Exploring the life of the first woman to contest for the US presidency.
On November 2, 1872, The Woodhull and Claflin Weekly, run by Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin, published two incendiary pieces – one against Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent New York preacher, and the other against a prominent Wall Street businessman, Luther Challis. That same day Woodhull, Claflin and the Woodhull’s second husband Colonel James Blood were arrested by US Federal Marshalls on charges of publishing and sending “an obscene newspaper” through US Mail. The sisters were arrested while travelling in a carriage stacked with newspapers bearing the headline “PROGRESS! FREE THOUGHT! UNTRAMMELLED LIVES!”
The New York Herald reported that Woodhull was calm and composed and readily accompanied the officers. Woodhull was also a presidential candidate – the first American woman to contend for the office. Three days later, the US voted Ulysses S. Grant to a second term in office.
Born in Ohio, Woodhull was the seventh of ten children. Her mother, Roxanna Claflin was a follower of Franz Mesmer, an Austrian mystic, while her father Reuben Buckman Claflin was a snake oil salesman and a confidence trickster. Both Woodhull and sister, who was seven years her junior, had a terrible childhood – their lives were unpredictable, impoverished and nomadic.
Their father was a child-beater who often whipped Woodhull. While biographer Myra MacPherson disputes this, Barbara Goldsmith, author of Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull, also claimed that Woodhull was often starved and sexually abused by her father when she was a child.
He forced her to travel with him in his wagon and work as a child preacher and fortune teller while her sister was made to work as a “magnetic healer” and both were made to perform as “faith healers” and “clairvoyants who spoke to the dead”. An intelligent young girl, by the age of 11, Woodhull received only three years of formal education.
At the age of 15, she married 29-year old Canning Woodhull, a doctor, morphine addict, an alcoholic and womaniser. She often had to work alone to support the family. With Canning, she had two children – Byron and Maude Woodhull. After the birth of her second child, she divorced her husband but kept his surname. In 1866, she married Blood who was a Civil War veteran and had fought for the Union Army.
Free love, Marxism, women’s suffrage
Woodhull’s support for “free love”, by which she meant the freedom to marry, divorce and bear children without government interference, was possibly influenced by the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. Woodhull believed in monogamous relationships although she explicitly said that had the right to change her mind. She fought against the hypocritical tolerance of society towards men who engaged in sexual dalliances outside marriage but were judgmental of women who displayed their sexual agency.
In a speech delivered in 1871 at Steinway Hall in New York she said:
“Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.”
In 1870, with the assistance of a railroad tycoon and philanthropist who was also rumoured to be her Claflin’s lover, Woodhull and her sister opened a brokerage firm on Wall Street becoming the first woman stockbrokers in the US. They were quite successful in this endeavor with the New York Herald hailing the pair as “the Queens of Finance”. At the same time, several contemporary men’s journals published sexualized images of the pair running the firm linking it to the concept of un-chaperoned women with ideas of “sexual immorality”.
That same year, the two sisters used the money they made from the brokerage to establish the Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly to promote feminism, sex education, free love and women’s suffrage – controversial topics at that time. An advocate of equal pay, prison reform, universal healthcare, trade unionism and worker’s rights, Victoria also became a member of the First International and supported its goals through articles in her newspaper.
“We advocate the rights of the Lower Million against the Upper Ten!”, she once wrote. On December 30, 1871, the Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly became the first publication in the US to print an English translation of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto.
At the behest of Massachusetts senator Benjamin Butler, Woodhull was invited to address the House Judiciary Committee in 1871. She was only the second woman, after Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to be given this honour. In her speech, she cited the 14th Amendment to the American Constitution arguing that since it guaranteed the protection of the right to vote for all American citizens, women already had that right – all that was needed was for them to use it. More controversially, she also referred to the 15th Amendment, which had abolished slavery and stated that women in contemporary society had long been in servitude.
She concluded the speech with the threat of a feminist revolution:
“If Congress refuses to listen and to grant what women ask, there is but one course left to pursue. What is there left for women to do but to become the mothers of the future government?”
Woodhull’s address brought her to national attention and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper even printed a full-page engraving of her delivering the speech. Congress, however, refused to agree with her position and accept her demands.
“Mrs. Satan” contends for the White House
The National Woman Suffrage Association had lobbied leading figures of the established parties but met with little success. In its annual convention on 9 May 1872, they decided to take a more radical step – they formed a political offshoot, The Equal Rights Party. Woodhull was elected by the members to run for the office of President. Her running mate would be Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and prominent social reformer.
