The First Female Presidential Candidate Spent Election Day in Jail

Fifty years before women could vote, a woman ran for the top office in the land. The law didn’t allow her to vote, but there was no law against her running for President of the United States of America. An activist for women’s rights, Victoria Claflin Woodhull (1838-1927) the first female Presidential candidate spent election day in jail.

Oval portrait of Victoria Claflin Woodhull, the first female presidential candidate spent election day in jail
By Mathew Brady – Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum, Historical Photographs and Special Visual Collections Department, Fine Arts Library, Public Domain

Early Life

Born on September 23, 1838 in Homer, Ohio, Victoria was the seventh of ten children. Her mother, Madame Roxanna “Roxy” Hummel Claflin, was a follower of the spiritualist movement. From early childhood, Victoria believed spirts guided and protected her. Her work as a spiritual clairvoyant and fortune-teller provided income for her impoverished family.

Reuben Buckman Claflin, her father and a con man, burned the family’s rotting gristmill and tried to collect on his insurance. When the town recognized his arson and fraud, the family left town. Victoria completed only three years of school.

The Claflin family medicine show traveled the country, telling fortunes and selling patent medicines.

Biographers disagree on Victoria’s early history. One claims her father abused her physically (whippings). Another claims she was a victim of sexual abused by her father.

First Marriage

When she was fourteen, Victoria’s family took her to a self-proclaimed physician, Canning (or Channing) Woodhull outside Rochester, New York. One biographer stated she later eloped with 28-year-old Woodhull to escape her father’s brutality. Another claimed Woodhull kidnapped her. They married on November 20, 1853.

Woodhull was an alcoholic and hung around brothels. So Victoria worked outside the home to support the family. She and Woodhull had two children: Byron was disabled and Zulu (or Zula) Maude nearly bled to death when her father botched her delivery.

The Woodhulls moved to New York City in 1860, near the Claflin family. Victoria and her sister, Tennessee, worked as mediums. The Woodhulls and Tennie (Tennessee) moved to Cincinnati, then Chicago, in search of new clients and to stay ahead of legal complaints.


In the 19th century, women had few options to escape an abusive marriage. Society often ostracized divorced women. Victoria divorced Canning in 1864.

About 1866, she met Colonel James Harvey Blood, formerly with the Union Army in Missouri. He was reportedly a courteous and educated man who believed in the doctrine of free love. They presented themselves as married, though no record of that marriage exists today.

Two years later, she and Blood moved back to New York City to live with Tennie and other Claflin family members. Victoria opened a salon. She sparred intellectually with bright and articulate radicals that visited the salon daily. About this time, she also became interested in women’s rights and women’s suffrage.

I come before you to declare that my sex are entitled to the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Victoria Claflin Woodhull

First Woman Owned Brokerage Firm

Shortly after Cornelius Vanderbilt, the wealthy railroad magnate’s wife died in 1868, he reached out to two spiritualists. Victoria and her sister helped him contact his dead wife and gave him financial insights from the spirit world. In return he helped them set up a brokerage firm, Woodhull, Claflin & Company in 1870.

People like Susan B. Anthony supported them as the first women on Wall Street, but men’s journals at the time sexualized the images of the pair running their firm.

Victoria made a fortune off the New York Stock Exchange.

First Female-Owned Weekly Newspaper

Victoria and her sister used money they made on the stock market and started a weekly paper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, on May 14, 1870. The sixteen page paper published brazen opinions on women’s issues. Issues like women’s suffrage, sex education, short skirts, free love, spiritualism, vegetarianism, and licensed prostitution. It sharpened Victoria’s political beliefs.

First Woman to Address A Congressional Committee

Black and white sketch of Victoria and suffragettes addressing Congress,Victoria the first female presidential candidate spent election day in jail
Victoria addressing Congress, Public Domain

Victoria had been communicating with Massachusetts congressional representative Benjamin Butler about women’s votes and the recent defeat of the Sixteenth Amendment. Butler was one of the amendment’s few supporters and offered Woodhull the chance to address the House Judiciary Committee. She argued that the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments already gave women the vote, but that they needed a sixteenth amendment to guarantee women’s voting rights. Congress didn’t agree. But she impressed Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Why is a woman to be treated differently? Woman suffrage will succeed, despite this miserable guerilla opposition.

