Victoria Claflin Woodhull (September 23, 1838 – June 9, 1927) was an American suffragist who was publicized with Gilded Age newspapers as a leader of the American woman's suffrage movement in the 19th century. She became a colorful and notorious symbol for women's rights, free love, and labor reforms. The authorship of her speeches and articles is disputed. Some contend that many of her speeches on these subjects were not written by Woodhull herself, while others allege that this is a form of revisionism not supported by the evidence. Either way, her role as a representative of these movements was nonetheless powerful and controversial. She is probably most famous for her declaration to run for the United States Presidency in 1872.
When she was just 15, Victoria became engaged to a 28-year-old Canning (Channing, in some records) Woodhull from a town outside of Rochester, New York. Dr. Woodhull was an Ohio medical doctor at a time when formal medical education and licensing were not required to practice medicine in that state. He met Victoria in 1853 when her family consulted him to treat her for an illness. According to some accounts, Canning Woodhull claimed he was the nephew of Caleb Smith Woodhull, mayor of New York City from 1849 to 1851, who was actually a distant cousin. Victoria married Canning Woodhull in November 1853, just a few short months after they met, but soon learned that her new husband was an alcoholic and a womanizer, and that she would often be required to work outside the home to support the family. She and Canning had two children, Byron and Zulu (later Zula). According to one account, Byron was born with an intellectual disability in 1854, a condition Victoria believed was caused by her husband's alcoholism. Another story says his disability resulted from a fall from a window.
Woodhull’s support of free love probably originated at the time of her first marriage. Women who married in the United States during the 19th century were bound into unions, whether loveless or not, with few options to escape. Women who divorced were stigmatized and often ostracized by society. Victoria Woodhull concluded women should have the choice to leave unbearable marriages, and she railed against the hypocrisy of tacitly tolerating married men who had mistresses and engaged in other sexual dalliances. Victoria believed in monogamous relationships, although she did state she had the right also to love someone else "exclusively" if she desired.
The Woodhull Freedom Foundation & Federation, which works through research, advocacy, and public education to affirm sexual freedom as a fundamental human right, is a global sexual freedom advocacy organization named in honor of Victoria Woodhull.
The Weekly broke an important story in 1872 that set off a national scandal that preoccupied much of the public for months. One of the most renowned ministers of the day, Henry Ward Beecher, had condemned Woodhull's free love philosophy in his sermons. But a member of his church, Theodore Tilton, disclosed to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a colleague of Woodhull, that his wife confessed to him that Beecher was committing adultery with her, and this hypocrisy provoked Woodhull to expose Beecher. Ultimately Beecher stood trial for adultery in an 1875 legal proceeding that equaled, if not exceeded, the sensationalism of the O.J. Simpson trial a century later, holding the attention of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
George Francis Train once defended her. Other feminists of her time, including Susan B. Anthony, disagreed with her tactics in pushing for women's equality. Some characterized her as opportunistic and unpredictable: in one notable incident, she had a run in with Anthony during a meeting of the NWSA. (The radical NWSA later merged with the conservative AWSA to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association).
Woodhull catapulted to the leadership circle of the suffrage movement with her first public appearance as a woman's rights advocate. Although her Constitutional argument was not original, she focused unprecedented public attention on suffrage. Following Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Woodhull was the second woman to petition Congress in person. Newspapers reported her appearance before Congress. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, printed a full-page engraving of Woodhull, surrounded by prominent suffragists, as she delivered her argument. Legal Contender...
While many historians and authors agree that Woodhull was the first woman to run for President of the United States, some people have questioned the legality of her run, usually citing one of the following reasons:
This criticism is not valid as the government was not responsible for printing ballots. In 1872, political parties were responsible. This practice changed in the United States between the years 1888-1892 with the adoption of the Australian ballot. The Washington Post, about fifty years after the election, claimed that the Equal Rights Party published ballots bearing her name and that they were handed out at the polls. Because no Equal Rights Party ballot for 1872 has been preserved, this claim cannot be confirmed. The first woman to appear on a presidential ballot printed by the government was Charlene Mitchell in 1968.
This is the most cited criticism in the 20th and 21st centuries, but was hardly noticed in the 19th. The presidential inauguration was in March 1873. Woodhull's 35th birthday was in September 1873. Some contend attorney Belva Lockwood was the first woman to run for President, because she was over the age of 35 when she ran in 1884 and 1888. However, some of the other criticisms about the legality of Woodhull's run also apply to Lockwood. There also is no legal primary evidence that Woodhull was born in 1838. Ohio did not require the registration of births until 1867. The probate court in Licking County, Ohio, burned down in 1875, destroying all previously recorded records except land records.
