Who is Victoria Woodhull?
by Mary L. Shearer,
a great-great-grand-stepdaughter of Victoria Woodhull's second husband Col. James H. Blood
According to her contemporaries, Victoria Woodhull was a woman 100 years ahead of her time. Although few have heard of her today, when she ran for President of the United States during the election of 1872, she was one of the most famous women in the country. She advocated many things which we take for granted today: the 8-hour work day, graduated income tax, social welfare programs, and profit sharing, for example.
Victoria California Claflin was born before dawn on September 23, 1838 in Homer, Licking County, Ohio, to Reuben Buckman Claflin and Anna Roxanna (Hummel) Claflin. She was one of 10 children whose birth order is uncertain. She was only 15 years old when she was married for the first time to Dr. Canning Woodhull on Nov. 20, 1853 in Cleveland, Ohio.
When she died in her sleep on June 9, 1927 sometime before midnight, she had come a long way from her modest surroundings in Homer. She had lived 30 years as the wealthy widow of her third husband, English banker John Biddulph Martin, and had dined with royalty. On the morning of June 10, 1927 a servant found her dead at her home, the stately Norton Park, in Bredon's Norton, Worcestershire, England.
You'll read in various books or on the internet that Victoria Claflin Woodhull was the first woman to own, publish, or run a newspaper; the first woman to address Congress; the first woman to address a Congressional committee; and, the first woman to have a seat on the New York stock exchange. You'll read that she was the first woman nominated to be President, but her name was never on the ballot because she was under the constitutionally mandated age of 35. Victoria really was the first woman to be nominated for the presidency in 1872, but everything else you've read in this paragraph is wrong despite being widely circulated. (Follow the links below for evidence that many of the "first woman to" claims are wrong.)
Victoria and her sister Tennessee Claflin (AKA Tennie C. Claflin) published the first issue of their weekly newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly in New York City on May 14, 1870. For the authors to be correct that Victoria was the first woman newspaper owner or publisher, there would have to be no other women who owned, published, or ran a newspaper prior to that date.
Meet Ann Smith Franklin, the sister-in-law of Benjamin Franklin. Yes, THE Ben Franklin. Ann Franklin published a Rhode Island newspaper, the Newport Mercury, from 1758 until her death in 1763. Following the death of her son she became the sole publisher of her newspaper. She and the Newport Mercury are mentioned on page 207 of Act and Resolves. At the General Assembly of the Governor and Company of the English Colony of Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations in New-England in America" published in 1762.
Ann Franklin is frequently called "the first woman newspaper editor" in America but there's a woman who precedes Mrs. Franklin. Elizabeth Timothy published the weekly Charleston South-Carolina Gazette from 1738-1746 following her husband's death. If you're interested, Jan Whitt's Women in American Journalism: A New History covers the numerous women who preceded Woodhull & Claflin in the annals of American journalism.
Some authors realized that Victoria couldn't be the first female newspaper publisher so they added qualifiers like "the first woman to publish her own weekly newspaper" and "in the United States" to disqualify the colonial era publishers. They still ended up being wrong. Mary Katherine Goddard was a publisher of the Declaration of Independence.
She and her brother published the Maryland Journal & Baltimore Advertiser and the weekly Pennsylvania Chronicle & Universal Advertiser during the revolutionary era so she qualified as a publisher from the United States.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony published the first issue of their weekly newspaper, The Revolution, on January 8, 1868, so Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly can't be the first weekly newspaper published by women in the United States. Even Stanton and Anthony weren't the first. In 1855 The Woman's Advocate was advertised as "THE ONLY NEWSPAPER IN THE WORLD OWNED, EDITED, PUBLISHED, AND PRINTED BY WOMEN."
Mary Gabriel, a former Reuters journalist, was one of the few authors who didn't make the mistake of calling Victoria the first woman to publish a newspaper. Instead she made a different mistake. She wrote, "Her newspaper Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly was the first American publication to reprint the Communist Manifesto." Gabriel missed the "English" qualifier that Madeleine B. Stern and others used with good reason. In Worldcat you can find a German version of the Communist Manifesto published in Chicago in 1871. It was published before the Chicago Fire in October 1871.
