Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Victoria Woodhull: The Fascinating Story of America's First Female Presidential Candidate

by Nomad

Does the name Victoria Claflin Woodhull ring many bells? Probably not, but she was without argument one of the most talked-about women of the 19th century. Although something of an eccentric with a slightly unimpressive background, her biography, with its ups and downs, is a fascinating one. Her outspoken opinions about women's rights put her far ahead of her time.

Most of us think of the Victorian era as a time when women, like children of that time, generally were seen but not heard. A woman's place was in her home and any adventure outside of that realm could bring infamy.
Not altogether true.
Take the story of Victoria Woodhull.  As we shall see, her life contradicts that conventional wisdom. It's only surprising that Hollywood hasn't made a film about her tumultuous life; there's a lot of material there.

The Rise of A Radical

Her early life was hardly promising. Victoria Claflin and her sisters were raised by parents who used the girls as  "spiritualist mediums and faith healers in the family’s traveling medicine." They eventually married her off to Dr. Canning Woodhull when she was only 15. It must have come as a salvation to her since she stayed married to him for 11 years. ( As one source tells us, she would subsequently remarry three times and divorce twice more, in an age when divorce was unusual and socially disapproved.)

Eventually, she and her sister moved to New York City and became famous for giving financial advice from the spirit world to rich investors. In a twist of fate, despite her radical thought, her name was on the lips of many influential capitalists who took her stock tips.

Among her radical thoughts, Woodhull was most famous for being an early advocate for the right of women to vote. At heart, Woodhull was a social reformer. She was an advocate of free love- which despite its tantalizing name- actually only proposed marriage reforms. At that time, The Free Love movement's initial goal was to separate the state from sexual matters such as marriage, birth control, and adultery. These issues, proponents claimed, were personal matters and need not be legislated by others. Her opponents claimed she was simply promoting promiscuity and scandal.
That was to be expected, These were radical ideas for that time and even today we are still struggling with the same issues.

At The Summit

The year is 1870, five years after the Civil War, and the nation was still reeling after a failed policy of reconstruction for the demoralized South. The federal policy for equal rights for the slaves was at odds with the right of the states- including the Southern states- to sovereign policy.
Two years earlier, Congress had passed the 14th amendment, which gave  citizenship rights and equal protection of the laws to all citizens. The Due Process Clause prohibits state and local government officials from depriving persons of life, liberty, or property without legislative authorization. All citizens with the incredible exception of women.

For Victorian Claflin Woodhull and her sisters, things could not have been better.
The sisters (and with financial backing from shipping and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt - one of the wealthiest men in America at the time) became the first women to operate a brokerage firm on Wall Street.
The venture was treated with general suspicion, amusement, and condescension by the press.
Take this notice in the papers of the day:
When Woodhull, Claflin & Co. opened its doors in 1870, the press took excited notice, providing the sisters with such labels as “Queens of Finance” and “Bewitching Brokers.” A New York Sun headline put Wall Street bulls and bears on notice that there were now “Petticoats Among the Bovine and Ursine Animals.”
Woodhull’s second husband and a Civil War veteran,  Col. James Blood, helped to manage the firm. He apparently had had some past experience with the railroad industry which was, for investors, the Internet bubble of its age.  

At about the same time, the sisters branched out into publishing becoming the first women to found a newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly. This was used primarily as a platform for Woodhull's political ideas. She used the first issue, dated May 14, 1870, to make an announcement.

Woodhull, it seemed, would be running as a presidential candidate in the 1872 election.

The Campaign

That election, in which President Ulysses S. Grant ran for his second term was by any measure a confused affair. (The main challenger, Horace Greely, ended up dying suddenly before all the votes were counted.)
Woodhull ran under the Equal Rights Party with African-American social reformer, orator, writer and statesman (and a black former slave) Frederick Douglas as her vice-presidential running mate.

According to the story, however, Douglas was not aware he was on the ticket and supported Grant. (Whether that is plausible is another question. It is just as possible he was intimidated into backing out of the race.)

For a variety of reasons, Woodhull never had any significant chance of winning. Without the votes of women, a female candidate would have been forced to rely solely on male voters. The fix, in other words, was in. Politics was an exclusive club for men and white men only.

In any event, according to the constitutional requirements, Woodhull was not eligible. She was too young. Being female and young were a hardly solid foundation to base for a political career. Especially not at that time.

There were other problems too. Radical politics aside, Woodhull's personal life was a scandal in the judgmental eyes of that era. There was the divorce, of course. In addition, things were not quite right in the home, the whisperers said.
It emerged that her ex-husband, Dr. Woodhull, was living with her and her current husband, along with various other relatives. While Victoria may have regarded this as charity and a way to keep him in their children’s lives, it ran sharply against widely held sensibilities.
Society took one look at Woodhull's rather messy personal life and turned its back on her.

In a dramatic turn, three days before the election, Woodhull was arrested on charges of sending obscene material through the mail. It was related to an article in the paper in which she called out a famous preacher Rev. Henry Ward Beecher for hypocrisy. (Although condemning any form of free love, his own marital arrangement was unconventional.) In what most would see as an outrageous dirty political trick, she spent Election Day in jail.

While Woodhull might not have been the ideal candidate by any means, it's hard not to see that many in the male political-social hierarchy might have felt threatened by the idea of a woman running for president.
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The rest of the Woodhull story is filled with ups and downs. She ran for president in two more elections but found fewer and fewer supporters. They felt she had too much personal baggage. (She did open the door for other female candidates, however.) Fortunes were lost and regained - ironically through marriage. In relative obscurity, Woodhull died on June 9, 1927, having seen her dream fulfilled with the  ratification of 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote.

