"The truth is I am too many years ahead of this age... and the unenlightened mind of the average man." -- Victoria C. Woodhull to reporters about her 1872 Presidential campaign
Nope, Hillary wasn't the first. Before her there was Victoria C. Woodhull. I hear you asking, "Victoria who?" Most people haven't ever heard of this 19th century female suffrage icon, but she was a revolutionary woman before her time. Here are seven things she can teach us about being strong, modern women:
- Don't wait for the rules to change. Change them yourself. Women are still fighting for equal pay, equal representation in many fields, and many other equality issues. In Victoria's day, they were fighting for the right to vote. This meant she couldn't even legally vote for herself, but that didn't stop her from running for the highest office in the land. In her early 30s she became heavily involved with National Woman Suffrage Association. Then, on November 7, 1871, she led a group of women to their district polling place in an attempt to vote. Interestingly, they were allowed to register as voters a few days before, but were denied the ability to cast their ballots. It may have taken another 48 years for women to get the right to vote, but Victoria did her best to move the needle on change.
- Just because STEM jobs belong mostly to men doesn't mean it has to stay that way. Victoria and her sister, Tennie (Tennessee), were the first two women to ever own a brokerage firm on Wall Street. In a time when women's employment was only accepted in areas such as teaching, tailoring, and factory work, these two "Bewitching Brokers" dared to enter the man's world of finance and stock brokerage. As a woman, Victoria was denied a seat on the New York Stock Exchange (the first women didn't get a seat until 1967), but she and her sister still made millions for themselves and their clients.
- Speak out about issues dear to you in whatever forum you can. In the 19th century, the lecture circuit was the main form of public entertainment. However, women were discouraged from speaking because it was considered immodest and disrespectful to their husbands. Victoria didn't let this stop her from giving dozens of often controversial speeches. When speaking in public forums wasn't enough, she founded her own newspaper with her sister -- one of the first run by women.
- Do what you want, not what conventions tell you to do. In addition to her more obvious methods of rebellion, Victoria also participated in the controversial dress of a group known as sex radicals. As part of her belief in Free Love, Victoria (and Tennie) cut their hair short, eschewed corsets and bustles for looser fitting blouses and jackets, with skirts slightly higher than the shoe-covering norm. They also defied the rule of high society that women had to dine in restaurants accompanied by a man by insisting on service at Delmonico's in New York. When they were refused, Tennie went outside and got their coachman, who became their token male for the evening.
- Don't listen to those who tell you no. Can you imagine the reaction when Victoria announced she was running for president? Most men probably burst out laughing. When she testified before Congress on female suffrage (Victoria was the first to do so), only a handful of Congressmen actually showed up to hear her petition. One of those is said to have laughed through the whole thing like it was a joke and another flat out told her he wouldn't support her no matter what she said. Over the course of her campaign, Victoria was branded "Mrs. Satan" by her critics, mocked in political cartoons and articles and even publicly disparaged by Harriet Beecher Stowe and other members of the suffrage movement. Though it may have hurt, none of it broke her resolve to fight for what she believed in.
- Where you start out in life doesn't determine who you are. Victoria was not a blue-blooded debutante, as you might expect. She was one of 10 children born to a dirt-poor, abusive con-man and an insane, illiterate Spiritualist in the tiny town of Homer, Ohio. Most biographies say she only had a few years of schooling and her handwriting was terrible. But yet, despite humble beginnings she went on to become a self-made millionaire by the age of 30 and the first woman to do many things.
- If at first you don't succeed... Obviously, Victoria did not win the presidential election of 1872. But even that failure, near bankruptcy, and repeated false legal charges and jail sentences, did not stop her from trying again or from speaking regularly on the lecture circuit. Even when she moved to England, she didn't give up her dream of occupying the Oval Office. Victoria ran for president again in 1884 and 1892 and was an inspiration for the handful of other women who have followed in her footsteps, including Hillary Clinton.
Now, don't get me wrong, Victoria was no saint. There were plenty of things about her that would be controversial even today. She was a proponent of Free Love (meaning that she believed marriage shouldn't be a legal institution, but rather left up to the individuals involved). She had Communist leanings and later in life espoused eugenics, a controversial science. She also had several husbands and possibly multiple lovers.
But does that mean she can't be a role model for women today? Hell no! Victoria knew no fear and neither should we. No matter what your dream is, chase after it with all you have. Victoria's may not have come true, but she changed history pursuing it and so can you.