Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin chipped several glass ceilings. Among them was Victoria Woodhull’s campaign to run for the office of the President of the United States in 1872. Together they overcame a tawdry childhood to become powerful forces for female empowerment.
Woodhull and Claflin challenged the nineteenth-century status quo. Many considered their radical views on marriage, sex, business and politics disgraceful. They were criticized, maligned –even jailed. They were also admired and staggeringly successful.
Following are just SIX of their many impressive accomplishments.
Victoria Woodhull was born Victoria California Claflin on September 23, 1838 in Homer, Ohio. Her sister, Tennessee (Tennie) Claflin was born on October 26, between 1843 and 1846. They were two of ten children, only six of whom survived.
In The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age, author Myra MacPherson says:
“…it is difficult if not impossible to separate fact from fiction regarding these sisters. Everything written about them is a snarled knot of conjecture, hearsay, fabrications, perceptions of the times, and yet some fact.”
But just as suspect were the sister’s own accounts of their lives. Like so many people during their era, they reinvented themselves numerous times.
“Over the years they revamped, embellished, or reinvented themselves when it suited their purpose—nothing new in an era where a thief one day could make a fortune the next and needed a pedigree to go with his millionaire trappings.”
Their mother, Madame Roxanna “Roxy” was an illiterate spiritualist. Their father was the one-eyed Reuben Buck Claflin, Esquire. He was widely known as a con man who sold snake oil cures, including his opium-based Life Elixir.
It is generally agreed that Victoria Woodhull and her sister were both highly intelligent, although they had only a few years of formal education. They were reportedly forced to quit school when their father burned the family’s rotting gristmill for insurance money and the family was run out of town.
The sisters starred in the family’s traveling medicine show as spiritualist mediums, fortunetellers and faith healers. Both sisters were charismatic and drew huge crowds. Victoria made her first fortune on the road as a magnetic healer.
According to author Theodore Tilton in Biography of Victoria C. Woodhull published in 1871, Victoria was guided by heavenly forces throughout he life, starting from her childhood.
“She has entertained angels, and not unawares. These gracious guests have been her constant companions. They abide with her night and day. They dictate her life with daily revelation; and like St. Paul, she is “not disobedient to the “heavenly vision.” She goes and comes at their behest. Her enterprises are not the coinage of her own brain, but of their divine invention. Her writings and speeches are the products, not only of their indwelling in her soul, but of their absolute control of her brain and tongue. Like a good Greek of the olden time, she does nothing without consulting her oracles.” (p. 8)
Victoria married Dr. Canning Woodhull when she was 15 and divorced him 11 years later in 1864. She remarried three more times and divorced twice more.
The sisters thrived as spiritualists then moved on to recreate themselves. They reportedly made and lost fortunes twice. Like journalist Nellie Bly and many other women of their era, they not only survived trauma, they bounced forward.
Woodhull and sister Tennie moved to New York in 1868, where they worked as clairvoyants. One of Tennessee Claflin’s clients was oil baron Cornelius Venderbilt who famously distrusted the medical profession. She purportedly helped him contact his deceased mother. It is generally believed that she was also his lover.
According to Macpherson, the sisters netted an estimated $700,000 from stock tips gleaned during the 1869 gold panic . With Vanderbilt’s financial backing, they rented two rooms at the posh Hoffman House at 44 Broad Street in January of 1870. They began handing out calling cards for Woodhull, Claflin & Company, the first female owned stock brokerage on Wall Street.
In 1869, Woodhull and Claflin rented two rooms at the posh Hoffman House at 44 Broad Street, and in January 1870, sent out calling cards announcing their new brokerage. Although they were not given a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, the brokerage was highly successful with both men and women. Among their clients in the “women only room” were socialites, actresses, high-priced prostitutes and madams.
Harpers Weekly referred to them as the “Bewitching Brokers” and the “Queens of Finance.” Because fiscal freedom was central to emancipation, Susan B Anthony praised their Wall Street brokerage as “a new phase in the women’s rights question”.
Wall Street brokers were not impressed. The new brokerage had many detractors. The New York Sun ran an article titled “Petticoats Among the Bovine and Ursine Animals”.
Using funds from their brokerage, the sisters started their own newspaper, Woodhull And Claflin’s Weekly. The publication launched on May 14, 1870 and remained in print for six years. It was conceived primarily as a platform to support Victoria Woodhull’s campaign for presidency of the United States. At its peak, the paper had a circulation of 20,000.
The weekly published radical feminist opinion pieces and articles. Among their favorite topics were sexual freedom, birth control and Clothing Reform for women. They also addressed welfare for the poor and labor reform. Theirs was the first publication in the United States to reprint the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx on December 30, 1871.
