Victoria Woodhull – first woman to run for the US presidency

This week’s blog starts with question for my quiz-loving friends. Who was the first woman to run for presidency of the United States? Hillary Clinton, right? Wrong! It was, in fact Victoria Woodhull, and she was quite a colourful character and the most famous woman of her generation. She was born in Ohio in 1838, had next to no education and spent most of her childhood with her family’s travelling medicine show, working as a clairvoyant

She was married to an alcoholic at fifteen, a mother at sixteen, divorced at seventeen and remarried at nineteen. In these years, she made a living by fortune-telling, selling patent medicines and spiritualist act with her sister. But better things were to come, She and her sister moved to New York, became Wall Street’s first female stockbrokers, and made a fortune, even though women weren’t allowed a seat on the New York Stock Exchange until 1967. They earned the nicknames: “The Queens of Finance” and “The Bewitching Brokers,”and used the money to publish a journal which, although it had a reputation for muckraking and ranting, promoted radical causes, including women’s suffrage, graduated income tax, an 8 hour work day and profit sharing. In 1870 the journal published the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto.

Victoria gained such a reputation that she was nominated as the presidential candidate for the Equal Rights Party, running for president when most women couldn’t even vote. She got nowhere of course. Friends of the president, Ulysses S Grant, launched a smear campaign against her, accusing her of having affairs with married men and taking drugs. She suspected the family of the prominent minister Henry Ward Beecher of being behind it and fought back, publishing a story about Beecher’s affair with another woman. This led to her being arrested on obscenity charges. The press weren’t sure whether to side with the government or fight for free speech: everything Victoria had published was known to be true. A Chicago editor admitted that “Editors know that all she has said about Beecher is true, and we must either endorse her and make her the most popular woman in the world, or write her down and crush her out; and we have determined to do the latter.”

The whole affair blew up into a huge scandal, involving arrests, court cases, and Victoria spending election day in jail. No-one knows how many votes she received because they weren’t counted. Even though she was found not guilty, the press savaged her. She was described as a ‘vile jailbird’, and impudent witch’, and ‘Mrs Satan.’ In the end, she was acquitted, but the legal costs ruined her.

Victoria had a talent for causing outrage, and in her published lectures said that women should have the right to escape bad marriages and control their own bodies. She also believed in free love, and at one stage lived in the same apartment as her husband, ex-husband and lover. It was too much for other suffrage activists, such as Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who described her as ‘lewd and indecent.’ In fact, when they published a history of the women’s suffrage movement in the 1880’s they left her out.

In 1877, Victoria and her sister decided to make a fresh start in England, where she married a wealthy banker. In her remaining years she wrote books, established a newspaper, and volunteered with the Red Cross during World War I. She died in 1927, some say without leaving a mark on history. But it seems a shame that such a fascinating woman is forgotten. Many of the reforms she proposed to help the working classes at the time are now taken for granted. Since the US seem no closer to electing a female president, it’s fair to say that notorious Victoria was way ahead of her time.



Mrs Beeton – not the cosy matriarch you’d expect

What does the name Mrs Beeton conjure up? A round, rosy-cheeked matriarch, hair in a bun and flour up to her elbows? Sorry to dispel the myth, but Isabella Beeton wrote her famous book of household managements at twenty-one, and died at twenty-eight of an infection following the birth of her fourth child. Rumour has it that she contracted syphilis from her husband on honeymoon and this led to a string of miscarriages and the death in infancy of two of her children. She certainly didn’t live a life of domestic bliss; her husband carried on philandering after they married. He seemed a pretty despicable character all round – after she died, he kept the news quiet, realising that the Mrs Beeton brand name was his most valuable possession. He continued to publish under her name, and later, broke and almost bankrupt, sold her name onto another publishing house.

Isabella Beeton was born in 1836 and her father died when she was just four. Following her mother’s second marriage, she became the eldest girl in a family of twenty-one children. To escape her fate as eternal nursemaid, she became engaged to Samuel Beeton, a London-based publisher of books and magazines. They moved to semi-detached suburbia, but housewifery bored her, and so she persuaded Samuel to let her write columns for one of his publications: the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. She didn’t get off to a flying start – in her first recipe for Victoria Sponge she forgot to include eggs in the list of ingredients!

But the columns soon became popular and so Isabella collected them into what became The Book of Household Management. Most of it comprises the recipes for which it’s still famous, but its gems of advice covered household management, childcare, etiquette, entertaining and information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nurse-Maid, Monthly Wet and Sick Nurses, etc. etc.—also Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda: with a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort. Compelling stuff, eh?

Some people have tried to argue that Mrs Beeton was something of a feminist. A working middle-class woman was certainly a pretty rare thing Victorian society. I’m not sure I’d agree, though. Her writings strengthened the view that ‘a woman’s place is in the home’, while the public domain belonged to the man. I think it’s fair to say we wouldn’t have been kindred spirits. Here’s a quote from the introduction of her book:

‘I have always thought that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife’s badly-cooked dinners and untidy ways.’

And here’s what she says about the mistress of the house:

‘if she remains in bed till a late hour, then the servants, who, as we have observed, invariably acquire some of their mistress’s characteristics, are likely to become sluggards.’

So why have I chosen her? I guess because she embodies a different age and makes me glad I live in the time I do. And sometimes she just makes me smile. I love her first instruction on cooking chicken:

‘First, catch your chicken.’

The book’s a bit of an oddity when you look at it today. Her recipes weren’t new, nor were most of the ideas. It comes across as formal, instructive, a little condescending even. But people clearly didn’t think so at the time – it was one of a kind, and a huge bestseller. It shifted more than 60,000 copies in its first year of publication, and almost two million by 1868. Its format of recipes is still used today. So I salute you, Mrs Beeton. When most Victorian women faded into obscurity, you’re the ultimate household name.