Throwing Shade on Lady Presidential Candidates: Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927)
Oh, Hillary. What a bitch. A liar. A cheat. A man-hater. A one-percenter. The Donald most definitely does NOT rate her a “ten” on his own, patented “Women Donald Trump Thinks Are Hot Scale.” A measure so significant that he even uses it to rate his own daughter!
Is this sad? Yes. Is this bad? Yes. Is it new? Nope.
Hillary, you are in great company. Welcome to the Nursing Clio “Run Like a Girl” series, where we tell you about all the ladies that have run for the esteemed office of President of the United States and all the crappy (but sometimes good) things that people said about them and their political candidacies!
The first election in U.S. history was, of course, in 1788, but it would be over eight decades before a woman could plausibly gather enough public recognition to actually make a real run at the Presidency. This “first in history” belongs to none other than Victoria Claflin Woodhull Martin (1838-1927). If you think Hillary is a controversial figure, trust me, she’s got nothing on Woodhull, who was first and foremost a newspaper editor, public speaker, and women’s rights reformer, but also a Spiritualist with three husbands, two children (one of whom was disabled), and a proponent of Free Love and Socialism. Despite her lack of formal education, she became one of the Gilded Age’s most forceful influences on social reform and women’s rights. It’s also true that her cunning and drive to succeed often resulted in a whole lot of lying, seduction, and outright charlatanism.
Regularly called a harlot and “Mrs. Satan” on the daily by her opponents, she also earned the wrath of her fellow suffragists who thought she was a detriment to their respectable cause. In fact, Susan B. Anthony hated Woodhull so much, she literally turned out the lights on her as Woodhull tried to address a meeting of the National Woman Suffrage Association.
Yet a couple things made it possible for Woodhull to even run for the Presidency in the first place. Born in Ohio to a criminally-inclined father and a mother who was somewhat of a religious zealot, she inherited a flair for dramatic oratory and began claiming from an early age that she could communicate with spirits and heal the sick. Her sister Tennessee (whom they called Tennie) also shared her psychic affinities, and their father had few qualms about exploiting his daughters’ talents for money. Both were also widely considered to be very beautiful, which didn’t hurt either (Trump Tens?).
In the 1850s, she and Tennie set up a fortune-telling business in Cincinnati, and traveled throughout the country holding séances. They finally ended up in New York after the Civil War. There, the two women crossed paths with tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, who began consulting them extensively on matters ranging from spiritually contacting his dead wife to business deals. (It’s also said he did way more than “consult” with Tennie, if you catch my drift.)
With Vanderbilt’s financial backing, by 1870, Woodhull and Tennie had opened a successful stock brokerage, Woodhull, Claflin, & Company, and became the first women financiers on Wall Street.
Making money hand over fist, Woodhull could now really get down to the business of politics. In April 1870, she declared her presidential candidacy for the Election of 1872, and founded a new newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, whose journalistic ethos resembled something like what might happen if The National Inquirer and The Economist had a baby. She was also elected president of the American Association of Spiritualists, which represented the astonishingly enormous number of people in the nineteenth century who believed that the living could talk to the dead.
With these platforms, Woodhull was now one of the most famous, richest women in the country and just like a Kardashian, she wasn’t afraid to take advantage of it to achieve her own ends. As the election approached, she formed the Equal Rights party, using her newspaper to publicize and fund it. And, at a time when women still did not hold the right to vote, she became its nominee for President of the United States. Her running mate? None other than a black man — the former slave and prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
But Woodhull was no intersectional feminist — her arguments for women’s rights often included appeals to white racial purity. Her political platform, which she first elucidated in the New York Herald on April 2, 1870 asked, “shall women remain sunk below the right granted to the negro?”
Nevertheless, her general ideas for the Presidency were not unlike those espoused by today’s Bernie Sanders. She urged complete reform of America’s prisons and for the establishment of government systems to care for the “helpless and indigent.” She asked “Is it right that millions should toil all their lives long, scarcely having comfortable food and clothes, while the few manage to control all the benefits?”1 She also called for the elimination of special interests in taxation and a cautiously neutral approach to foreign policy. Mostly, she called for women’s suffrage and the full participation of women in public and political life.
Of course, Woodhull knew her Presidential candidacy would be met with skepticism at best. In her platform statement, she addressed it head on, explaining, “I am well aware that in assuming this position I shall evoke more ridicule than enthusiasm at the outset.”
Yet she also strongly defended her position and expertise for the job, writing, “While others of my sex devoted themselves to a crusade against the laws that shackle women in this country, I asserted my individual independence; while others prayed for the good time coming, I worked for it; while others argued the equality of women with men, I proved it by successfully engaging in business; while others sought to show that there was no valid reason why woman should be treated socially and politically as being inferior to man, I boldly entered the arena of politics and business and exercised the rights I already possessed. I therefore claim the right to speak for the unenfranchised women of the country….”2
Despite these inspiring words, Woodhull’s candidacy fizzled as the Equal Rights Party broke apart from infighting, and her name never even appeared on the ballot in November. She also went to jail that fall, indicted under federal and state obscenity laws for publishing in Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly the salacious details of various national sex scandals, including one involving the prominent minster Henry Ward Beecher. Eventually she was run out of New York, heartily disliked by many of her fellow suffragists, Spiritualists, and liberal reformers who saw her as the worst kind of opportunist and self-promoter.
Lest we feel too sorry for Woodhull, she ended up okay. She eventually moved to England and married John Biddulph Martin, a wealthy British banking scion, which I recommend doing at least once. Though she espoused some of the more questionable ideas of the twentieth century (including eugenics), she also never stopped working for women’s rights, education, and socialist causes and died at the ripe, old age of 89 at her country manor house. (Somewhere, Susan B. Anthony is still annoyed).
So take heart, Hillary. Before you, Victoria Woodhull was labeled as the original bitchy, lying, cheating, manhating, one-percenter running for President! In other words, history tells us there’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to women in the public eye.
Lauren MacIvor Thompson is a Faculty Fellow in the Georgia State University College of Law's Center for Law, Health, & Society. Her research centers on the forces of law and medicine, and their role in the early history of public health and the birth control movement. She has a background in Public History and before returning for her doctorate, worked for various history museums and state agencies on historic garden preservation, public history projects, and Section 106 federal and state historic resource protection.