Think women are just starting to run for president? Think again! Back in 1872 Victoria Woodhull ran on the Equal Rights Party ticket, with Frederick Douglas for VP. Victoria was a strong candidate for this progressive party; she stood for a woman’s right to decline sex and choose divorce. But when the election day rolled around, Victoria was barred from voting because she was in jail…she’d been unfairly arrested on the charge of obscenity when she revealed the affair of social reformer Henry Ward Beecher. Not that she would have been able to vote anyway, since women’s suffrage wouldn’t come about for another 48 years. She was a feminist ahead of her time. And she was also in great conflict with other feminists of the day.
Among her other notable accomplishments was being the first female to own a brokerage firm on Wall Street, with her sister Tennessee Claflin, and to start a weekly newspaper publication. Nonetheless, she never received a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, something no woman would achieve until 1967.
Woodhull spent half her life as an expat in England where she married her third husband. It was rumored that the family of Cornelius Vanderbilt offered her and her sister money to leave the States so they would not be called in to testify in court over the estate. The elder Vanderbilt helped them establish their brokerage firm on Wall Street and may have had Tennie as a lover before he died. Tennie went on to marry Francis Cook, an English Baron and businessman and therefore became Lady Cook. Victoria resided there until her death in 1927, devoting her later years to running a new newspaper and preserving the English home of George Washington’s ancestors. Woodhull also became an automobile enthusiast, donated money and services to the townspeople around her estate, traveled overseas to run again for U.S. president in 1892, founded a short-lived agricultural school and volunteered with the Red Cross during World War I.
Woodhull often spoke about sex on the lecture circuit, saying, among other things, that women should have the right to escape bad marriages and control their own bodies. Even more shocking to Victorian sensibilities, she espoused free love. “I want the love of you all, promiscuously,” she once declared. “It makes no difference who or what you are, old or young, black or white, pagan, Jew, or Christian, I want to love you all and be loved by you all, and I mean to have your love.” “Let women issue a declaration of independence sexually, and absolutely refuse to cohabit with men until they are acknowledged as equals in everything, and the victory would be won in a single week,” she wrote.
Some of her ideas were radical in nature, mostly because of her own harsh upbringing and being married off at age 15. Regardless, the same issues remain in many parts of the world. However, 150 years later, much progress has been made and women have found their voices and have their own choices to the pursuit of happiness. Both sisters used their influence to change the lives of women. Use your voice and your vote! Victoria would be pleased.