Victoria Woodhull’s declaration that she would be a candidate for President of the United States was a bold move that electrified voters in 1870. Two years later, when the presidential election actually came around, everything had changed. Victoria believed she would win because of her strong faith in what her spirits told her, but she didn’t take account of what other people were thinking and doing. During the years 1870-72, the Women’s movement became split into warring groups over policy. Leaders like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton resented the fact that the government gave former slaves the right to vote but refused to do the same for women. They opposed the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment which gave “all citizens” the right to vote “regardless of race, creed or previous condition of servitude” but did not include women.
In May 1872, the name of Victoria’s People’s Party was changed to the Equal Rights Party. The party officially nominated Victoria for president and she chose Frederick Douglass, the well-known ex-slave and public speaker, as her vice-presidential running mate. (He later said that he had never heard anything about it.) Both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Isabella Beecher Hooker supported Victoria’s candidacy, but neither of them believed she had a chance to be president. Because Victoria’s spirit counselors had told her she was destined for high office, she herself firmly believed this would happen. This was the first presidential election in which women’s suffrage was an important issue, because it was the first held after the formation of the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1869.
While the three different suffrage groups were arguing among themselves, the traditional political parties also struggled over their candidates. Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, was seeking a second term, but the so-called Liberal Republicans split from the main party and nominated Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune. Greeley also got the Democratic nomination. After the turmoil of nominations the campaign itself was one of the most bitterly-fought campaigns in American history.
Victoria’s unquestioning faith in her spirits led her astray when it came to politics. In the end it wasn’t the search for voting rights that brought her down, it was the familiar question about sexual purity and scandal. Victoria and her sisters had lurid pasts compared to those of the other women leading the suffrage movement, but these respectable women also had many secrets to hide. The intrigues and infidelities of leading male citizens touched the lives of their wives as well as their mistresses. Henry Ward Beecher, a distinguished minister and civic leader, was especially vulnerable. His sister Isabella Beecher Hooker was one of Victoria’s strongest supporters, but when rumors about her brother started circulating, she was torn. Unfortunately, Victoria, because of her friendships with brothel managers and prostitutes, knew many of the most scandalous stories in New York.
Victoria Woodhull believed in sexual freedom, as many of the suffragettes did, but she practiced it more than many others. This made her vulnerable to political opponents who spread stories about her and pilloried her in the press. Thomas Nast in his cartoons made her a special target as “Mrs. Satan”. After that cartoon appeared Victoria’s political life was dead. Her speaking engagements were cancelled and her supporters fled to other candidates. Embittered by the desertions, Victoria finally printed an article revealing the affairs of Henry Ward Beecher and other leading citizens. This is what led to her arrest and was the reason she spent Election Day in jail rather than at the polls. Some of the women’s suffrage leaders did attempt to vote; Susan B. Anthony cast a ballot, but her vote was not counted and she was given a $100 fine for the attempt. The election which seemed to promise vindication for women’s rights proved to be a miserable failure for them. The struggle continued for another fifty years.
Today, as we look back from the enormous new freedoms in sex and marriage that have been gained over the last hundred years and more, it’s hard to know what to think of Victoria Woodhull. She pioneered many of the ideas we now accept as desirable. Who would go back to the bad old days when women weren’t allowed to vote or manage their own money or divorce their husbands and keep custody of the children? At the same time, we have to admit that Victoria would have been a terrible president. Going into trances and listening to the voices of spirits got her a long way, but they probably wouldn’t have provided a clue about how how to reconcile the North and South after the long destruction of the Civil War. We can admire her spirit in making public some of the sins of hypocrites who were running the country, but we have to admit that her unsavory activities (and her disreputable family) set back the suffrage by decades. Women didn’t finally get the vote in the United States until the passage of the 19th amendment 1920.
If you have become as fascinated by this tumultuous period in American history as I have, you may want to read Barbara Goldsmith’s book Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. It covers the period thoroughly and gives an amazing account of the character and lives of some of the men and women who made America the country that it is today.
