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Monday, January 10, 2022

January 10, 2022: Women in Politics: Victoria Woodhull’s Campaign

[On January 12th, 1932, Hattie Caraway became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate. So for the 90th anniversary of that historic occasion, this week I’ll AmericanStudy Caraway and a handful of other political women—share your thoughts and your own nominees for an egalitarian crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]

On the controversial layers to the first woman to run for president, and the moment’s significance beyond them.

To continue with one of last week’s 2022 anniversary posts, there was another candidate for president in the 1872 election beyond Republican incumbent Ulysses S. Grant and his Democratic challenger Horace Greeley: the newly established Equal Rights Party’s nominee Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to seek the nation’s highest political office. There are however at least a couple reasons to think that Woodhull’s candidacy was more a way to raise awareness for the Women’s Suffrage Movement (with which Woodhull had become prominently associated after her compelling 1871 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, which made her the first woman to address such a committee) than a serious quest for the White House: Woodhull didn’t turn 35 until nearly a year after the election, so if elected she would not have been Constitutionally able to serve as president; moreover, her announced vice presidential running mate, none other than Frederick Douglass, was not consulted on that decision and may not ever have been aware that he was on a presidential ticket (and at the very least was an open and ardent Grant supporter).

Those campaign controversies were far from the only controversial and complex layers to Victoria Woodhull’s life and career. To cite just a few others: her first marriage, to traveling doctor Canning Woodhull who had treated her through a childhood illness, took place when Victoria was just 15 years old (and may have been prompted by Canning abducting Victoria from her family in Ohio); she first rose to prominence and wealth through her work as a spiritualist and “magnetic healer,” after the decline of which she nearly went bankrupt; and she then rose to wealth a second time through her and her sister Tennessee Claflin’s groundbreaking Wall Street brokerage and controversial newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. That newspaper was also the cause of the final and most dramatic controversy of Woodhull’s 1872 presidential campaign: in response to media attacks on her radical stance on marriage, Woodhull devoted the entire November 2nd, 1872 issue of the paper to publishing graphic and lurid details of an adulterous affair between Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton; that same day Federal Marshals arrested Victoria, Tennessee, and Victor’s second husband James Blood for “publishing an obscene newspaper” and held them in prison for a month (meaning Victoria was in jail when the election took place).

All of those elements of both Woodhull’s life overall and the 1872 campaign in particular are important to remember, not least because they’re so damn compelling (I sense the potential for an HBO limited series!). But none of them make her presidential candidacy any less meaningful of a political and social step. For one thing, countless male presidential candidates (and presidents) have had their own controversial moments and pasts, many of them far more controversial than anything in Woodhull’s story (cough*Trump*cough), and we still recognize them as part of our political history (as we should). For another, and even more important thing, presidential candidates, like presidents, are more than political figures—they’re symbolic representations of America and its identity and community. I can think of precious few symbolic statements more powerful, in its own moment and in our own alike, than an 1872 presidential ticket headed by a woman and featuring an African American man.

Next political woman tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other political women or moments you’d highlight?

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