Victoria Claflin Woodhull was quite the woman. In fact, considering the era, she could be heralded as quite the man, too. Born in Homer, Ohio on 23-Sep-1838 into a family of traveling sideshow performers, Woodhull read fortunes with her sister Tennessee. Named for ‘s queen Victoria, Woodhull could not have begun life less like royalty. Her childhood was punctuated by trances in which a man in a toga (purportedly the Greek philosopher, Demosthenes) appeared to her to reveal her destiny. The spirit is said to have proclaimed that Woodhull would become “the ruler of her people.” At age 15 Woodhull married, but soon grew bored with her husband. She took up with another partner, while keeping the first. She moved her nontraditional family to New York, where she and her sister opened a Wall Street stock brokerage in 1870, and soon emerged to prominence. She publicly advocated “free love” saying she should be able to love whomever she wanted, whenever she wanted, soon turned to politics Woodhull is most often mentioned, if at all, as the first woman to run for president. (Although in the modern era, even this accolade has been mistakenly given to other women who ran after Woodhull.) In 1872 after putting forth her own name, Woodhull threw her bonnet into the ring and became the nominee of the Equal Rights Party, with Frederick Douglas as her running mate. Going up against war hero and incumbent, Ulysses S. Grant, she and Douglas only got 3,000 votes. Woodhull did, however; receive more headlines and vilification than any other political candidate in the race.
So riled up was the (male) establishment that Woodhull was publicly denounced as Mrs. Satan – “O’ evil woman!” – and
ridiculed with all manner of sexual innuendo.
Even the female reformers of the suffragettes’ movement could not countenance her brashness. Harriet Beecher Stowe parodied Woodhull as Audacia (personification of audaciousness), in the novel My Wife and I. It can be said that no love was lost between these two women. Near the end of her presidential campaign, Woodhull responded to attacks against her advocacy of “free love” by exposing the infidelity of Stowe’s brother, Henry Ward Beecher, who was arguably the most famous preacher in at the time. Shortly after her presidential defeat, she was jailed on charges of distributing pornography. She fled to with her sister, where they both attracted wealthy aristocratic husbands. Woodhull settled down to a life with her banker husband and repudiated many of her earlier espoused beliefs – although she continued her passion for driving at high speeds. She lived until 1927, long enough to witness the roaring 20’s at its height. But due to the relative quiet of her later life, her groundbreaking role in the early feminist movement is largely forgotten.
One thing is certain about Woodhull, however; she was too far ahead of her time. (To think, our country still balks at the thought of a female president some one hundred and thirty-four years later. How far have we come, really?)