Following Victoria Woodhull’s trail offers some tantalizing clues about what 19th century America was like. The more I read the more fascinated I become. Who knew that these women in their long skirts and corsets were asking the same questions we are asking today? Certainly I had never known how much Victoria’s spiritualist beliefs had influenced the women’s rights movement. She was not the only member of the group who believed that spirits speaking to them from beyond the grave, gave them ideas to help in their campaign. Spiritualism, which had started about 1848, the same year of the first Women’s Rights Convention, attracted many American radicals. Campaigners for both abolition of slavery and for women’s rights tended to gravitate toward the group because it welcomed new ideas and encouraged individualistic thinking. Victoria Woodhull first gained fame, and made a living, by going into trances and predicting what would happen in the future. She believed firmly that spirits spoke directly to her and guided her in her life. Perhaps it was only natural that people who lived unconventional lives and supported unconventional ideas were attracted to the idea that they could find truth on their own with the help of spirits rather than through conventional religion with its strict and unbending rules.
Whether or not Victoria found the truth in spiritualism, she certainly found worldly success. At least she, her second husband, Captain Blood, and her sister Tennessee Claflin became rich through their association with Cornelius Vanderbilt. Victoria and her sister met Vanderbilt, whose wife had recently died, when they moved to New York. Victoria and Tennie (as she was called) charmed the elderly Vanderbilt, who had been famous for being attracted to beautiful women. When Victoria began to offer him advice about investments, he decided to set up the two sisters as brokers. Their unconventional business attracted many customers and they made a great deal of money for themselves. Perhaps it was Victoria’s business success that gave her the courage to enter political life.
Victoria Woodhull’s presidential campaign raised questions from the time it started. Whether it was legal or not is still an undecided question.
Victoria and other members of her Equal Rights party claimed that women were defined as citizens in the U.S. Constitution and there had the right to vote and run for office. She based her claim on the Fourteenth Amendment’s provision that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Women are persons and are therefore entitled to vote. The argument persuaded some people, but it was especially strong among women, who had never been allowed to vote whether they were citizens or not. Isabella Beecher, sister of Henry Ward Beecher, became a devoted follower of Victoria Woodhull and introduced her to many influential people. With the help of these friends, and especially Cornelius Vanderbilt, Victoria and Tennie started the newspaper Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly devoted mainly to supporting Victoria’s candidacy. The story of what happened during the 1872 campaign will be continued in my next post.
With a presidential election coming up soon, there’s been a lot of talk about past campaigns and past elections. Were they more genteel and courteous than campaigns today? It doesn’t seem so. You may think you know a lot about past presidential candidates, but have you heard about the candidate who spent Election Day in jail and who wasn’t allowed to vote?
The year was 1872, and the candidate was Victoria Woodhull, the first woman candidate for president in the United States.
She announced her candidacy with an article in the New York Herald:
“As I happen to be the most prominent representative of the only unrepresented class in the republic, and perhaps the most practical exponent of the principles of equality, I request the favor of being permitted to address the public through the medium of the Herald. While others of my sex devoted themselves to a crusade against the laws that shackle the women of the country, I asserted my individual independence; while others prayed for the good time coming, I worked for it; while others argued the equality of woman with man, I proved it by successfully engaging in business; while others sought to show that there was no valid reason why women should not be treated, socially and politically, as being inferior to man, I boldly entered the arena of politics and business and exercised the rights I already possessed.”
Victoria Woodhull had indeed demonstrated her ability to work in a man’s world. With her sister Tennessee Claflin, she had started the first brokerage firm in New York operated by women. The path to that financial success was long and hard, but Victoria was always a fighter.
Born in Ohio in 1838, she had grown up in an unstable and impoverished family. She declared she had been “a child without a childhood” because her father had put his daughters to work as soon as he realized they could tell fortunes and claim healing powers. Victoria escaped from him by running away at 15 to get married, but the husband she chose was as shiftless as her father. He quickly became an alcoholic and a philanderer. Fed up with his neglect and dependence, Victoria divorced him and decided to make life on her own terms with her two children.
