The struggle to give American women the right to vote lasted more than a century. For the past several weeks I have been telling the stories of some of the women who fought for this right—not the women who are most often honored, but the ones who kept up the fight in spite of being marginalized for belonging to a different race, a different religion, or a different nationality than most of the suffrage leaders. Victoria Woodhull was one of those. Her problem in being accepted arose because she insisted on being honest about her sex life—she believed in a woman’s right to divorce an abusive or unfaithful husband. She also published information about the sex lives of some highly respected men.
Born in Ohio in 1838, Victoria Woodhull grew 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 spiritualism 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 sex appeal to earn money. Both were at various times accused of being prostitutes, but they were clever enough to use their sexual availability to their advantage rather than being punished for it. During the late 19th century at a time 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.
Following Victoria Woodhull’s trail offers some tantalizing clues about what 19th century America was like. Victoria was not the only suffragist who believed that spirits speaking from beyond the grave gave them ideas for their campaign for women’s rights Spiritualism, which had started about 1848, the same year the first Women’s Rights Convention was held, 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 that spirits spoke directly to her and guided her in her life. Perhaps it was only natural that people who lived unconventional lives 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 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 City. 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 in 1870. The unconventional business attracted many customers and they made a great deal of money. Perhaps it was Victoria’s business success that gave her the courage to enter political life.
The year was 1872, and Victoria Woodhull, the first woman who declared she wanted to be president of the United States. Her 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 they 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, Victoria decided. The argument persuaded some people, especially women; however, women had never been allowed to vote whether they were citizens or not.
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. 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, who were firm believers in women’s right to vote, 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 she would win. This was the first presidential election in which women’s suffrage was an issue. It was the first one held after the formation of the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1869.
The election of 1872 was one of the most tumultuous in American history. 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. Victoria Woodhull and her campaign got very little attention.
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 sister had lurid pasts compared to those of the other women leading the suffrage movement, but these respectable women also had secrets to hide. The intrigues and infidelities of leading male citizens touched the lives of their wives and families. 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 some of the other 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 led to her arrest and she spent Election Day in jail rather than going to vote. 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 fined $100 for the attempt.
The 1872 election, which seemed to promise vindication for women’s rights, proved to be a miserable failure for the cause. It would be more than forty years before women in the United States finally won the right to vote.
Failing to become president, however, did not stop Victoria Woodhull’s progress toward a better life. You can read about her adventures in Myra MacPherson’s 2014 biography, The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age