The Woman History Forgot: Victoria Clafin Woodhull

by Kaleigh Wright

Born to an illiterate mother and an amateur conman father, Victoria Clafin Woodhull, grew up to be a total feminist hero that you’ve probably never heard of.

As a child, Victoria performed with her sister, Tennessee “Tennie” Clafin, on her father’s medical show wagon as a magnetic healer and clairvoyant (#dreamjob), claiming powers of healing as well as conversations with the dead.

By fourteen, Victoria was on the road to marriage with a drunken loser who held a ring of mistresses. But it wasn’t the infidelity that rubbed Victoria the wrong way, rather the hypocrisy. A hundred years ahead of her time, Victoria began speaking out for the sexual liberation of women and called for the right to marry, divorce, and procreate (or not) as women felt fit. She later went on to deem herself a “free lover” preaching, “When woman rises from sexual slavery to sexual freedom, into the ownership and control of her sexual organs, and man is obliged to respect this freedom, then will this instinct become pure and holy; then will woman be raised from the iniquity and morbidness in which she now wallows for existence…”

After escaping her flop of a marriage, Victoria and Tennie headed for New York to work as clairvoyants for railroad royalty Cornelius Vanderbilt. In 1870, the sisters were looking to make some real dough, so they began their own brokerage firm on Wall Street, and they slayed. V&T arrived on the first day in matching skirts, hemmed above the ankle (can you say SCANDAL!), to crowds flocking the streets waiting to see the first women stockbrokers.

From there the badassery continued as Victoria and Tennie began publishing their own newspaper, Woodhull & Clafin Weekly, covering the big issues of the 1870s. Outrageous topics such as legalizing prostitution to vegetarianism were what these riot grrrls were into. The Weekly also ran the first English publication of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.

Bored of Wall St. and not making enough of a stir with The Weekly, Victoria was ready to pack her bags and head for the White House. Under the Equal Rights Party, Victoria was the first woman to run for President of The United States in 1872. Mind you, this is 47(!) years before women even gained the right to vote. Oh, and her running mate was Frederick Douglass, yes that Frederick Douglass: former slave and abolitionist. Making her not only the first women, but also the first interracial ticket.

Unfortunately, Victoria didn’t spend her election night in a room surrounded by her supports, but rather surrounded by bars. Just days prior, Victoria and Tennie (along with Victoria’s hubby #2), were thrown in jail for writing about the affair between famous minister Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton in The Weekly. Beecher and his supporters were able to get a warrant for their arrest on the charges of sending obscene material through the mail – it may be fair to say that Beecher would not have been a fan of Playboy.

“Let women issue a declaration of independence sexually, and absolutely refuse to cohabit with men until they are acknowledged as equals in everything, and the victory would be won in a single week” – Victoria Clafin Woodhull

Though she didn’t win any electoral votes, and popular vote statistics for the election were never released, Victoria didn’t take it too hard. Rumor has it she spent a few years cohabitating with her ex-husband, new husband and her lover (get it girl!).

By 1877, she was so over it. She was being publicly bashed by Susan B. Anthony for being “lewd and indecent” and was not invited to speak at suffrage conventions. She got the memo, and girl wasn’t about to stay where she wasn’t welcome. She decided to hop across the pond to London, where she wouldn’t be so much of a public figure.

Vicky lived out the rest of her days (with hubby #3) working on a new newspaper and cruising around in her car— she was one of the first women in England to own an automobile. Basically, she just continued to give absolutely no shits about the expectations of women in the 19th century.

Victoria Clafin Woodhull may just be one of the most important women in history, yet somehow she seems to be completely forgotten by time. With the current air of politics today, it is crucial that we take a look at how long this battle has actually been brewing. There would be no Hillary, no Ruth, no Gloria if it wasn’t for Victoria and the many other women history hopes we will forget.

victoria woodhull cc imgVictoria Clafin Woodhull – Thinking up new ways to smash the patriarchy
Enter: The Rau Sisters. With their upcoming documentary, The Coming Woman, they hope to shed some much needed light on Victoria Clafin Woodhull. They are currently running a Kickstarter campaign to help fund their film. 

And don’t forget: even if you are a ghost hunting, short skirt wearing jailbird with a knack for business you can still become a presidential nominee – and Susan B. Anthony’s nemesis. 

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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