Yes, there was a woman who ran for President of the United States before Hillary Clinton, and before Shirley Chisholm, and before any other female contenders. The year was 1872, and the candidate was the brilliant, irrepressible, outspoken, and outrageous Victoria Claflin Woodhull.
Born in 1838 in Ohio, Victoria received only three years of education before having to leave school abruptly because her family was “encouraged” to get out of town. Their flight was due to her father having insured an old grist mill and then, when it mysteriously caught fire, tried to collect the hefty payoff on the policy. The locals, familiar with the Claflin family’s ways, took up a collection to speed them on their way, and got together a vigilante committee just in case they weren’t speedy enough.Old man Claflin, taking advantage of public fascination with spiritualism, was soon bringing in cash by presenting Victoria and her sister Tennessee (Tennie) as having mystic abilities. Both girls were pretty and good actresses and their road show went from town to town, no doubt having to make the occasional quick exit pursued by the local sheriff. Victoria and Tennie were supporting the whole Claflin clan after a while, and Victoria became known as a healer. Along the way Victoria married a Dr. Woodhull, had two children, and divorced.Eventually they all ended up in New York City, and Victoria and Tennie, who were now well-known in spiritualist circles, made the acquaintance of millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt. He was so taken with the two sisters and so impressed by their contacts with the other world, which included some good financial guesses, that he helped them start their own investment business. Now Victoria, with the help of Tennie, who is thought to have become more than spiritual with the Commodore, was in charge of her very own brokerage firm. She and her sister were the first women stockbrokers on Wall Street. Victoria made a killing on the stock market.
Somewhere along the way, Victoria married Col. James Blood, who was a great help to her in putting out the successful newspaper she founded, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly.
The Weekly was sensational, and far ahead of its time. Victoria and her writers spoke out for women’s suffrage and other feminist topics, free love and workers’ rights. They even printed The Communist Manifesto. If a subject was thought to be taboo or radical, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly made sure it got covered. And, of course, Victoria was still interested in Spiritualism, so the activities of spiritualist societies were well covered.
It is no surprise that Victoria then decided to make the leap into politics. She testified on women’s suffrage in Washington before the House Judiciary Committee. Some of the established feminists applauded her, but she met her match when she bumped heads with Susan B. Anthony. When Susan B. thought Victoria got out of line in a speech at the National Women’s Suffrage Association, she had the lights in the auditorium turned out!
In 1872, despite the fact that women would not gain the vote for many decades, Victoria Woodhull became a candidate for President of the United States as nominee of the Equal Rights Party. Whose rights did she speak out for? Women’s and everyone else’s ! Frederick Douglass was nominated for Vice President by the Equal Rights Party even though he was not present at their convention and never consented to do so.
Alas, Victoria did not get on the ballot and did not have the opportunity to campaign. She and her sister Tennie were both arrested and jailed on charges of “obscenity” for revealing in the Weekly that Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, the country’s best known minister, had an adulterous affair with a woman in his congregation.
To make a long story short, all turned out well for the remarkable Victoria Woodhull. She divorced Col. Blood, moved to England, and became a lecturer. Soon she met and married a wealthy banker. Sister Tennie also moved to England and married well. Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President of the United States, died in England in 1927. Today she is recognized as a pioneer in the women’s rights movement. —- Kristina Simms, 2016
Kristina Simms is a retired educator, a past president of GFDW, and author of several books, most recently a Kindle e-book entitled Assignment in Time, available at Amazon.com. Assignment in Time is a novel for teens about a high school senior who travels in time and visits some key events in the American women’s suffrage movement.