Since America has still yet to elect a woman President, we want to tell you about a woman you should know who was way ahead of her time; a rebel, a trailblazer for generations to come, the first woman to run for President of the United States… Victoria Claflin Woodhull.
Born in 1838 in rural Homer, Ohio, Victoria, like many women of her era, married very young (she was just 15 and her 28-year-old husband turned out to be an alcoholic philanderer). She divorced him 11 years later, and went to work as a traveling clairvoyant and spiritual medium.
Sound a little woo-woo? Maybe… but you might not think so when you hear where her unusual career choice (and vision) led her.
In 1868, she and her family moved to New York City where Woodhull and one of her sisters, Tennie, became spiritual advisors for railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. Acting on tips he gave them, the industrious sisters managed to “build a fund of almost $700,000 within six weeks.” They used their boatload of cash to open Woodhull, Claflin, and Company in February 1870, “making them the first women to operate a brokerage firm on Wall Street.” That same year the sisters started their own newspaper – Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly – in which they “promoted the Free Love movement, women’s suffrage, and political reform.”
The following year, Victoria made history again. “In January 1871, the National Women’s Suffrage Association convention was held in Washington, DC. While Victoria planned to attend, she had been communicating with Massachusetts congressmen Benjamin Butler about women’s votes and the recent defeat of the Sixteenth Amendment, which would have guaranteed female suffrage. Butler was one of the amendment’s few supporters and offered Woodhull the chance to address the House Judiciary Committee. She jumped on the chance, becoming the first woman to directly address a congressional committee.”
Ever-striving for more, that spring Victoria sent a note to The New York Herald on April 2, 1871 announcing her candidacy for President of the United States. With that, she became the first woman to run for the highest office in our nation. In May 1872, Victoria was officially nominated by the Equal Rights Party.
Ok… imagine the guts it took to run at a time when none of the women you knew even had the right to vote? And there’s also the small detail that “she had not yet reached the Constitutionally mandated age of 35 to serve as President” when she ran (she was 34). Nevertheless… she persisted.
Victoria’s campaign platforms included advocating for equal education for women, woman’s right to vote, and women’s right to control their own health decisions, an eight-hour workday, graduated income tax, new divorce laws, and social welfare programs, as well as “universal gender and racial equality under the law, civil service and taxation reform, and opposition to land grants given to railroads and other corporations.”
While she had the support of many trade unionists, women’s suffragists, and socialists, Woodhull was unable to gain the funds for an effective campaign and could not receive votes from her female supporters as women did not yet have the right to vote.
According to NPR, Victoria’s name wasn’t actually on the ballot in the Presidential Election of 1872, so there is no record of how many people voted for her or if anyone voted for her at all.
Just in case you were curious, incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant, leader of the Radical Republicans, swept that presidential election, earning himself a second term in office. As for Victoria, this is how her future played out… we wonder if she saw it coming?
“In 1876, Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly was forced to fold, and nearly broke, the sisters moved to England, marrying into wealthy families and reinventing themselves as aristocrats and patrons of the arts.” Victoria died in 1927 at the age of 88.
As one of her ancestors so perfectly summed up her story, Victoria Claflin Woodhull “had the foresight not to accept the way society was.”