Victoria Claflin Woodhull

First Woman Candidate for President Spent Election Day in Jail

Image of Victoria C Woodhall on a poster labeled "Candidate for the Presidency of the United States." the first female presidential candidate spent election day in jail
Public Domain

The newly formed Equal Rights Party nominated Victoria for President of the United States on May 10, 1872. They ratified her nomination at the convention on June 6, 1872. Fifty years before women got the vote, the law did not prevent women from running for president.

Victoria’s paper announced her candidacy.

The press vilified Victoria for her support of free love. On November 2, 1872, she published an entire edition of her paper detailing the adultery between Elizabeth Tilton, a parishioner, and Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent Protestant minister in Brooklyn.

Outrage erupted. US Marshalls arrested Victoria, her husband and her sister. Charged with publishing an obscene newspaper, they spent the next month in Ludlow Street Jail. The first female presidential candidate spent election day in jail.

Defeated by Vote and History

Some historians argue that Victoria never qualified as a candidate. On election day, she was a few months younger than the constitutionally mandated age of 35.

Being a woman and unable to vote meant some contempoaries believed she wasn’t a full citizen. The constitution requires the President be a citizen. Therefore, she was not qualified to hold the office.

Victoria did not receive any electoral or popular votes. Official election returns show about 2,000 “scattering votes” without defining what the phrase meant. Her supporters believed officials didn’t count her popular votes due to gender discrimination.

Incumbent Ulysses S. Grant served another term as President.

Later Life

They dropped the charges against Victoria and her family on a technicality. But divorce and a legal battle left her bankrupt once again. In 1877, she and her sister moved to England. Eventually she married a wealthy banker, John Biddulph Martin. As Victoria Woodhull Martin, she published a magazine, continued to support women’s suffrage and attempted to distance herself from free love.

Her husband died in 1901 and Victoria retired to Bredon’s Norton, Worcestershire, England. She died on June 9, 1927.

The First, Not the Last

Victoria spent most of her life railing against the inequities women faced. It’s likely she knew she’d never win the Presidency, but she ran. And even after she ran, she fought for women’s right to vote in the United States and England.

Yes, the first female Presidential candidate spent election day in jail. Victoria had many radical ideas and beliefs and lived a colorful life. She changed her position on many things but never stopped arguing for women’s right to vote. And she lived to see women get the right to vote in both the United States and England.

Victoria Woodhull Martin was the first female Presidential candidate, but not the last.

The Fearless First Female Professional Balloonist

Picture this: it’s 1811. They publish Sense and Sensibility. Ludwig von Beethoven works on his seventh symphony. Napoleon Bonaparte is the First Consul, the Emperor of France. People used horse-drawn carriages to get from one place to another. They teach women a little reading and writing. Women wear modest, long flowing dresses and are expected to have a long life of motherhood and wifehood. Manned flight, balloonomania has the world’s attention. Then the fearless first female professional balloonists took to the air.

drawing of Sophie Blanchard in a dress and a hat with ostrich feathers--she was the 1st female professional balloonist
by Jules Porreau, Public Domain

Early Life

We know little about the Marie Madeleine-Sophie Armant childhood or early adulthood. She was born March 25, 1778, near La Rochelle, France. Some records claim she was tiny, nervous, and had bird like features. Most claim riding in horse carriages terrified her. She was born before the first hot-air balloon existed, but it would soon be her professional life.

The Birth of Hot Air Balloons

The Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne, were paper manufacturers from Annonay, in Ardèche, France. In 1782, Joseph watched the fire and wondered what force lifted the sparks and smoke. He began experimenting with balloons made from paper, then sackcloth and taffeta.
By 1783, Joseph and his brother devised a thirty-eight feet paper-lined linen bag with alum fireproofing. Held together with 2000 buttons, the device rose to 1000 meters and traveled over a mile. All the animals survived.

In September of that year a sheep, a duck, and a rooster became the first passengers of a hot-air balloon. Then on November 21,1783, science teacher Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent, Marquis d’Arlandes took the first untethered flight in a balloon.

And launched Sophie Blanchard’s fate.

A Balloonist Enters Sophie’s Life

Jean-Pierre Blanchard was an inventor, married and with four children. He took his first balloon flight in Paris in 1784. Sophie was five years old. The hot-air balloon captured his imagination.

