Move Over, Hillary! Victoria Woodhull Was the First Woman to Run for U.S. President
Hillary Clinton may have announced her candidacy via YouTube this weekend, but 143 years before her, another woman ran for president, and if social media had existed, she no doubt would have offered sentiments like, “I am a free lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional, and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please,” or perhaps, “If women would today rise en masse and demand their emancipation, the men would be compelled to grant it.”
The above statements come from the quill pen of the incredible Victoria Woodhull, an unsung socialist feminist heroine who was the first woman to run for U.S. president on the Equal Rights Party ticket. At one time or another a traveling clairvoyant, a spellbinding lecturer, a newspaperwoman, and even a stockbroker, Woodhull took for her running mate, the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass. (In truth, there is scant record that Douglass accepted this honor—he never campaigned with her—but no matter, it was quite enough to put forth an interracial ticket in the years right after the Civil War.)
And what a platform she had! A militant feminist, she declared, “Women must rise from their position as ministers to the passions of men to be their equals. Their entire system of education must be changed. They must be trained like men, [to be] permanent and independent individuals, and not their mere appendages or adjuncts, with them forming but one member of society. They must be the companions of men from choice, never from necessity.” Her party also called for an end to the death penalty, prison reform, and dramatic improvements in education and workers’ rights. “If Congress refuse to listen to and grant what women ask,” she once wrote, “there is but one course left then to pursue. What is there left for women to do but to become the mothers of the future government?”
Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Celeste Clafin, who went by Tennie, made a fortune on Wall Street as the first two women to run a brokerage house. These rebel girls of the nascent American left came by their wild ways honestly—their father was a literal snake oil salesman, their mom a follower of the Austrian mystic Franz Mesmer. (From which the word mesmerize derives.)
In her early teens, Woodhull worked as a “magnetic healer”; she married at fourteen and had two kids, then dumped the guy (he was a boozer) and got remarried to a fellow who introduced her to politics. Tennie was no slouch either—she was rumored to be the lover of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who bankrolled the sisters’ brokerage firm. Victoria and Tennie took their profits and started a newspaper called Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly—their publication discussed such outré subjects as short skirts and vegetarianism, and was the first place to publish an English version of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto in the United States.
Woodhull declared her presidential candidacy on May 10, 1872, in the Apollo Hall at 28th Street and Broadway, but her campaign was cut short when she and Tennie were arrested on obscenity charges for calling out the eminent preacher Henry Ward Beecher on charges that he was an adulterer canoodling with one of his parishioners. The sisters were taken to the Ludlow Street Jail. On Election Day, they remained incarcerated. (Ulysses S. Grant won.) Beecher faced a spectacular tabloid-fodder trial; in 1876, Woodhull, sick of it all, fled to England, where she continued to lecture.
“While others prayed for the good time coming, I worked for it,” Woodhull once proclaimed. Another incredibly hard worker, former Secretary of State Clinton, embarking on her electoral journey, would do well to bear in mind these words from Woodhull’s platform, as trenchant and heartbreaking today as they were almost a century and a half ago: “It is not great wealth in a few individuals that proves a country is prosperous, but great general wealth evenly distributed among the people . . . It is the struggling masses who are the foundation [of this country]; and if the foundation be rotten or insecure, the rest of the structure must eventually crumble.”