Victoria Woodhull: Forgotten Pioneer of Women’s Rights

08/05/2016 04:27 pm ET
By unbekannter Fotograf ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Victoria Woodhull’s name may not be familiar to you, and if that’s the case, don’t worry; most people don’t know who she is. Despite the fact that she was the first woman to run for President in the United States (1872), the first woman to own and operate a stock brokerage on Wall Street, the first woman to speak before a committee of Congress and one of the first to run a weekly newspaper, her name is not in most history books.

There are likely many reasons for that, but to me, it’s more important that the situation change. Victoria had her faults, but she also had many admirable qualities that women of all ages could learn from, one of the biggest of which is that she was fearless.  Here are six examples of times when she exemplified that trait:

  1. She overcame poverty and abuse. Victoria was one of 10 children born to a down-on-his-luck, impoverished con man and a religious zealot, both of whom were physically, emotionally (and possibly sexually) abusive. Her parents put her and her sister Tennessee (Tennie) to work before they were teenagers as clairvoyants and magnetic healers. To escape that life, Victoria married at 14, but her husband turned out to be addicted to alcohol and morphine, was abusive, and frequented brothels. Despite only having three years of formal education, Victoria endured, supporting her growing family by working as a seamstress, actress, medium/healer, and later, after divorcing her first husband, as a stock broker in her own right. By the time she was 31, she was a self-made millionaire.
  1. She moved around at the direction of the spirits. Victoria was a Spiritualist. Call her brave, faithful or stupid, she believed that the spirits she spoke with knew what was best for her. From a young age, she claimed the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes was her spirit guide. He and her other spirits directed her around the Midwest during the Civil War. Then in 1868, Demosthenes told her to go to New York where she would find a house prepared for her at 17 Great Jones Street. He told that from there, she would fulfill the destiny written in the stars from the moment of her birth and become queen of America, just like the queen she was named after. By this time, Victoria had two children and a second husband, but that didn’t stop her. She packed up her things and moved to New York, where a life of fame and fortune awaited her at the exact address Demosthenes prophesied.
  1. She challenged authority and shattered the glass ceilings of her day. Victoria would have loved the song “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” and she wasn’t afraid to show it. Women didn’t mettle in business affairs? She opened the first stock on Wall Street brokerage owned and operated by a woman (along with Tennie) and was successful at it. Women weren’t allowed at the New York Stock Exchange? No problem, she relayed her business transactions through men. Women weren’t supposed to run for office? She ran for the highest one in the land. Women weren’t supposed to draw attention to themselves? Victoria not only ran a weekly newspaper (along with Tennie), gave speeches around the country, and even challenged Congress on whether or not women already had the right to vote through the wording of the Constitution. Women weren’t allowed to vote? No matter, in 1871, she and a group of women attempted to vote anyway.
  1. She spoke out in an age when women were expected to be silent. In Victoria’s time, it was not considered proper for a woman to speak in public because it was believed by doing so, she drew shame upon her father/husband. That didn’t stop suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Victoria joined them in speaking out for that right, but also vehemently supported workers’ rights, the humane treatment of prostitutes, and the rights of women to not be sexually subservient to their husbands within marriage. From 1871 on, Victoria was a regular fixture on the lecture circuit along with famous women like Anna Dickinson, traveling around the country to speak her controversial ideas.
  1. She didn’t hide her private beliefs. If Victoria believed in something, she was going to tell you about it even if it wasn’t in keeping with the mores of the day. She was a member of the so-called “sex radical” movement that rallied for equality of the sexes. As such, she adopted their mode of dress, cutting her hair short and trading in her corset and bustle for more masculine jackets and skirts. Victoria was also a strong proponent of Free Love, the idea that a marriage should begin when two people fall in love and end when they were no longer in love without the interference of government or religion. In a particularly controversial speech, she openly declared, “Yes, I am a free lover! I have an inalienable constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can, to change that love every day as I please.” Imagine how well that went over in Victorian America. Plus, she was open about her affair Theodore Tilton while both were married and may have has several other trysts outside of marriage.
  1. She expected everyone to be open about their lives. As Victoria was not ashamed of her personal choices and abhorred hypocrisy, she thought everyone should be transparent about their lives. When they were not, she exposed them. From businessmen conducting fraudulent practices to the police taking bribes to keep prostitutes out of jail, Victoria brought to light many underhanded practices through her newspaper. The most famous, and also the most damaging, was her exposé on the affair between the immensely popular Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and the married Elizabeth Tilton. Victoria’s article spelling out all the tawdry details set off the trial of the century and landed her and Tennie in jail for Election Day when she was supposed to be attempting to vote for herself.

It is a shame that such a brave woman has been excluded from her rightful place in history for the last 145 years. It is my hope that with my novel, Madame Presidentess, I will play some small role in putting her name into the history books and preserving her memory for future generations.

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