He moved to London in August 1784 and took part in a flight with John Sheldon in October. He created propulsion devices for the balloon. Neither his flapping wings nor his windmill were effective.

On his third flight, he flew with American Dr. John Jefferies across the English Channel in two-and-a-half hours. The first balloonists to do so. King Louis XVI awarded him a substantial pension for this daring feat.

He left his wife and children and toured Europe as a balloonist. And holds records as the first balloonist in four European countries.

Records are contradictory, but he married Marie Madeleine-Sophie Armant by 1804. The records do not mention how they met.

Bad Times and a First Ride

Jean-Pierre flew his silk balloons all over Europe and in America, too. Spectators watched him launch parachute-equipped dogs and fireworks from the air. But he also falsely advertised himself as the inventor of the balloon and the parachute. He failed at an attempt to create a balloon and parachute academy. And ultimately had a falling out with Dr. John Jeffries. Paying crowds grew thin.

He persuaded Sophie to ride in the balloon. They hoped that a flying female might bring back the paying spectators.

She made her first flight with Jean-Pierre on December 27, 1804, in Marseilles. She’s quoted as saying flight was a “sensation incomparable.” Nervous and timid on the ground, she became the fearless first female professiona balloonist.

The First Female Professional Balloonist

Mongolfier brothers’ hot air balloon from 1783
Public Domain

She wasn’t the first female to ride in a balloon, but in 1805 she made her first solo flight. That made her the first woman to pilot her own balloon. And she became the first woman balloonist to earn her living flying.

She and Jean-Pierre continued to fly their balloons, together and solo, until 1809.

Standing beside Sophie in a tethered basket flying over the Hague, Jean-Pierre had a heart attack and fell out of the balloon. He died of his injuries a year later.

A Solo Career

Sophie continued to fly to pay off creditors. Being a small person and needing to be frugal, she used a smaller balloon with a basket no larger than a chair. To add flair to her shows, she launched fireworks from her balloon.

Napoleon appointed her “aeronaut of the official festivals” and chief air minister of ballooning.

Four years later, King Louis XVII named her “official aeronaut of the restoration.”

She made long-distance flights and crossed the Alps. She paid off her debts. And made a reputation for herself. They called her Madame Blanchard.

She preferred to fly at night and stayed out until dawn. Sometimes she slept in her balloon. Once she passed out and nearly froze above Turin. She landed in a swamp in Naples, the basket tipped, and she nearly drown tangled in the balloon’s ropes. Fortunately, help arrived soon enough. And despite the warnings of how dangerous it was, she set off fireworks beneath her hydrogen balloon.

Last Flight

On July 6, 1819, she appeared at a fete at the Tivoli Gardens in Paris. She wore an elaborate white dress and matching hat with an ostrich plume. Carrying a lit torch, she climbed into her balloons. The winds took her balloon up into the air. She planned a slow-burning display she called “Bengal Fire.”

Whisked away from the gardens by the wind, she lit the pyrotechnics and dropped them by parachute. The baskets of glowing fire usually floated beneath her balloon. A cloud momentarily obscured the crowd’s view. Then a flash lit the night sky. Fireworks pop-popped. And flames shot out of the top of the balloon. The balloon made a rapid descent.

Sophie cut loose ballast over the Rue de Provence to slow her descent. The crowd thought she’d make it safely to the ground. But the basket hit a roof, tipped Sophie out and tangled her in the ropes. She tumbled down the roof and onto the street and died. She was 41.

Madame Blanchard, the fearless first female professional balloonist, became the first female to die in an aviation accident.

The First Fearless Female Professional Balloonist’s Legacy

The monument created for Sophie is a stylistic representation of the first female professional balloonist's balloon--a pillar topped with half a round ball with flames coming out of the top
By Gede, CC BY-SA 3.0

The owners of the Tivoli Gardens donated the event admissions fees for the support of Sophie’s children. But Sophie had no children. So they built a monument for her grave. With a representation of her flaming balloon on top, the French phrase read: “victim of her art and intrepidity.” They donated the rest of the money to the church she attended.

