Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Victoria Woodhull: First Female Candidate for President

Victoria California Claflin Woodhull (born 23 September 1838)

Victoria California Claflin Woodhull Blood Martin lived an extraordinary life--spiritual medium and fortuneteller, supporter of free love, advocate for women's rights, stockbroker, founder and editor of a newspaper, and the first woman to run for president, the 1872 nominee of the Equal Rights Party.

Victoria Claflin Woodhull, 1870,
photo by Matthrew Brady
But she had an inauspicious start in what became an extraordinary life--she was one of ten children born to Reuben Buckman Claflin, a one-eyed conman accused of theft, counterfeiting, and arson, a man who "could see more deviltry to do with that one eye than any two men with their four eyes." Her mother, Roxanna Hummel Claflin, was illiterate, a "religious zealot" given to praying--and cursing--loudly. 

While Victoria had almost no formal education, she was successful in her father's most lucrative business--she acted as a medium, sold various elixirs, told fortunes, and helped to "cure" all kinds of ailments. (Her sister Tennessee was once indicted for manslaughter after her patient died!)

Victoria Claflin married Canning Woodhull when she was fourteen, had two children with him, and divorced him eleven years later. She then married James Harvey Blood, probably about 1866--she would be divorced from him in 1876. Beginning in 1872, she had a long-term relationship with Benjamin Tucker, a proponent of anarchism and free love, a social movement that rejected traditional notions of marriage as a kind of slavery.

In the mean time, Victoria Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, opened a successful brokerage firm on Wall Street, Woodhull, Claflin & Co., becoming the first female stockbrokers. Then they founded a newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly. Victoria Woodhull became involved with the suffrage movement in 1869; on 11 January 1871 she became the first woman to testify before a Congressional committee--she addressed the House Judiciary Committee, arguing that women had already won the right to vote with the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

On 10 May 1872, Victoria Woodhull was nominated by the Equal Rights Party at their convention held in Apollo Hall, New York. (Frederick Douglass was nominated as vice president, but he did not attend the convention or acknowledge the nomination.) Woodhull would run again for president in 1892.

Later, however, Woodhull would lose the support of suffrage activists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton--her personal and professional life had just become too scandalous. After she divorced her second husband, Victoria Woodhull left for England.

Once in England, she continued lecturing. She married John Biddulph Martin in 1883 and turned again to publishing. Under the name of Victoria Woodhull Martin, she produced The Humanitarian, a magazine that included features about literature, politics, spirituality, and science--especially eugenics--a publication that continued from 1892 until 1901.

Woodhull retired in 1901, after her third husband's death. She died in England on 27 June 1927.

There are many biographies--but, as a place to start, I'll link you here (oops—see below) to the National Women's History Museum website, where you'll find a biography, bibliography, and links to other online resources. 

Update, 23 September 2017: Two years after writing this entry, I checked the links again, only to discover that Woodhull has been disappeared from the National Women's History Museum website! I thought that was worth noting . . . For once I'll suggest looking at the entry for Woodhull in Wikipedia--it's quite good! An excellent place to head for all of the biographical and bibliographical details, with links to primary source material.

Update, 23 September 2022: She's back! Mariana Brandman's biography of Victoria Woodhull was posted to the National Women's History Museum website this year. To access it, click here.