“Sure, this thing says I can’t vote, but where does it say I can’t just be president, then, huh?”
There are two kinds of historical figures in America; the ones we learn about at an early age in school, and the equally badass ones who just sort of linger in obscurity for a while until someone decides to write a movie about them. The latest figure in that latter category, based on the fact that Brie Larson is signed on to play her in a currently under-development movie from Amazon Studios, is Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States of America.
Oh, no, she didn’t come close to winning, obviously, but she still stands as an impressive, and pretty quirky, American hero that might as well be saluted in these hallowed, beer-splattered halls. So here we go.
Victoria Woodhull, the First-Ever Woman Presidential Nominee, Was Kind of Badass
Victoria Woodhull has two unique historical claims that she can share with the nominees of the 2016 Presidential Election. She was the first ever woman to run for President, and she also was the first ever person to run for president to have been married three times. She also had a more eventful life than about 99% of all presidential candidates in American history.
She was subject to a flurry of rumors throughout her life, ranging from “probably not true, and kind of dickish to spread” (despite what some articles say, she probably never was a prostitute) to “also not true, but close” (it was her sister, not Victoria, who was probably hooking up with Cornelius Vanderbilt, the richest man in America). She believed in free love (like, “you can get divorced,” not the free love you’re thinking of, hippy) and spiritualism and had the typical mid-to-late-18th century mix of views that ranged from “huh, pretty progressive” through “hmm that aged poorly” all the way to “hahaha, oh 1870s, you so crazy.”
Anyway, we’re scratching our heads trying to figure out why we haven’t written about her before, and the best we can come up with is, “She seemed to not be a big fan of booze.” Like, she’s not on record as being for its prohibition, there just aren’t any good drinking stories about her. So yeah, that’s our bad that this one fell through the cracks. Time to rectify that.
Surprisingly, it seems that the media in the 19th century was pretty hostile towards women in politics
Born in Ohio in Homer, Ohio in 1838, Victoria Woodhull did not have what you would call a happy childhood, and that’s even by 19th century standards where a “happy childhood” could be considered “whelp, no one in the family ate too much mercury.” Her mother was illiterate and neglectful, and her father was downright abusive.
In this environment, Woodhull only received three years of formal education. As a child she either claimed to see spirits, or was told by her folks to pretend to see visions. Either way, her parents, who believed in the new hot spiritualism trend (yeah, the one with séances and all that), put her to work as a medium.
She managed to get herself out of her parent’s oppressive (and in her dad’s case “like, let’s just say the dude had a lot of switches, and no their house didn’t have electricity” level of oppressiveness) but that proved to be an out of the frying pan, into the…whatever type of fire involves marrying a 28-year-old who you met when you were 14.
Canning Woodhull was a “doctor” from New York who had come to treat the then-Victoria Claflin for a chronic illness. Because the medicine field in the 19th century was basically a dick-measuring contest among a sea of small-to-medium-sized dicks, Ohio didn’t require formal medical education or a license to become a doctor there, so of course he was in no way qualified to serve as a doctor. Which, you know, makes the story all the more sketchy when Canning legally married his former patient two months past her 15th birthday.
And because everything in Victoria Woodhull’s life was a dumpster fire until she realized the men holding the reins in her life sucked at it and she should be steering the coach, Canning Woodhull, the fake doctor who started an affair with a 14-year-old when he was literally twice as old as her, turned out to be a pretty piece of shit husband. He drank, womanized, and never brought home much money (probably due to the drinking and womanizing.)
The next year he fathered his first of two children with Victoria, a son with a developmental disability, and upon seeing that he had a fragile life that depended on him, he cleaned up his act, becoming a loving, caring father, though he remained an emotionally distant husband.
Ha ha, just kidding, well that last part is kind of true, no, he would just fuck off for month’s at a time, leaving Woodhull with a special needs child and no money or food, so she had to scrap by a living on her own, working as a cigar girl, a seamstress, an actress, and a clairvoyant. You know, typical fare for a 16-year-old with a special needs kid.