Some women in those circumstances might have struggled to maintain respectability by turning to teaching, but respectability was not high on the list of Victoria’s priorities. She had discovered spirituality and believed in her power to foresee events to come. Her sister Tennessee was also a clairvoyant and both sisters were quite willing to use their talents as well as their sexual appeal to earn money. Both were at various times accused of being prostitutes, but both were clever enough to use their sexual availability to their advantage rather than being punished for it. During the late 19th century when a married woman could lose her husband, children, and livelihood by a single slip into adultery, married men were free to consort with prostitutes and enjoy their sexual adventures without losing anything. Tennessee and Victoria claimed the same privilege.
How did this background lead not only to wealth but to a presidential campaign? It’s a good story and I will continue it in my next blog post.
Anti-union sentiment is in the air these days as the media reports tales of high pensions for union workers and undue pressure by unions on the government. If you read the Republican Platform passed by the convention in Tampa a few days ago, you can read that “We call for repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act, which costs the taxpayers billions of dollars annually in artificially high wages on government projects. We support the right of States to enact Right-to-Work laws and encourage them to do so to promote greater economic liberty.” Few people know what is in the Davis-Bacon Act, which was passed in 1931. It provides that people working on government projects be paid no less than the locally prevailing wages and benefits paid on similar projects. That doesn’t sound too unreasonable—to ask that people building our courthouses, libraries and schools don’t have to put up with below-market wages, does it? It was signed into law by Republican President Herbert Hoover, but Republicans have been trying to repeal the act for more than fifty years and now they are trying again.
Why are so many Americans anti-labor these days? Probably because they forget what life was like in a pre-union world. At least one day a year, on Labor Day, we ought to try to remember those days and honor the people who changed the rules. Clothing workers are a good example of why unions were needed. It was an industry dominated by women, most of them immigrant women. Some of them worked in small factories, others took the work home. Jacob Riis had described the conditions during the 1890s. In How the Other Half Lives he wrote: “From every door multitudes of tired men and women pour forth for half-hour’s rest in the open air before sleep closes the eyes weary with incessant working.” Factories were not much better than working at home. There were no limitation on working hours, safety rules were nonexistent, workers were hired and laid off erratically as demand rose and fell. There was no health insurance and no unemployment benefits. If your family couldn’t help you out, you were just out of luck.
The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911
finally awakened many people to the dangers of unregulated factory work. Pictures like this documented the horror of young women trapped into an unsafe factory. The doors to the fire escapes had been locked to keep workers from stealing fabric or sneaking outside for a break. Gradually most of the public woke up to the fact that regulations were needed to keep employers from exploiting workers. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) grew and through negotiation and strikes finally forged agreements that made many people’s lives better.
Women like Rose Pesotta traveled across the country to organize clothing workers. She went to Los Angeles where the clothing industry workers were mostly Mexican immigrants. Rose was told that Mexican women would never join a union, but she disagreed. She started broadcasting on the local Spanish-language radio station and found a willing audience. As she wrote in her memoir Bread upon the Waters, “Gradually the Mexicans in the dress factories came to our union headquarters, asking questions timidly but eagerly. Some employers, learning of signed membership cards, scoffed: “They won’t stick.” Others were plainly worried. Women not yet in our ranks came with the disquieting news that their boss had threatened to report them to the immigration authorities and have them “sent back” if they joined our union. We promised that our attorneys would fight any such underhanded move.” Gradually the workers were won over, they agreed to strike and eventually the ILGWU was able to ensure them better working conditions through the union.
The ILGWU revolutionized the lives of millions of women across the country, and even though it gradually lost members and strength as the century went on, it remains a shining example of what Americans can do when they work together. The same can be said of other unions which made America a country recognized across the world as a land of promise. The conditions brought about by union workers made the late twentieth century a prosperous time for almost all working families. Today on Labor Day let’s pay tribute to the people who fought to give us unions. They are not always perfect, and sometimes their demands can’t be met, but they have been a blessing for the country. Let’s work with them and not try to wipe them out.