The Audacity to Run for President: Truth and Legends about Victoria Woodhull

By A.K. Patch on May 11, 2018 at 05:06 PM

For those of you regretting Hillary Clinton’s loss – and for those who are not – Hillary was not the first woman to run for President.  In fact, one woman preceded her by 136 years: Victoria Woodhull.

A name you’ve never heard, perhaps. But Woodhull owns a unique place in American history.

Though at age 35 she was officially under the age limit to run for president, Victoria was nominated by the Equal Right’s Party. Since the government did print ballots at the time, her party would have handed them out on Election Day. No one knows if any of the votes for her were even counted.

Upon her defeat, Victoria was not available to give a speech or publicly congratulate the winner of the 1872 race. She occupied a jail cell.

Arrested along with her and her husband, Col. James Blood, and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, for violating the Comstock Act by distributing what was considered obscene literature through the mail, Victoria drew the ire of many who were quite pleased to see her in the Ludlow Street jail in New York City.

But this is just part of her story.

Born in 1838 in Homer Ohio, and one of ten children, Victoria had a stern and possibly abusive upbringing by her father, reported to be a snake-oil salesman. Traveling in a painted wagon and teaching magnetic healing and fortune-telling, she and her sister were raised among faith healers and spiritualists who spoke with the dead, the popular recreation of many millions during the mid to late 1800’s and later.

Married off at age 15 to an alcoholic and womanizing physician, she gave birth to two children before divorcing Dr. Woodhull. Caring for a brain-damaged son and his sister must have been a great struggle for a single mother. Then in 1866, Victoria married an advocate of the spiritualist movement, Colonel James Blood. He convinced Victoria and Tennessee to move to New York City in 1868.

Once beggar-like and unwashed, the two sisters now had a new life to explore. Her unhappy first marriage may have been the genesis of her lifelong quest to bring women’s rights to the national level and clear frontier roads for women.

Spiritualism enticed many, including the millionaire widower, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who yearned to speak with his long-dead mother. He must have been enamored with the sister’s charms because he set them up as the first women stockbrokers on Wall Street in 1870. Though they were not the first women to have a seat on the Exchange, the firm of Woodhull and Claflin did well. One wonders if their early training prepared them for such a role. They dressed provocatively and drew crowds of ogling men who called them the “bewitching brokers.”

They then moved on to media. Victoria and Tennessee were not the first women to open a newspaper. That accomplishment belonged to Elizabeth Timothy from Charleston in 1738, and Ann Smith Franklin, (yes, that family) in Rhode Island from 1758 to 1763. Yet, the sisters turned their profits from stock investing into a newspaper for radicals.

The Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly covered what were controversial subjects at the time: vegetarianism, temperance, legalization of “sex work”, voting rights for all, freedom for all, even the first English version of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto (not knowing that Stalin and Mao waited in the future to weaponize this political theory). Victoria opposed what she saw as sexual slavery in and double standards for men and women in their marriages. More of her life’s story is outlined at https://www.britannica.com/biography/Victoria-Woodhull.    

Victoria’s radicalism drew criticism from more traditional viewpoints among the suffragette movement, including from Harriett Beecher Stowe. When Victoria was selected to be the Presidential candidate for the Equal Rights Party, her opponents did not debate her on the issues, but attacked her family and personal history, her advocacy for “Free Love” (freedom for all.) The party proposed that Frederick Douglass, the former slave and respected abolitionist, be her running mate, but there is conjecture that he never became part of the ticket.

When the alleged attacks from the Beecher Family did not cease, she exposed the popular Reverend Henry Ward Beecher as an adulterer – a giant heap of kindling thrown on the fire lit to consume her socially..

A few days before the election of 1872, Victoria, her husband, and sister, were arrested for distributing obscene literature. She missed the election and received no electoral votes. Harriet Beecher called her a “vile Jailbird”. After spending a few weeks in jail, they were forced to defend themselves legally against the government and lost their brokerage, newspaper, and an estimated $500,000. The financial and emotional debacle would have been devastating in so many ways for such a courageous woman.

Victoria divorced Col. Blood and moved to England in 1877. She did return to run for president twice more, unsuccessfully. Marrying a third time to a wealthy Englishman, she lived out her days there as an educator and publisher until she died in 1927.

A risk-taker, undaunted by criticism, a far-seeing advocate for women’s rights, Victoria should be as well-known today as she was in her time. Women and men can certainly recognize courage, commitment, and steadfastness when they see it.

Find more about Victoria Woodhull at http://www.victoria-woodhull.com/whoisvw.htm.

Allan Patch is the author of the contemporary/historical fiction thriller Apollo Series. Passage at Delphi and Delphi’s Chosen use contemporary characters, historical encounters, and page-turning adventure to pose the question: what must we learn from our past to ensure our future. Read more from Allan at www.akpatchauthor.com.