To her enemies, she was Mrs Satan. To Walt Whitman, she was “a prophecy of the future”. To Gloria Steinem, from the vantage point of the 1970s, she was “the most controversial suffragist of them all”. But to the Equal Rights Party on 6 June 1872, she was their newly ratified candidate for the presidency of the United States – and the first woman to run for that office. Her name was Victoria Claflin Woodhull and she was just 33 years old.
The Equal Rights Party stood at the intersection of social equality, sexual revolution and spiritualism. Woodhull, who had recently founded it herself, was a passionate advocate of all three. She was born Victoria Claflin in small-town Ohio in September 1838, the fifth of seven children. The family lived a poor, itinerant life. She married a self-styled doctor at 15 and had her first child the following year. Her husband was a drunk and a philanderer; she left him, but kept his name, Woodhull.
To support herself, she performed as a ‘clairvoyant physician’, a trade which she claimed netted her $100,000. It was a family business: her no-less-remarkable younger sister Tennessee worked as a medium; their father – who styled himself a doctor and ‘the American King of Cancer’ – peddled a Magnetio Life Elixir, which landed Tennessee, who fronted for him, with an indictment for manslaughter in Illinois.
Arriving in New York in 1868 – on the advice of her spirit guide, Demosthenes, Woodhull said – the sisters quickly made the acquaintance of the elderly Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the wealthiest men in America and a keen devotee of spiritualism. With his advice on stock- and gold-trading, their wealth exploded; by the end of the decade Woodhull was saying they had made $700,000. “[When] we go in earnest… we will do much better,” she told a reporter, coolly. To fellow suffrage campaigner Susan B Anthony, she put it differently: “Let’s get our hands on Wall Street,” she said.
In January 1870, the sisters opened a brokerage, the first to be run by women. In May the same year, they founded a radical newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, which saw the first complete publication of the Communist Manifesto in English. If there was any contradiction between these two roles, Woodhull refused to acknowledge it. By now she was touring the country, selling different kinds of prognostications – women’s rights, free love, revolution – to audiences of thousands.
Her rise – and her career – was broken by the decision to publish an exposé on the extra-marital affairs of prominent liberal minister Henry Ward Beecher. Woodhull didn’t object to the infidelity so much as the hypocrisy. But the exposé landed her and her sister in prison for obscenity.
In 1877, she left the US for England and, ultimately, another marriage and respectability. She was written out of suffragist history; Anthony dismissed her as “lewd and indecent”. But some remembered her: “Your work started it all,” a young woman lawyer wrote to her in 1905. “You gave women the idea that they must own themselves.”
The words of Woodhull’s manifesto for presidency make a powerful epitaph. “While others prayed for the good time coming, I worked for it,” she wrote. “While others argued the equality of woman with man, I proved it.”
This is an extended version of a piece that first appeared in the June 2022 issue of History Today.
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