Victoria Woodhull: The First Hillary


Victoria Woodhull

Everyone has been going around saying that Hillary is the first female to run for the presidency. That we should all vote for her because electing her would be “historic.”  While Hillary could possibly be our first female President, her campaign is not the first one launched by a woman. She is not also the first one to have criminal investigations plague her campaign. All of this belongs to Victoria Woodhull. Victoria was Hillary before there was a Hillary.

So who was Victoria Woodhull and what was her campaign about? Well, like Hillary she was about “women’s rights.” Of course, back then women’s rights weren’t about men pretending to females or killing your unborn children. Back then it was about getting to vote. What makes Victoria’s campaign truly significant is that women did not get the right to vote until 1920 and she ran her campaign in 1872. Think about that for a minute she was running at a time where she was being denied the simple privilege of voting for herself. That is truly gutsy.

However, that is the extent of my admiration for Ms. Woodhull. Ms. Woodhull was both Hillary and Bernie Sanders in one back in her era. “A free thinker, Victoria Woodhull created Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, a radical publication, in 1870 with her sister, Tennessee. The publication gave the sisters a place to express their ideas on social reforms, including women’s suffrage, birth control and free love. The journal also published the first English translation of Karl Marx‘s The Communist Manifesto.” Victoria Woodhull

bernie-janeSo before there was Bernie Sanders, before there was Eugene Debs, a socialist who ran in 5 Presidential elections between 1900 and 1920 and earning 6 percent of the vote in the 1912 election between Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft [Eugene Debs], there was Victoria Woodhull.Victoria was big on social reforms and she used her publication  Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly to drive her points home. This caused significant controversy for her.

This controversy didn’t stop her from creating her own party and running on its ticket. Victoria is the one who created the Equal Rights Party. Though they wanted to win elections like any party their purpose was larger than that, “Although few seriously thought Victoria Woodhull would win, they knew her campaign would send a message to Washington. It’s time for a woman in the White House.” [Who is VW?] Today that seems to be the message as well. Not just that a woman should occupy the Oval Office but that Washington needs changing and reforms need to be made. Her campaign platform was the following: “Woodhull advocated for equal education for women, woman’s right to vote, and women’s right to control their own health decisions.  She criticized the Victorian ideal of women’s place being first and foremost in the home as full-time wives and mothers.” [Victoria Claflin Woodhull]

Vintage Fortune Teller Postcard from Flickr via Wylio

© 2007 Dave, Flickr | CC-BY-ND

Feminism was just becoming a movement back when Victoria was running for Presidency but even for a feminist of her era, she was different. Women like Susan B. Anthony, for example, were very much “traditional” women but just wanted the chance to vote. Susan B. Anthony sure didn’t go around preaching about free love and by all accounts she was pro-life. Woodhull was very much more like modern day feminists than she was like those of her time. Woodhull wasn’t just different from the feminists of her time, but women in general. Woodhull was also a fortune teller/spiritualist.

She and her sister, Tennessee Celeste Claflin, became involved in the spiritualist movement of the 1800s. Woodhull became a popular medium, traveling around with her sister to entertain audiences. Spiritualist

It was this “spiritualist” side that added to the rumor mill and created the controversy that was touched upon earlier in her campaign. It also didn’t help matters that she and her sister started their own brokerage house.  “[Cornelius] Vanderbilt, in turn, helped the sisters become the first women stockbrokers in history when they opened their own brokerage house in 1870 called Woodhull, Claflin & Company in 1870.” [ National Women’s History Museum] Cornelius Vanderbilt was a railroad tycoon and Woodhull was his spiritual advisor, which is why he was willing to help her create her own brokerage firm. (ibid).

Woodhull lived a turbulent time in American history. She was born in 1838, in Homer, Ohio. That was 22 years before we would have our Civil War and lose 2 percent of our population. The roles of men and women were changing thanks to the suffrage and race relations were volatile. Yet instead of backing away from all of this, she met it head on. She even invited Frederick Douglass to be her Vice President. “There is some evidence that abolitionist Frederick Douglass ran as her running mate, but it is unclear how involved he really was in the campaign. No matter the case, the election turned sour, with Woodhull publicly fighting with her critics in her publication.

In closing, Woodhull was very much like all the candidates we have running today. She was a woman and a “women’s rights” advocate like Hillary. She was a socialist like Bernie Sanders and she had the independent wealth, along with a sour reputation like Donald Trump. “Eventually, though, her funds ran out. She remarked of her own campaign, “The press suddenly divided between the other two great parties, refused all notice of the new reformatory movement; a series of pecuniary disasters stripped us, for the time being, of the means of continuing our weekly publication, and forced us into a desperate struggle for mere existence. . . . The inauguration of the new party and my nomination seemed to fall dead upon the country; and . . . a new batch of slanders and injurious innuendoes permeated the community in respect to my condition and character.” [Who is VW?]  Does that not sound like where we are today. A divide between the two great parties, a total rejection of a third party and the “need” for a woman president. The more things change, the more they stay the same. “Hillary” didn’t get elected in 1872, maybe she won’t be elected today.



Bernie Sanders-Bernie Sanders


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