Meanwhile, when you were 16 you were getting into fights with your parents about how late you’re allowed to stay out on Friday nights.
In 1861 she gave birth to a healthy daughter, Zula, who was delivered, one biography says, by Canning Woodhull himself while absolutely trashed. He cut the umbilical cord (wrong, somehow) and stumbled out of the house for the next three days, at which point Victoria Woodhull, fully aware that there were deep societal stigmas against divorce, and that to leave her husband would be social suicide, said, “Man, fuck that dude,” and divorced the everloving shit out of her sketchy ass husband while keeping the last name, because it’s not like her dad gave her any reason to keep her old one anyway.
It was around this time that she began to support free love—she believed in monogamous relationships, but also that women should be allowed to leave shitty marriages, which doesn’t seem very progressive today, but was scandalous at the time.
Anyway, a few years later she met the awesomely named Colonel James Harvey Blood, a former Union soldier who shared Woodhull’s spiritualistic obsession. In fact, the two met in probably one of the most impressive “steal your man” moments in American 19th century history—she was earning a healthy living as a “spiritualistic physician” in St.Louis in 1864 when Blood (badass name, again) came in for a consultation. In their first session, she said “you’re married right now but you’re going to ditch your wife and marry me,” and he fucking proposed on the spot. That’s ballsy, Vicky.
Not quite a “Reverse-Graduate” but pretty close.
Around this time Victoria had reconnected with one of her many siblings (she had like nine of them), her youngest sister, Tennessee. At James Blood’s (THAT NAME) urging, they all moved to New York, where Victoria and Tennessee worked together on various business ventures, starting with spiritualism.
She eventually managed to become the spiritual advisor to Cornelius Vanderbilt, who, you know, had more money than anyone else in the country at the time. His wife had recently died, and the Woodhull/Claflin sisters were known to put on quite a séance, and the 74-year-old billionaire became quite taken with the 22-year-old Tennessee Claflin which, like, gross, but hey, looks like money had the same power in 1866 as it does now.
Anyway, since she lived on Stoop Hill in New York, which had plenty of prostitutes in the area, people started the rumor that she was a prostitute, when really she was making plenty of cash helping Vanderbilt chase his wife’s ghost.
Then in 1870, with a little help from her rich friend, she and her sister became the first female stockbrokers in American history when they opened Woodhull, Claflin & Company on Wall Street. You can bet your ass she pulled the “I had a vision and this is the stock you should get” move with her clients, but it worked—by most accounts, she was wildly successful as a broker, though she generally let others handle the day-to-day business of the firm.
The brokerage firm became so successful that the sisters decided to print their own newspaper, which they did. Having taken up feminist and suffrage causes, she got it in her mind that she might as well run for president. And what better way to get support for a presidential campaign than to have your own newspaper backing you.
Thus, the Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly was born with a circulation of 20,000. Though it’s primary purpose was to provide support for her presidency campaign (she announced her candidacy in a letter to the editor of the New York Herald on April 2nd, 1870) they also published controversial articles in favor of sex education, free love, women’s suffrage, short skirts, spiritualism and, ugh, vegetarianism. The paper was the first to publish an English version of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto (SHE’S A COMMIE GET HER) and courted a few scandals in its day.
She had a bit of a rocky relationship with the suffragettes, but she did have some shining moments, including becoming the first woman to address a congressional committee, where she told a House Judiciary Committee that women already had won the right to vote, thanks to the 14th and 15th amendments.
She argued that since women are citizens, and are subject to taxation, then they are allowed the vote. It was a pretty straightforward but elegant argument that won her a lot of fans in the suffragette movement as she continued her presidential aspirations. But she eventually clashed with many leaders of the movement, who viewed her tactics to be somewhat self-serving and polarizing (they particularly had an issue with her strong focus on free love, but also she was kiiiind of into communism/socialism).
