Because life wouldn’t be any fun if history didn’t constantly repeat itself to the chagrin of people who know better than to claim otherwise, Alex Jones and his conspiracist cohorts at Infowars aren’t the first to make occult claims about a female candidate. Jones owes the carving of this particular path to figures who came more than a century before him, popping up in response to the real first-ever female candidate for president, Victoria Woodhull. (Not only is Clinton not the first woman to run for president, she's not even the first woman to vie for the Democratic nomination—that honor goes to the boundary-breaking Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm who, in 1972, was also the first black major-party candidate.)
Now flash back 100 years before Chisolm’s run and almost 50 before the ratification of the 19th Amendment granted white women the right to vote, which celebrates its 98th anniversary today. Victoria Woodhull, a self-educated suffragette from the frontier of Ohio, made her bid for the seat.
Hers is exactly the sort of by-the-bootstraps story that Americans claim to still love (though public politics suggest otherwise) and yet, besides a camp 1980 musical called Onward Victoria that never made it out of previews, Woodhull’s presence in late 19th century American politics—and the indelible mark her positions left—remains largely unacknowledged.
Biographer Theodore Tilton wrote in 1871 that Woodhull’s 1838 birth stood in stark contrast to the world that inspired her name: “as this was the year when Queen Victoria was crowned, the new-born babe, though clad neither in purple nor fine linen, but comfortably swaddled in respectable poverty, was immediately christened […] as the Queen’s namesake.” Victoria was the seventh child to be born to Roxana and snake oil salesman Buckman “Old Buck” Claflin in Homer, Ohio. Though the Claflin home looked idyllic—“a small cottage, white-painted and peaked, with a porch running around it and a flower garden in front”—Woodhull’s young life was marred by the erratic nature of the adults who ran it.
Roxana, a bankrupt Pennsylvania heiress, was a “fickle” mother, mercurial to the point of cruelty: “[She] on occasions tormented and harried her children […] whereat she would hysterically laugh, clap her hands, and look as fiercely delighted as a cat in playing with a mouse. At other times, her tenderness toward her offspring would appear almost angelic.” Old Buck was hardly a refuge from such moods, himself prone to whipping the children with wet, “braided green withes made of willow or walnut twigs,” equally “impartial in his cruelty to all his children.”
Even amidst such darkness Woodhull is described as a fearless young woman, “modest, yet energetic, and restive from the over-fulness of an inward energy such as quickened the young blood of Joan of Arc[;] a child of genius, toil, and grief.”
Woodhull entered her teens with a vicious set of illnesses that nearly took her life and was nursed back to health over the course of two years by 28-year-old doctor (though the position didn’t require licensing or training at thetime) Canning Woodhull. When she was well enough, the doctor asked the 14-year-old on a date: “She went to the pic-nic with Dr. Woodhull, like a ticket-of-leave juvenile-delinquent on a furlough. […] On coming home from the festival, the brilliant fop who, tired of the demi-monde ladies whom he could purchase for his pleasure[,] said to her, ‘My little puss, tell your father and mother that I want you for a wife.’” When an offended and angry Woodhull told her parents of the proposition, “They were delighted at the unexpected offer.” Victoria’s anger must have faded as she realized this would be her way out of the tumultuous family home.
Three years later, after delivering their third child (who was nearly murdered by the alcoholic Dr. Woodhull’s clumsy work severing the baby’s umbilical cord), Victoria filed for divorce but kept her ex-husband’s last name. She was 17.
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From childhood Woodhull had been a fervent participant in the Spiritualist movement, believing in a set of otherworldly principles that wouldn’t be out of place in a suburban mall’s new age shop. The woman from Homer let it be known that she was guided by spirits; as Tilton put it, “like a good Greek of the olden time, she does nothing without consulting her oracles.” And foremost in these guiding figures was “a matured man of stately figure, clad in a Greek tunic, solemn and graceful in his aspect [and] strong in his influence.” During a trip to Pittsburgh in 1868, some 20 years after having first seen the spirit, Woodhull was supposedly “sitting at a marble table [when] he suddenly appeared to her and wrote on the table in English letters [his name, that of the Greek politician and orator] ‘Demosthenes.’”
Whether described so of her own accord or exaggerated through biographer Theodore Tilton’s account, it seems that Woodhull was open in private when discussing the divine source for her orations. Tilton described Woodhull’s “habit of sitting on the roof of her stately mansion on Murray Hill, and there communing hour by hour with the spirits,” going as far as to say “every characteristic utterance which she gives to the world is dictated while under spirit-influence, and most often in a totally unconscious state.”
Woodhull found a partner for her seances in her second husband, Colonel James H. Blood, an intellectual whom Tilton fondly described as a “cosmopolitical […] radical of extreme radicalism.” Woodhull and Col. Blood would convene with spirits multiple times a week, during which time Blood transcribed Woodhull’s “guardian spirit tak[ing] control of her mind [and] speaking audibly through her lips[,] announcing principles, detached thoughts, hints of systems, and suggestions for affairs[;] spiritual night-school.”
