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Meet the first woman to run for president

Meet the first woman to run for president
© Library of Congress

The first woman to formally declare herself a candidate for president of the United States did not build a national campaign or make a splash in debates. In fact, when Victoria Woodhull ran for office in 1872, she could not even vote for herself.

Woodhull, an unconventional social reformer who advocated for “free love” and women’s suffrage, was nominated to run for president by the newly established Equal Rights Party. Her run came decades before the ratification of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote.

Born Victoria Claflin, she came from humble roots in Homer, Ohio. She received essentially no formal education, though she and her sister Tennessee Claflin worked as traveling medical clairvoyants.

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Woodhull fell ill at the age of 14 and eventually married the man who treated her, Canning Woodhull, when she was 15. He was her first of three husbands, one who didn’t bother to stop womanizing.

“She was fully aware at that time that there were men who had affairs like her husband and women were just stuck,” said Teri Finneman, an associate professor in the University of Kansas’s school of journalism and author of “Press Portrayals of Women Politicians.” “She found that to be grossly unfair and hypocritical, and that would help to greatly influence her views during the campaign.”

Woodhull and her sister established a relationship with Cornelius Vanderbilt, a wealthy railroad magnate, through their work as traveling clairvoyants. With his backing, they settled in New York in the 1860s and together started the first female-run stock brokerage company, which attracted plenty of press coverage and brought her to the attention of suffrage advocates.

The sisters used money they earned from the firm to establish a women’s rights and reform newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, which published the first English translation of “The Communist Manifesto” and served as an outlet for discussion of women’s suffrage and other issues. The newspaper advocated for issues like a single moral standard for the sexes and legalizing prostitution.

Woodhull became an unusual and prominent advocate for women’s suffrage at the height of her public career, which paved the way for her run for president.

She became the first woman to address a House committee on Jan. 11, 1871, delivering a speech before the House Judiciary Committee about women’s suffrage.

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Woodhull, joined by famed women’s suffrage advocates Susan B. Anthony and Isabella Beecher Hooker, argued in her address that the 14th and 15th amendments implicitly afforded women the right to vote. She implored the committee to draft legislation giving women the right to vote, but they rejected her appeal.

Woodhull clashed with more conservative suffrage advocates like Anthony, who found Woodhull’s ideals too liberal.

Woodhull was nominated for president by the Equal Rights Party to run against incumbent Republican Ulysses Grant and Horace Greely, the Democratic nominee, in 1872. The party platform covered a range of issues, including abolishing monopolies, a single form of currency, an end to war, direct and equal taxation, help for the unemployed and free trade.

“While others of my sex devoted themselves to a crusade against the laws that shackle the women of the country, I asserted my individual independence; while others prayed for the good time coming, I worked for it; while others argued the equality of woman with man, I proved it by successfully engaging in business; while others sought to show that there was no valid reason why woman should be treated socially and politically as a being inferior to man, I boldly entered the arena of politics and business and exercised the rights I already possessed,” Woodhull wrote in a letter to the editor published in the New York Herald announcing her candidacy.

“I therefore claim the right to speak for the unenfranchised women of the country,” she wrote. 

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass was nominated as Woodhull’s running mate, though he did not accept.

Woodhull did not win any electoral votes, but her run represented a step forward for women seeking a seat at the table in politics.

“I think it did send a signal to political elites and members of our political institutions that this was an issue they would need to address,” said Jennifer Lawless, a politics professor at the University of Virginia. “Questions of women’s political inclusion were not only going to be about the right to vote.”

The press coverage of her presidential run was overwhelmingly critical. Cartoonist Thomas Nast depicted Woodhull in demonic garb and labeled her “Mrs. Satan.”

“Being the first is always difficult, and so the fact that she did that, that she put herself out there, she definitely put the crack in the ceiling,” said Finneman. “What is frustrating today is how some of that same media vilification that she faced in 1872 has continued to be a thread in culture and media coverage of women even to this day.”

Finneman pointed to the coverage of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBon Jovi to campaign with Biden in Pennsylvania The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in Biden gets late boost with key union endorsement MORE’s 2016 presidential run and of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin when she was chosen as Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMark Kelly releases Spanish ad featuring Rep. Gallego More than 300 military family members endorse Biden Jennifer Lawrence says until Trump she was 'a little Republican' MORE’s (R-Ariz.) running mate in 2008.

Woodhull is not typically listed among the names of prominent women’s rights advocates in present day, and experts say she has been overlooked likely because of her unconventional background and embrace of some controversial ideas.

In the waning days of her presidential campaign, Woodhull found herself embroiled in controversy. She and her sister were arrested three days before Election Day and thrown in New York City jail on obscenity charges for publishing a report in their newspaper about an alleged affair between Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and a married parishioner.

They were acquitted after several months of litigation, but Woodhull spent Election Day in prison, preventing her from any attempt at casting a ballot for herself.

Woodhull eventually sought a new start with her sister in England, after divorcing her second husband in 1876. She married an English banker in 1883 and went on to publish a number of works, including the magazine Humanitarian, which was focused on eugenics.

She died in England in 1927, at the age of 88.