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Jennifer Wheeler Headshot

Ohio's First Lady

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On this day, November 2, 1872, America's first female presidential candidate was arrested and remained in prison while the votes of 6.5 million citizens were cast and counted. Victoria Woodhull -- suffragette, businesswoman, women's rights activist and Ohio native -- was not only ahead of her time, but 140 years later is still ahead of our time.

Woodhull 's story begins in the sleepy hamlet of Homer, Ohio where she was born in 1838. Walking through Homer today you will find a library, a small market, and 1,400 residents. It is smack dab in the middle of the state, politically red inside, outside and every direction therefrom. It was a frontier town when Woodhull was raised here, and a seemingly unlikely place to spawn the courageous, nonconforming woman that Woodhull was to become. But perhaps not. Just 100 miles west of Homer is another teeny tiny frontier town (North Star, Ohio, population 209), the birthplace of sharpshooter Annie Oakley.

Woodhull was never a model spokesperson for the women's suffrage movement, she didn't fit the mold, and I like that about her. She was strange, one-of-a-kind. At the age of just 14 Victoria Woodhull married, but the troubled union and alcoholism of her husband led to their divorce. Woodhull would not accept society's condemnation of her choice, the ostracism that divorcees were expected to endure, and it was after her divorce that she began actively supporting the "free love" movement. Contrary to the images of orgies and nudist colonies that are running through most readers' minds, to Victoria "free love" was something else. It was the choice to love and have monogamous sexual relationships; to divorce and to remarry (which she did twice); and to be held to the same sexual standard as a man.

Before running for President of the United States, Victoria and her sister Tennessee achieved another first. They became Wall Street's first female stockbrokers putting into motion a chain of events that would eventually lead to Woodhull's imprisonment. The sisters were wildly successful as brokers and used the money they had earned on Wall Street to found a newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly. The paper served to support Woodhull's candidacy for President and to promote a feminist agenda, but when she published an article about the extramarital affair of a preacher who had condemned her free love philosophy Victoria was arrested on charges of "publishing an obscene newspaper."

Hypocrisy is something that Victoria Woodhull had no tolerance for, particularly when it came to powerful men who pontificated about virtue in public but couldn't keep their pants on in private. She criticized the very existence of an all male government that prescribed mores but couldn't meet its own standards, a government that applied laws to women without their consent. And that -- consent -- is the key to it all: democracy and politics and the election this Tuesday. When Victoria Woodhull ran for president in 1872, she didn't have the right to vote. She didn't consent to a political system that denied her the right to vote, she didn't consent to inequality under the law, and she was thrown in jail.

Today, in 2012, we consent. The decisions of our government require the consent of men and women, but if Victoria Woodhull was here she might not believe it. In what seems like the blink of an eye decades and decades of progress have come under threat. In 1916 Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn; this year the Susan G. Komen Foundation announced that it would sever ties with Planned Parenthood, and Rush Limbaugh called a pro-contraceptive Georgetown law student a "slut" and a "prostitute" on national radio. In 1920 the 19th amendment was ratified giving women the right to vote, to make political choices; next Tuesday an astonishing number of women will vote for a political party that advocates undermining the right to choose. In 1973, Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, and in 2012 the Republican party advocates overturning that landmark ruling. In 1994 the Violence Against Women Act was passed, providing support and remedies for victims of rape and domestic violence; in 2011 Paul Ryan sponsored a bill distinguishing "rape" from "forcible rape". In 2009 President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, and Mitt Romney opposed it.

I could go on, but I don't need to because the problem is not that people are uninformed. The problem is that many women and men will give their consent on Tuesday despite being aware of the threats.

When Victoria Woodhull was nominated for President of the United States by the Equal Rights Party in 1872, she did not expect to win. Indeed, she did not receive any electoral votes. What this imperfect and brave woman from Ohio did do, however, is refuse to consent.