Recently, I’ve started to feel older. Not old, necessarily, just older and more aware of the history I’ve seen in my life. I’ve started to realize that I’ve lived through events that people will ask “where were you when such and such happened” years from now.
The biggest of those events in my lifetime was probably 9/11 but I had just turned four the day before and only remember various details that people told me after the fact. So the biggest that I can remember would probably have to be Election Night 2016. I remember making paper snowflakes to decorate my dorm and laying out my “Work!” shirt my best friend had given me that featured the Schuyler sisters from “Hamilton” to wear the next day as a celebration of the first woman elected to the presidency.
Well, as we all know, sometime around 11:30 ET that night, it became clear that it would be a more contested race than anyone predicted and, four hours later, after I had given up hope for the miracle I believed had to come, I closed the streaming tab on my laptop and stared at the ceiling blank-faced. It seems so trivial but my first thought was “Well, what the hell am I going to wear now?”
This is quite a dismal way to lead into today’s post, however, I feel it is appropriate considering the second thought I had was how close this country had come to fulfilling the hard-fought ambition of a woman in the White House, started 146 years ago by Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for a U.S. presidency.
Victoria California Claflin was born on September 23, 1838 in Homer, Ohio with one of the greatest middle names I have ever heard. She was the seventh of 10 children born to Annie and Buck Claflin, neither of whom were anywhere close to winning “Parent of the Year.” Annie’s only fault appears to have been acting like “an unpleasant old hag” to all who met her, whereas Buck was a downright criminal, accused of beating children, thievery and conning people by posing as a doctor and a lawyer.
Instead going to school, Victoria and her sister, Tennessee, were forced to travel with their father all over the Midwest in a painted wagon, preaching and telling “fortunes.” When Victoria was only 15, Buck forced her into marrying Canning Woodhull, a doctor with a problematic fondness for wine, women and morphine. He provided Victoria with scant food to eat and rags to dress in. After she gave birth to two children, one of whom had severe brain damage, Victoria divorced him in 1864, becoming a single mother with a severely stained reputation.
A few years later, she remarried, this time to Civil War hero Colonel James H. Blood. James was quite the radical, supporting free love and spiritualism. Spiritualists believed in the existence of helpful angels and the ability to communicate with the dead, and opposed the Christian idea of a wrathful God and oppressive churches. His alternative ideology encouraged Victoria to pursue her own radical opinions regarding women’s rights. She and Tennessee moved into his home in New York and became spiritualists themselves in 1868.
This afforded them the fortuitous opportunity to catch the attention of none other than Cornelius Vanderbilt. Perhaps you’ve heard of the railroad millionaire? He had recently become a widower and longed to communicate with his mother and wife from beyond the grave, calling upon the sisters’ acclaimed services as mediums. Greatly appreciative of their work, he repaid them by giving them the means to open a stock brokerage firm on Broad Street in 1870, making them the very first female stock brokers.
However, more than money, they wanted to express themselves. They used the savings they made from their company and created the publication “Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly,” as a platform to express their views. Victoria, in particular, wrote about free love, which she defined as the right to “marry, divorce, and bear children without interference.” She also spoke out against “sexual slavery” and the hypocrisy of looking down upon women for infidelity when unfaithful men were barely given a second glance. Additionally, she advocated for birth control and legalized prostitution. To give you an idea of how radical this all was, women at the time weren’t even allowed to enter any place of business without a male escort.
Her interests began to turn political and she started to speak publicly about her ideas. At Steinway Hall in New York City, she spoke out about her “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.”
She racked up another first for women by becoming the first to testify before a congressional committee. Before the House Judiciary Committee, she argued that women’s right to vote, still fifty years from becoming legal, was already guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment which stated that “no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States,” who shall be defined as “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.”
She also argued the Fifteenth Amendment also protected women’s suffrage by stating “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude,” which could arguably include the duties a wife was seen to have to her husband. Susan B. Anthony, an instant supporter of her speech, invited Victoria to give it again that afternoon at the National Women Suffrage Association convention.
On April 2, 1870, the New York Herald published a letter from Victoria that declared her historical ambition to run for president. It read “I am quite well aware that in assuming this position I shall evoke even 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 tomorrow.”
Two years later, the Equal Rights Party, which had been previously known as the People’s Party, nominated her as their presidential candidate to join the ranks with Republican Ulysses S. Grant and Democrat Horace Greeley. Her running mate was Frederick Douglass, however, he never officially signed on to the campaign and little is known of the extent of his support.
Her nomination, as you might assume, was not well-welcomed. Her radical ideas and history of divorce left a bad taste in the mouths of many and rumors of extramarital affairs continued to plague her. The fact that her publication was the first to print an English translation of Karl Marx’s “The Communist Manifesto” also worried many that she was a stanch supporter of socialism.
These opposing views translated into harsh attacks in the national press, where she was illustrated by cartoonist Thomas Nast as the devil in “Harper’s Weekly,” and described similarly in several more. This hatred bled into her daily life and led to her eviction from her home. Because no landlords would rent a property to her, her family had to sleep for a long while in her brokerage firm’s office. Parents of children who went to school with Victoria’s daughter, Zula, demanded she be removed before she spread any distasteful ideas.
As nearly every aspect of her life began to crumble, Victoria began to look for people to bring to justice. One of her targets was a former friend, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, who had used his high status as a church leader to disparage Victoria’s opinions on sex and marriage. Victoria wrote about Beecher’s many affairs in her publication three days before Election Day, stating, “I am not charging him with immorality—I applaud his enlightened views. I am charging him with hypocrisy.” Victoria, Tennessee and James were all arrested for violating morality laws. Despite the fact they were found not guilty, Victoria spent Election Day in jail. However, this was of little consequence considering, she, as a woman, was ineligible to vote for even herself.
After losing the election, she shut down her publication because of the potent ridicule that surrounded it and anything associated with her name. She divorced James in 1876 and moved to England the following year with Tennessee to seek a clean slate. There, Victoria met and married John Biddulph Martin, the wealthy son of a banking family, in 1883. She continued to express herself by writing a book called “Human Body: The Temple of God” in 1890 and publishing a magazine called “The Humanitarian,” with her daughter’s help for nine years.
John passed away in 1901, leaving Victoria to a leisurely later life on their 1,200 acre estate in Norton Worcestershire, until her death on June 9, 1927.
Over 200 women would follow in her footsteps, seeking election to the highest office in the country, none getting quite as close as Hillary Clinton did two years ago. It’s a sad thought that we are only slightly more advanced than Victoria’s time around a century and a half ago. However, I choose to look on the bright side and take away from Victoria’s story what I have always known: that it has always been in women’s blood to fight for our chance to change the world for the better.
Oh, and by the way, I wore the “Work!” shirt the next day anyway, as a reminder that my power had not diminished in any way; instead it simply had grown more important.