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.
Today we celebrate a holiday seldom marked these days. What with the Republican Convention poised to start whenever the threatening storm Isaac eases up, and Florida residents leaving their homes to escape the hurricane, there has been little notice of Women’s Equality Day. Why a holiday in August so close to Labor Day? Because it marks the anniversary of the day in 1920 when the 19th Amendment, giving women the vote, was signed into law. That date is important. It has revolutionized the way women live and operate in our society. And the date might not be remembered at all except for the work of a woman born in 1920 a month before the amendment was proclaimed. Her name was Bella Abzug.
For women living in New York and much of the rest of the country, Bella Abzug became a familiar figure during the 1970s when she was a Congresswoman from New York City. One of her many achievements was being the first Jewish woman elected to Congress. Bella Abzug was a figure made for the age of television. She had a distinctive look—she wore a broad-brimmed hat whenever she appeared in public—and a distinctive voice that was hard to ignore. The hats were the result of her becoming a lawyer in the days when few women practiced law. She started wearing a hat in the office so people would not assume she was a secretary. It was a trademark and gave her more recognition than most other members of Congress.
Abzug was a labor lawyer who fought for the rights of unions, workers, and members of minority groups. In Congress she sponsored a bill for immediate withdrawal of troops from Vietnam War. It didn’t pass. She also called unsuccessfully for universal health care. Her crusades were often unsuccessful, but she cared deeply about politics and would not relinquish her insistence on fighting for what she thought was right even though she lost. She was a fighter and she raised issues that were unpopular in her day but have since been accepted.
In 1971 Bella Abzug achieved success with her bill to establish Women’s Equality Day on August 26. Congress passed the resolution she had introduced:
Joint Resolution of Congress, 1971 Designating August 26 of each year as Women’s Equality Day
WHEREAS, the women of the United States have been treated as second-class citizens and have not been entitled the full rights and privileges, public or private, legal or institutional, which are available to male citizens of the United States; and 
WHEREAS, the women of the United States have united to assure that these rights and privileges are available to all citizens equally regardless of sex; 
WHEREAS, the women of the United States have designated August 26, the anniversary date of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, as symbol of the continued fight for equal rights: and 
WHEREAS, the women of United States are to be commended and supported in their organizations and activities, 
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that August 26 of each year is designated as “Women’s Equality Day,” and the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation annually in commemoration of that day in 1920, on which the women of America were first given the right to vote, and that day in 1970, on which a nationwide demonstration for women’s rights took place
So now on this quiet weekend before Labor Day let’s remember Bella Abzug and the other courageous women who fought so hard to give women the freedom to vote and to influence political life. We have all benefitted from their work.