Victoria Clafllin Woodhull lived life on her own terms and if her terms were scandalous, all the better. She was the seventh of ten children born to unmarried parents. Her mother, a believer in spiritualism; her father, a some-time lawyer and con man. As a child, Victoria worked as a fortune teller and child preacher, presumably not at the same time. In 1853 at the age of 14, Victoria married Canning Woodhull. It was not a happy marriage. After bearing two children, Victoria divorced her husband (perhaps due to his alocoholism and numerous affairs) and kept his surname.
As a divorced woman and single parent, Victoria, by social definition, lived a scandalous life. She built on her situation later in her career when she became an advocate of Free Love, by which she meant women should have the right to marry, divorce, and have children without any social repercussions. Even more shocking, Victoria believed the choice of whether to have sexual relations should rest with the woman.
Speaking at the Steinway Hall in 1871, Victoria declared: “I am a Free Lover. I have 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, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere”
In 1866, Victoria married her second husband, Col. James Blood, a civil war veteran. Like Victoria, he had ties to spiritualism, a popular religious movement that believed people could communicate with spirits of the dead. Given the devastation of the recent civil war, the movement’s popularity is perhaps understandable. Victoria said she believed in spiritualism because gave her the belief in the possibility of a better life.
With her husband and sister Tennessee Claflin, Victoria moved to New York City where the sisters began careers as spiritualists with an eye to catching Cornelius Vanderbilt’s attention. Vanderbilt believed in spiritualism and had been attending sessions with a Mrs. Tufts on Staten Island. When Tufts retired, Vanderbilt patronized Tennesse Claflin who became his lover.
In 1870, Vanderbilt provided the financing that allowed Victoria and her sister to open Woodhull, Claflin & Company, the first female brokerage firm in New York. On one occasion, Victoria advised Vanderbilt on selling shares – he earned millions. The sisters became known as the Queens of Finance.
That same year, the sisters founded Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, a newspaper that at its height had a circulation of 20,000. With a slogan of “Progress! Free Thought! Untrammeled Lives!”, the paper published stories advocating women’s suffrage, spiritualism, vegetarianism, and licencesed prostitution. On December 30, 1871, Victoria printed the first English version of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.
In her advocacy of women’s suffrage, Victoria became the first woman to petition Congress in person when she testified before the House Judiciary Committee that the 14th and 15th constitutional amendments guaranteeing that all citizens have the right to vote legalized the right of women to vote, declaring “[W]omen are the equals of men before the law, and are equal in all their rights.”
Leaders of the National Woman Suffrage Association postponed the opening of their third annual convention in 1871 in order to attend the hearing. Susan B. Anthony invited Victoria to repeat her speech at their convention and also to join the NWSA. It was a shortlived association after Victoria challenged Anthony for leadership in the organization.
The following year, on May 10 1872, the Equal Rights Party nominated Victoria for president, though technically she didn’t meet the age requirement. Nevertheless, Victoria was the first woman to run for president, facing opponents Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley.
Twelve days after her nomination, Victoria submitted a letter to the editor of the New York World in which she called out her detractors:
“My judges preach against “free love” openly and practice it secretly; their outward seeming is fair [but] inwardly they are full of “dead men’s bones and all manner of uncleanness.” For example, I know of one man, a public teacher of eminence, who lives in concubinage with the wife of another public teacher of almost equal eminence. . . . I shall make it my business to analyze some of these lives. . . . I have no faith in critics, but I believe in justice.”
The repercussions of this letter are the subject of next week’s blog.
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Victoria Woodhull by Matthew Brady.
Col. James H. Blood, 1866.
Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly.
Victoria Woodhull Speaking Before House Judiciary Committee, 1871.
Victoria Woodhull Poster, 1879.
Carol Felsenthal. “The Strange Tale of the First Woman to Run for President.” Politico Magazine. Apr. 9, 2015.
Danny Lewis. “Victoria Woodhull Ran for President Before Women Had the Right to Vote.” Smithsonian Magazine. May 10, 2016.
Edward Renehan. “Strange Bedfellows: Commodore Vanderbilt and the Woodhull/Claflins.” History News Network. Dec. 2, 2007.
Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.
Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.