The first publication of the manifesto in Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly occurred on December 30, 1871, so Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly was the first American publication to reprint the Communist Manifesto in English.
The claim that Victoria was the first woman to address Congress is false, too, if by Congress you mean both the House and Senate. The text of the Woodhull Memorial was addressed to both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, leading some historians to conclude that Victoria presented her memorial to a joint congressional committee. However, she read her Woodhull Memorial, written in New York on December 19, 1870, to the House Judiciary Committee only on January 11, 1871.
The following year Victoria Woodhull led a delegation of suffragists to a meeting with the Senate Judiciary Committee. Isabella Beecher Hooker, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony gave speeches to the Senate Committee but Victoria did not.
There are other contenders for the "first woman to address Congress." Composer and poet Fanny Crosby has been called the "first woman to address Congress" in 1846. In all likelihood she performed before Congress but didn't address it. Anna Dickinson has also been called "the first woman to address Congress." Dickinson was invited by 25 Senators and 78 Congressman to speak in the Hall of the House of Representatives on the topic of slavery. Because the speech on January 16, 1864 was a benefit for the Freedman's Relief Association and required an admission fee, historians in the House of Representatives don't count Dickinson's address as a part of the official business of Congress. Victoria Woodhull testified before the House Judiciary Committee, so her address is considered official business. She attempted to get access to the same hall in which Dickinson spoke seven years earlier for her own lecture on suffrage, but Congress voted against allowing her the Hall in accordance with Rule 155:
The Hall of the House shall not be used for any other purpose than the legitimate business of the House, nor shall the Speaker entertain any proposition to use it for any other purpose, or for the suspension of this rule : Provided, That this shall not interfere with the performance of divine service therein under the direction of the Speaker, or with the use of the same for caucus meetings of the members, or upon occasions where the House may, by resolution, agree to take part in any ceremonies to be observed therein."
As for the claim that Victoria was the first woman to address a congressional committee, Elizabeth Cady Stanton addressed the House and Senate Committees on the District of Columbia on the topic of woman's suffrage on January 22, 1870. The front page of the Chicago Republican on January 23, 1870 reported, "The Committee was addressed by Mrs. Stanton, Miss Hooker, Miss Anthony, and several others." Stanton also addressed the Senate Committee of the District of Columbia in January 1869 . Stanton was most likely the first woman to address any congressional committee and the first woman to address a joint committee. The probable correct first for Victoria: She was the first woman to address the House Judiciary Committee.
Kathleen Krull's children's book falsely claims that Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to have a seat on the New York stock exchange. While Victoria and her sister Tennessee were the first women stock brokers in 1870, they didn't have a seat on the exchange. Muriel Siebert was the first woman to have a seat on NYSE in 1967. The media center at the NYSE confirmed that Siebert was the first woman to have a seat on their exchange and not Victoria Woodhull or her sister Tennessee Claflin.
Few historians dispute that Victoria was the first woman nominated for President. Numerous papers reported her nomination for the presidency on May 10, 1872. For example, here's the headline from page 3 of the San Francisco Bulletin, May 11, 1872:
In 1890 Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin published a book The Human Body, The Temple of God where Victoria was described as "the first woman who had received a nomination by a public National Convention." What is disputed is the legality of her run. Many people today make a big deal about how she was under the constitutionally mandated age of 35. Some people believe that because of that technicality, Belva Lockwood was the first woman to be legally nominated. However Victoria's age may not have been a significant hurdle in the 19th century as it would be today. There's a constitutionally mandated age of 30 for U.S. Senators, but there were still Senators under that age who were appointed to serve in the 19th century. A notable example was Senator Henry Clay who served at the age of 29 despite the constitutional prohibition.
