Note: Last winter I attended an event in Chicago sponsored by my alma mater Shimer College where Marge Piercy presented from her book Sex Wars: A novel of Gilded Age New York. Afterwards as Piercy was signing a copy for me I told her that I had blogged about her major historical characters and about the period. Somehow this didn’t seem to impress her. One of her characters was so fabulous you would suspect the novelist had to make her up. You would be wrong. Victoria Claflin Woodhull was real. She wrote the novel of her own life with heedless candor.
Victoria Claflin Woodhull announced her candidacy for President of the United States almost 50 years before the passage of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in all of the United States. Woodhull stood apart from other leaders of the Suffrage movement by her audacity, frank embrace of the most radical social causes, her shocking open challenge to Victorian sensibilities, and her mesmerizing affect on the public and press.
She was born in Homer, Ohio on September 23 1838, the daughter of a ne’er-do-well con artist and patent medicine peddler who may have passed on some of his persuasive flair to his beautiful older daughter.
At the age of 15 she married a 28 year old doctor—and perhaps a quack—Canning Woodhull. The couple had two children including a boy with an “intellectual disability.” Victoria soon discovered that her husband was an alcoholic chronic womanizer, and was abusive. Unable, or unwilling, to support the family, he relied on his wife to provide income. In San Francisco she worked as a cigar girl in rough and tumble saloons, and likely at least occasionally as a prostitute.
Later in New York she began her long collaboration with her younger sister Tennessee Claflin presenting themselves as clairvoyants and spiritual healers. When her husband essentially abandoned the family, the sisters successfully took their act to Cincinnati and Chicago and began touring as spiritualist lecturers. After 11 years Victoria obtained a divorce from her husband.
Her experience would inform her public rejection of conventional marriage as a form of chattel slavery for women. She became attracted to the Free Love movement that percolated on the very most advanced frontiers of Free Thinking.
Around 1866 she either married or took up a common law relationship with Col. James Blood, a kind and cultured gentleman who subscribed to Free Love and abandoned a wife and family and a respectable life for her.
They settled back in New York with sister Tennessee and Victoria’s extended family. Living in relative comfort and respectability, the sisters established a popular salon where advanced thinkers and practical politicians rubbed shoulders. Among her admirers was Benjamin Butler, the Radical Republican politician and former general who espoused both suffrage for women and free love.
Virgina proved a brilliant and daring conversationalist and advocated by turns and in combinations anarchism, socialism, Spiritualism, and racial equality.
Sister Tennessee caught the fancy of 76 year old Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who took her for a lover, consulted with her for spiritual advice and returned the favor by offering inside stock tips. Armed with such information, the sisters invested and reaped fabulous profits. Vanderbilt helped set them up in the first woman owned brokerage firm on Wall Street, Woodhull, Claflin & Company.
The press hailed them as Queens of Finance. Susan B. Anthony regarded the venture as “a new phase of the woman's rights question.” Victoria, with typical blunt frankness noted that, “Woman's ability to earn money is better protection against the tyranny and brutality of men than her ability to vote.”
In 1870 the sisters took advantage of their fame by launching their own weekly newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly. Victoria was the principle editor and writer. The paper took on and advanced all of the most progressive causes of its day. But it also pioneered in muckraking and investigative journalism, exposing fraudulent stock schemes, insurance frauds, and shady Congressional land deals. The newspaper, which was often sold under the counter and was sometimes banned from the mails, had a very respectable circulation of more than 20,000 copies weekly for most of its seven year run.
In 1870 Woodhull used the pages of the New York Herald to announce her candidacy for President in the 1872 election. She maintained that while the law forbad women from voting, there was not a statutory ban on women running for, or being elected to office. She used the pages of her newspaper and the lecture stage to campaign.
