American History · biography · history

Victoria Woodhull: First Female Presidential Candidate and Activist

Victoria Claflin was born on September 23, 1838 in Homer, Ohio. She was the seventh of ten children and was closest to her youngest sister, Tennessee. She grew up in a very rural area and her parents were considered “undesirable” in society. Her father was a con man and her mother a religious fanatic. Victoria would learn the valuable trade of fortune telling and how to be a medium through her mother. Victoria had to drop out of school after only three years of elementary school in order to earn income for her poor family. She earned this through fortune telling. The family was exiled from Homer after her father burned down their gristmill to try and cash in on the insurance policy. From this moment on Victoria spent much of her time traveling with her family attempting to earn money. Through her difficult childhood, Victoria learned to be independent and find strength within herself.

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At fifteen years old she met the 28 year old Canning Woodhull who allegedly was an educated doctor coming to rural Ohio to start a practice. He wooed Victoria with promises of stability and they married on November 20, 1853. In reality, Canning was a stranger to Victoria and now, through marriage, she was required to be obedient to this stranger. In the 19th century women had very little power within their marriages. A wife was essentially the husband’s property and he had a right to reclaim her if she ran off. Men could beat their wives and have control over the family finances while the wife was expected to either prosper or fall with him. Victoria soon became disenchanted with this life learning that Canning was actually not an up and coming doctor and had virtually no income. He was a drunk and was constantly unfaithful. To quote Victoria herself, “I soon learned that what I had believed of marriage and society was the nearest sham, a cloak made by their devotees to hide the realities and to entice the innocent into their snares. I found everything was reeking with rottenness….”

Victoria would go on to have two children with Canning Woodhull. Her first son, Byron, was born with a mental disability and Victoria blamed this on her husband’s drinking habit. “I realized from that day that I should wage war against this seething impacted mass of hypocrisy and corruption, existing under the name of the present social system” Victoria would say later. The birth of her first son marked a change in her life. Her second child was a daughter whose name was Zulu Maude. With a useless husband, Victoria took it upon herself to find odd jobs to earn some income for her family despite the difficulties as a woman to even be considered for a job. Starting in 1860, Victoria and her sister, Tennessee, began their own traveling medium business where they ended up getting in trouble for fraud in Cincinnati and Chicago. As they traveled they profited off those who lost loved ones in the ongoing Civil War and they “connected” their customers with their dead relatives. Throughout this time in her life, Victoria learned and witnessed the difficult lives many different women had. She learned the abuse the women felt and witnessed the women who were abandoned and had to resort to sex work to make ends meet. This influenced Victoria’s later campaigns.

In 1864 Victoria divorced Canning Woodhull, which was something very rare during the 19th century. She became a supporter of the free love movement which was the idea that a person had the choice to stay with a person for as long or as short as they wanted. That a person could then commit to a different relationship after leaving the first. This may sound like something obvious to our modern ears, but for women during this era once they were married it was almost impossible to get out. In some cases one could divorce (like Victoria did), but, as a woman, you became an outcast on society. Victoria soon met and began a relationship with a very socially progressive man named Colonel James Blood. He had served in the Union army and they actually met when he came to her for a spiritual encounter. The two essentially became engaged, but there is no documentation to show that they were actually married. Blood provided Victoria with the education she never had and Victoria was exposed to the early women’s rights movement.. Blood introduced Victoria to free thinking and different radical social reforms and she was lucky to have a partner who believed in the same progressive ideas she did.

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Victoria’s sister and business partner, Tennessee Claflin

Victoria moved back to New York to meet up with her sister, Tennessee and began their fight for women’s rights. They needed money to get started though and this is where their paths crossed with Cornelius Vanderbilt. He paid the sisters generously for their spiritualist predictions, included ones that brought financial success. Vanderbilt supported the sisters as they started their own brokerage on Wall Street! Woodhull, Claflin & Co began in 1870 and the sisters began to make more and more money in the stock exchange, despite the anger of their male competition. In six weeks Victoria made over $700,000. The women became front page news and Mary Gabriel quotes some of the headlines in her book, “Queens of Finance”, “Future Princesses of Erie”, and “Vanderbilt’s Proteges”. Though women taking part in the “man’s” world did attract criticism as well. “When I first came to Wall Street,” Victoria later states, “not 100 women in the whole of the United States owned stocks or dared to show independence in property ownership. Highest positioned men scowled at any thought of woman investment. For a woman to consider a financial question was shuddered over as a profanity…the step we were induced to take with the view of proving that woman, no less than man, can qualify herself for the more onerous occupations of life..”

