In celebration of the first female candidate for president. (Hint: it’s not Hillary Clinton)
You’ve probably heard the news by now. Yes, Hillary Clinton is the official nominee for the Democrats in the United States presidential election. However, several news outlets have qualified the statement to say that she is the first female candidate from a major party. Perhaps you haven’t noticed this, and perhaps you have and just weren’t sure what it meant. And this is where this post comes in, because as you know, I love little intricacies of history. (Case in point: my fascination with what happens to some famous people’s bodies after they die.)
The truth is, Hillary is not the first female candidate for the US presidency. The story behind that, however, requires some qualifications and explanations. To explain, I have to take you back to the year 1872.
This is the time before women in the United States had the vote, let alone contended for public office. This is the era in which Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, pioneers in the feminists movement in America, were arrested because they attempted to vote in upstate New York, and shortly before Senator Aaron Sargent introduced a bill to congress to legalize votes for women. (The amendment based on this initial act would not become a ratified amendment to the Constitution for over thirty years.) One controversial figure in the women’s movement, however, thought such progress, the likes of which Anthony and Stanton were making, was too slow. Victoria Woodhull also believed in a wider platform of social reforms that were needed for America’s women, including a woman’s right to divorce and that men who abused their wives and children should be held to account. She advocated for the equal treatment of women under the law, and was even called up twice to testify on the matter before congress.
Born in Homer, Ohio in 1838, Woodhull has become a largely forgotten name in the history of the feminist movement in America. This could be attributed to several reasons. She was often slighted by other feminists of her era for being an advocate of the free love movement. Unlike the namesake social movement of a century following, Woodhull’s version endorsed monogamy, but adamantly insisted a woman was not bound to stay with a man simply because they were married, nor that marriage was even a necessity at all. “She didn’t believe the government had a place in regulating affairs of the heart. “I have an unalienable, constitutional, and natural right 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,” she told a packed house at New York City’s Steinway Hall in November 1871. She emphasized that a woman’s body was her own dominion, and neither state nor spouse had a right to deny her control of it. She advocated for women to be educated about their own sexual natures, as well as what was understood as birth control in this era.
Because she upheld controversial views, she was often slighted by feminists of her own era. These efforts were aided by the fact that Woodhull’s family had a number of juicy stories the ethics-loose press of her day ate up with a spoon. Her sister and life-long companion Tennessee Claflin had been touted at a very young age by their parents as a psychic healer and communicator to the spirits, which ultimately ended with a lawsuit for wrongful death. Later in life, Tennessee, a noted beauty, was also rumored to be having an affair with the richest man in the world at that time, Cornelius Vanderbilt. As their two famous children’s profiles rose and sank, the Claflin parents were always nearby to take advantage of the prevailing winds, either praising or lambasting their children publicly depending on whatever way would earn them greater benefit. Victoria’s love life and various social platforms could always be counted on to sell out the daily run of newspapers.
Victoria was also a great thinker and social innovator. Not only did she spend years arguing for the rights of women in their self-determination, but she also believed that slavery was an abomination that should be outlawed, and that African Americans should have the same rights as their white counterparts. She wasn’t just an advocate, however. Victoria also believed in getting up and doing. In 1870, she and Tennessee became the first female stockbrokers to operate on the New York Stock Exchange. The effort was ultimately unsuccessful,but made a splash across the nation. She followed up this bold direction by becoming a highly-sought after public speaker and she and Tennessee launched a feminist-inspired newspaper later that same year. This work is best known for kicking off the famous Henry Ward Beecher controversy. A prominent celebrity clergyman, he was reported to having been engaging in an affair with one (some say, several) of his married parishioners. The trial that ensued created a media storm not unlike the O.J. Simpson trial in the 1990s.
But Woodhull’s pièce de résistance came in 1872, when she decided the only way to achieve her vision was to become President of the United States. She was nominated as the candidate for the newly-formed Equal Right Party, with former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass as the VP candidate (though he never officially accepted the nomination). Although she never appeared on any official ballots, the attention brought by the effort gave both Woodhull and Douglass the eyes of the nation, even if just for novelty or ridicule in the eyes of the press, and brought awareness of their respective platforms.
Woodhull, of course, was not without her vices, and the 1870s perhaps mark a high tide in her public profile and success in being an advocate for her cause. Mired in later years by a series of controversies (there’s some evidence to suggest she and/or her sister entered into quid pro quo arrangements trading sexual favors for funding, and Woodhull also promoted eugenics as a science), she would none the less spend the remainder of her life occasionally resurfacing to stir the pot of social injustice in the way she saw best.
So when you hear people touting this week about our first female presidential candidate, take a moment to remember this asterisk to that claim. There have been many brave women who have stood up to advance our rights, and the fight is by no means over. Victoria Woodhull’s life was interwoven with a number of scandals, some of which in a historical context still sting and make one demean her today. Although she ultimately ended her days living as an English subject, we should never forget that one woman stood up on stage, ridiculed by society and the press, and made a bold move to change things for us all.