Running for president of the United States is no small thing, especially if the candidate is a woman. But while Hillary Clinton is the most successful female presidential candidate to date, she is far from the first to run for executive office. Over the centuries, more than 200 women have sought the country’s highest office, to varying degrees of success. And leading the way for all of them was Victoria Claflin Woodhull: a 19th-century women’s rights activist and business owner.
When Woodhull began her campaign for the presidency in 1870, this was no small thing. At the time, women were still about 50 years away from having the right to vote, and even many small, seemingly mundane everyday experiences were off-limits, Judy Woodruff reports for the PBS Newshour.
“This was an era where a woman could not vote, could not enter a restaurant, a store, an establishment of any kind unless she was escorted by a man,” Scott Claflin, one of Woodhull’s descendants, told Joe Richman and Samara Freemark for Radio Diaries. “It was controversial for women to do anything. But she had the foresight not to accept the way society was.”
Even before running for president, Woodhull was an iconoclast. She was a spiritualist and fortune-teller who later owned her own stock brokerage and newspaper and was a staunch advocate for women’s rights, Amanda Frisken, who wrote a biography of Woodhull, told Richman and Freemark.
On April 2, 1870, she made national news when she sent a letter the New York Herald stating her declaration to run for president. In the note, she wrote:
"I am quite well aware that in assuming this position I shall evoke more ridicule than enthusiasm at the outset. But this is an epoch of sudden changes and startling surprises. What may appear absurd today will assume a serious aspect to-morrow."
Two years later, Woodhull was officially nominated to be the presidential candidate for the Equal Rights Party, a political group she helped to organize. Frederick Douglass, the famed civil rights activist, was nominated to be her vice president, though he never acknowledged or accepted the nomination publicly. But while historians look back as Woodhull’s nomination as an historic first, her long-shot candidacy caused her serious trouble as soon as the nominating convention was over, Richman and Freemark report.
At the time, Woodhull was reviled in the national press for what were considered to be radical beliefs by many Americans. In particular, she was singled out for her vocal support for free love, which at that point meant believing that women should have the freedom to choose who they wanted to marry and have the right to divorce their husbands, Jennifer Smola reports for the Columbus Dispatch. For this, she was ridiculed in newspapers across the country, notably by newspaper cartoonist Thomas Nast, who literally depicted her as the devil in Harper's Weekly.
“As a result of the notoriety of the nomination, Woodhull was evicted from her home and she had some trouble making ends meet,” Frisken tells Richman and Freemark. Woodhull's family was forced to sleep in her brokerage office for a period of time, as New York landlords were unwilling to rent to her, Kate Havelin writes in her book, Victoria Woodhull: Fearless Feminist. Woodhull's 11-year-old daughter, Zula, meanwhile, had to leave her school as other parents didn't want Zula to influence their children.
As the national press tore her apart, Woodhull lashed out at allies who she believed let her down. The last straw came when she called out a former friend, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, who she claimed had had dozens of affairs. When she published these allegations in her newspaper, she was arrested for violating morality laws and spent Election Day in a jail cell. Because she wasn’t on any ballot in the country, there are no records of how many people might have voted for her, Frisken tells Richman and Freemark.
“It’s curious to us that, even in this day and age, we’re still really resistant to telling certain people’s stories,” Caroline Rau, a filmmaker working on a documentary about Woodhull, tells Smola. “It’s fine for us to talk about the Betsy Rosses, but if there’s any blemish on a woman, we just won’t talk about her.”
A New York Herald article proved ahead of its time in its commentary. As the article, included in Havelin's book, dated May 27, 1870, points out, "Mrs. Woodhull offers herself in apparent good faith as a candidate, and perhaps has a remote impression, or rather hope, that she may be elected but it seems she is rather in advance of her time. The public mind is not yet educated to the pitch of universal women's rights."