Biography of Victoria Woodhull, Women's Rights Activist

Victoria Woodhull asserts her right to vote at the polling place
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Victoria Woodhull (born Victoria Claflin; September 23, 1838–June 9, 1927) was a women's rights activist, stockbroker, and newspaper editor. She ran for president of the United States in 1872. Woodhull was also involved in the spiritualist movement, and for a time made her living as a healer.

Fast Facts: Victoria Woodhull

  • Known For: Candidacy for U.S. President; radicalism as a women's suffrage activist; role in a sex scandal involving Henry Ward Beecher
  • Also Known As: Victoria California Claflin, Victoria Woodhull Martin, "Wicked Woodhull," "Mrs. Satan"
  • Born: September 23, 1838 in Homer, Ohio
  • Parents: Roxanna Claflin and Reuben "Buck" Claflin
  • Died: June 9, 1927 in Bredon’s Norton, Worcestershire, England
  • Spouse(s): Canning Woodhull, Colonel James Harvey Blood, John Biddulph Martin
  • Children: Byron Woodhull, Zulu (later Zula), Maude Woodhull
  • Notable Quote: "Of all the horrid brutalities of our age, I know of none so horrid as those that are sanctioned and defended by marriage."

Early Life

Victoria Claflin was born into the poor and eccentric family of Roxanna and Reuben "Buck" Claflin, the seventh of the 10 children, on September 23, 1838. Her mother often attended religious revivals and believed herself to be clairvoyant. The family traveled around selling patent medicines and telling fortunes, with the father styling himself "Dr. R. B. Claflin, American King of Cancers." Victoria spent her childhood with this medicine show, often paired with her younger sister Tennessee in performing and telling fortunes.

First Marriage

Victoria met Canning Woodhull when she was 15, and they soon married. Canning also styled himself as a physician, at a time when licensing requirements were non-existent or loose. Canning Woodhull, like Victoria's father, sold patent medicines. They had a son, Byron, who was born with serious intellectual disabilities, which Victoria blamed on her husband's drinking.

Victoria moved to San Francisco, working as an actress and cigar girl. She later rejoined her husband in New York City, where the rest of the Claflin family was living, and Victoria and her sister Tennessee began practicing as mediums. In 1864, the Woodhulls and Tennessee moved to Cincinnati, then to Chicago, and then began traveling, keeping ahead of complaints and legal proceedings.

Victoria and Canning later had a second child, a daughter, Zulu (later known as Zula). Over time, Victoria grew less tolerant of her husband's drinking and womanizing, and of his occasional beatings. They divorced in 1864, with Victoria keeping her ex-husband's surname.

Spiritualism and Free Love

Likely during her troubled first marriage, Victoria Woodhull became an advocate of "free love": the idea that a person has the right to stay with a person as long as they choose, and that they can choose another (monogamous) relationship when they want to move on. She met Colonel James Harvey Blood, also a spiritualist and an advocate of free love. They are said to have married in 1866, though there are no records of this marriage. Victoria Woodhull, Captain Blood, Victoria's sister Tennessee, and their mother eventually moved to New York City.

In New York City, Victoria established a popular salon where many of the city's intellectual elite gathered. There she became acquainted with Stephen Pearl Andrews, an advocate of free love, spiritualism, and women's rights. Congressman Benjamin F. Butler was another acquaintance who was an advocate of women's rights and free love. Through her salon, Victoria became increasingly interested in women's rights and suffrage.

Women's Suffrage Movement

In January 1871, the National Woman Suffrage Association met in Washington, D.C. On January 11, Victoria Woodhull arranged to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on the topic of women's suffrage, and the NWSA convention was postponed a day so that those attending could see Woodhull testifying. Her speech was written with Representative Benjamin Butler, and made the case that women already had the right to vote based on the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The NWSA leadership then invited Woodhull to address their gathering. The leadership of the NWSA—which included Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Isabella Beecher Hooker—was so taken with the speech that they began promoting Woodhull as an advocate and speaker for women's suffrage.

Theodore Tilton was a supporter and officer of the NWSA, and also a close friend of one of Woodhull's critics, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher. Elizabeth Cady Stanton told Victoria Woodhull confidentially that Tilton's wife, Elizabeth, had been involved in an affair with the Reverend Beecher. When Beecher refused to introduce Woodhull at a November 1871 lecture at Steinway Halls, she visited him privately and reportedly confronted him about his affair, and still he refused to do the honors at her lecture. In her speech the next day, she referred indirectly to the affair as an example of sexual hypocrisy and double standards.

Because of the scandal this caused, Woodhull lost a significant amount of business, though her lectures were still in demand. She and her family had trouble meeting their bills, though, and were eventually evicted from their home.

Presidential Candidacy

In May 1872, a breakaway group from the NWSA—the National Radical Reformers—nominated Woodhull as a candidate for U.S. president of the Equal Rights Party. They nominated Frederick Douglass, a newspaper editor who was a former slave and abolitionist, as vice president. There's no record that Douglass accepted the nomination. Susan B. Anthony opposed the nomination of Woodhull, while Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Isabella Beecher Hooker supported her run for the presidency.

Beecher Scandal

Woodhull continued to have significant financial problems, even suspending her journal for a few months. Perhaps responding to continued denunciations of her moral character, on November 2, just before Election Day, Woodhull revealed specifics of the Beecher/Tilton affair in a speech and published an account of the affair in the resumed Weekly. She also published a story about a stockbroker, Luther Challis, and his seduction of young women. Her target was not the morality of the sexual affairs, but the hypocrisy that permitted powerful men to be sexually free while women were denied such freedom.

The reaction to the public revelation of the Beecher/Tilton affair was a great public outcry. Woodhull was arrested under the Comstock Law for distribution of "obscene" material through the mail and charged with libel. In the meantime, the presidential election was held, and Woodhull received no official votes. (Some scattered votes for her were likely not reported.) In 1877, after the scandal had subsided, Tennessee, Victoria, and their mother moved to England, where they lived comfortably.

Life in England

In England, Woodhull met the wealthy banker John Biddulph Martin, who proposed to her. They did not marry until 1882, apparently because of his family's opposition to the match, and she worked to distance herself from her former radical ideas on sex and love. Woodhull used her new married name, Victoria Woodhull Martin, in her writings and public appearances after her marriage. Tennessee married Lord Francis Cook in 1885. Victoria published "Stirpiculture, or the Scientific Propagation of the Human Race" in 1888; with Tennessee, "The Human Body, the Temple of God" in 1890; and in 1892, "Humanitarian Money: The Unsolved Riddle." Woodhull traveled to the United States occasionally, and was nominated in 1892 as the presidential candidate of the Humanitarian Party. England remained her primary residence.

In 1895, she returned to publishing with a new paper, The Humanitarian, which advocated eugenics. In this venture, she worked with her daughter Zulu Maude Woodhull. Woodhull also founded a school and an agricultural show and became involved in a number of humanitarian causes. John Martin died in March 1897, and Victoria did not remarry.

Death

In her later years, Woodhull became involved in the women's suffrage campaigns led by the Pankhursts. She died on June 9, 1927, in England.

Legacy

Though she was considered controversial in her time, Woodhull has come to be widely admired for her trailblazing efforts to secure rights for women. Two women's rights organizations—the Woodhull Insititute for Ethical Leadership and the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance—were named in her honor, and in 2001 Woodhull was added to the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Sources

  • Gabriel, Mary. "Notorious Victoria: the Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored." Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1998.
  • Goldsmith, Barbara. "Other Powers: the Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull." Granta, 1998.
  • Underhill, Lois Beachy. "The Woman Who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull." Penguin, 1996.