It’s March 8, International Women’s Day. Scandalous Woman who ran for president in a country that didn’t allow her to vote

On Election Day, November 5, 1872, presidential candidate Victoria Woodhull couldn’t even vote for herself.

She was occupied elsewhere, in any case, having been locked up in a New York jail.   There she remained for the following month, on obscenity charges.

Victoria Woodhull lived in an era when a woman couldn’t vote or enter an establishment of any kind without a male escort.

Victoria’s childhood had a Dickensian quality.

She was forced by her “one-eyed snake oil salesman” father to work as a child preacher and fortune teller in his traveling medicine show.

Victoria claimed that she didn’t spend even one year in a schoolroom.

At age 15, she was pushed into marrying Canning Woodhull, a philanderer, drunk and morphine addict.

She managed to divorce him at a time when divorce was a deep stain on a woman’s character.

So now Victoria was a divorcee (she was eventually to marry three times) as well as a fortune teller, clairvoyant and spiritualist healer.

Working as spiritualists, Victoria and her sister set out to hook railroad and shipping millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt.

The “richest man in America” set the sisters up in business.  They became the first women stockbrokers and the first to found and run a Wall Street brokerage firm.

On they day they opened their offices, the sisters cannily dressed in matching outfits – their skirts shockingly short.  They actually touched the tops of their boots!

Newspapers called them “the queens of finance” and “bewitching brokers.”

Using money from the brokerage business, the sisters founded a radical newspaper,  Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly.

In April 2, 1870, Victoria 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.”

Woodhull was reviled in the national press for what were considered to be radical beliefs by many Americans.

Her family was forced to sleep in her brokerage office, as New York landlords were unwilling to rent to her.

Woodhull’s 11-year-old daughter, Zula, had to leave her school.

In particular, she was singled out for her vocal support for free love.

Not as saucy as it sounds, it meant believing that women should have the freedom to choose whom to marry and have the right to divorce.

She opposed what she called“sexual slavery”: the double standard of allowing married men to be unfaithful, but punishing married women for the same behavior.

She advocated legalized prostitution.

During a lecture Woodhull delivered in Steinway Hall in New York City, she declared,

“an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please.”


An 1872 caricature of Victoria Woodhull as the devil by Thomas Nast. (Thomas Nast, via Wikimedia Commons)

The last straw came when she published allegations that Reverend Henry Ward Beecher had had dozens of affairs.

She was arrested for violating morality laws and spent Election Day in a jail cell.

Harriet Beecher Stowe labeled her an “impudent witch” and a “vile jailbird.”

Loathed and ridiculed in the United States, Victoria Woodhull retreated to England in 1877, where she became, naturally, one of the first women to own a car.

Sources: Smithsonian, politico

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