It's a common misconception that the government didn't print her name on the ballot because she was under the constitutionally mandated age of 35. (The inauguration was in March 1873 and she wouldn't be 35 until September 1873.) Back in 1872 the government didn't print the ballots. Political parties printed the ballots. That means if the Equal Rights Party printed ballots, her name was on the ballot.
According to the Washington Post, Nov. 11, 1924, page 6, Equal Rights Party ballots were passed out at the polls. (see below)
While the occasional newspaper in 1872 reported people casting votes for Victoria Woodhull, no ballots have survived from her 1872 run. There's a surviving ballot for the second woman who ran for President, Belva Lockwood, for the year 1884. Lockwood, incidentally, was present when Victoria was nominated in 1872. In 1888 Lockwood ran for President again, this time with Victoria's nephew-in-law, Charles S. Welles, as the Vice Presidential candidate.
Victoria's 1872 candidacy attracted an unusual coalition of people, which included laborers, female suffragists, Spiritualists, and communists, among others. The members of the coalition represented diverse--and often conflicting--opinions. The one thing that they all agreed upon was that the government needed reform. They wanted a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people." They wanted a government with principles. Not only did the Equal Rights Party nominate the first female presidential candidate, they were also the first to nominate a black man, Frederick Douglass, for Vice President. Douglass was one of the most respected African Americans in the country at that time. (And thanks to Donald Trump he's being recognized more and more;)
Although few seriously thought Victoria Woodhull would win, they knew her campaign would send a message to Washington. It's time for a woman in the White House.
Victoria faced many obstacles to election besides the obvious one of running when most women couldn't even vote. (Wyoming and Utah allowed women to vote so in theory they could've voted for Victoria, except that in 1872 Wyoming and Utah were territories not states. Citizens of territories couldn't vote for President of the United States.) One obstacle was campaign fund-raising and organization. There were "Victoria Leagues" to promote her candidacy. She held "Congresses" of her followers in her own home. She attempted to raise money by selling bonds that would be redeemable during her administration. Still, she couldn't get the support she needed to launch a formidable campaign. When she began her run, she had personal funds to draw from like Steve Forbes or Donald Trump. She was the publisher of a New York journal, Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly. She owned a stock brokerage, "Woodhull, Claflin & Company." Eventually, though, her funds ran out. She remarked of her own campaign, "The press suddenly divided between the other two great parties, refused all notice of the new reformatory movement; a series of pecuniary disasters stripped us, for the time being, of the means of continuing our weekly publication, and forced us into a desperate struggle for mere existence. . . . The inauguration of the new party, and my nomination, seemed to fall dead upon the country; and . . . a new batch of slanders and injurious innuendoes permeated the community in respect to my condition and character."
Instead of debating Victoria on the issues, her opponents attacked her personally. They called her everything from a witch to a prostitute. They accused her of having affairs with married men. At first, Victoria responded to the slanders by taking the high road and ignoring the abuse. She believed that the private matters of public figures were just that, "private." Still, the rumors didn't subside, and she found she had to justify her private behavior in public which led to her open advocacy of social freedom, also known as "free love." She equated freedom of the affections with freedom of religion:
Free love means nothing more and nothing less, in kind, than free worship, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience, free trade, free thought, freedom of locomotion (without a passport system), free schools, free government, and the hundred other precious, special systems of social freedom, which the great heroes of thought have fought for, and partially secured for the world,
during this last period of the world's growth and expansion. It is all one and the same thing, it is just freedom and nothing else.
--Victoria Woodhull in her speech "The Naked Truth."
The rumors eventually led Victoria and her family to be evicted from their home. They literally spent one night homeless on the streets of New York because landlords were afraid to rent to the "Wicked Woodhull." Victoria believed certain members of the Beecher family--Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe--were responsible for the insidious rumors. In desperation, Victoria and her second husband Col. Blood wrote to Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. They asked him to help put an end to the persecution. Rev. Beecher turned a cold shoulder to them.
