The Strange Tale of the First Woman to Run for President
Before Hillary Clinton, there was Victoria Woodhull.
By Carol Felsenthal
April 09, 2015
As Hillary Clinton’s official campaign announcement nears, expect much more talk about the historical importance of a woman becoming president—it was, after all, a precedent-shattering approach that helped deliver Barack Obama to the White House in 2008.
Despite two women appearing on national tickets—Sarah Palin in 2008 and Geraldine Ferraro in 1984—the nation’s highest office remains elusive to the female sex. In fact, with the exception of Clinton, there’s not another woman in either party well positioned to win the nomination (face it, progressives, Elizabeth Warren is a pipedream, not a possibility). Clinton owns the glass-ceiling territory, and that’s pretty compelling for women voters who happen to constitute a majority of the electorate yet have spent their entire voting age lives choosing between candidates of the other gender.
Based on the rhetoric surrounding her historic candidacy in 2008 and, in more recent months, leading up to the 2016 campaign, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Clinton was the first woman ever to run for the nation’s highest office. Far from it.
Clinton, as she dropped out of the 2008 presidential race, celebrated the groundbreaking success in her race. “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it,” she told supporters.
Few know, though, the name of the woman who put the first crack in that highest, hardest glass ceiling. That honor belongs to a beautiful, colorful and convention-defying woman named Victoria Woodhull, who ran for the office in 1872, 136 years before Clinton made her first run in 2008. Woodhull, who died nearly twenty years before Clinton was even born, hazarded a path on which no woman before her had ever dared to tread. Even more amazing is that she did it almost 50 years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 gave women the right to vote. On Election Day, November 5, 1872, Victoria Woodhull couldn’t even vote for herself.
Victoria Woodhull. | Wikimedia Commons
Although it must be noted that she could not have voted for herself in any case, given the fact that she was incarcerated on Election Day, and for a month or so after, in New York City’s Ludlow Street Jail on obscenity charges. (Details below.)
Woodhull ran under the banner of the Equal Rights Party—formerly the People’s Party—which supported equal rights for women and women’s suffrage. The party nominated her in May 1872 in New York City to run uphill against incumbent Republican Ulysses S. Grant and Democrat Horace Greeley and selected as her running mate Frederick Douglass, former escaped slave-turned-abolitionist writer and speaker. On paper, it was an impressive pick, but not really: Douglass never appeared at the party’s nominating convention, never agreed to run with Woodhull, never participated in the campaign and actually gave stump speeches for Grant.
But that’s just one more of many caveats about Woodhull, who, throughout her long life—she died in England in 1927 at age 88—never much cared for rules or regulations of a game she considered egregiously rigged against women. On inauguration day, she would have been just 34 years old. Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution requires that the president be 35 on the day “he” takes office. In the end, though, her youth was the most moot of moot points, because Victoria received zero electoral votes. (There’s no record of how many popular votes she received; though we do know that 12 years later, another woman running for president under the banner of the same Equal Rights Party racked up 4,149 votes in six states.)
When to Victoria’s ineligibility and lack of votes are added certain other details of her biography—her guttersnipe, vagabond parents, her three marriages, her work as a child preacher, a fortune teller, a clairvoyant and a spiritualist healer—it’s not surprising that history has reduced her to a curiosity and a footnote, and characterized her, at best, as a free-thinker and an eccentric; at worst as a scoundrel and a hustler. The full story, as is so often the case, is much more interesting.
Born in 1838, Victoria California Claflin was the seventh of 10 children who lived in an unpainted wooden shack in Homer, Ohio, a small frontier town in Licking County. Her education lasted less than three years between the ages of eight to eleven. According to Myra MacPherson, Victoria’s latest biographer ( The Scarlet Sisters: Sex Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age was published last year and focused on both Victoria and her younger sister Tennessee), Victoria claimed that she had never spent even one year in a schoolroom. MacPherson, whose look at the sisters’ lives is as entertaining as it is sad, writes that their mother, Annie, was a “slattern” who was “described by all who met her in later life as an unpleasant old hag.” Their father, Buck, was, if possible, worse: a thief, a child beater, “a one-eyed snake oil salesman who posed as a doctor and a lawyer.” The lives of the six surviving children were “filled with Dickensian debauchery.” Victoria was forced by Buck to travel in his painted wagon and work as a revivalist child preacher and a fortune teller; Tennessee, with whom Victoria would collaborate closely throughout her life, worked as a “magnetic healer”; and both were made to perform as “faith healers” and “clairvoyants who spoke to the dead.” Their lives were tumultuous, impoverished, unpredictable and nomadic.
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