The First Woman To Run For President Was a Clairvoyant Free-Love Advocate
If Hillary Clinton’s campaign succeeds, she will become the first woman to be elected president of the United States. But she won’t have been the first to run. And she wasn’t in 2008 either, not by a long shot. More than a hundred years before Hillary, Victoria Claflin Woodhull ran as a third party candidate in the 1872 election. Her groundbreaking, albeit failed, campaign wasn't the only time she made headlines: though history has largely forgotten her, during her lifetime, Woodhull was one of the most notorious women in the country and a “first” many times over in business and politics.
Victoria Claflin wasn’t born into status or opportunity. She was the sixth of 10 children—seven of which survived infancy—born to an illiterate mother and an abusive crook of a father in Homer, Ohio. Her only formal education consisted of three sporadic years of elementary school between the ages of 8 and 11. At a young age, Victoria and her younger sister Tennessee began supporting the Claflin clan after her father decided that of all his scams, his daughter’s professed clairvoyance had the most potential. For her part, it seems Victoria truly believed that she could communicate with her deceased siblings. Her father was plenty happy to exploit that belief by marketing her and Tennessee as fortunetellers and séance practitioners.
At just 15 years old, Victoria married 28-year-old Canning Woodhull of Rochester, N.Y., a man of some means. But while the union managed to liberate Victoria from her squalid family, it did little to improve her life. Her husband proved to be an alcoholic and a philanderer. Although the marriage resulted in two children—one of whom was brain-damaged, either as a result of a head trauma, or, as Victoria claimed, her husband’s drinking—Victoria finally demanded a divorce, despite the stigma it carried at the time.
There is little information available about what happened to Woodhull just after her divorce (she kept her ex-husband's last name), but by 1866, she had remarried. Col. James Blood fostered her Spiritualism (with a capital “S”), political radicalism, and free love.
It’s worth noting that Woodhull’s 19th century definition of “free love” is not quite as extreme the 1960s movement that comes to mind. And she was likely not a prostitute, despite contemporary slander to that effect. (In fact, she spoke out so vehemently against it as to call women who marry for personal advancement prostitutes.) Instead, the free love she advocated had more to do with a woman’s rights than promiscuity. She advocated for the ability to marry whomever she chose and to divorce without social repercussions. In her mind, marriage should be a system existing outside the sphere of government regulation, and society should reject any double standards for men and women regarding infidelity. She praised monogamy in theory, but admitted that it likely was not practical enough to be state-sanctioned. Incidentally, she and the Colonel married and divorced twice, although it’s not clear if the second marriage involved the law at all.
The liberal-minded Blood encouraged Woodhull and her sister Tennessee to move to New York with him in 1868 and pursue careers. There, they met and charmed millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt. (Tennessee, it was rumored, had an affair with him.) While serving as his personal clairvoyants, the sisters picked up some handy stock tips that allowed them to emerge from the 1869 gold panic $700,000 richer. Using that money—and more from Mr. Vanderbilt—the sisters became the first women to found and run a Wall Street brokerage firm, Woodhull and Claflin, on Broad Street in 1870. The sisters, who weren't actually involved in any stock-brokering activities, wore shockingly short skirts to their office opening and served as fodder for the local papers—reporters dubbed them “the queens of finance” and “bewitching brokers."
Wall Street And The Weekly
That very same year, the women used the funds from the brokerage firm to start their own newspaper. Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly was a far-left leaning paper that proclaimed itself "The Organ of the Most Advanced Thought and Purpose in the World!" It went out to 20,000 subscribers a week for six years.
The paper was radical and bold: It published the first-ever English translation of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto. Woodhull had grand plans for her publication. On April 22, 1871—more than a year before the national election—Woodhull announced on the front page her plans to run for president of the United States. She declared herself the nominee of the “Cosmo-Political Party” and noted that this was “subject to ratification by the national convention.” Earlier in the year, Woodhull had become the first woman to address a congressional committee when she argued, before the House Judiciary Committee, that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments already granted women the right to vote with the statement that “the citizen who is taxed should also have a voice in the subject matter of taxation.” Leaders of the women's suffrage movement took notice of this speech and saw her as a champion of their cause.
Running For President
Woodhull helped organize the Equal Rights Party and at its May 1872 convention she was officially named their presidential nominee (so much for the Cosmo-Political Party). As her running mate, the party nominated famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass—although he never acknowledged the nomination and even campaigned for Republican Ulysses S. Grant.
Woodhull campaigned on a heavily liberal platform, calling for 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. But Woodhull was never given a fair shake herself. Her personal life was repeatedly dragged through the mud by the tabloids of the day. Her potential presidency was considered such a long shot that virtually none of her contemporaries bothered to point out that at 34, she technically wasn’t even legally old enough to be president.
With universal suffrage still almost 50 years away, Woodhull would not have been able to vote for herself under even the best circumstances. But as it was, she spent Election Day in jail. On November 2, 1872, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly published a searing exposé of Brooklyn minister Henry Ward Beecher, accusing him of having an affair with one of his parishioners. Consistent with her beliefs, Woodhull was not upset with the affair itself, just his proclamations against such behavior. “I am not charging him with immorality—I applaud his enlightened views. I am charging him with hypocrisy,” she said.
The powerful minister was a beloved figure in the community and Woodhull’s takedown of him brought unprecedented disapproval. With the election just days away, she, her sister, and her husband, who had written many of the Weekly articles, were arrested on charges of “indecency,” and of publishing “an obscene newspaper” and sending it through the mail.
Ultimately, the three were released. But even with the election lost—generous estimates suggest she may have received a couple thousand votes—the public vitriol against her in defense of Beecher persisted. In 1877, having shuttered her paper and (again) divorced Blood, Woodhull moved to England. There, the first woman to ever run for President of the United States lived out the rest of her long and eventful life in relative peace. She ended up taking one more husband, whom she outlived.