Her death affected many. Some saw it as a cautionary tale and claimed women shouldn’t fly. Yet, she also inspired many. A reference to her appears in books by Jules Verne, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Charles Dickens. Her story inspired the novel, The Little Balloonist, by Linda Donn. And the 2019 film, The Aeronauts, features a character loosely based on her.

For Sophie, flying was a “sensation incomparable.” In a time when women were relegated to the home in traditional roles, she lived her way. A strong woman, Madame Blanchard earned the title of the first fearless female professional balloonist. Had you been in Sophie’s place, would you have been a balloonist?

Four Women First to Enlist

Before 1914 it was a man’s world. Men ran the country, worked for a living, and fought the wars. A woman fighting beside men was unimaginable. Then on July 28, 1914, Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. That assassination set off a chain of events that escalated beyond their borders and into what we call World War I. And by the end of the war on November 11, 1918, more than 200,000 women were in uniform and serving their countries. On Veteran’s Day, we salute four women first to enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces. 

U.S. Army

Photo of an engraving of Deborah Sampson
Engraving by George Graham, Public Domain

The Army has not officially stated who was the first woman to enlist. However, historians credit Deborah Sampson (1760-1827) as the first woman who served in the Army.

An indentured servant, Sampson disguised herself as a man named Robert Shurtleff. Her story isn’t clear, but she enlisted in 1781 or 1782. She was twenty-one. Wounded several times in battle, her physician eventually discovered her gender and kept it a secret.

But her physician’s niece became enamored of the young battle-scarred soldier. Not wanting to lead her on, Sampson wrote the girl a letter which ended up being shown to Sampson’s commanding officer.

General George Washington authorized her honorable discharge from the Army, and she returned to her home in Massachusetts in 1784.

U.S. Navy 

Smiling Loretta Walsh in Uniform with her hat at an angle and her hand raised as if she's taking an oath
U.S. Navy Memorial, Public Domain

Loretta Perfectus Walsh (1896-1925) was twenty years old when she enlisted in the U.S. Navy on March 17, 1917, as a Chief Yeoman (F). That made her the first woman officially allowed to serve as a woman in any of the United States armed forces, as anything other than as a nurse. Sixteen days after she enlisted, Congress agreed with President Woodrow Wilson and declared war.

She served until July 1919, when she and the remaining Yeomen (F) were all released from active duty.

Little is known about Loretta. You can learn more in the book, The First, The Few, The Forgotten by Jean E Ebbert and Mary-Beth Hall.

U.S. Marine Corps

black and white portrait photo of Opha Mae Johnson in a dress

Opha May Johnson (1879-1955) worked as a civil service employee at Marine headquarters. She was the first woman to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. The first in a line of 300 women, she enlisted on Aug. 13, 1918. Her assignments consisted mainly of typing and military office work. Nevertheless, her place as the first female in the Marine Corps broke barriers for the future.

Read more about the history of women in the Marines.

U.S. Air Force

Official Air Force portrait photo of Esther McGowin Blake in uniform
Air Force Enlisted Heritage Research Institute, Public domain,

Esther McGowin Blake (1897–1979) a widow with two sons serving during WWII, joined the U.S. Air Force in 1944 during the first hour of the first day the Air Force announced that women could serve. And in July 1948, when they authorized a new branch for women, she was the first woman to enlist for regular Air Force duty. Her duties were mostly clerical, freeing up soldiers so they could fight.

 She continued to serve until 1954.

Women in the Armed Forces

Deborah Sampson wasn’t the first woman to serve on active duty. Women before her disguised themselves as men and served. No one knows how many did this, some may never have been discovered. 

Thanks to all the women who disguised themselves in order to serve. Thanks to the 4 women first to enlist. And thanks to women like Margaret Corbin and Susan Ahn Cuddy and Josephine Nesbit and so many others who broke the next barrier after them. 

Four Women First to Enlist

These four women and many more broke down the first barrier to women in the U.S. Armed Forces. Their service helped their country, their male counterparts, and the future of women who wanted to serve. Honor them on this Veteran’s Day 2020. 

Today more and more women are joining the U.S. Armed forces. They are breaking next barriers thanks to these four women first to enlist. It isn’t an easy road. Their challenges are many. 

Past, present and future, honor each of the women in the U.S. Armed Forces. And respect and honor all who serve regardless of their gender, their identity, their skin color, their religion, or their politics. And a special thank you to these four women first to enlist.