Victoria Woodhull was a radical progressive and spokesperson for the free love movement and women’s rights. Raised in an unhealthy environment, Woodhull managed to work her way onto Wall Street and as a co-owner of a progressive newspaper with her sister. Her love for the limelight and desire for fundamental change led her to announce her running for the 1872 presidential election. Although Woodhull initially gained support from progressives and women’s rights advocates, her radical behavior and outspoken support of the free love movement ultimately led to her downfall.
The Early Life of Victoria Woodhull
Victoria Woodhull was born into a poor family in rural Homer, Ohio on September 23, 1838. She was the seventh child of ten and was raised by her illiterate mother and con artist father. The family was forced to leave town after Woodhull’s father, Reuben Buckman Claflin, burned down his own mill in an attempt to collect insurance money. Woodhull began school when she was eight years old at Homer’s Methodist Church. She didn’t attend school consistently and was forced to end her education after only three years when her family left town. Woodhull spent several years on the road with her family, participating in their medicine shows as a fortune teller.
Victoria married a 28-year-old physician, Canning Woodhull, at the young age of 15. They had two children together, whom Victoria was largely responsible for supporting as Canning was a neglectful and abusive drunk. She took up a number of jobs to bring in some income for her children, including working as a seamstress, store clerk, and stage actress. After twelve years of marriage, Victoria divorced her husband and began working as a traveling healer and fortune teller with her younger sister Tennessee Claflin. Following her divorce, Woodhull became an advocate for the free love movement.
Entering the World of Wall Street
Victoria Woodhull and her younger sister met people of all types of backgrounds while working as healers. Woodhull met her second husband, Union soldier Colonel James Harvey Blood, after he received healing services from her. They also provided services for railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. Woodhull and Claflin were employed as mediums by Vanderbilt, who provided the women with financial advice. While working for Vanderbilt, Woodhull and Claflin managed to rack up about $700,000 in stock tips in less than two months. In 1870, Woodhull and Claflin used their savings to set up a financial firm named Woodhull, Claflin & Company on Wall Street. The venture made them the first two women to own a financial firm in the Financial District of Downtown Manhattan, New York.
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The financial market at the time was very fragile. The oil and steel industries were booming by 1870, but the market was just recovering from the Black Friday Gold Panic of 1869. Erie Railroad president Jay Gould and his vice president Jim Fisk planned to corner the gold market, which caused gold prices to rise rapidly. President Ulysses S. Grant ordered his Secretary of the Treasury, George S. Boutwell, to flood the market with $4 million worth of gold to foil Gould and Fisk’s plan. Market fluctuations during this time were common due to robber barons and stock manipulation, which meant that being a stockbroker with no inside connections was risky work. However, Woodhull and Claflin had Vanderbilt’s financial advice on their side.
Victoria Woodhull’s Political Agenda
Woodhull and Claflin used the money they made from their brokerage firm to establish the Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly newspaper. The newspaper was used to fuel Woodhull’s political agenda. It included articles on women’s suffrage, the free love movement, and progressive reform. It was also the first newspaper to publish an English-translated version of The Communist Manifesto. The newspaper gained support from other progressives who believed in the free love movement and women’s suffrage.
Victoria Woodhull became more involved in the women’s suffrage movement when she began communicating with Massachusetts Congressman Benjamin Butler in 1871. She convinced Butler to allow her to deliver an address before the House Judiciary Committee, granting her the title of the first woman to address a congressional committee. Woodhull used her time to argue that women already had the right to vote according to legislation outlined in the 14th and 15th Amendments. Woodhull’s request for legislation to grant women the right to vote was denied by the committee. Notable women’s rights activists and suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Isabella Beecher Hooker supported Woodhull’s address to the committee, making her a more prominent figure in the movement.
Between Woodhull’s brokerage and newspaper endeavors, along with lecturing at various women’s suffrage conventions, she was doing well financially. Woodhull and Claflin moved into a mansion on Murray Hill in New York City. The mansion housed Victoria’s two children, her mother, Colonel Blood, and even Victoria’s first husband. Financial issues arose after Woodhull announced her support of the free love movement in late 1871.
The Free Love Movement
The free love movement appeared in the late 1840s following the revival of evangelical Christianity, known as the Second Great Awakening. It was indoctrinated, especially in the middle class, that marriage was the foundation of social relations. However, some began to reject the idea that marriage was key to a healthy and prospering society. Supporters of the free love movement valued individuality and feared the limitations that institutions could put on oneself by the pressures of marriage. It especially limited women, as they were expected to marry at a young age, and this was the only way to gain equality and a higher social status. Unmarried women were often looked down upon, and few could own their possessions outside of matrimony, as societal norms made it difficult to do so.
Victoria Woodhull firmly believed that women should have the right to marry and divorce rather than to be wedded for life. Word got out about Woodhull’s marital relations and free love perspective after her unstable mother brought a complaint against Colonel Blood in court, claiming he was alienating Victoria from her. During one of her lectures at New York’s Steinway Hall, Victoria confirmed her status as a free lover. She received a great amount of backlash from conservatives and lost a lot of support from fellow women’s suffragists.
Woodhull’s Presidential Campaign & Legal Troubles
As dissatisfaction with Woodhull’s beliefs began to grow among conservatives and her political reputation was on the line, she announced that she was going to run for president in May 1872. Woodhull was nominated by the newly established Equal Rights Party. Notable abolitionist Frederick Douglass was chosen to run as vice president, but Douglass never recognized his nomination. Although Woodhull is often referred to as the first woman to run for president, she technically wasn’t qualified to do so at the time. Woodhull didn’t meet the minimum 35-year-old age limit required to become president, as she would only be 34 years old at the time of the 1873 presidential inauguration.
Not only was Woodhull not legally allowed to become president, but she also found herself in the midst of legal troubles during the election period. Woodhull published a controversial article on the alleged affair between a widely known and well-loved minister, Henry Ward Beecher, and one of his churchgoers, Elizabeth Tilton. The story was published in Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly on October 28, 1872, which served as a revival issue after production of the newspaper was briefly halted earlier that year. Woodhull’s scandalous Beecher-Tilton story was a huge success, and the issue became a bestseller. On November 2, US marshals arrested Woodhull for the Beecher-Tilton story on the grounds of distributing obscene literature to the public by mail. Woodhull spent about one month in the New York City jail, including on Election Day. The obscenity charges were later dismissed in 1873.
Victoria Woodhull Steps Out of the Limelight
The two years leading up to Woodhull’s presidential campaign announcement were difficult. Woodhull was losing money in her newspaper and financial firm businesses, and progressive women suffragists were cutting ties with her due to her radical beliefs. Although the publication of the Beecher-Tilton scandal briefly revived Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, it wasn’t enough to keep the public’s attention for long. By 1872, many people didn’t take Woodhull seriously, especially in the case of her presidential nomination, due to the fact that she wasn’t old enough to run.
Woodhull was in and out of jail for her obscenity and libel charges for the next few years. The legal troubles caused Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly and her stockbroker business on Wall Street to suffer financially. After falling into debt and facing bankruptcy, Woodhull was forced to close down her businesses. Woodhull left Colonel Blood in 1876 before moving to England with her sister in 1877. Woodhull remarried six years later to English banker and statistician John Biddulph Martin.
Claflin and Woodhull remained in England out of the close public eye for the remainder of their life. Woodhull established the Humanitarian magazine with her daughter in 1892, which discussed eugenics and consisted of much less radical subject matter compared to her American periodical. Victoria Woodhull lived out the rest of her life in England and died at the age of 88 in 1927.
By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.