Woodhull claimed that it was out of these spiritual interventions, and not Col. Blood’s incidental communism, that her divinations and speeches suddenly took a markedly more political turn. Regardless, her work as a “spiritual advisor” was a convenient scapegoat on which the public could dismiss her valid and ahead-of-the-curve opinions (she suggested, for instance, abolishing the gold standard more than a hundred years before Richard Nixon did so)—as if her gender alone hadn’t been enough for the public to cast her aside.
While the public took hold of the more sensationalist side of Spiritualism, the religion also stressed more grounded concepts like that of “personal responsibility for life circumstances,” a belief that Woodhull clearly took to heart.
Never letting her lack of a formal education (which had ceased at age 11) get in her way, Woodhull and her sister Tennie Claflin became the first-ever female stockbrokers, opening their own Wall Street brokerage firm in 1870 with the help of Tennie’s reported lover Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt. In the same year the two sisters became the “lady brokers,” as they were known, Claflin and Woodhull also launched the newspaper Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. The newspaper covered a broad mix of pro-labor politics (it was the first place to publish an English translation of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels’s Communist Manifesto in 1871), sex education, sex work, women’s suffrage and rights (such as the right to wear short skirts), and Woodhull’s version of “free love.”
Less tawdry than its 1960s counterpart (even by Victorian standards), Woodhull’s use of the term free love referred to the right of women to divorce partners and that women are the ones in a heterosexual relationship (not that that was specified) who can withdraw or choose not to grant consent for sex. She referred to this as women “[rising] from sexual slavery to sexual freedom, into the ownership and control of her sexual organs, [a freedom that the] man is obliged to respect [and with which] will woman be raised from [the] iniquity and morbidness in which she now wallows for existence.” But the chasteness surrounding Woodhull’s views were immediately cast aside by those at the time who confused a threat to the stability of the patriarchy for the encouragement of “a promiscuous intimacy between the sexes.” Unsubstantiated rumors reportedly bloomed in the press after Woodhull spoke out about the rights of sex workers that she and/or Tennie had been working as prostitutes.
Woodhull was met with initial resistance even within her own wings. Her efforts to take strides, not steps, in women’s rights were met with tut-tutting from mainstream suffragettes and feminists of the time. Undeterred by their opinions and those of the all-male political machine, Woodhull decided to testify in front of the House Judiciary Committee in 1871—the first time a woman had ever petitioned Congress in person—arguing that the 14th and 15th Amendments had granted all citizens the right to vote, including women.
Though, as expected, the appeal was shot down by the majority of the Judiciary Committee, a minority report was written in its favor—“a sufficient trophy to entitle the brave lady to an enrolment in the political history of her country.” The hearing was attended by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Katy Stanton, and Isabelle Beecher Hooker, suffragettes who upon seeing her determination and dedication to the cause quickly brought Woodhull into the fore of their movement.
Coming off of the close of the Civil War, Woodhull was aware of the fragility of the country and realized that she was living in a crucial point where the country could, as she saw it, reform its structure. And while so many fought to maintain the shaky status quo after the war, Woodhull saw that there was an opening for true revolution. In a speech given in the mid-1870s, she harkened back to the struggle by American revolutionaries in the 18th century and spoke of revolution in civil liberties and political structure alike:
“Who can think of […] those long eight years of alternate hope and despair, and not feel that the price paid for independence was too great to have [freedom and rights] limited to a mere minority of the people, when it was purchased for the whole; was too great a price to pay for principles that were to be restricted to fewer than half of the descendants of those who paid it. Our fathers would have never fought for the liberty to have a King or an aristocratic ruler of their own. They endured the hardships and privations of that war for independence for themselves and their posterity. Nothing less than this was the inspiration of those years of suffering, nothing less than this could have given them inspiration to gain their independence.
“But […] no trace of any single one of these truths is to be found in the Constitution. […] It is an old and musty English sermon to which we have prefixed a new and vital text [the Bill of Rights], the text and sermon having no common ground or meaning. […] Our constitution and laws […] are copies from the English, modified in some particulars, which have been the inducement ‘to gather the spoils while we may.’ […] Money here is king, and judge and jury also. […] Cringe as we may, there can never be a change greatly for the better until the institutions of the country are remodelled by the inspiration of that which led to their establishment.”
And her tirade against American bipartisanship and the influence of money on politics rings true to this Election Day:
“The President is an English king under another name, selected by the ‘caucus,’ the worst element in politics, and elected by the people, because, under the vicious methods that are in vogue they have no way to vote save for one of the two at whom ten thousand papers vie with each other in throwing mud during the campaign.
