Suffragette Runs for President

Photo of Victoria Woodhull and Fellow Suffragists in 1910

Did you know that in 1872, Victoria Woodhull was the first female candidate to run for President of the United States! An activist for women’s right and labor reforms, Woodhull was also an advocate of free love, meaning the freedom to marry, divorce and have children without government interference.

An extremely unique individual, Woodhull went from rags to riches twice in her lifetime, becoming a successful magnetic healer before joining the spiritualist movement in the 1870s. Her speeches and written articles were powerful. Together with her sister, she was the first woman to operate a brokerage firm on Wall Street and among the first women to found a newspaper “Woodhull & Clafin’s Weekly” in 1870. As a women’s right advocate, Woodhull learned how to infiltrate the all-male domain of national politics. Testifying on women’s suffrage before the House Judiciary Committee, Woodhull argued that women already had the right to vote since the 14th and 15th Amendments guaranteed the protection of that right for all citizens. Other suffrage leaders including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton saw Woodhull as the newest champion of their cause and applauded her statement that “Women are the equals of men before the law and are equal in all their rights.” While her Constitutional argument was not original, she focused unprecedented public attention on suffrage and became the first woman ever to petition Congress in person. In 1871 she spoke publicly against the government being composed only of men.

In 1872 at the peak of Woodhull’s political career, the newly formed Equal Rights Party nominated Woodhull for President of the United States. They also nominated the former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass for Vice President. While he did not attend the convention nor ever acknowledge the nomination, Douglass served as a presidential elector in the United States Electoral College. Though this nomination did stir up controversy about the mixing of whites and blacks in public life, the Equal Rights Party hoped to use the nominations to reunite suffragists with African-American civil rights activists as an exclusion of female suffrage from the Fifteenth Amendment two years earlier had caused a substantial rift between the groups.

Shortly before the election, however, Woodhull, having been publicly vilified in the press for her support of free love, proceeded to publish an article in her newspaper on an alleged adulterous affair between Elizabeth Tilton and the very prominent New York minister Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher had supported female suffrage but had lectured against free love in his sermons. Woodhull saw this as a sexual double-standard between men and women, railing against what she believed was society’s hypocrisy in tolerating married men who had mistresses or engaged in other sexual affairs outside of marriage. Unfortunately, Woodhull sent her accounts of the affair through the federal mail services which landed her in jail. A few days before the election, she was arrested on obscenity charges, all of which only added to the sensational coverage of her candidacy. A self-appointed moral defender of the nation at the time, Anthony Comstock, arranged the arrest which raised questions about censorship and government prosecution. Six months later she was acquitted on a technicality, but the arrest prevented Woodhull from attempting to vote during the 1872 presidential election. While Woodhull did not receive any electoral votes, there is conflicting evidence about popular votes.

Many of Woodhull’s ideals and reforms supporting the working class and against what she believed as the corrupt capitalist elite were extremely controversial in her time. Many of these reforms have since been implemented and today are taken for granted.

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