The First Woman To Run for President of the United States
In 1872, Victoria Woodhull ran for President; she was the first woman in the United States to run, and her party was called the Equal Rights Party. She couldn’t even vote for herself, however, since it was nearly 50 years before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution gave women the right to vote. Not only was she the first woman to run, but her running mate, Frederick Douglass, was the first African-American ever nominated for vice president.
Victoria Woodhull was a colorful and convention-defying woman. She was born in Homer, Ohio is 1838, and was an activist for women’s rights and labor reform. She also advocated “free love,” by which she meant the freedom to marry, divorce, and bear children without government interference; these freedoms for women were radical concepts during her time. She rallied against the hypocrisy of society’s tolerance for men who had mistresses.
Woodhull made her first fortune as a traveling healer and clairvoyant. When she was young, her father put her and her sister, Tennessee, to work telling fortunes, contacting spirits, selling life elixirs, and offering cures for diseases ranging from cancer to asthma. She claimed to have made a small fortune with this business during the Civil War, but there were setbacks. For example, her sister/business partner was indicted for manslaughter in Illinois after one of her cancer patients died.
The sisters moved to New York City, where they met railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt and worked as personal clairvoyants and healers for him. They also got stock tips from Vanderbilt, from which they profited well during a gold panic in 1869. With the financial backing of Vanderbilt, Woodhull and her sister became the first female stockbrokers on Wall Street, operating their own brokerage firm. They never gained a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, though, something that no woman would achieve until 1967. The sisters also began to publish their own newspaper.
In April 1870, Woodhull announced her candidacy for president, campaigning on a platform of women’s suffrage, regulation of monopolies, an eight-hour work day, and welfare for the poor, among other things. She was nominated at the Equal Rights Party’s May 1872 convention. Although the party also nominated famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass as her running mate, he himself never acknowledged the nomination.
Ulysses Grant won the 1872 presidential election, serving his second term. Woodhull returned full-time to her advocacy, and following the election, she published an article in her newspaper aimed at exposing the popular preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, as an adulterous hypocrite. Beecher had condemned Woodhull’s free love philosophy in his sermons, which infuriated Woodhull, especially given his extramarital affair with a married woman. Beecher had many supporters, and the backlash was immediate. Beecher’s supporters helped the authorities secure information to issue arrest warrants for Woodhull and her sister on charges of sending obscene material through the mail. The “obscene material” was the exposure of the affair in her newspaper. Woodhull ultimately was acquitted, although she remained in jail for about a month.
Eventually, Woodhull moved to England, where she met and married her third husband. In England, she became a champion for educational reform. She died at the age of 88, in 1927.
Sharon Eubanks tells the tale of the first woman to run for President of the United States, Victoria Woodhull.