The First Woman Presidential Candidate - "Notorious Victoria" Woodhull

Dan Bryan, May 6 2012

Victoria Woodhull

Who was the first woman in the United States to run for President?

If you know the answer to this question, then you might well be acquainted with the mercurial genius of Victoria Claflin Woodhull. Her 1872 campaign fostered so much controversy that she spent election day in jail.

This was hardly the only time that Woodhull made the papers. As a Spiritualist, courtesan, free love advocate, divorcee, sometime Marxist, publisher, and stock broker, she was considered (by most of her cohort) to be one of the most notorious women in all of American history.

Growing up abused -- The early life of Ms. Woodhull

The early life of Victoria Woodhull is a stark counterexample to the images of a bygone Americana. She was sexually abused from a young age, exploited for material gain, and completely unprotected by family, friends, or the law. Her knowledge of oppression came first-hand.

Born in 1838 in Homer, Ohio, she learned about the world from the perspective of a traveling medicine and fortune telling show. Her father, "Dr. R.B. Claflin, American King of Cancers", was one of innumerable fraudsters who traveled from town to town, selling worthless concoctions and collecting his cash. When he wasn't on the road, he looked for other ways to fleece people.

Victoria's job was to add some entertainment. With her sister, she performed spiritualist acts and fortune telling, perhaps making the customers feel better about the family that their money was supporting. Her father was a terribly abusive man -- Victoria said that he had made her "a woman before my time" --and she lived in fear of him for her entire childhood. In many ways, Spiritualism became her escape. Her seances with the dead replaced the corporeal brutality of the world.

Moving from town to town in the Midwest, this was her way of life until she eloped with Canning Woodhull at the age of 15. The eleven year marriage was a nightmare. Like her own father, Canning was a "doctor" in the way that this word was interpreted at the time. He was also an alcoholic, a womanizer, a morphine addict, and basically a deadbeat. Victoria turned to any work she could find to support herself and her two small children, eking a living out as a fortune teller and at other trades, but decent work was hard to find for a woman of the 1850s.

Finally she took the extraordinary step of securing a divorce. For the duration of her public life, her opponents would construct a reality in which Canning Woodhull had been a gentleman and a provider. As with any divorcee of the era, they hounded her mercilessly.

Prosperity after the Civil War

Always a sharp woman, Victoria Woodhull's fortunes improved greatly after her divorce. She found material success as a psychic -- using her skills as a medium to another world to advise and entertain. She also developed more fully a coherent philosophy of women's autonomy and free love (roughly meaning serial monogamy in this case, not "free love" as practiced in later eras). These two things combined one day when she had a spiritual vision of herself as the ruler of her society.

After the Civil War, Woodhull married a liberal, upper-class veteran named Colonel James Blood, who shared her affinity for Spiritualism and free love. They moved to New York and before long she was famous.

She hosted a salon. Men of such renown as Benjamin Butler and Stephen Andrews attended. Her intelligence and wit -- which had been subsumed in her lifelong struggle for existence -- now blossomed into a much appreciated commodity.

For her part, Victoria's sister met and seduced an aging Cornelius Vanderbilt. Political leftism did not extend so far as to preclude the two sisters from taking his invaluable investment advice. In 1870, Vanderbilt helped the two sisters to open a stock brokerage. The two were savvy enough at investing, and they acquitted themselves well on Wall Street as the "bewitching brokers".

At the same time, they published a magazine called Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly. It gained 20,000 subscribers and tacked very far to the left on most issues, proclaiming itself "The Organ of the Most Advanced Thought and Purpose in the World!"

A scandalous Presidential Campaign

Victoria Woodhull could have had a very comfortable life. As of 1871, she was making very good money from her magazine, her brokerage business, and the occasional speaking engagement. Instead, she ran for President of the United States.

Victoria Woodhull Presidential Flyer, 1872A Victoria Woodhull presidential campaign flyer.

The collective guffaws could be heard throughout the land. How could someone run for President when they weren't even a citizen? When they couldn't even vote for themselves?

