Long before Hilary Clinton’s 2008 run for President of the United States, Victoria Claflin Woodhull put the first crack in the presidential glass ceiling with her ground breaking run for the White House in 1872, nearly fifty years before women would even receive the right to vote. Ahead of her time, Woodhull also tried her hand at stockbroking, newspaper publishing, lobbying, public speaking, clairvoyance and philanthropy.
Although she is not especially well-known today, this 19th century iconoclast, whose unconventional lifestyle and radical political views earned her powerful enemies, attracted more media attention than a Donald Trump press conference. On April 2, 1870, she made national news when she sent a letter the New York Herald stating her declaration to run for president. In the note, she wrote:
“I am quite well aware that in assuming this position I shall evoke more ridicule than enthusiasm at the outset. But this is an epoch of sudden changes and startling surprises. What may appear absurd today will assume a serious aspect to-morrow.”
Two years later, Woodhull was officially nominated to be the presidential candidate for the Equal Rights Party, a political group she helped organize. She faced tough opposition against incumbent Republican Ulysses S. Grant and Democrat Horace Greeley. Woodhull selected Frederick Douglass, the famed ex-slave turned abolitionist as her running mate. Douglass, however, never agreed to run with Woodhull and never participated in the campaign, choosing instead to give stump speeches for Grant.
At the time, Woodhull was criticized for what were considered to be radical beliefs by many Americans. The heart and soul of her platform was a society free a government that makes laws which interfere with the rights of any individual, man or woman, black or white, “to pursue happiness as they may choose.” In particular, she was singled out for her staunch support for free love, which at that time meant believing that women should have the freedom to choose who they wanted to marry and have the right to divorce their husbands.
Newspapers across the country disparaged her reputation, notably by newspaper cartoonist Thomas Nast, who literally depicted her as the devil in a Harper’s Weekly illustration. All that bad publicity resulted in Woodhull being evicted from her home and many New York landlords were unwilling to rent to her. Meanwhile, Zula, Woodhull’s 11-year-old daughter, was forced to switch schools as other parents didn’t want Zula to be bad influence on their children.
As the national press tore her apart, Woodhull lashed out at allies who she believed let her down. The last straw came when she called out a former friend, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, who she claimed had had dozens of affairs. When she published these allegations in her newspaper, she was arrested for violating morality laws and spent Election Day in a jail cell.
But this is only part of the story. Woodhull’s eccentricity didn’t begin with her historic run for the presidency–it began the moment she was born. Victoria Claflin was born on September 23, 1838, to an illiterate mother and a petty criminal father. She attended school for three years off and on before dropping out. Victoria was forced by her father to travel in his painted wagon and work as a revivalist child preacher, fortune teller, faith healer, and clairvoyant who communicated with the dead.
Victoria married three times, the first, at age 15, to Canning Woodhull, a philanderer, drunk and morphine addict. Eventually, Victoria, who had two children with Canning, one of whom suffered brain damage which she blamed that on her husband’s drinking. Despite the social stigma of divorce at that time, Victoria left him and filed for divorce but kept his name for the sake of her children.
In 1866, Victoria married Col. James Blood, a civil war hero. Blood was a political and social radical who encouraged Victoria’s self-education and interest in women’s rights. He moved the family to New York City where Victoria was joined by her sister, Tennessee. Now reunited, the sisters worked as spiritualists, reviving the lessons learned from their childhood days as clairvoyants. The two took the city by storm and attracted the attention of railroad and shipping millionaire, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who had an overwhelming desire to communicate with his long-dead mother. So pleased was Vanderbilt with the two women’s abilities that he set them up in business. Woodhull and Claflin opened on Broad Street in 1870 making the sisters not only the first women stockbrokers but the first women to found and run a Wall Street brokerage company. Dressed in matching outfits complete with skirts touching the tops of their boots, considered scandalously short for the times, newspapers dubbed them “the queens of finance” and “bewitching brokers.”
Using money they made in the brokerage business, in 1870 the sisters founded a radical newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. By the next year, Victoria had taken a leadership role in the Karl Marx International Workingmen’s Association. The Weekly, which operated for six years, published the first English version of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto.
The next year, Victoria became the first woman to testify before a congressional committee, addressing the House Judiciary Committee on the subject of women’s suffrage. Her argument was that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments already guaranteed a woman’s right to vote. All that was needed, she said, was for Congress to pass an act guaranteeing those rights. Susan B. Anthony was so taken with Woodhull’s argument that she asked her to repeat it at the National Woman Suffrage Association Convention later that afternoon.
As a conservative leaning person, I sure don’t agree with most of Victoria Claflin Woodhull’s political views but I do recognize that she was a brave woman who risked her name, reputation and livelihood for what she believed in. I will always be grateful for women like Woodhull who put those first few cracks in the glass ceiling.
What about you? Do you find inspiration in the life of this woman history forgot?