During Women’s History Month, it is ironic the first American woman to run for president is largely forgotten.
That’s also true of the first American woman to operate a Wall Street brokerage firm.
And the first American woman to address Congress.
Luckily for the history-impaired, those are all one and the same woman.
Victoria Claflin Woodhull, arguably the most wrongly overlooked figure in American annals, was born in 1838 to a backwoods family in Ohio.
Everything she accomplished was achieved by an iron determination to wrest equal rights for women out of a social and political system designed to deny them.
As noted in Mary Gabriel’s excellent new biography, “Notorious Victoria” (Algonquin, $24.95), Woodhull’s early years marked her as anything but a future power broker. The daughter of an inept con man, she married at age 15 to a drunk who abused her. Society frowned on divorce; Woodhull supported her two children and husband with a series of then-suspect jobs including at least one stint as an actress.
In her late 20s, Woodhull teamed with younger sister Tennessee to offer “spiritual” readings. One of their clients was Wall Street tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, 73, who found Tennessee Claflin attractive enough to make her both his lover and frequent stocks-tip confidante.
Woodhull had quietly divorced her first husband and taken a second. Disgusted by how many years she had endured a terrible marriage to abide by social mores, she was determined to work toward equal rights for women.
In 1869-70 she and Tennessee used the Vanderbilt connection to move to New York City and open Woodhull, Claflin & Co. The sisters advised mostly female clients. Men were required to state their business and leave, the same sort of treatment extended to distaff customers of male-operated brokerages.
The newspapers couldn’t print enough about this outrageous new company. Woodhull capitalized on her newfound celebrity to deliver a series of well-attended public lectures on the subject of women’s rights. In particular, she wanted the right to vote, arguing the 14th Amendment made all individuals born in the United States its citizens and the 15th Amendment guaranteed all citizens the right to vote.
In 1871, she made her historic appearance before a congressional committee to argue the point. The committee refused to consider the matter, referring her to the courts.
The sisters also began publishing “Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly,” a newspaper meant to support Woodhull’s political agenda. Editorial contributors included Theodore Tilton, a former ally of the Rev. Henry Beecher, Woodhull’s longtime nemesis. (By way of modern example, he was that era’s Rush Limbaugh to Woodhull’s Hillary Rodham Clinton.)
The “Weekly” was a huge success. Lauded by feminists, reviled by defenders of the status quo, Woodhull decided she must break down the highest political barrier.
In May 1871, she founded the Cosmopolitical Party and announced she would run for president. Her plank included the vote for women.
On May 10 in New York, some 600 delegates to the newly appointed “Equal Rights Convention” nominated Victoria Claflin Woodhull for president and African-American icon Frederick Douglass as vice president. The candidacy made national headlines.
But so did her personal life. In proselytizing for complete rights for women, Woodhull had often been accused of advocating “free love” or promiscuity. This was, in fact, true.
Woodhull practiced this herself, although she also believed long-term monogamy was the ideal. Beecher had many love affairs, but this did not prevent him from attacking Victoria’s morals. Led by sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Beecher’s rich, influential Bostonian family devoted itself to bringing Woodhull down. In their own family newspaper. “The Christian Union,” the Beechers ran a series of short stories whose fictional heroine was the transparent, supposed alter ego of Victoria.
Stung, Victoria responded in the “Weekly.” Her paper delineated Henry Beecher’s peccadillos. But she underestimated her enemy’s venom and influence.
On Nov. 5, 1872, America voted for president. Woodhull was a declared candidate, but she was unable to vote for herself, both because women did not have that right and because she was in prison.
It seems the “Weekly” was mailed to some subscribers. Because the Beecher article included salacious details, one of the reverend’s supporters was able to have Victoria charged with sending obscene materials by post. She was arrested and held almost three weeks before she was allowed bail. By then, the election was over.
Trials and civil lawsuits connected with the Beecher story occupied Woodhull for several years. She was eventually exonerated, but the process left her bankrupt. Woodhull disappeared from the public arena. She died in 1927 at 88. Only six people attended her funeral. W.H.B. Yerborough, the presiding minister, noted Victoria had been “one of the twice born, the people of genius, not always understood or appreciated as they should be by the more dull once born.”