Victoria Woodhull

Victoria Woodhull

Victoria Claflin, the sixth of ten children, was born in Homer, Ohio on 23rd September, 1838. When Victoria was a child the family was forced to leave Homer after her father, Reuben Claflin, was accused of an insurance fraud. She received very little education and spent most of her childhood with her family's travelling medicine show.

At the age of fifteen Victoria married Canning Woodhull. The following year she gave birth to Byron Woodhull. Over the next few years she earned a living by telling fortunes, selling patent medicines and performing a spiritualist act with her sister, Tennessee Claflin.

Canning Woodhull was an alcoholic and in 1864 she divorced him and two years later married Colonel James Blood. In 1868 Victoria Woodhull moved to New York City where she became friends with millionaire railroad magnate, Cornelius Vanderbilt. With Vanderbilt's backing, the enterprising sisters went into business as Wall Street's first female stockbrokers. The sisters made a large amount of money and this enabled them to publish their own journal, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly.

Woodhull's journal was used to promote women's suffrage and other radical causes such as the 8 hour work day, graduated income tax, and profit sharing. Woodhull also exposed fraudulent activities that were then rampant in the stock market. Woodhull became the leader of the International Working Men's Association (the First International) in New York City and in 1872 controversially became the first person to publish The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

In May 1872 Victoria Woodhull was nominated as the presidential candidate of the Equal Rights Party. Although laws prohibited women from voting, there was nothing stopping women from running for office. Woodhull suggested that Frederick Douglass should become her running partner but he declined the offer.

During the campaign Woodhull called for the "reform of political and social abuses; the emancipation of labor, and the enfranchisement of women". Woodhull also argued in favour of improved civil rights and the abolition of capital punishment. These policies gained her the support of socialists, trade unionists and women suffragists. However, conservative leaders of the American Woman Suffrage Association, such as Susan Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were shocked by some of her more extreme ideas and supported Horace Greeley in the election.

Victoria Woodhull
Victoria Woodhull

Friends of President Ulysses Grant decided to attack Victoria Woodhull's character and she was accused of having affairs with married men. It was also alleged that Victoria's previous husband was an alcoholic and her her sister, Utica Claflin, took drugs. Woodhull became convinced that Henry Ward Beecher was behind these stories and decided to fight back. She now published a story in the Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly that Beecher was having an affair with a married woman.

Woodhull was arrested and charged under the Comstock Act for sending obscene literature through the mail and was in prison on election day. (Woodhull's name did not appear on the ballot because she was one year short of the Constitutionally mandated age of thirty-five.) Over the next seven months Woodhull was arrested eight times and had to endure several trials for obscenity and libel. She was eventually acquitted of all charges but the legal bills forced her into bankruptcy.

In 1878 Woodhull moved to England. She continued to campaign for women's rights and in 1895 she established the Humanitarian newspaper. In 1897 she gave up publishing and moved to Bredon's Norton, where she built a village school and became a champion for education reform in English schools.

Victoria Woodhull died on 9th June, 1927.

Primary Sources

(1) Victoria Woodhull, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly (12th August, 1871)

Everybody prates of the wonders of the present age of the world, and yet it may be doubted whether any of us half estimate its really marvelous character. Every age, objects some captious reader, or some discontented pessimist, is a a great age to those that live in it, just as everybody’s own country is the greatest of all countries, or as every mother’s baby is the finest baby that ever was born. We must still regard this latter half of the nineteenth century as the most distinguished speck in the world’s history. There is, we believe, a hundred times more mental activity at this time in the world at large than at any previous period, and events are progressing in a proportionately rapid ratio. It is an error to suppose that evolution in anything always takes place at the same even rate.

Physically, but in respect to man, the world is undergoing just at this nick of time, in several respects, the greatest changes it has ever undergone or can ever undergo, the transition from the fragmentary and imperfect state to that which is integral and complete.

Notably, in physical geography we are just solving the last problems, finding the sources of the Nile, laying open the closed frontiers of China and Japan, and the hidden secrets of Central Africa, and searching the North Polar Sea. Every ocean is already navigated, every continent and island familiarized to our acquaintanceship. A labor that has thus occupied the race of man for five or ten thousand years, demanding the greatest sacrifices and the most strenuous exertions, is getting itself finished up, and the books of that business enterprise of humanity are being closed up just about now. We have gone over the surface of our entire inheritance in respect to landed estate, waterfront, fisheries and navigation; and so to say, we have got our farm fenced in. That makes an epoch.

