Americas,  ER,  United States

Victoria Woodhull

Victoria Woodhull ca 1860 Photo Credit- Bradley & Rulofson, 429 Montgomery Street, San Fancisco – Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum, Historical Photographs and Special Visual Collections Department, Fine Arts Library

There has been a lot of talk about how Hillary Clinton was not the first woman to run for president.  Technically, this is correct, however, the main historic thing about the 2016 election is that Clinton is the first woman to be nominated by a major political party.  Alas, we still are primarily a two party system for good or for ill.  We will get into the Bull Moose party at another time…  Anyway, back to women running for president.  The first in American history was Victoria Woodhull, and she was running at a time when she could not even vote for herself.

Victoria Woodhull was born September 23, 1838 in Homer, Ohio.  Victoria’s parents were less than ideal.  Her biographer, Myra MacPherson, said her mother, Annie, was considered a “slattern” and an “unpleasant hag”.  Her father, Buck, was a snake oil salesman, a thief and a child beater.  Lovely family.  Buck had the his two daughters travel with him and claim to the fortune tellers and faith healers.  The two girls received almost no formal education being on the road.  Unsurprisingly, Victoria married young, at the age of 15, to Canning Woodhull, with whom she had two children.  The couple took the drastic and unheard of at the time step of divorcing in 1864.  

Traveling to New York City with her sister, spiritualist Tennessee Claflin, they revived their old faith healing act.  In 1868 Victoria met Cornelius Vanderbilt.  The two sisters provided solace to the newly widowed Vanderbilt, who was so impressed he set them up in the first woman-run stock brokerage in the country.  The press loved this, and dubbed the pretty sisters “the queens of finance” and “bewitching brokers”.  Many writers have speculated on the nature of the “solace” provided, but MacPherson maintains Victoria probably did not become Vanderbilt’s lover.  She does speculate that Celeste did.  Victoria also met and married Colonel James H Blood around this time, who also introduced her to several reform movements.  The two sisters created Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly in 1870, which was a radical publication and reflected their ideals on women’s suffrage, birth control and free love.

Detail of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly announcing Woodhull’s nomination, April 22, 1871.

Woodhull ran as a candidate in the 1872 election for the Equal Rights Party, also called the People’s Party, which supported equal rights for women including suffrage.  Woodhull also called for the “reform of political and social abuses; the emancipation of labor, and the enfranchisement of women” as well as the abolition of capital punishment and improved civil rights.  Selected as her running mate was former slave turned abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.  (For more on Frederick Douglass, please see this post )  It is unclear how much Douglass was involved in the campaign.  He did not appear at the nominating convention, never agreed to run and never participated in the campaign.  Douglass also gave stump speeches for the competition, Ulysses S. Grant, so it doesn’t sound like he was too onboard with the ticket.  Other friends of President Grant attacked Woodhull’s character in the most effective way possible to smear a woman- they questioned her sexual ethics.  Woodhull made no secret of her support for free love, however, her definition is more conservative than the term implies.  Woodhull advocated giving women the right to “marry, divorce, and bear children without government interference”.  These men alleged she was having affairs with married men.  They also said her former husband was an alcoholic and her sister was a drug addict.  This was enough to turn off the more conservative leaders of the American Woman Suffrage Association, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who supported her other opponent, Horace Greeley.

Woodhull hit back through her paper.  The main source of the attacks on her were the revered Brooklyn minister, Henry Ward Beecher.  The paper published an article accusing the minister of having an affair with a married woman and rank hypocrisy.  Woodhull, her husband Colonel Blood and her sister were arrested three days from the presidential election on charges of “indecency” and sending “an obscene newspaper” through the mail.  There was also a question as to whether Woodhull was even eligible to take the office of president.  Not only was she a woman, and could not technically vote, but she would have been 34 years old at the time of her inauguration if she had been elected.  She maintained the Constitutional prohibition that the president must be 35 when taking office did not apply because it said “he”.  In the end it did not matter as Woodhull received zero electoral votes.  Her popular vote total was not recorded.

Colonel Blood and Woodhull divorced in 1876, the same year that her paper stopped being published.  Her attacks on Beecher had made Woodhull a target for vitriol in the US and she retreated to London in 1877.  She married a third time to John Biddulph Martin, a member of a wealthy banking family and lived on a manor house on a 1,200 acre estate in the Cotswolds until her death in 1927.


Sources available on request