“Many who have come to know how Presidents are made have abandoned the polls in disgust. The Senate is a badly abridged edition of the House of Lords, while the House of Representatives is the same as the House of Commons. […] Nor do we have any political literature save the Declaration of Independence which has a distinct national character about it that is purely American, and it is this that we celebrate year after year; it is this and this only that calls out the patriotism of the people. […] The condition of the people and the country could scarcely have been worse had we had Kings and Parliaments, instead of Presidents and Congress.
“A tree, let it be called by whatever name, is known by the fruit it bears. If we are to judge the political tree in this country in any way, shall we not be forced to say that we have gathered thorns from grapes and thistles from figs? […] The machinery of the government is in the hands of those who want things to continue as they are, while the few in power who are devoted to the public welfare, beat the air in vain attempts to strike either the cause of, or the remedy for existing evils. But […] the causes lie in the fruitless attempt to run a Republican Government upon an aristocratic code of laws. […] The rule of the majority is not a Republican idea [and] the majority is another name for the despot[.] Minorities are entitled to, and can be represented [but] Washington is more a place in which representatives from the several States assemble to quarrel over the spoils of office and to lay the ropes for the succession, than it is the capital of a free and mighty people.”
Whether guided by spirits or the pure human doggedness that would bring a woman to speak these words at a timewhen others were hardly allowed to choose their own manner of dress, Woodhull announced her run for president in 1870 and was chosen to be the candidate for the Equal Rights Party. She elected Frederick Douglass to be her running mate, though he never acknowledged the nomination and did not attend the convention, in an effort to unite suffragette with civil rights activists. Woodhull encouraged all women to take advantage of the enfranchisement that she argued had already been granted them and to vote in the 1872 election. (Susan B. Anthony tried to do so along with other suffragettes; she was arrested and fined $100 for illegally voting, which she saw as an “unjust penalty” and never paid.)
By this point Woodhull’s sister Tennie had herself become a vocal figure in the fight for women’s rights, running for New York state Congress in the 1870s and being elected Colonel of a segregated “colored” National Guard regiment after arguing that women had the right to serve in the military. The two continued to publish their newspaper throughout Woodhull’s presidential bid.
In the week before voting day Woodhull, Tennie and Colonel Blood were rounded up by police and arrested on obscenity charges brought by self-appointed morality enforcer (and actual U.S. Postal Inspector) Anthony Comstock. The namesake of the term for overzealous censorship, Comstock often leveraged his surprising amount of power to suppress whatever he felt was offensive at the time, from medical anatomy textbooks to mentions of birth control. Perhaps it was this sort of birth control advertising in the magazine that upset Comstock; more likely it seems that the man had simply had it out for the sisters (and hosts of other publicly forward-thinking women) for years, having previously made moves to keep images of the two from being published and popularized in men’s magazines of the day.
The arrest was in response to an issue of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly that addressed an affair between Calvinist minister Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Uncle Tom’s Cabin writer Harriet Beecher Stowe) and Elizabeth Tilton (wife of the poet who would eventually become Woodhull’s biographer and staunch supporter, Theodore Tilton). Woodhull’s aim was to take a crack at what she saw as a double standard between the minister’s own adulterous actions and his public stance against her “free love” movement, but when Comstock couldn’t find another excuse to arrest the trio for the story, he said he took issue specifically with the printing of “a mangled Biblical quote [he] found obscene.” All three were acquitted on a technicality, but Woodhull and Tennie had been held in the federal penitentiary on Ludlow and Broome long enough to miss the opportunity to cast their votes in the 1872 election—which had presumably been Comstock’s intention all along.
Woodhull’s run for office stirred hatred that had been growing since she first emerged as a publisher and outspoken advocate for women and free love. The press regularly chided her for “obscenity,” with matters reaching a peak around the election. Harper’s Weekly published a full-page engraving by cartoonist Thomas Nast showing a satanic Woodhull (“Mrs. Satan”) advocating free love while a “wife,” burdened by an alcoholic husband and two children (as if harkening back to the exact ordeal that Woodhull herself had shouldered), remarks “I’d rather travel the hardest path of matrimony than follow your footsteps.” Naturally plenty of men—among them no doubt philandering and drunken husbands hoping to keep their wives—fell in line with the admonishment, and Woodhull was publicly demonized to the point of being denied housing. Her family had to sleep at the newspaper’s office for weeks.
Finally disheartened by the arrest (and the exhausting events surrounding it), Woodhull decided to divorce Colonel Blood and move on elsewhere. She and Tennie had supposedly been left quite an inheritance by Commodore Vanderbilt after his death, a sum that helped the sisters move to England.
Tennie married English Baronet Francis Cook, finally bringing the royal blood into the Claflin family that her parents had always dreamed of happening. Victoria remarried and published The Humanitarian magazine with her daughter until her husband’s death in 1901, after which she moved to the country and was finally able to live the quiet life that she had never been afforded in her birthplace.
Main photo credit: Theatre for the New City.