Victoria struggled in the beginning of her life in a limited and poor background, but now she was famous and wealthy. She became involved with by attending women’s rights conventions around the country and, using the profits from her business and investments, the sisters began their own newspaper. It was called Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly and would run for six years. In these issues the women addressed ideas of women as equals including how Victoria was a mother of two and still successful in what she did. The articles supported the suffrage movement and advocated free love. It even dabbled in calling out different frauds and con men among the different brokerage shops. Most importantly the newspaper announced Victoria’s candidacy for the president of the United States.

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In April 1870, Victoria announced her candidacy for presidency. She campaigned on a platform which centered around women’s rights, regulation of monopolies, eight hour workday, abolition of the death penalty, welfare for the poor, free love, direct taxation, and nationalization of the railroads. She used her magazine to promote herself and organized the Equal Rights Party (the party which would end up nominating her). She even was so bold as to declare Frederick Douglass her running mate, but this was never acknowledged. Victoria was hurt by scandals in her personal life though, including her life with her two husbands and her mother’s lawsuit against her second husband. Some states did run Victoria’s name on their ballots, but it seems her votes were not even counted. Ulysses S. Grant would end up winning re-election in that campaign. Still, it is remarkable that Woodhull was able to get her name on some ballots though she did not have the right to vote herself.

Victoria actually spent election day in jail as she had published an article naming famous preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, as an “adulterous hypocrite.” Victoria had faced a lot of hate from outsiders in the past due to her support of free love, but she wanted to point out the hypocrisies of those who fought against her. She faced a lot of backlash for this article and Beecher’s supporters ordered an arrest warrant for Victoria on the grounds that she was sending “obscene material” through the mail. Victoria and her sister stayed in jail for about a month after this incident.

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In 1871, Victoria became the first woman to address a congressional committee. She argued that women already had the right to vote under the 14th and 15th amendment:

“That since the adoption of the fifteenth article of amendments to the constitution, neither the State of New York nor any other State, nor any territory, has passed any law to abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote, as established by said articles, neither on account of sex or otherwise.

That nevertheless, the right to vote is denied to women citizens of the United States by the operation of election laws in several States and Territories, which laws were enacted prior to the adoption of the said Fifteenth article, and which are inconsistent with the Constitution as amended, and therefore are void and of no effect; but which, being still enforced by the said States and Territories, render the Constitution inoperative as regards the rights of women citizens to vote:

And whereas article sixth, section second, declares ‘That this Constitution, and the laws of the United States which…shall be the supreme law of the land; and all judges in every State shall be bound thereby’…

And whereas no distinction between citizens is made in the Constitution of the United States on account of sex, but the fourteenth article of amendments to it provides that ‘no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States,’ ‘nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws…’ “

Basically, Victoria was saying that according to her interpretation of the constitutional amendments women were considered citizens and no state had the right to block the rights all citizens were given through the constitution. She also believed “the citizen who is taxed should also have a voice in the subject matter of taxation.” She found it hypocritical that she was taxed like a full citizen, but was not given the rights of a full citizen.

Her petition to congress was rejected, but this event proved that she was one of the leading members of the suffragist cause (for a fuller account of Victoria’s speech refer to Notorious Victoria pg 76-77, 84-86). Later, she even went so far as to call for secession for women to form their own government since they were not invited to be a part of the one men had created and excluded their sex from. These were bold statements, but her speeches helped to energize the women’s rights movement. Victoria would continue to give speeches fighting for women’s suffrage and their rights in marriage (through the free love movement).

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Victoria Woodhull would receive quite a bit of negative feedback due to what she spoke about and believed in. In this cartoon she is portrayed as Satan.

After all the scandal with Victoria’s personal life (she ended up divorcing Col. Blood in 1876) and the drama with her arrest, many of the leaders of the suffragist movement began to pull away from Woodhull. They viewed her too radical even for their movement. It was truly due to her free love ideals and her ideas of sexuality more than anything else. After her divorce, Woodhull’s publication of the Weekly ended. She continued to lecture, but her life was slowly falling apart.

By 1877, Victoria and her sister were now bankrupt and left to find a new life in England. In December of 1877, Victoria appeared as a lecturer at St. James Hall in London. Through her lectures she met the wealthy banker, John Biddulph Martin, who would become her next husband. In England, Woodhull published a new magazine, The Humanitarian, under the name Victoria Woodhull Martin from 1892-1901. She became active in the suffrage movement in England and advocated from women’s rights, but knew to stay away from her former topics of free love which got her in trouble in the past. Victoria died on June 9, 1927 at the age of 88.

Victoria Woodhull was very controversial throughout her life, but she was bold enough to actually fight back against the Victorian ideals of a woman’s place. She was a trailblazer and others would soon follow her lead. She spoke out for women’s equal education, for a woman’s right not to stay with an abusive husband, for women to take charge of their own health decisions, and for their right to vote. She did so much good, yet it was tinged with scandal which hurt her in the end. Victoria will be remembered as an activist, businesswoman, writer, and presidential candidate.

Further Reading:

Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored by Mary Gabriel

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