But we have done more. We have begun the unitary culture and administration of this human habitat and domicile, instead of the fragmentary and patchwork management which has prevailed through all the past ages. We have learned how to put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes, and we compass the earth’s circumference with steamers as regularly as we cross a ferry; and all this has happened just now for the first time, in all ages.

And we are talking glibly of unitary weights and measures, of a unitary currency, of a common and universal language, and finally of a Universal Government; and nobody thinks stage of, or laughs at, these stupendous propositions which fifty years ago would have been received perhaps with a guffaw of derision. The world has been astonished so many times that it refuses to be astonished any longer. The greater an enterprise or a proposition nowadays the more likely it is to be believed in. Progression has reached, or is just now reaching, the pivot-point of equilibration where in place of resistance to elevation we gain acceleration and momentum from mere weight; when reform of all sorts, instead of struggling laboriously up hill, will be rushing down a declivity, helped by the same law which has hitherto retarded it, the mere inertia of public opinion. It is going presently to be easier to go ahead with increasing velocity than it will be to stop, or even to be still.

Who can calculate the immense revolution that such a state of things will make in every sphere and department of human affairs. If inventors, discoverers and experimenters had no difficulty whatever in commanding sympathy and capital to test at the earliest moment every project of human improvement; if money flowed all the more regularly and readily into novelties, and because merely that they were novelties, if the new dominated generally over the load, and the future over the past, there is no calculating the velocity of human progress and growth of society.

And it is because we are just at the turning point from an old fogy and conservative order of things, which has predominated through all the past periods of history, and the more so the further back we look, to just this normal and universal career of predominate progress; that indeed this progress has begun already; that we have entered on the descending grade, and so past the turning point; that we call this a wonderful and exceptional age in the world’s history.

A few grand hindrances, accumulated obstructions, and formidable obstacles have hitherto hedged the tendency to this easy-going tendency to the easy and rapid progression of the race. Despotism, slavery and oppressive restrictions on women are or have been the chief barriers. Despotism still lingers on the stage in Europe, but shudders with instinct of its own early destruction or decay. Slavery has just met with its quietus. Hindrances to the freedom of woman are rapidly yielding, and will dissolve into nothing sooner than either of the other obstructions referred to, as there are a thousand causes favoring that revolution which have not favored the others, and as the accelerated movements of reform itself is now brought to bear on this new subject of thought, discussion and action.

(2) Victoria Woodhull, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly (28th October, 1871)

People who do not stand upon principles and guide all their actions by them are always found contradicting and stultifying themselves. People who tell lies must resort to habitual lying in order to be consistent and not expose themselves; but such persons are, sooner or later, certain to be detected, since it is natural for people to speak the truth rather than to lie; and sometimes they will forget themselves and act in accordance with their natural inclination.

We are forcibly reminded of this general rule of life from comparing the present attitude of some of the "Boston Exclusives" with that assumed by them in past time. Last week was presented the protest against marriage laws made by Lucy Stone, who is most vehement against us for now advocating their amendment; This week we contrast the position of the editor-in-chief of the organ of the Exclusives with that she occupied in 1869.

On the 15th of July, at a Woman Suffrage Convention at Plano, Ill., Mrs. Livermore, then a resident of Chicago, made the following speech upon the proposition that "the men and women most forward in this movement are of immoral character," are such as we do not most desire to pin our teeth to: "Mrs. Livermore," says the Aurora Herald, "denied the above in toto. She was herself President of the Woman Suffrage Association in the west, and Mrs. Jane Willing, of Rockford, was the Secretary. The well-known advocates of the cause were of the purest morality. No purer girl lives than Anna Dickinson? No more tender mother than Mrs. Cady Stanton; no truer woman Susan B. Anthony; and hosts of the great and good men throughout the land."

