By: Victoria Yates
Victoria Claflin Woodhull was born on the 23rd of September 1838 as Victoria Claflin. She was the seventh child of Roxanna Hummel Claflin and Reuben “Old Buck” Buckman Claflin, a con man and snake oil salesman. Woodhull was born in the frontier town Homer, Ohio and her parents were impoverished. She only received three years of education, between the ages of eight and eleven. Her father forced both Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee, to travel round in a painted wagon working as fortune tellers, healers, or child preachers. Despite being seen as highly intelligent she was forced to leave school when her father burned down the family’s gristmill after heavily insuring it. When he tried to claim the money the arson was discovered and he was run out of town by a group of vigilantes. The rest of the town came together to raise money and pay for the rest of the family to depart Ohio after him.
At age 14 Woodhull met Canning Woodhull, a 28-year-old doctor. At the pressing of her parents, the pair were married shortly after her 15th birthday on November 20 1853. They went on to have two children, Byron and Zula Maude. But it wasn’t long before she learned that her new husband was both a womaniser, an alcoholic and a morphine addict. He kept Woodhull in abject poverty and she often had to work to help support her family while he lavished his mistresses with finery and gifts. Byron was born with severe brain damage which Woodhull blamed on his father’s drinking. Shortly after the birth of her second child she divorced Canning, a move that was all but unheard of at that time for women of any social class.
In 1866 Woodhull married for the second time to Colonel James Harvey Blood. He had served in the Union Army during the Civil War and had then been elected as city auditor of St Louis, Missouri. Blood was a radical thinker and an avid spiritualist, part of a growing movement that sought to throw off the oppressiveness of the Christian Church. He encouraged Woodhull’s outspoken views on free love and her fight against the stigmatisation of women who divorced their husbands. Woodhull maintained that women should have a choice to leave marriages without society’s hypocritical judgments. Although she defended monogamy Woodhull also believed she had the right to love someone else if she so desired. In a speech at Steinway Hall, New York, in 1871 she stated “Yes I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, consitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love for as long or as short a period as I can.” Six years into her second marriage she started a relationship with Benjamin Tucker, an anarchist, that lasted three years.
Woodhull was close to her sister Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin and in 1870 the pair made history as the first women stockbrokers when they opened the brokerage firm Woodhull, Claflin & Company on Wall Street with the assistance of Cornelius Vanderbilt ,who they’d met through their early work as spiritualists on their arrival in New York. They were hugely successful, creating a considerable fortune with newspapers hailing them as “the Queens of Finance.” The pair were also the subject of sexualised images in contemporary men’s journals that connected the pairs’ independence with immorality and prostitution.
In May of the same year the women used their money to found Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, a newspaper with the primary intention of supporting Woodhull’s bid for President. Over the next six years the paper covered topics considered scandalous and which rarely had a public airing including feminism, spirituality, suffrage, vegetarianism and licensing prostitution. Most famously, the paper was the first to publish an English version of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, in December 1871. Blood was one of the primary writers for the publication.
Despite her broad successes and her staunch views she was not universally liked by other feminists. some of whom, including Susan B Anthony, saw her as opportunistic and unpredictable. Nevertheless, Woodhull continued to rise, managing to testify on women’s suffrage before the House Judiciary Committee where she argued that women had the right to vote because of the 14th and 15th amendments. The argument was powerfully received and impressed members of the committee, and helped launch Woodhull into the role of champion even amongst her sceptics. The move pushed her into the leadership of women’s suffrage and gave her an unprecedented spotlight to shine on suffrage. She was the first woman ever to petition Congress in person and the moment was widely reported.
On May 10th 1872 the newly formed Equal Rights Party nominated Woodhull for President of the United States.The abolitionist leader and former slave Frederick Douglass was nominated as her running mate, although he never acknowledged it and wasn’t present at the convention. The pair were highly controversial but the Equal Rights Party hoped to unite both the civil rights and suffragist movements with the match. Her platform was defined by her belief in a society free from governmental laws that interfere in the rights of any individual to pursue their happiness. She was by this time a famous figure, drawing huge crowds to her lectures, but she remained the object of scorn by others who found her divorce, and her shameless subject matters unpalatable.
Three days before the presidential election on November 2 1872, Woodhull was arrested along with her sister on charges of publishing an obscene newspaper. The preacher Henry Ward Beecher was widely renowned and had taken to denouncing Woodhull’s promotion of free love philosophies. The newspaper became the centre of a societal storm when Woodhull discovered that Beecher had committed adultery. Tired of hypocrisy she exposed him in an issue solely focused on the indiscretion and he ended up in one of the most sensational trials of the time when he was tried for adultery in 1875. Although eventually cleared, her reputation was savaged. The sisters were held in jail for a month and the legal proceedings prevented her from pursuing her election. She was in fact incarcerated on election day itself. Woodhull would not be legally able to vote until women were granted the right in1920.
Woodhull would try two more times to gain the nomination, claiming that she was destined to be elected.
By 1876 her second marriage had fallen apart and Colonel Blood and Woodhull divorced. Not long after, Woodhull left for England to start a new life in part to escape the continued rebuke and ridicule she faced in America. The following year Woodhull would meet her third husband, John Biddulph Martin, a banker from a well off family, when he attended a lecture she presented. Despite his family’s strong disapproval, the couple wed in October 1883.
For a while Woodhull continued to work in publishing, creating the magazine The Humanitarian with her daughter Zula. The magazine ran from 1892 until her husband died in 1901 when Woodhull, one of the first women in England to own a car, retired to the country. She died on the 10th of June 1927 near Bredon’s Norton, Worcestershire.
Woodhull was an extraordinary figure and a remarkable leader whose views and outspoken pursuit of her beliefs and ideals were far ahead of her time.