had not bothered to ask him first. He ignored Woodhull and the party and campaigned for the Republican incumbent (and eventual winner), Ulysses S. Grant. And even if she had not been locked up on election day, she could not have voted for herself and neither could the women who supported her.

Cabinet card portrait photograph of Victoria Woodhull, ca. 1870.

It is not known how many popular votes the Woodhull-Douglass ticket received, though the number was likely not much more than a few thousand. Nothing came of the obscenity charges against Woodhull.

Since 1872, many more women have run for U.S. president; some (such as Clinton in 2008) as contenders for Democratic and Republican parties, but the majority for third or fringe parties.

Victoria Woodhull, no doubt, would have been supportive and sympathetic.

"I announce myself as candidate for the presidency," Woodhull said in 1872. "I anticipate criticism; but however unfavorable I trust that my sincerity will not be called into question."

Victoria Woodhull, disparaged because of her unconventional personal life and inability to earn a single electoral vote, was the first woman to run for president, in 1872. (Getty Images)

Off to England

In a time when divorce was looked down upon, Woodhull was married three times, had many lovers and spoke publicly about sexuality and social reform. It is no wonder she was scrutinized for her beliefs. Woodhull and her sister moved to England in 1877. Woodhull continued to write, and published a magazine with her daughter for nearly a decade.

She married her last husband, John Biddulph Martin, in 1883. From then on, she was known as Victoria Woodhull Martin.

Victoria Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin in the front row, with fellow suffragists in 1910. (Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Victoria Claflin Woodhull Martin died June 9, 1927 in Bredeon’s Norton, Worcestershire, England.


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