Because Henry Ward Beecher refused to listen to her pleas, Victoria felt there was no choice but to fight back and reveal the hypocrisy of her attackers. She published the story of Rev. Beecher's affair with a married woman hoping that his family would stop the personal attacks. Instead, they enlisted the help of the United States marshals and Anthony Comstock of the YMCA.
The first female presidential candidate spent election day in jail. The U.S. government arrested her under the Comstock Act for sending "obscene" literature through the mail. (As late as 1996, part of this act was still in effect within the Internet Communications Decency Act in Title V of the Telecommunications Act.) The alleged obscenity wasn't pornography. The obscenity consisted of articles about stockbroker Luther Challis and about Rev. Beecher's affair with Elizabeth Tilton, the wife of Beecher's best friend, Theodore Tilton.
At first, people took the side of the government. They were glad to see the "Wicked Woodhull" in jail for smearing a celebrity preacher. As time went by, though, they realized that the principle of free speech was at stake. Victoria, her sister Tennie C., and her second husband Col. James H. Blood were in jail for publishing what they believed to be the truth. The government didn't care if it was the truth. They wanted to destroy Victoria Woodhull and her newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly. Some members of the press joined in. A Chicago Tribune editor admitted to an intentional campaign to destroy her. He said, "Editors know that all she has said about Beecher is true, and we must either indorse her and make her the most popular woman in the world, or write her down and crush her out; and we have determined to do the latter."
The scandal erupted into numerous trials for obscenity and libel. Victoria was on the defensive and was arrested at least
eight times in New York City. Henry Ward Beecher and Theodore Tilton denied everything. They said that woman was lying. In 1875, Theodore Tilton had a change of heart. He took Reverend Beecher to court for "criminal conversation" and alienation of his wife's affection. To some, it seemed a vindication of Woodhull. To others, it proved Theodore Tilton was part of a vast conspiracy to bring down Rev. Beecher.
The Beecher-Tilton trial was the biggest news since President Lincoln had been assassinated. It received more coverage than the impeachment of President Johnson. It was as widely covered as the O.J. Simpson trial. It created thousands of pages of testimony and numerous books like the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. The country was sharply divided. Some believed Beecher was guilty. Others believed Woodhull made the whole thing up. They thought she published the article because she wanted fame or increased circulation.
Victoria, Tennie C., and Colonel were eventually acquitted of any crimes, but the lawsuits ruined them. They spent a fortune in legal bills and bail. They lost their stock brokerage. The government confiscated their printing press, their personal papers, and their brokerage accounts, which were a major source of their income. They had received death threats and blackmail letters. They estimated their losses at half a million dollars and told the government they would be satisfied if they received $50,000 in restitution. They never received anything. With its malicious prosecution, the federal government bankrupted its first female presidential candidate--financially and emotionally. She divorced her husband Col. Blood in 1876 and left for England the following year. She lived out the rest of her life overseas, visiting the United States occasionally trying to run subsequently for the presidency. She made her last attempt to run for the Presidency in 1892, which was the first U.S. presidential election where the government printed the ballots. Her brother-in-law Denis W. O'Halloran voted for her, but he neglected to vote for a presidential elector for her so his vote wasn't counted.
Victoria has no surviving descendants. Neither of her two children by her first husband, Zula Maud Woodhull or Byron Woodhull, married or had children. She was cremated and her ashes scattered at sea. A cenotaph in her memory is at Tewkesbury Abbey, Gloucestershire, England.
SOURCE CITATIONS AND NOTES:
*Ran for President: She announced her candidacy on Saturday, Apr. 2, 1870, in the New York Herald on page 8 in an article called "The Coming Woman." She was self-nominated until Friday, May 10, 1872 when she was nominated by the newly formed Equal Rights Party at Gilsey's Apollo Hall, 31 W. 28th St. in New York City. Her nomination was ratified at convention on Thursday, June 6, 1872 at Cooper Institute.
*8-hour work day: Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, May 28, 1870, p. 9. See also A New Political Platform and a New Political Party as reprinted in the "Victoria Woodhull Reader," edited by Madeleine Stern.