In January 1871 she personally petitioned Congress on behalf of women’s suffrage. She argued that the recently enacted 13th and 14th Amendments extended to women the same rights as newly freed slaves. Her argument attracted wide attention and admiration. Although a majority report rejected her assertions, Benjamin Butler filed a minority report in her favor. Leaders of the Suffrage movement including Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton invited her to address a meeting of the National Women Suffrage Association (NWSA) the next day.
But the spotlight of the campaign was thrown on Woodhull’s most unusual household, which included not only her present husband, but also her first who had shown up penniless and addicted to morphine and was taken in out of charity; her sisters and their liaisons; and her parents including the father who still was running patent medicine scams. When her mother tried to blackmail Vanderbilt posing as Tennessee, he naturally withdrew his support and advice and turned his significant power against the sisters, who were soon forced out of their mansion ending their Salon.
Woodhull simply replaced the money lost from her business with speaking fees.
The powerful Beecher family, evangelist Henry Ward and his sisters Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catherine began a concerted campaign against Woodhull for her advocacy of Free Love. A third sister, Isabella Beecher Hooker, a leader in the NWSA, supported her.
Woodhull became aware that Henry Ward was carrying on an adulterous affair with the wife of an associate. She attempted to use that knowledge to get the Reverend not only to back off his attacks, but to introduce her at a major public lecture at Steinway Hall. Despite the thinly veiled blackmail attempt, Beecher backed out at the last moment and Woodhull was introduced by Theodore Tilton, the cuckolded husband of Beecher’s lover.
The speech itself went well until Woodhull’s younger sister Utica, bitter over Victoria’s fame and notoriety stood up in a box and directly challenged her sister to publicly proclaim her support of free love. “Yes, I am a free lover!” Woodhull defiantly retorted, “I have an unalienable, 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 the right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.”
The subsequent scandal rocked the country and split the suffrage movement. None the less the NWSA stood by her and formally nominated her for President with Fredrick Douglas for Vice President in January of 1872. Woodhull ran against Republican incumbent Ulysses S. Grant and the Democratic nominee, famed editor and publisher Horace Greely. Victoria attempted to concentrate her campaign on the highly progressive Woodhull Platform. But her now considerable enemies beset her at every turn.
Susan B. Anthony, broke with other NWSA leaders to support Grant in an attempt to distance the movement from the increasingly scandalous Woodhull. After the family was evicted from their home, they could not even find a house to rent and for a while had to sleep on the floor of their newspaper offices. Business deals fell through and speaking engagements were cancelled.
The paper had to suspend publication for four months. When it returned it ran a full expose of the Beecher/Tilton affair and another on a prominent broker with a predilection for young girls. While circulation soared, the sisters were sued for libel and prosecuted for “pornography.”
Woodhull spent Election Day in jail. No votes were recorded for her, but it is assumed that some of the 4000 or so “rejected” ballots in the election were for her.
Her legal difficulties dragged on. In 1874 both sisters were finally cleared of criminal charges. But they had to pay fines and court costs amounting to an astonishing half a million dollar. All of the sisters’ assets, including their brokerage accounts, printing press, personal papers, and even their clothing were seized to pay the fines. By 1876 she was divorced from Col. Blood and her beloved newspaper was silenced.
She turned to the comforts of religion while continuing to eek out a living as a lecturer. After Cornelius Vanderbilt died unhappy heirs attempted to subpoena the sisters for testimony that he was not of sound mind. Somehow—and speculation runs heavily to the Vanderbilt estate—money was found to send the sisters to England with a comfortable stipend on which to live. Victoria lectured there, but her message was subdued.
She met a wealthy and conservative banker, John Biddulph Martin and married him in 1882 and settled into a life of respectability and sponsorship of various humanitarian causes. On a trip back to the U.S. she joined the tiny Humanitarian Party and was nominated as their candidate for President in 1892. It was a last hurrah in the United States.
Back in England Victoria divided her husband’s estates after his death and backed a scheme to rent small plots to impoverished women so that they could become self-sufficient. She founded an experimental school and sponsored an annual agricultural fair. She was active in World War I relief work and died in her sleep in 1927 at the age of 88.