This article was first published in the February 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine
On the evening of Tuesday 5 November 1872, the first female candidate for president of the United States was not waiting at party headquarters for the election results, she was in prison in New York City on obscenity charges.
Victoria Woodhull – clairvoyant, entrepreneur, women’s rights campaigner and free-love advocate – experienced plenty of ups and downs in her long life. But the few weeks she spent languishing in Ludlow Street Jail as America went to the polls almost certainly counts as the nadir.
Six months earlier, when Woodhull had taken the stage at a gathering of the Equal Rights Party – a radical organisation she had herself founded – it was political power not imprisonment that beckoned. “A revolution shall sweep over the whole country, to purge it of political trickery, despotic assumption, and all industrial injustice,” she declared. So moved was her audience by her words that it promptly nominated her for president in the forthcoming elections. In a nation in which women had few political rights, this was a truly extraordinary move. Unfortunately for Woodhull, it was one that America’s all-male electorate regarded with little more than horror or amusement.
Victoria Woodhull’s bumpy ride to trailblazing presidential nominee began in 1838, when she was born Victoria Claflin in Homer, Ohio. From early in life, she participated in the family business of travelling to fairgrounds, selling patent medicines, giving demonstrations of clairvoyance, summoning spirit music and conducting séances.
At 15 she married an alcoholic doctor called Woodhull, but the union was short-lived – and it was from a lover, Colonel James Blood, that Victoria learned the new doctrine of women’s rights. It was a brand of radicalism that she embraced with gusto. Soon, she was championing labour reform and ‘free love’ – the right to have sex whenever one felt like it, with whomever one pleased, regardless of marital status.
Woodhull’s fortunes surged in 1868 when she moved to New York – at the bidding, she claimed, of her spirit guide. There she met Cornelius Vanderbilt, probably America’s richest man. She discovered a natural talent for dealing in stocks and shares – and in 1870, with Vanderbilt’s backing, she and her sister Tennessee set up America’s first ever brokerage office run by women. Woodhull, Claflin & Co quickly gained a reputation as the ‘queens of finance’ and, in search of maximum exposure, launched a newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, in May 1870.
All the while, Woodhull’s passion for women’s rights remain undimmed. She began arguing that, as the American constitution did not forbid women from voting, then they had the right to do so – and managed to persuade a congressman to invite her to Washington DC to put that case. On her arrival, she presented a petition on the citizenship of women to the Senate and the House of Representatives, before addressing the House Judiciary Committee in 1871. In doing so, she single-handedly revitalised the votes-for-women debate.
Woodhull had swiftly become one of the most important campaigning women in the US. Yet, as she was about to discover, her high-profile activism had set her on a collision course with the more reactionary elements of a deeply conservative nation.
Soon after her dramatic entry into the presidential race, the boarding house where Woodhull was staying asked her to leave because of her radical views. She then moved to her office in the brokerage firm – only for the owner to increase the rent by £1,000 dollars a year, payable immediately.
Woodhull was convinced that her enemies were orchestrating a conspiracy against her, and decided to hit back where it hurt. So she went about exposing the private lives of the leaders of two high-profile women’s suffrage organisations – with whom she’d long been at loggerheads, believing them fusty and staid.
Woodhull could hardly have tread on more explosive territory if she’d tried. That’s because Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, the president of the American Woman Suffrage Association (and the most famous preacher in the US), was having an affair with Lib, wife of Theodore Tilton, head of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association.
This was known to the female leaders of the suffrage organisations, but they thought discretion the best path and advised Tilton to keep quiet. All the while, Beecher thundered from the pulpit about marriage’s sanctity and the sinfulness of sex outside of it.
His hypocrisy was laid bare when Woodhull produced a special edition of Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly telling the full story of the Beecher-Tilton scandal. It was a publishing sensation – and when distributors refused to handle it, news vendors stormed Woodhull’s office to obtain copies.
The publication soon came to the attention of Anthony Comstock, a dry-goods salesman and self-appointed guardian of public morals. So appalled was he by Woodhull’s revelations, he sought a warrant for the sisters’ arrest for sending indecent material through the mail. Victoria and Tennessee were thrown into jail, which is where they languished on the day of the presidential election in 1872. They were found not guilty of the allegations, yet all the political momentum they’d built up had been lost. (The number of votes Woodhull received was negligible, and is not recorded).
But a spell in prison hadn’t taken the fight out of Woodhull – far from it. In 1877, Victoria and Tennessee emigrated to England, where they made brilliant marriages: Tennessee became Lady Cook while Victoria married a wealthy banker, and was feted in newspapers in her later years as “The United States Mother of Women’s Suffrage”.
Woodhull spent her time in England publishing a journal, Humanitarian, and promoting planned parenthood and eugenics. The US’s first female presidential candidate died thousands of miles away from the seat of American power on her estate at Bredon’s Norton, Worcestershire, in 1927.
Jad Adams is a historian of radicalism and nationalism. His most recent book is Women and the Vote: A World History (OUP, 2014).