While it is true that Woodhull received no electoral votes, there's evidence that Woodhull did receive popular votes that were not counted. Official election returns also show about 2,000 "scattering votes." it is unknown whether any of those scattering votes were cast for her. Supporters contend that her popular votes were not counted because of gender discrimination and prejudice against her views, while critics contend the votes were not counted because they had other legal defects besides gender. The first woman to receive an electoral vote was Libertarian Tonie Nathan, who received a vote for Vice President in 1972.
Although it is true that most women could not legally vote until 1920, some women did legally vote and hold public office prior to 1920. Susanna M. Salter was elected Mayor of Argonia, Kansas, in 1887, and Jeannette Rankin of Montana was elected to Congress in 1916. In New York, Woodhull's state of residency, the state took away the right of propertied women to vote in 1777. In 1871, Woodhull went to the polls for a local election in New York and was allowed to register, but when she returned to vote, her ballot was refused by election officials. Some believe that when the 19th amendment passed giving women the right to vote, it implicitly gave women the right to run for President. For that reason, they contend Senator Margaret Chase Smith was the first woman to run for President in 1964 when she was put forward as a possible nominee at the Republican Party San Francisco convention. Smith is often called the first woman to be nominated for President by a major party, but the July 6, 1920 issue of the Bridgeport Connecticut Telegram reported that Laura Play and Cora Wilson Stuart of Kentucky were put forward as possible Presidential nominees at the Democratic Party San Francisco convention and received "the first vote cast for a woman in the convention of either of the two great parties."
This was the most cited legal impediment in the 19th century. Some of Woodhull's contemporaries believed that because she was a woman she was not a citizen and, therefore, not entitled to vote. Since the Constitution required that the President be a citizen, she would also be excluded from holding the office of President. Others believed women were citizens, but that the states had the right to limit the franchise to males only. Some Woodhull supporters believed that even if Woodhull could not vote legally, that would not have excluded her from running for public office. United States law has its roots in English common law, and under English common law, there was an established precedence of women holding public office.
It was not just her gender that made Woodhull's campaign notable; her association with Frederick Douglass stirred up controversy about the mixing of whites and blacks and fears of miscegenation. The Equal Rights Party hoped to use these nominations to reunite suffragists with civil rights activists, as the exclusion of female suffrage from the Fifteenth Amendment two years earlier had caused a substantial rift. The circumstances leading up to Woodhull's nomination had also created a rift between Woodhull and her former supporter Susan B. Anthony, and almost ended the collaboration of Anthony with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton, who had unsuccessfully run for Congress in New York in 1868, was more sympathetic to Woodhull. When Anthony cast her vote in the presidential election, she voted for Grant.
Like many of Woodhull's protests, this was first and foremost a media performance, designed to shake up the prejudices of the day. Vilified in the media for her support of free love, Woodhull devoted an issue of Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly (November 2, 1872) to a rumored affair. She alleged an affair between Elizabeth Tilton and Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent Protestant figure (who incidentally was a supporter of female suffrage). She published this article in order to highlight what she saw as a sexual double-standard between men and women.
On Saturday, November 2, 1871, just days before the presidential election, U.S. Federal Marshals arrested Woodhull, her second husband Colonel Blood, and her sister Tennie C. Claflin for sending obscene material through the mail. The sisters were held in the Ludlow Street Jail for the next month, a place normally reserved for civil offenses, but which contained more hardened criminals as well. The arrest was arranged by Anthony Comstock, the self-appointed moral defender of the nation at the time, and the event incited questions about censorship and government persecution. Woodhull, Claflin, and Blood were acquitted on a technicality six months later, but the arrest prevented Victoria from attempting to vote during the 1872 presidential election. The publication of the Beecher-Tilton scandal led Theodore Tilton, husband of Elizabeth Tilton, to sue Beecher for "alienation of affection" in 1875. The trial was sensationalized across the nation, eventually resulting in a hung jury.
Woodhull attempted to secure nominations for the presidency again in 1884 and 1892. The newspapers in 1892 reported that she was nominated by the "National Woman Suffragists' Nominating Convention" presided over by Anna M. Parker, President of the convention. Mary L. Stowe of California was nominated as the vice presidential candidate, but some woman's suffrage organizations repudiated the nominations, stating the nominating committee was not authorized. Her 1892 campaign was probably taken less seriously because newspapers quoted her as saying she was "destined" by "prophecy" to be elected President of the United States in 1892.
Woodhull was outraged by the concept of human eugenics while she was politically active, though she believed that states of mind were inherited, and that the circumstances of a birth affected the character of the child. Her interest in these issues was likely motivated by the profound mental retardation of her son, which she believed was affected by the drunkenness of his father. She argued that because a parent's state of mind could affect the character of a child, the system of sexual relationships between people needed to be as free as possible. Later in life, after renouncing much of her previous feminist stances, she indicated support for eugenics. This was in stark contrast to her earlier works in which she advocated social freedom and opposed government interference in matters of love and marriage.