Name: Victoria Claflin Woodhull
Born: 23 September, 1838
Died: 9 June, 1917
Occupation: Politician, stock broker, suffrage leader, activist
Legacy: Renowned suffrage worker, female pioneer in a range of fields, political and financial leader, dedicated campaigner.
Significant Achievements: The first woman to run for President in the USA, first female stockbroker, publisher of own magazine, women’s suffrage campaigner.
Victoria Woodhull was born on 23rd September, 1838 to parents Roxanna and Reuben Claflin in Homer, Ohio. She was the seventh of ten children and in her early years received very little formal education. Her mother was illiterate and her father a criminal; consequently, Woodhull did not start elementary school until the age of eight. At the age of eleven, Woodhull’s father committed arson and attempted fraud, burning down the family’s gristmill after putting it under heavy insurance in an effort to receive substantial compensation. As a result, the family was driven out of Ohio by a group of vigilantes, forcing Woodhull to drop out of school and limiting her educational experience to a total of three years. Though Woodhull’s teachers found her to be extremely intelligent, her marriage to Canning Woodhull at the age of fifteen and the birth of a disabled son would ensure she never returned to school.
Following the birth of her children and two failed marriages, Woodhull and her sister Tennessee travelled to New York City in 1868, where they met Cornelius Vanderbilt. An admirer of Woodhull’s skills as an amateur medium, the wealthy widower Vanderbilt assisted the activist and her sister in setting up their own stock-brokerage company in 1870. As well as profiting the sisters financially, the brokerage firm on Wall Street made Woodhull and her sister the first ever female stockbrokers. Their success was such that newspapers like the New York Herald hailed Woodhull and Claflin (Tennessee) as “the Queens of Finance” and “the Bewitching Brokers.”
That year, Woodhull and her sister used the money they had earned on the stock market to set up the publication ‘Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly’, which provided them with a place to express their ideas on social reforms, including the women’s suffrage movement, feminism, sex education and birth control. The Weekly quickly became well-known for publishing material on controversial topics such as short skirts, vegetarianism and licensed prostitution. In particular, Woodhull was an advocate for free love, believing that women should have the right to escape bad marriages and control their own bodies. She strongly endorsed the right of sexual determination for women and on the topic of her beliefs once stated:
“Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.”
However, not everybody agreed with Woodhull. A renowned preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, publicly condemned Woodhull’s policy of free love, prompting The Weekly to publish an exposing article in 1872 which would capture the public’s attention for months. The issue covered the alleged adulterous affair between Elizabeth Tilton and the reverend, and resulted in the arrest of Tennessee Claflin, Woodhull, and her second husband Colonel James Blood on the charge of ‘publishing an obscene newspaper’. As a consequence, the sisters were held in Ludlow Street Jail for a month.
The same year, Woodhull also became the first women in American history to run for President, doing so on the Equal Rights Party ticket. Woodhull spoke publicly on behalf of the women’s suffrage movement, but the campaign eventually failed (partially as a result of Woodhull’s arrest), and she failed to win the necessary votes. Woodhull tried once again to gain nominations for the presidency in 1884 and 1892, but nothing ever came to fruition. Nevertheless, she continued her work on equal rights and despite moving to England in 1877, maintained her cause until the end of her life. Woodhull spent much of her time writing, and whilst living in the country published a number of works, including ‘Human Body: The Temple of God’ and a magazine, ‘The Humanitarian’, which she founded with her daughter Zulu.
Woodhull died in Bredon’s Norton, Worcestershire on June 9, 1927, but still stands today as an extraordinary example of perseverance and courage in a time of struggle. Not only was Woodhull a leader in the suffrage and equal rights movement as well as a strong financial and political individual, she did so coming from an incredibly limited background, with minimal education and schooling. Her story is one of determination and success, making her undoubtedly a female pioneer of the ages.