Their ideas on marriage and female identity were highly controversial as evidenced in the famous caricature by Thomas Nast. (He was the same illustrator who crystalized the image of Santa Clause as we know him today.) It was published in Harper’s Weekly February 17, 1872. In it, Woodhull is portrayed as Mrs. Satan. A woman carrying the heavy burden of children and her drunk husband says,”I’d rather travel the hardest path of matrimony than follow your footsteps.” Woodhull holds sign that reads: “Be saved by free love.”
They also published articles on various aspects of spiritualism and lifestyle. Among their wide array of favorite topics were articles on vegetarianism.
According to MacPherson:
“The sisters became the first women to publish a successful radical weekly that dealt with finance and muckracking decades before Theodore Roosevelt coined the pejorative term for hard-nosed reporting. They fought for women’s rights, labor issues, sex education, Spiritualism, and “free love” – a maligned term that could mean anything from fighting for divorce reform to choosing a lover whenever one felt like it.”
Woodhull became a devout advocate of the female suffrage movement after attending a convention in January 1869. A charismatic speaker, she developed a following with her lectures and articles in support of the cause. She persuaded one of her admirers, Massachusetts Senator Benjamin Butler, to invite her to testify before the House Judiciary Committee. The only other woman who achieved this honor was suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
On January 11, 1871, Woodhull’s bold statements rocked Congress. “Women are the equals of men before the law, and are equal in all their rights.” Citing the recently passed 14th Amendment to the Constitution, she argued that women had already won the right to vote. Further, she said that female servitude ended with the 15th Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1870.
She argued that women are indeed citizens and, “the citizen who is taxed should also have a voice in the subject matter of taxation.”
Woodhull concluded her argument with a challenge. “If Congress refuses to listen and to grant what women ask, there is but one course left to pursue. What is there left for women to do but to become the mothers of the future government?”
While her speech did not launch the committee into action, she won national acclaim. One of the most popular publications of the time, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, printed a full-page engraving of her arguing before Congress.
Woodhull had been actively involved in political reform since the early 1870s. Members of the National Woman Suffrage Association convention created the Equal Rights Party. They elected Woodhull as their presidential candidate on May 9, 1872. She chose Frederick Douglass, the powerful black abolitionist leader as her running mate. He was a popular choice, even if most accounts say he never acknowledged her choice.
Much of what she and her sister published in Woodhull And Claflin’s Weekly became the meat of her campaign. She was a highly charismatic speaker and writer, engaging audiences much like she did in her early days on the spiritual healing circuit.
Woodhull was not qualified to run for office because she was not yet 35 years old. On the technicality, some historians say that she is technically not the first woman to run for president. Also, she did not appear on ballots. Regardless, she drew a tremendous amount of attention to her radical ideas.
Three days before the nation voted for its 19th president, Woodhull and her sister were arrested on obscenity charges. They had published lengthy accounts of an adulterous affair between the popular minister Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Richards Tilton. The lurid details opened the door for their opponents to have them arrested.
The sisters were released on bail one month after their arrest and the election. They were exonerated of obscenity charges.
Despite a split in the Republican Party, incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant defeated Liberal Republican nominee Horace Greeley on November 5, 1872.
“It was a time when Ulysses S. Grant’s administration was famed for being totally corruptible and when Boss Tweed still ruled Albany, Manhattan’s City Hall and all points in between. All this was conducted under a public code of Victorian prudery and a double standard that subjugated women as wifely slaves or mere ornaments.”
In addition to their newspaper articles, both Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin became popular and highly paid speakers on a wide variety of topics including Free Love.
On December 2, 1871 the Donaldsonville covered Woodhull’s lecture at Steinway Hall
“Free Love never had a bolder advocate than Mrs. Victoria Woodhull proved herself to be last evening at Steinway Hall, in her lecture on the “Principles of Social Freedom.” The announcement that she would speak drew together a crowd such as Steinway Hall probably never before contained-a crowd which filled the hall completely, seats, aisles and galleries, for the name of Victoria Woodhull, associated as it is with all that is startling in the sphere of social ideas…”
“Thousands of marriages now were but legalized prostitution ; thousands of poor, unresisting wives are yearly murdered, and stand in the spirit-life, looking down upon the sickly half-made-up children left behind, imploring humanity to correct the abuses which now defile it. She asserted positively that all which is good and commendable now existing would continue if all marriage laws were repealed tomorrow. Applause followed this bold declaration, but it was instantly succeeded by a perfect-tempest of hisses from all parts of the house.”
“I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or short a period as I can, to change that love every day if I please [renewed hisses], and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere; and I have further the right to demand a free and unrestricted exercise of that right, and it is your duty not only to accord it,
but, as a community, to see that I am protected in it.”
You can read Woodhull’s works at this digital archive from the University of Nebraska.
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