To her enemies, she was Mrs Satan. To Walt Whitman, she was ‘a prophecy of the future’. To Gloria Steinem, looking back from the 1970s, she was ‘the most controversial suffragist of them all’. But to the Equal Rights Party on 6 June 1872, she was their newly ratified candidate for the presidency of the United States – and the first woman to run for that office. Her name was Victoria Claflin Woodhull and she was 33 years old.
The Equal Rights Party stood at the intersection of social equality, sexual revolution and spiritualism. Woodhull, who had recently founded it herself, was a passionate advocate of all three. Born in small-town Ohio in September 1838, her family lived an itinerant life selling miracle cures and mystic healing. Woodhull herself was a ‘clairvoyant physician’. She was sincere about her powers; but it was surely a scam too. It netted $100,000, she said.
Arriving in New York in 1868 she and her sister closed in on the elderly Cornelius Vanderbilt, a keen devotee of spiritualism. Their wealth exploded; by the end of the decade Woodhull claimed they had made $700,000 trading. ‘[When] we go in earnest … we will do much better’, she told a reporter, coolly. To fellow suffrage campaigner Susan B. Anthony, she put it differently: ‘Let’s get our hands on Wall Street’, she said.
In January 1870 the sisters opened the first brokerage to be run by women. Four months later they founded a radical newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. It printed the first complete publication of the Communist Manifesto in English. She toured the country, now selling different kinds of prognostications – women’s rights, free love, revolution – to audiences of thousands.
But her career was broken by the decision to publish an exposé of the extra-marital affairs of prominent minister Henry Ward Beecher. It landed her in prison for obscenity.
In 1877 she left the US for England and, ultimately, respectability. She was written out of suffragist history; Anthony dismissed her as ‘lewd and indecent’. But some remembered. ‘Your work started it all’, a young lawyer wrote to her in 1905. ‘You gave women the idea that they must own themselves.’
Katie Holyoak June 6, 2022 at 02:02PM