Women’s rights leader Victoria Woodhull, though not especially well known today, once attracted more media attention than just about any female in the United States. A jack-of-all-trades, Woodhull alternately tried her hand at stockbroking, newspaper publishing, lobbying, public speaking, clairvoyance and philanthropy, and even ran for president long before women won the right to vote. Her unconventional lifestyle and radical political views helped her make powerful friends and equally powerful enemies. On the 175th anniversary of her birth, here are nine things you should know about one of the most controversial figures of her time.
1. Woodhull received almost no formal education.
Victoria Claflin, later Victoria Woodhull, was born on September 23, 1838, to an illiterate mother and a petty criminal father. One of 10 children, Woodhull did not start elementary school until she turned 8. She then attended off and on for only three years before dropping out. Any hope of further education was dashed at age 15, when she married a doctor who soon revealed himself as an alcoholic philanderer. To make matters even more difficult, Woodhull gave birth to a mentally handicapped son in 1854.
2. Woodhull worked as a traveling clairvoyant.
As a child in rural Ohio, Woodhull purportedly believed that she could communicate with three siblings who had died in infancy and that she could heal the sick. Always on the lookout for a good moneymaking scheme, her father put her and her sister Tennessee to work telling fortunes and contacting spirits. The family also went into the alternative healing business, selling life elixirs, giving massages and offering cures for diseases ranging from cancer to asthma. But although Woodhull later claimed to have made a small fortune during the Civil War as a traveling medical clairvoyant, she and Tennessee both had their share of setbacks. Tennessee, for example, was indicted for manslaughter in Illinois after one of her cancer patients died.
3. Woodhull and her sister were the first female brokers on Wall Street.
Upon moving to New York City in 1868, Victoria and Tennessee began working as clairvoyants for the railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, who distrusted medically trained doctors. Tennessee also apparently became Vanderbilt’s lover and may even have received a marriage proposal from him. Stock tips gleaned from this relationship proved handy during an 1869 gold panic, during which the sisters claimed to have netted around $700,000. With Vanderbilt’s financial backing, Victoria and Tennessee then opened their own highly publicized firm named Woodhull, Claflin & Co., becoming the first female stockbrokers on Wall Street. Nonetheless, they never gained a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, something no woman would achieve until 1967.
4. Woodhull was the first woman to address a congressional committee.
Woodhull attended a female suffrage convention in January 1869 and became a devout believer in the cause. Not long afterward she befriended Massachusetts congressman Benjamin Butler, from whom she cajoled an invitation to testify before the House Judiciary Committee. On January 11, 1871, Woodhull declared to the panel that women had already won the right to vote under the recently enacted 14th and 15th amendments. Women are citizens, she argued, and “the citizen who is taxed should also have a voice in the subject matter of taxation.” Although the committee rejected her petition to pass “enabling legislation,” her history-making appearance immediately propelled her into a leadership position among suffragists.
5. Woodhull was the first woman to run for president.
In April 1870, just two months after opening her brokerage firm, Woodhull announced her candidacy for president of the United States. She campaigned on a platform of women’s suffrage, regulation of monopolies, nationalization of railroads, an eight-hour workday, direct taxation, abolition of the death penalty and welfare for the poor, among other things. In addition to promoting herself in her weekly newspaper, Woodhull organized an Equal Rights Party, which nominated her at its May 1872 convention. Famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass was selected as her running mate. He never acknowledged it, however, and in fact campaigned for Republican Ulysses S. Grant. Woodhull was furthermore hurt by embarrassing details about her private life, which came to light during a lawsuit that her mother brought against her second husband. In the end, Woodhull’s name appeared on ballots in at least some states. No one knows how many votes she received because they apparently weren’t counted.
6. Woodhull spent Election Day in jail.
A few days before the 1872 presidential election returned Grant to office, Woodhull published an article in her newspaper aimed at exposing popular preacher Henry Ward Beecher as an adulterous hypocrite. The backlash was immediate, as Beecher’s supporters helped garner arrest warrants for Victoria and Tennessee on charges of sending obscene material through the mail. They also faced libel charges over a second article that accused a Wall Street trader of getting two teenage girls drunk and seducing them. Police took the sisters into custody on November 2, and they remained in jail for about a month. Additional arrests followed, including one after a briefly on-the-lam Woodhull snuck up on stage in disguise in order to give a speech. The sisters were eventually found not guilty, but not before taking a beating in the press. Their harshest critics included Harriet Beecher Stowe, Beecher’s sister and the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” who called Woodhull a “vile jailbird” and an “impudent witch,” and cartoonist Thomas Nast, who depicted Woodhull as “Mrs. Satan.”
7. Woodhull was a proponent of free love.
Woodhull often spoke about sex on the lecture circuit, saying, among other things, that women should have the right to escape bad marriages and control their own bodies. Even more shocking to Victorian sensibilities, she espoused free love. “I want the love of you all, promiscuously,” she once declared. “It makes no difference who or what you are, old or young, black or white, pagan, Jew, or Christian, I want to love you all and be loved by you all, and I mean to have your love.” Woodhull practiced what she preached, at one point living with her ex-husband, her husband and her lover in the same apartment. Yet she also knew when to hold back her amorous affections. “Let women issue a declaration of independence sexually, and absolutely refuse to cohabit with men until they are acknowledged as equals in everything, and the victory would be won in a single week,” she wrote.
8. Woodhull spent over half her life as an expat.
When Vanderbilt died in January 1877, his children began fighting in court over his $100 million estate. Rumor holds that Victoria and Tennessee were paid off to not testify at trial. Either way, they left that August for England, where Woodhull met her third husband, a wealthy banker. She resided there until her death in 1927, devoting her later years to running a new newspaper and preserving the English home of George Washington’s ancestors. Woodhull also became an automobile enthusiast, donated money and services to the townspeople around her estate, traveled overseas to run again for U.S. president in 1892, founded a short-lived agricultural school and volunteered with the Red Cross during World War I.
9. Woodhull lost the backing of other suffragist leaders.
Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other giants of the women’s suffrage movement embraced Woodhull around the time of her congressional appearance. But they soon had a falling out, in part over Woodhull’s political ambitions and love of the limelight. She did not get invited to speak at suffrage conventions following her first run for president, and Anthony even advised a British suffrage leader not to meet with her. “Both sisters are regarded as lewd and indecent,” Anthony wrote in a letter. Moreover, when Anthony, Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage published a comprehensive history of the women’s suffrage movement in the 1880s, they essentially left out Woodhull entirely.