One hundred and thirty-eight years before Hillary Rodham Clinton decided to seek her party’s nomination for President of the United States, Victoria Claflin Woodhull announced that she would become the first female candidate for America’s highest political office. In 1872 Woodhull’s name was placed on the ballot as the nominee of the National Equal Rights Party, a third party she herself had established two years earlier.
Frederick Douglass, former slave and abolitionist, received the party’s nomination for vice-president, though it is believed he never formally accepted it. What an extraordinary, progressive ticket: a woman and a black man! And just think: black men had only received the right to vote two years before and women still could not cast a ballot!
From the start, however, Woodhull’s candidacy was doomed to failure; her opponents were Ulysses S. Grant, seeking a second term (which he won), and Horace Greeley, well-known publisher of the influential New York Tribune. Woodhull tried her best, but ran out of funds early in the campaign, even though she had become wealthy via the stock market and her weekly newspaper. She was an able campaign organizer, forming “Victoria Leagues” and opening her home for meetings of supporters and potential supporters. She was also a charismatic speaker. However, she was faced with opponents and their followers who were not gentlemen, calling her “witch,” “prostitute,” and other such epithets as they attacked her personally.
Support for her campaign came from trade union members, women suffragists, and socialists, but to no avail. There is no accurate number of votes she received, but it is known that it was very low. Sadly, on Election Day Victoria was incarcerated in jail for a trumped-up charge of obscenity; her enemies were many and stopped at nothing to defeat her.
Who was Victoria Woodhull? Born into a dysfunctional, lower-class family in Ohio in 1838, Victoria, who claimed to have been named for Britain’s Queen Victoria, began making money at an early age catering to the national rage for hypnotism, fortune telling, magnetism and spiritualism. Victoria would remain a disciple of these pseudo-sciences for the rest of her life. In fact, many members of her Equal Rights Party were spiritualists as well as free thinkers and reformers.
When Woodhull, her second husband and her two children moved to New York City in 1868, she struck up a friendship with railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt who helped her open a brokerage office in 1870, called Woodhull, Claflin & Company (Claflin was her sister and partner). A fortune was made and with it they were able to found a weekly newspaper, which became indispensable during the campaign. They were the first woman stockbrokers in New York. Victoria was an outspoken advocate of sex education, the eight-hour workday, a graduated income tax, profit sharing, and a number of social welfare programs. All her ideas were controversial and not specially designed to please. In fact, because of her radical ideas she was continually faced with mockery, caricatures, laughter (and worse) by both men and women.
Woodhull was outspoken and militant, traits that a proper nineteenth-century middle class woman should not demonstrate. Controversy surrounded her life and activities, but through it all she held fast to the revolutionary ideas she firmly believed in. Though her nomination did not end in a successful election to the highest office, it may have sent a message to Washington that it was time for women to speak up politically and be heard. We have come a long way since 1872 and let’s hope we will soon see a woman as President.
Marion Sader is a second-year graduate student in the SLC Women’s History program; she can often be seen on campus with her husband Ray, who helps carry her books to and from the library.