Woodhull and the Christian Right Wing

In the January 20, 1872 issue of Woodhull's newspaper, we find an op-ed piece which gives us some idea of her political thoughts. The subject was sparked by a convention of theologians a week earlier.

At that convention, Woodhull alleged, the religious leaders proposed  an "attempt to indoctrinate the Constitution with their interpretation of God and the Bible."
She wrote:
No living man or woman has any right to force his or her convictions upon another person, and what these Pharisees propose, is simply the most high-handed outrage upon human rights that was ever attempted. They know that they represent but a miserable minority of the people of the country, or of the world, and when they assume to dictate to the great mass of people, we can but call to mind the old adage, 'that whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.'
The Church leaders claimed that the US government was created by God. Woodhull took that statement apart step by step. Governments were created by God insomuch as God created a locomotive or any other man-made machine. 
But to claim God made any government, that was nonsense.
Government is instituted by men, as members of a common humanity, the rights of each one of whom are sacred to him and beyond the reach, by any but despotic means, of all people who meddle with what is none of their business.
Who, she asked, were these people to judge saint from sinners?
If we believe to-day that Jesus Christ took this view of humanity, teaching that they are all brothers and sisters, what business have these religious demagogues to attempt to compel men to believe that there are sheeps [sic] and goats in humanity, and that the goats shall be separated from the sheep and burned up in a lake of fire and brimstone, which, by the way, is a natural impossibility and a burlesque upon science, which is the exponent and natural handmaid and companion of all true religion.
As far as the Bible having any authority over government, she rejected the idea neatly.
Government is no more subject to the Bible than to the Koran. The truths enunciated by Confucius, Budha [sic] Brahma, Zoroaster, Plato and every other great person, are just as much authority to us as anything contained in the Bible. In fact there is no moral law contained in the Bible that is not copied from some of the earlier authorities. . . .
These notions, Woodhull asserted, were both autocratic and backward. What could one expect? These people had no conception of freedom except as it pertained to their freedom.
These would-be tyrants have not yet been the recipients of the first principles of freedom. It has yet to germinate within their souls. They want their own freedom but refuse to grant the same to anybody else. They want their freedom to be despotism to everybody else, and not being able to accomplish this by the force of their moral power they propose to assert and enforce it through a government shaped to suit their designs.
It was fine to try to add morality to the Constitution, she stated. However, unless that law found support in the hearts of the people, it would only be used to persecute others. She suggested that the theologians go back and re-read the Bible and study carefully the teachings of their founder.
If these would-be exemplars of religion would follow the precepts and practices of their professed Master, they should set them about doing practical good, even breaking the Sabbath day as He did. They should begin the inquiry as to who are their neighbors. Some of them should even look into their own hearts to see if they have not already committed adultery. They should learn what Jesus always taught, that the law is unto death, but the spirit unto life. They should endeavor to learn the truth, that they have no right to judge, lest they be judged. In short, while they should desire a government to protect themselves from interference by others, they must learn that every other person desires governmental protection from their schemes for despotism.
Woodhull concluded her piece with this final statement.
Government.. is a form of organization by which the people secure to themselves protection from each other in their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. That is its only function. . .
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Regardless of her extremely colorful background, Woodhull's ideas are just a relevant today.

The same ideas- particular the idea that America is a Christian nation- linger and fester. We still live in an age in which certain religious groups can warp the political system to impose their own morality over the law of the land.

This is an age in which religious leaders can still congregate and attempt to influence the outcome of any election. Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative religious group, Family Research Council,  for example, can claim the president is attempting to destroy religious freedom in the US.

 “I am certain,"  Perkins said in 2012, "that the attack on religious freedom, primarily Christianity, is only going to intensify this year." He invited the public to join with FRC to help "reclaim our culture for Christ."

And the Christian right wing promotes the political agenda demands the subjugation of women.
“The wife is to voluntarily submit, just as the husband is to lovingly lead and sacrifice .The husband’s part is to show up during the times of deep stress, take the leadership role and be accountable for the outcome, blaming no one else.”
That idea comes directly from the New Testament- Ephesians 5:22 . For Pearce, who has been elected to represent all of his constituents (not merely Christian men) openly declared that a woman's role in marriage isn't as an equal but it is "a matter of obedience to the Lord and of love for her husband.” (Remember this is a politician, not a preacher.)

We live in a time when religious elements in the Conservative Right Wing attempt to legislate the right to discriminate against the gay minority based on their "sincerely held beliefs" meaning Christianity. Yet gay citizens- taxpayers and law-abiding- are also Americans with equal protections.

Woodhull would have been horrified at the idea. As she said in her 1871 Steinway Hall speech
To love is a right higher than constitutions or laws. It is a right which constitutions and laws can neither give nor take, and with which they have nothing whatever to do, since in its very nature it is forever independent of both constitutions and laws, and exists--comes and goes--in spite of them. Governments might just as well assume to determine how people shall exercise their right to think or to say that they shall not think at all, as to assume to determine that they shall not love, or how they may love, or that they shall love.
Despite all of the other advances of our times, we live in an age when to be able to deny women their constitutional right to an abortion, even in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is in imminent threat. This is still a time when rape victims are held partially responsible because they were intoxicated at the time.

And we still live in an age when a female presidential candidate's married life- even her husband's wayward behavior- weighs more heavily than her political thoughts. 

Woodhull would, unquestionably, have been dismayed that, despite having the right to vote, women have not actually used this power to their advantage.
Instead too many of them have left it to conservative men to dictate how they should live and which rights they should possess.

(For a collection of Woodhull's writings, follow this link.)