The First Woman to Run for President of the United States: Victoria Claflin Woodhull
by C.K. Thomas
In 2014 Myra MacPherson wrote The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age. Carol Felsenthal referenced MacPherson’s book extensively in her article about Victoria Woodhull in the April 9, 2015 issue of Politico magazine.
According to Felsenthal’s article, Woodhull’s parents married her off to Canning Woodward, a drug-addicted drunkard and womanizer when she was only 15 years old. Even though Woodhull married twice more, she kept her first husband’s last name throughout her life. In 1872, before women had even gained the right to vote, Woodhull made a run for the presidency of the United States as the nominee of the Equal Rights Party. Unfortunately, she was only 34 years old, and the Constitution states that anyone running for the presidency must be at least 35. In addition, her opponent was Republican incumbent Ulysses S. Grant!
The New York Herald quoted from her declaration to run for the presidency:
I am quite well aware that in assuming this position I shall evoke more ridicule than enthusiasm at the outset. But this is an epoch of sudden changes and startling surprises. What may appear absurd today will assume a serious aspect tomorrow.
Scott Claflin, one of Woodhull’s descendants, said in a 2008 interview for PBS’s Radio Diaries: “This was an era where a woman could not vote, could not enter a restaurant, a store, an establishment of any kind unless she was escorted by a man. It was controversial for women to do anything. But she had the foresight not to accept the way society was.”
In fact, at this time Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee, owned a stockbrokerage firm and published their own newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, but in light of Woodhull’s run for the presidency, she was evicted from her home. She and her two children were forced to live in the brokerage office for a time as landlords refused to rent to her. Election Day found Woodhull in jail because of allegations of sexual affairs she published in her newspaper about her once supporter, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, whom she felt had let her down during the campaign.
Woodhull, obviously a woman ahead of her time, advocated in her newspaper a woman’s right to vote, sex education, free love, short skirts, vegetarianism, and licensed prostitution. Free love as advocated by Woodhull meant the right to divorce, marry, and practice birth control without government interference. She was not against monogamist relationships as the term “free love” might imply. The most recent book about Victoria and her sister Tennessee, mentioned above, sounds to me like it might be both an enlightening and entertaining read.
C.K. Thomas lives in Phoenix, Arizona. Before retiring, she worked for Phoenix Newspapers while raising three children and later as communications editor for a large United Methodist Church. The Storm Women is her fourth novel and the third in the Arrowstar series about adventurous women of the desert Southwest. Follow her blog: We-Tired and Writing Blog.