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.