*Graduated income tax: New York Herald, May 11, 1872, p. 10. Fifth item in the platform of the Equal Rights Party. See also Article IV, Section 2, Number 8 of the Constitution of the United States of the World.
*Social welfare programs: Article IV, Section 2, Number 4 of the Constitution of the United States of the World. Also reprinted in Victoria Woodhull Reader, edited by Madeleine Stern.
*Profit sharing: Article IV, Section 2, Number 12 of the Constitution of the United States of the World. Also reprinted in Victoria Woodhull Reader, edited by Madeleine Stern.
*Middle name California and time of birth: Victoria had a natal horoscope prepared which gave her middle name of California. Horoscope is located in the Victoria Woodhull Martin in collection at SIU. The badly spelled 1853 marriage license to Dr. Woodhull also supports that her middle name was California. The Defiance Democrat, May 20, 1871, p. 1, in an article called "The Woodhull-Claflin Family" said she was named "Victoria Calfurny."
*Reuben Buckman Claflin: His death certificate lists his name as Reuben Buckman Claflin. Property records record his name as Buckman Claflin.
*Name of mother, Anna Roxanna Hummel: Letter at SIU from Zula Maud Woodhull (no date) refers to her grandmother as Anna Roxanne or Anna Roxanna Hummel. Property records record her name as Anna Hummel. The death certificate of Anna's father John Hummel lists her name as Rosanna. She appears as Anna Claflin on her death certificate and as Annie Claflin in cemetery records
*Licking County: There's also a Homer in Medina County, Ohio so Licking County has been added to distinguish between the two.
*Birth order: Seven of the ten Claflin children survived to adulthood--five girls and two boys. Theodore Tilton's biography says Victoria was the seventh child, but this is impossible unless both Delia and Hester Ann were born before Victoria. Victoria appears sixth on the list of children in the Claflin Genealogy which was published during Victoria's lifetime. Three of Victoria's sisters died young: Delia, Odessa, and Hester. Of the three sisters who died young only the approximate age of Odessa is known. According to the U.S. census, Odessa was one year old in 1850, so Odessa was the 9th or 10th child. She appears as number 9 in the Claflin genealogy. Without evidence of Delia's and Hester's birth years, it's impossible to determine whether Victoria was the fifth, sixth, or seventh child. The Claflin genealogy is currently the best source which means she was probably the sixth child born and the fifth child to survive to adulthood.
*Spelling of Dr. Woodhull's first name: The spelling of his name is inconsistent and sometimes appears as Channing. The Webster Historical Society in New York has a quilt with names written on it by Byron Woodhull, the father of Dr. Woodhull. On the quilt Dr. Woodhull's name is written as "Canning Woodhull" so Canning is probably the name he was given at birth.
*Political parties printed ballots: See Richard Franklin Bensel's, The American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century for an explanation of voting prior to the adoption of the secret ballot in the 1890's.
FIRST NEWSPAPER CLAIMS BY AUTHOR
Brody, Miriam: No claim made. "She founded her own journal for a nation of avid consumers of newsprint." (CORRECT!)
Frisken, Amanda: No claim made. "...she and her sister launched a journal, Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, which quickly became a pioneer of radical thought." (CORRECT!)
Gabriel, Mary: "Her newspaper Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly was the first American publication to reprint the Communist Manifesto."(WRONG!)
Goldsmith, Barbara (in Parade Magazine): "...the first woman...to found her own newspaper..." (WRONG!)
Havelin, Kate: "One of the first women in the United States to... publish a weekly newspaper." (WRONG!
Hightower-Langston, Donna: "They became the first women in the United States to found a newspaper." (WRONG!)
Krull, Kathleen: "First woman to own a newspaper." (WRONG!)
Lifetime Television documentary: "first woman to...publish a newspaper...." (WRONG!)
Macpherson, Myra: "And Victoria and Tennie were among the first women to own and run a weekly newspaper." (WRONG!)
McLean, Jacqueline: No claim made. "Victoria...started a popular newspaper." (CORRECT!)
