Victoria C. Woodhull

Victoria Claflin Woodhull (1838-1927) was a promoter of women's rights. An 1872 candidate for president, she founded the first women's owned stock brokerage.

Victoria Claflin Woodhull was one of the most controversial figures of her time. Though she did much to promote the cause of women's rights—even announcing herself as a candidate for president in 1872—her espousal of free love (which rejected sexual monogamy) and her involvement in a number of highly publicized scandals gained her as many enemies as she had supporters. Along with her sister, Tennessee Claflin, Woodhull founded the first female-owned stock brokerage in the United States and published an influential newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly. In the biography Mrs. Satan, Woodhull was quoted on the philosophy that led to her many accomplishments: "All this talk about women's rights is moonshine. Women have every right. They have only to exercise them. That's what we're doing."

Woodhull's unusual upbringing contributed to the deep convictions and free spirit she evidenced later in life. She was born in Homer, Ohio, on September 23, 1838, the seventh of ten children born to Reuben Buckman Claflin and Roxanna Hummel Claflin. Her mother was a fervently religious woman who enjoyed taking the family to evangelical revival meetings, while her father was a jack-of-all-trades who would try anything if it seemed to hold the potential for financial reward. Victoria and Tennessee, the youngest Claflin child, followed their mother's lead and proclaimed themselves clairvoyant at an early age. Their father soon created a traveling spiritualist show, featuring folk medicine and fortune-telling, in an attempt to profit from his daughters' talents.

Victoria left the family's show before she turned sixteen to marry Dr. Canning Woodhull, partly at her father's urging. During their marriage she worked at a number of odd jobs to help support her husband, who was an alcoholic, and their two children. Though the couple divorced in 1864, they continued to live together for some time afterward. Woodhull would remarry twice, but she practiced free love for most of her life. In 1868 Woodhull and her sister traveled to New York City, where they met wealthy industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt. Although Tennessee refused the elderly man's marriage proposal, he maintained an interest in the sisters and gave them financial advice. Eventually Woodhull and her sister became proficient enough in the financial markets to establish the first female-owned stock brokerage, Woodhull, Claflin and Company. Their company opened amidst a huge wave of publicity and became quite successful.

Woodhull and her sister used some of the profits from this venture to found a newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly, in 1870. By this time their home had become a sort of literary salon that attracted many well-known radical intellectuals. Many friends from this circle contributed to the paper, which articulately supported such controversial goals as equal rights for women, free love, and socialism. Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly even published the first English translation of Karl Marx's The Communist Manifesto in 1872. Woodhull used her newfound stature to speak out on the issue of women's suffrage. Many of the women who had taken up this cause before her, however, resented her views on free love and deemed her an unworthy spokesperson.

In April 1870 Woodhull shocked the nation with a sensational letter to the editor of the New York Herald entitled "First Pronunciamento." In it, as quoted in Mrs. Satan, she proclaimed: "While others argued the equality of women with men, I proved it by successfully engaging in business; while others sought to show that there was no valid reason why women should be treated, socially and politically, as being inferior to men, I boldly entered the arena….I now announce myself candidate for the Presidency." Thus Woodhull became the first woman candidate for president, headlining the ticket of the National Radical Reform Party (also known as the Equal Rights Party). Her running mate was abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass—though he declined to take part in the unlikely campaign—and her rallying call was "Victory for Victoria in 1872!" Woodhull presented her views on women's rights in a passionate speech to the House Judiciary Committee in 1871, which marked the first personal appearance before such a high congressional committee by a woman. Besides impressing legislators, the speech also helped Woodhull win over many of her detractors in the women's suffrage movement, who began to recognize that Woodhull's visibility might be valuable enough to outweigh their reservations about her morality.

Following her failed bid for the presidency, however, Woodhull continued to be the subject of rumors and gossip. Two of her most prominent detractors were novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister, Catherine Beecher. Partly to get back at her critics and partly to expose what she saw as blatant hypocrisy, Woodhull used her paper to accuse Henry Ward Beecher—one of the most prominent clergymen of the day and brother of her detractors—of having adulterous affairs with several of his parishioners. After the scandalous story was printed, Beecher was put on trial for adultery, and he responded by charging Woodhull and her sister with libel. Though Woodhull was acquitted in 1873, many of her former supporters found that they could no longer stand by her.

In 1877 Woodhull moved to England, where she continued to lecture and publish books and pamphlets. Her writings include Stirpiculture, or the Scientific Propagation of the Human Race, 1888; The Human Body the Temple of God (written with her sister), 1890; and Humanitarian Money, 1892. From 1892 to 1910, Woodhull published Humanitarian magazine with her daughter, Zulu Maud Woodhull. Woodhull married a wealthy English banker, John B. Martin, in 1882. In her efforts to obtain the blessing of his respectable family, she made several trips to the United States, where she faced her critics and disavowed her previous stance on free love. She died at their English country estate on June 10, 1927.