It is the year 2016 and we have just witnessed Hillary Clinton make history as the first woman to ever secure the presidential nomination of a major political party. If you have been paying close attention to the headlines announcing this historic event, then you have noticed that they are not saying that Hillary Clinton is the first woman to ever be nominated to run for president. Though many people today do believe that Hillary is the first woman to do this, it was actually a woman named Victoria Woodhull in the year 1872 -- a good 50 years before women secured the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
Victoria Woodhull was an extremely controversial candidate, and the headlines surrounding both her personal and political life would certainly rival those of today’s candidates, which is saying something. Woodhull was nominated by the Equal Rights Party in May of 1872 in New York City. Her opponents were Republican Ulysses S. Grant and Democrat Horace Greeley. Woodhull chose Frederick Douglas as her running mate, although it is believed that Douglas never actually accepted this nomination.
Woodhull was born in 1838 and lived in an unpainted shack in Homer, Ohio. She was one of 10 children and grew up with very little formal education. Victoria spent years working with her sister, Tennessee, as a fortune teller, but the pair eventually made their way to New York where they are said to have sought out transportation mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt. It is believed that Vanderbilt was romantically involved with one of the sisters. It is not completely clear which sister this was, but many believe it was Tennessee.
In 1870 Vanderbilt helped the girls set up Woodhull and Claflin -- what became Wall Street’s first female-owned brokerage house. The women did well in their new positions, and their prosperity eventually led to the opening of their own newspaper, "Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly." As the sisters became more and more well known, Victoria began to involve herself in politics. She pushed for what she called “free love,” stating in a lecture one day that it was, “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 if I please.” She herself married three times during her lifetime.
Woodhull was also a strong supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. In fact, she was the first woman to appear before a congressional committee where she argued that the 14th and 15th Amendments already gave women the right to vote.
While many people of the time could not get on board with Woodhull’s seemingly radical ideas, there were some who stood behind her and the movement she was leading. Even this support, though, was affected by the events that took place a few days before the election when Woodhull’s newspaper printed a story exposing the extramarital affair of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, a well-known and well-liked preacher.
Woodhull was arrested for sending obscene materials through the mail, and she spent election day behind bars. Though her six-month trial did not lead to a guilty verdict, Woodhull’s reputation was shattered because of the scandal, and her chances of ever becoming the president of the United States completely diminished. In the end, Victoria Woodhull moved to England, where she married into the wealthy family of John Biddulph Martin, and she lived lavishly there until her death in 1927.
It is clear that Victoria Woodhull had no actual chance of becoming the president of the United States. Looking past the radical nature of her campaign and the scandals that plagued her reputation, Woodhull’s age would have also kept her out of office, as she would have been 34 on the day of her potential inauguration, and 35 is the required minimum age to hold this office.
Despite the unlikeliness of a victory for Woodhull, her story is an important one in our history. Woodhull was a woman who was not afraid to push for what she wanted, and her efforts are an integral part of our long struggle for gender equality. As we think about where we are today, regardless of whether or not you support Hillary Clinton, it is important that we recognize how far we have come, and we have many women, women like Victoria Woodhull who fearlessly pushed for our rights, to thank for that.