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.
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. ehistory.osu.edu/biographies/victoria-woodhull 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.
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. https://ehistory.osu.edu/biographies/victoria-woodhull 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
Victoria had been communicating with Massachusetts congressional representative Benjamin Butler about women’s votes and the recent defeat of the Sixteenth Amendment. https://www.nps.gov/articles/the-first-woman-to-run-for-president-victoria-woodhull.htm Butler was one of the amendment’s few supporters and offered Woodhull the chance to address the House Judiciary Committee. https://www.nps.gov/articles/the-first-woman-to-run-for-president-victoria-woodhull.htm 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
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.https://ehistory.osu.edu/biographies/victoria-woodhull
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.
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. https://www.nps.gov/articles/the-first-woman-to-run-for-president-victoria-woodhull.htm 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.