Women’s History Month Notable Women Series: Victoria Woodhull

It is popularly believed that Belva Lockwood was the first woman to run for president. But was she really, or was she just the first acceptable woman to run?

The contender in question for the title of “first” is Victoria Claflin Woodhull.

Victoria Woodhull, photo by Matthew Brady

Victoria Woodhull, photo by Matthew Brady

Born in 1838 in Ohio into a family of traveling sideshow performers, Victoria began working early, reading fortunes with her sister. At the age of 15, she married Dr. Canning Woodhull, a man almost twice her age, and soon afterwards had her first child. For several years, she and her family continued to travel, tell fortunes, and sell medicines. Canning was an alcoholic, and in 1864, after having another child, Victoria divorced him.

In 1966, Victoria got married again, this time to James Harvey Blood. The couple moved to New York City, where Woodhull became friends with railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt (who was reportedly her sister’s lover). Vanderbilt backed the two sisters’ entry to Wall Street as America’s first female stockbrokers. They were very successful and in 1870 started publishing their own journal, Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly.

Woodhull used the journal to support progressive causes, including women’s suffrage and the 8-hour workday. And while she believed in monogamous relationships, she thought women should have the right to change their minds:

To woman, by nature, belongs the right of sexual determination. When the instinct is aroused in her, then and then only should commerce follow. When woman rises from sexual slavery to sexual freedom, into the ownership and control of her sexual organs, and man is obliged to respect this freedom, then will this instinct become pure and holy; then will woman be raised from the iniquity and morbidness in which she now wallows for existence, and the intensity and glory of her creative functions be increased a hundred-fold . . .”

She also exposed stock market fraud, insurance scams, and corruption in Congress. In 1872 the Weekly was the first to print the Communist Manifesto in English. The journal had about 20,000 subscribers during its six-year publication.

In 1872, Woodhull also became the presidential nominee on the Equal Rights Party ticket. Former slave Frederick Douglass was nominated for Vice President. (Douglass never acknowledged this nomination.) Established suffrage activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony declined to support her. Moreover, the other candidates refused to debate her in public forum. Votes for her ticket were not officially tallied. The candidacy was sullied by scandal and recriminations. And on November 2, 1872, just days before the presidential election, U.S. Federal Marshals arrested Woodhull, her second husband Colonel James Blood, and her sister Tennie C. Claflin for sending obscene material through the mail. The sisters were held in the Ludlow Street Jail for the next month.

Woodhull attempted to run for president two more times, in 1884 and in 1892. Some woman’s suffrage organizations repudiated the nominations, stating the nominating committee was not authorized. Her 1892 campaign was taken even less seriously because newspapers quoted her as saying she was “destined” by “prophecy” to be elected President of the United States in 1892.

After divorcing her second husband, Woodhull moved to England, married again, and remained there until her death in 1927.

While many historians and authors agree that technically Woodhull was the first woman to run for President of the United States, some people have questioned the legality of her run. She was under the constitutionally mandated age of 35. She did not receive any electoral votes and the popular votes were unrecorded. Women themselves could not legally vote until 1920. Her association with causes considered unseemly (such as free love and Communism) and with the black intellectual Frederick Douglass made her extremely controversial and unpopular. Historians tend to prefer to give the honor of “first” to the more “acceptable” Belva Lockwood.

Today, the Woodhull Freedom Foundation “works to affirm sexual freedom as a fundamental human right by protecting and advancing freedom of speech and sexual expression. WFF promotes sexuality as a positive personal, social and moral value through research, advocacy, activism, education and outreach.” Woodhull worked for much more than just sexual freedom however. She made a major contribution to the fight for women’s rights in every aspect of the culture.

Materials on Woodhull are scarce, but not totally unavailable, and include a DVD featuring Kate Capshaw and Gloria Steinem (“America’s Victoria: Remembering Victoria Woodhull”).

Victoria Woodhull

Victoria Woodhull

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