Meade, Marion: "First woman to publish her own weekly newspaper." (WRONG!)
Steinem, Gloria (foreword to Underhill): "First woman to originate and run her own weekly newspaper." (WRONG!)
Stern, Madeleine B: First American publication of an English translation of the Communist Manifesto." (CORRECT!)
Underhill, Lois Beachy: No claim made. (CORRECT!)
FIRST WOMAN ADDRESS CLAIMS BY AUTHOR
Brody, Miriam: "First woman to address congress." (WRONG!)
Frisken, Amanda: "First woman to address a congressional committee." (WRONG!)
Gabriel, Mary: "First woman to address congress." (WRONG!)
Goldsmith, Barbara: "The first woman to address a joint session of Congress..." (WRONG!)
Havelin, Kate: "Janary 11, 1871, marked the first time a woman spoke before a committee of Congress." (WRONG!)
Hightower-Langston, Donna: "...the first woman to address Congress regarding women's suffrage..." (WRONG!)
History Channel: " First woman to address a congressional committee." (WRONG!)
Krull, Kathleen: "First woman to address congress." (WRONG!)
MacPherson, Myra: "She was also the first woman to address a United States congressional committee." (WRONG!)
McLean, Jacqueline: "Victoria persuaded Butler to give her the opportunity to be the first woman to address a congressional committee." (WRONG!)
Meade, Marion: "...first woman to testify before Congress on suffrage..." (WRONG!)
Underhill, Lois Beachy: "First woman to address congress." (WRONG!)
FIRST FEMALE STOCKBROKER CLAIMS BY AUTHOR
Brody, Miriam: "first woman to open a brokerage house on Wall Street" (PARTIALLY CORRECT. Her sister Tennessee AKA Tennie C. Claflin was her business partner, so Victoria was one of the first women but not the only woman. One newspaper account said their sister Margaret Ann Miles was also part of the firm, but that hasn't been confirmed.)
Frisken, Amanda: "Woodhull and Claflin opened the first women's brokering business on Wall Street..." (CORRECT!)
Gabriel, Mary: "first woman....to operate a brokerage firm on Wall Street." (PARTIALLY CORRECT. Because of her sister Tennessee, the correct statement would be "one of the first women to operate a brokerage firm on Wall Street."
Goldsmith, Barbara: "...the founder of the first stock brokerage firm for women..." (WRONG! Brokerage served male and female customers.)
Havelin, Kate: "She and her sister also were the first women in the nation to run a stock trading business." (CORRECT!)
Hightower-Langston, Donna: "the first female stockbroker" (PARTIALLY CORRECT. She was one of the first female stockbrokers.)
Lifetime Television documentary: "The first woman to...own a financial brokerage firm..." (PARTIALLY CORRECT.)
Krull, Kathleen: First woman to have a seat on the New York stock exchange (WRONG!)
MacPherson, Myra: "In 1870 they became the first women to open a brokerage firm..." (CORRECT!)
McLean, Jacqueline: "Victoria...opened the first female owned and operated brokerage house..." (PARTIALLY CORRECT. Women weren't allowed on the floor of the exchange, so male agents executed trades on her behalf.)
Meade, Marion: "first female stockbroker" (PARTIALLY CORRECT. One of the first female stockbrokers.)
Underhill, Lois Beach: "...first woman Wall Street broker..." (PARTIALLY CORRECT. One of the first female stockbrokers.)
This web page "Who is Victoria Woodhull?" contains links to material that may be copyrighted. Mary L. Shearer is linking to such material to provide source citations for educational purposes to promote scholarship and historical research on Victoria Woodhull and has received no compensation for this article. She believes citing her sources constitutes "fair use" of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the United States Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this web page is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in receiving the included information for nonprofit educational purposes.
For more information see: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this web page for purposes of your own that go beyond "fair use," please obtain permission from the copyright owner. Photographs of Victoria Woodhull's home Norton Park can be purchased from the Country Life Picture Library.