After she announced her candidacy, Harper’s Weekly published a caricature of Woodhull dressed in black with bat wings, a snarl on her face and clutching a placard with the words “Be Saved By Free Love”. In the background, was the sketch of a woman struggling up a steep path carrying an infant and an alcoholic husband but still rejecting Woodhull. The caption read: “I’d rather travel the hardest path of matrimony than follow in your footsteps.” The full-page cartoon was titled “Get Thee Behind Me, (Mrs.) Satan!”
While she raised the profile of “the woman question”, Woodhull was subjected, like today, to intense personal scrutiny and judgment of a degree that the other male candidates never experienced. Some of her fiercest critics were also women who feared that her unconventional lifestyle would dilute the seriousness of the women’s rights movement. Among them was Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author the anti-slavery book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In another novel, My Wife and I, Stowe made a thinly veiled reference to Woodhull as a “brazen tramp” and wrote, “Would it be any kind of woman we should want to see at the head of our government?”
However, her fiercest opponent was a conservative religious reformer named Anthony Comstock who referred to himself as a “weeder in God’s garden”. He went on to become a US postal inspector and the secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, presumably a prototype of the McCarthian House Un-American Activities Committee.
Three days before the nation went to the polls, Woodhull and Claflin, in an effort to quash criticism against her once and for all, published the two incendiary stories against Beecher and Challis. Beecher was the brother of Stowe and was a former friend and supporter of Woodhull. However, after she declared her candidacy, he used the pulpit to denounce Woodhull’s ideas of free love.
In her article, Woodhull alleged that while Beecher was preaching against her from the pulpit, he was also having an affair with Elizabeth Tilton, the wife of one of his friends, the poet (and later Woodhull’s biographer) Theodore Tilton. She made it clear she was not accusing him of immorality but was calling out his hypocrisy. He did not deny the allegation.
In another article authored by Claflin, Challis was accused of seducing two young girls, fresh from school and “robbing them of their innocence”. She wrote:
“Put a woman on trial for anything, let her even so much as go before the courts to obtain pecuniary justice – and it is considered a legitimate part of the defence to make the most searching inquiry into her sexual morality, and the decision generally turns upon the proof advanced in this regard. How is it with regard to men? Who thinks of attacking them in regard to their sexual morality?”
While the sisters stated that their aim was to bring to light the hypocrisy of patriarchal society, the vivid articles were just what Comstock needed for his crusade against “obscene literature”. He ordered copies of the newspaper through intermediaries to trigger an arrest warrant under a legislation to protect the “moral probity of the US Postal Service”.
Woodhull and Claflin were indicted by a federal grand jury and were released on bail after spending a month behind bars. They were exonerated of obscenity charges when the judge ruled that the obscenity legislation did not apply to newspapers. However, Woodhull’s career in the US was over.
After her release, she spent some time as a lecturer and reformer but perpetually suffered from scant resources and illnesses. She later left Blood and left for England with her sister and her now-grown children. Across the Atlantic, she worked for the British Suffragette Movement and both sisters eventually got married to wealthy Englishmen and spent their remaining lives in the country.
On November 5, 1872, three days after Woodhull and Claflin’s arrest, Susan B. Anthony exercised her right to vote and chose to cast her ballot in favour of Grant, whose Republican Party had promised to listen to women’s demands. Although two weeks later she would be arrested and tried for illegal voting, the point had been made.
It is not known how much of the popular vote Woodhull received as it is possible that many of the polling stations discarded the ballots which favoured her. However, we can be sure she did not carry any state and thus won no electoral votes. She tried to gain nominations again in 1884 and 1892 but received little support on the campaign trail.
In 1917, Jeanette Rankin became the first woman in Congress as the Montana representative of the Republican Party. By 1918, women could vote in 40 states and in 1920, through Rankin’s efforts, the US constitution was amended to mandate universal female suffrage.
As critics of First Wave Feminism have noted, Woodhull’s life was full of contradictions. She opposed organised religion and was a spiritualist but would often cite scripture and was married in the Protestant church; she admired Marx and Engels, advocated for unionism and decried institutions like the monarchy but became a stockbroker and eventually married a member of the British landed gentry; she was an advocate of free love and the woman’s right to choose her husband but fiercely opposed abortion and called the practice “barbaric”. She was also the mother of a child with a disability and dedicated her later years advocating eugenics.
Be that as it may, Woodhull was instrumental in paving the way for universal suffrage irrespective of gender.
Shirsho Dasgupta is a graduate student of English literature at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.