This Day in History: Victoria Woodhull is born
On this day in 1838, Victoria California Claflin is born. If you’ve heard of her, then you probably know her as Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President of the United States!
She ran for President before she even had the right to vote for herself.
Victoria came from a rough background. She was abused by her father and received relatively little schooling. She and her sister were made to earn money for the family by acting as mediums. At one point, her family was run out of town because of a stunt that her dad pulled: He apparently over-insured a grist mill, then burnt it down.
Kind of a humiliating way to grow up?
A few years later, a (still teenaged) Victoria married a man who was twice her age. He turned out to be an alcoholic, and he cheated on her repeatedly. After roughly a decade of marriage, she divorced him. But she kept his last name, Woodhull.
It was a difficult time in which to be a divorced woman, but Woodhull persevered—and succeeded—anyway. Her biographer notes that she was “hailed by admirers as ‘Queen Victoria’ and denounced by critics as ‘Mrs. Satan.’”
She joined with her sister to open a brokerage firm on Wall Street—they were the very first women stockbrokers! She founded a newspaper. She was the first woman to testify before Congress (on suffrage issues). She advocated for “free love.” Women, she felt, should be free to marry and to divorce and to control their own bodies (even with their husbands). Quite simply, they should be equal with men.
In 1870, she announced her intention to run for President.
“I anticipate criticism . . . [but] I trust that my sincerity will not be called in question,” she wrote. “I have dliberately and of my own accord placed myself before the people as a candidate for the Presidency of the United States, and having the means, courage, energy and strength necessary for the race, intend to contest it to the close.”
In May 1872, Woodhull was officially nominated on the Equal Rights Party ticket. The party also nominated former slave and abolitionist leader, Frederick Douglass, as her running mate. Apparently, he never acknowledged the nomination, but campaigned for Republican Ulysses S. Grant instead.
During the election, Woodhull’s name appeared on the ballot in some states, but her votes weren’t counted. In some ways, it didn’t matter. Woodhull was too young to run for President and was thus constitutionally ineligible, based purely on her age.
As for Woodhull herself, she wasn’t available to (attempt to) vote for herself on Election Day. She was sitting in a jail cell that day. Her newspaper had published a story about the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher and an alleged affair that he’d had. Woodhull was trying to highlight the double standard that applied to men versus women. Instead, she got arrested for “publishing an obscene newspaper.”
What an interesting contrast to our world? What would late 19th-century Americans think of all the tabloids in a standard grocery checkout line today?! Yikes.
The New York Herald may have summed up Woodhull’s candidacy best.
“Mrs. Woodhull offers herself in apparent good faith as a candidate, and perhaps has a remote impression, or rather hope, that she may be elected, but it seems that she is rather in advance of her time. The public mind is not yet educated to the pitch of universal women’s rights.”
Arrest of Victoria Woodhull, Tennie C. Claflin, and Col. Blood—They Are Charged with Publishing an Obscene Newspaper, NY Times (Nov. 3, 1872)
Carol Felsenthal, The Strange Tale of the First Woman to Run for President: Before Hillary Clinton, there was Victoria Woodhull (Apr. 9, 2015)
Danny Lewis, Victoria Woodhull Ran for President Before Women Had the Right to Vote, Smithsonianmag.com (May 10, 2016)
Kate Havelin, Victoria Woodhull: Fearless Feminist (2006)
Kathlyn Gay, American Dissidents: An Encyclopedia of Activists, Subversives, and Prisoners of Conscience (2012) (Volume 1)
Lucinda Shen, The incredible lives of two sisters who became the first female brokers on Wall Street, Business Insider (Oct. 15, 2015)
Mary Gabriel, Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored (1998)
Victoria Claflin Woodhull., The Origin, Tendencies and Principles of Government (1871)
Woman’s Idea of Government, New York Herald (May 27, 1860) (page 3)