Despite losing the backing of influencers such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two years after announcing her candidacy for President, Woodhull was nominated as the representative of the newly formed Equal Rights Party on May 10th, 1872, with her nomination officially ratified at their convention that June.
Now, obviously the Equal Rights party knew they didn’t have a shot in hell at taking the presidency from Grant, but they definitely went out of their way to be historically progressive. On top of having the first ever woman nominee for president of the United States, they also selected as their vice-presidential candidate…Frederick Douglas! Huh!
While that’s pretty impressive, having the first female-led, interracial ticket in American political history, it seems like they were just sort of filling the electoral equivalent of a fantasy roster, because if Frederick Douglas even knew he was a vice-presidential candidate, he never seemed to let it on. He wasn’t at the convention, never did any campaigning, and never publicly acknowledged the nomination. Hell, it’s entirely possible he never even knew he was on the ballot.
Woodhull did not get any electoral votes in that election (even though six other candidates did) and there’s no good estimate of how many votes she got (the closest we can come to guessing is that the 1884 Equal Rights Party candidate, Belva Ann Lockwood, who ran a more complete campaign than Woodhull, scored 4,194 votes) but the important thing is that she was trying to break through that glass ceiling, running for president while she was not even allowed to vote.
Oh, and she wasn’t even 35, i.e. how old you have to be to become president (though by election day she had just turned 35, not that it was going to be an issue one way or the other.) Oh, oh, oh and also, she didn’t even get to try to vote for herself, because she spent election day 1872 in fucking jail.
Yeah, we forgot to mention, that newspaper she ran? So she got a lot of people up in arms, especially about the free love thing, which again, America, gotta let that shit go. One Brooklyn preacher, in particular, named Henry Ward Beecher, who looked like this by the way, would condemn Woodhull and her free love views vehemently in sermons.
He also was banging the wife of Theodore Tilton, a member of his congregation, which those in the preacher business refer to as “a real big party foul there, bro.” Anyway, when this information came to Victoria Woodhull, she was like, “Oh fuck that hypocrite” and blasted his affair all over her paper. She was then promptly arrested for “publishing an obscene newspaper” because, you know, she was talking about icky sex. While charges were dropped six months later due to a loophole in the law, that meant she spent election day in jail.
After the election, and her eventual release from jail (a few years later, Beecher would himself be put on trial for adultery, though he’d get off with a hung jury…heh, phrasing) she continued with her various ventures.
She divorced her second husband in 1876, and when Vanderbilt died, his son, William Henry Vanderbilt, gave Woodhull and her sister a boatload of cash to leave America and set up in England—we’re going to guess here that “here’s some money to leave” was less charity and more “the son was pissed off that Tennessee Claflin was banging his dad.”
“I ain’t sayin’ she’s a gold digger/ but she ain’t messin’ with no broke business magnates and philanthropists.”
While in England, Woodhull gave a series of lectures at St. Jane’s Hall in London, where she met a banker named John Biddulph Martin who in 1883 would become husband number three for Woodhull.
She changed her name to Victoria Woodhull Martin (which, wait, she takes the name Martin but doesn’t take the name Blood? Come on, Vicky!) and, with the help of her daughter, published a magazine called The Humanitarian from 1892-1901 after announcing, but ultimately not pursuing, a run for the 1892 presidency (yeah, it would have been kind of hard to do that from England).
Upon her husband’s death in 1901, she retired to the countryside where she established a school and became a proponent of British education reform and pushed for the addition of kindergarten to the school system.
She managed to live to the ripe age of 88 before passing away in 1927, leaving behind a legacy that seemed unlikely back when she was a 15-year-old pregnant girl with a shitty drunk husband. Her life was one of rebellion and, well, just a little bit of craziness.
She séanced her way into the ear of one of the richest men in America, she set numerous firsts for women in the country, and all the while she ensured she lived her life by her own rules. So if you haven’t heard of Victoria Woodhull, you’ve missed out on one of the more unique Americans in history. Well, unless you read this after that Amazon movie comes out, then you know, but still, pretty cool lady, right?