And then came the slander -- vicious, misogynistic, and embittered. The intensity seems strange, when a skunk or a kangaroo had a better chance of winning the election than Ms. Woodhull ever would.

The issues raised were entirely related to her personal life -- her advocacy of free love and her affairs outside of her marriage. All of this followed from her belief that women should have the same rights men did, and her refusal to be controlled by a system that assumed otherwise. She ignored the attacks at first, until by their relentless nature she did proclaim --

"Yes, I am a free lover.  I have an inalienable, constitutional, and natural right to love whom I may, to love for as long or as short a period as I can; to exchange that love every day if I please.... and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame has any right to interfere...."

The situation reached a crescendo as 1872 continued. The "Wicked Woodhull" couldn't even rent an apartment in New York, and had to sleep on the floor of her magazine's office for a brief period.

The Henry Ward Beecher Controversy

In the midst of this firestorm, Woodhull went on the counteroffensive. One of her most prominent critics was Henry Ward Beecher, a famous Brooklyn preacher who also happened to be a philanderer. When he and his sisters (Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catherine Beecher) refused to stop their attacks, Woodhull's magazine published exposés on Beecher's hypocrisy, including some salacious tidbits about an adulterous affair of his.

Instead of being shocked by the revelations, the press rushed to Beecher's defense while U.S. Marshalls arrested Woodhull for transmitting pornographic materials through the mail (one of the articles used the word "virginity").

Mrs. Satan, Victoria Woodhull"Mrs. Satan" as portrayed in Harper's Weekly.

"An example is needed, and we propose to make one of these women," said U.S. Commissioner Osborn as he set Woodhull's bail at $8,000.

As America voted in 1872, its first female candidate sat confined in the Ludlow Street Jail.

Ruminations on Ms. Hoodhull's campaign

Why were the attacks against Ms. Woodhull of such a venomous slant?

She had her defenders in the world -- up to and including men like Cornelius Vanderbilt and Benjamin Butler. And to be sure the notion of free love is not one that exists without its problems. But her opponents resorted to yellow journalism and personal slander in a way that belies the motive of intellectual disagreement. There were a lot of men and women who reacted apoplectically to her public statements, and looked for any means of debasement they could find.

Certainly her political platform didn't help. On top of advocating for women and freed slaves, she stretched the limits of American discourse on economic issues. She was the first person to translate and publish Karl Marx in the United States. She called for an income tax and land redistribution for instance, when those ideas were far outside of the American debate.

Perhaps some were motivated to denounce Woodhull by their true Christian faith, though it tellingly seemed as if the secretly adulterous were the most alarmed by her speeches. Whatever the mix of intellect, emotion, and instinct that propelled her opponents, she represented a threat to some of the most central underpinnings of American society:

  • That women were desireless.
  • That monogamous matrimony was the natural order.
  • That women were less intellectually capable than men.

Not to be outdone, many women piled on with their own criticism, to the extent that women had a public voice in the 1870s. Catherine Beecher was possibly the most widely read woman's author of that time, and she despised Woodhull and was in the front ranks of her critics. The nascent suffragist movement was largely lukewarm to her, afraid to either embrace her or to disavow her fully.

It is the fate of many women and minorities who aspire simply to live their own life to the fullest, to advance to the limits of their capabilities, that they come under a certain degree of attack from the people who might be their advocates. Woodhull caught criticism from almost everywhere, because some feminists perceived her behavior to be a weight on the women's movement in general. Had she been a man, then her conduct might have reflected upon her own actions only. Since she was a woman, the movement for suffrage and women's rights feared that they too might be judged by her actions, and the result was further isolation.

Victoria Woodhull emerged bankrupt from her historic campaign. Her brokerage and her magazine were both ruined, and her reputation in the United States was in tatters. Throughout the 1870s, she was arrested several more times until she finally fled to England.

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About the Author

Dan Bryan

Dan Bryan is the founder and editor of American History USA. He holds a B.A. in American History from the University of Chicago. He has created this site to empower Americans of all backgrounds to increase their historical literacy.

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