Victoria C. Woodhull

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I first heard of her in the seventh grade. Her defiance of social convention completely captivated my adolescent imagination. No American woman before or since has had the unparalleled audacity to grasp toward the chief executive office of our country.

Her ubiquitous rise to fame began in the rural surroundings of Homer, Ohio. She was born September 23, 1838, the seventh of Roxanna and Buckman Claflins ten children. She and her nine siblings were brought up in the humblest of settings. Victoria and her sister Tennessee, however, seemed destined for an extraordinary life. From the cradle Victoria possessed an exaggerated sense of the fantastical, and often succumbed to the will of her dreams. The belief in clairvoyance, though prevalent in the era, was frequently regarded as the property of charlatans and quacks. Victoria claimed that her mission was one of enlightenment, that she had been informed through the powers of divination of her role in the nations fortune.

At the age of fourteen she was wed to Dr. Woodhull he was many years her superior in both age and experience. His wayward lifestyle eventually landed them in California. There Victoria made the acquaintance of Anna Cogswell and became an actress. One evening, in the middle of her performance, she received an urgent message to return home. She claims she received this message in the form of a vision of her younger sister beckoning to her. She immediately sailed for home and, after consultation with her sister and mother, set up shop as a medium in Indiana. Her miraculous acts soon impressed the entire community and she was hailed wherever she journeyed. She supported her husband and her entire family through her dubious talents, and traveled from city to city until she finally arrived in Chicago once again. She gave birth to her daughter there, her second child. And, after eleven years of a faade of a marriage to a drunken, licentious sot, obtained a divorce. She went on to meet and wed Colonel James Blood.

In 1869 she opened a bank and brokerage in the swelter of Wall Street. She and her sister Tennie were the first women to do so, and were supported by the sponsorship of none other than Cornelius Vanderbilt. Their brokerage was a success and became an enviable enterprise by the male bastion of the financial world. The women encouraged other women to establish financial independence, to invest their resources and protect their assets. In an age where marital property rights and status were to the disadvantage of women in general, Victoria and her sister advocated a controversial lifestyle.

Three months after establishing her brokerage Woodhull announced her intention to run for presidential office. Her announcement resulted in a flurry of speculation and excitement. She and Tennie commenced publication of their journal Woodhull and Claflins Weekly as a campaign sheet. The paper grew into an expose, the first muckraking of its kind. They revealed the agendas of corrupt politicians and the scams and scandals of the financial elite. The sisters used the paper to construct what would become a radical platform of reform. The firm belief that woman was the equal of her male counterpart in all aspects of life was firmly espoused, and extraordinary individuals who evidenced this belief were chronicled on a weekly basis.

In 1871 Woodhull spoke before the National Womens Suffrage Associations third annual convention. In her speech she asserted that women had obtained the right to vote through the passing of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, which granted all citizens the right to vote. She became the foremost figure in the suffrage movement with the simplicity of her argument. She was permitted to present her case before Congress and her ensuing argument was received with respect and admiration. But she was nearly half a century ahead of her time.

The Equal Rights Party nominated Victoria C. Woodhull as their presidential candidate in 1872. The nomination was met with severe reprisals, both personal and economic. The platform the party publicized involved the nationalization of land; womans right to live, love and work independently of her male counterpart; the reduction of profit by revising pricing to reflect the actual cost of production; a more just representation of wages as compared to capital gain; the freedom of the press and freedom of speech. (Puz, Susan Kullman)

Woodhull opposed Republican candidate Grant and Democratic candidate Greeley. Her opposition was met with near panic of an impending revolution. She and her family were unable to secure housing in Manhattan and the publication of her journal came to an abrupt halt for four months. When publication resumed Woodhull retaliated against her critics by writing two infamous articles. The first article cast doubt upon the sterling character of Reverend Henry Ward Beecher. It lambasted him as a cuckolder of his once friend Theodore Tilton. Supporters of Beecher had Woodhull thrown in jail for slander. Her second article had exposed the lecherous behavior of Luther Challis, a prominent broker who bragged of his sexual exploits involving innocent girls. Woodhulls accusers claimed she had used the U.S. mail for the purpose of distributing obscene material. She spent Election Eve in a cell.

The platform of the Equal Rights Party was transformed into a gruesome circus. Although the sisters were found innocent of the charges in 1873 and 1874, they were discouraged beyond all hope. They immigrated to England and settled there. Though she occasionally lectured on her views Victoria C. Woodhull faded from the public eye. She has since been relegated to the annals of history as either a fraud or an addlepated fool. She was neither, and though extraordinary, lent certain brilliance to a somewhat lackluster age.
Victoria has many lessons to teach us but her most important can be found in the following excerpt: For mankind are one in spirit and an instinct bears along, Round the earth’s electric circle, the swift flash of right and wrong; Whether conscious or unconscious, yet Humanity’s vast frame Through its ocean-sundered fibres feels the gush of joy or shame; In the gain or loss of race all the rest have equal claim. Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side; Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight, Parts the goats upon the lift hand and the sheep upon the right, And the choice goes by forever twixt that darkness and the light. (And The Truth Shall Make You Free: A Speech On The Principles Of Social Freedom, by Victoria C. Woodhull )