"But what difference does it make to the hungry man whether his food comes to him on a dish of gold or silver, or of wood? In either case it satisfies hunger as well. What difference does it make who buys it? And so with the truth - whether presented by an angel or a devil, the truth is all the same; and blind is the man who cannot see that. Is Woman Suffrage right? That is the question. What matters it who advocates it, whether Free Lovers, Spiritualists, or the Methodists, orthodox or heterodox? It makes no difference. ‘Truth is truth wherever we find it.’" The Herald afterward says: "To Mrs. Livermore was tendered the thanks of the Convention for her instructive speeches, accompanied by a roll of greenbacks."

Mrs. Livermore at that time belonged to the class who were the objects of abuse, who were called all sorts of bad names by the then "respectables." But a change has come over the spirit of her life. She has contracted the disease of respectability and can abuse as vilely as the most pious of former times. Then Mrs. Stanton and Miss Anthony were good women and true. Now they are not fit for the excellent Bostonians to mingle with at all; indeed, they will have nothing to do with anything that either these ladies associate with. They are even doing the cause "great injury," according to the paper Mrs. Livermore edits, because they hold more advanced social ideas than are considered admissible by the clique of which she is chief. But Mrs. Livermore considered the truth of suffrage to be acceptable even from Free Lovers and Spiritualists then, while now they are not even to be permitted to so much as approach the platform upon which "the immaculates" stand. They are even so discourteous as to tell them in a call for a convention that they are not wanted. We presume Mrs. Livermore and the rest of her set are not as hungry for suffrage now as she was then, since they will not accept it through anything that has a taint of Wood about it. Suffrage must be tendered to them on golden plates; and be most graciously offered by satin-clothed servants; their tastes have so improved upon what they were that anything short of this will not agree with their present delicate sensibilities. . . .

For our part we should be very glad to have the movement for suffrage receive the support of all persons who are honest advocates of it; but we maintain now, as Mrs. Livermore did in 1869, that whoever rejects aid, let it come from whatever source it may, is not for suffrage but against it; and Mrs. Livermore and all the rest of that clique know it is so. And when they say that the 150,000 readers of a paper which advocates suffrage earnestly and persistently, are not representatives of the movement, and, in fact do not belong to it at all, simply because they patronize that paper which advocates Lucy Stone’s former marriage theory in preference to the Journal, they know they speak a lie of which they are liable to convict themselves, whenever the spirit of truth predominates over their assumed policy of falsehood.

(3) Victoria Woodhull, Lecture on Constitutional Equality (20th February, 1872)

That the framers of the Constitution had Woman's Rights clearly in their minds is borne out by its whole structure. Nowhere is the word man used in contradistinction to woman. They avoided both terms and used the word "persons" for the same reason as they avoided the word "slavery," namely, to prevent an untimely contest over rights which might prematurely be discussed to the injury of the infant republic.

The issue upon the question of female suffrage being thus definitely settled, and its rights inalienably secured to woman, a brighter future dawns upon the country. Woman can now unite in purifying the elements of political strife in restoring the government to pristine integrity, strength and vigor. To do this, many reforms become of absolute necessity. Prominent in these are:

A complete reform in the Congressional and Legislative work, by which all political discussion shall be banished from legislative halls, and debate be limited to the actual business of the people.

A complete reform in Executive and Departmental conduct, by which the President and the Secretaries of the United States, and the Governors and State officers, shall be forced to recognize that they are the servants of the people, appointed to attend to the business of the people, and not for the purpose of perpetuating their official positions, or of securing the plunder of public trusts for the enrichment of their political adherents and supporters.

A reform in the tenure of office, by which the Presidency shall be limited to one term, with a retiring life pension, and a permanent seat in the Federal Senate, where his Presidential experience may become serviceable to the nation, and on the dignity and life emolument of Presidential Senator he shall be placed above all other political positions, and be excluded from all professional pursuits.

A reform between the relations of the employer and employed, by which shall be secured the practice of the great natural law, of one-third of time to labor, one-third to recreation and one-third to rest, that by this intellectual improvement and physical development may go on to that perfection which the Almighty Creator designed.

A reform in the system of crime punishment, by which the death penalty shall no longer be inflicted - by which the hardened criminal shall have no human chance of being let loose to harass society until the term of the sentence, whatever that may be, shall have expired, and by which, during that term, the entire prison employment shall be for - and the product thereof be faithfully paid over to - the support of the criminal's family, instead of being absorbed by the legal thieves to whom, in most cases, the administration of prison discipline has been entrusted, and by whom atrocities are perpetrated in the secrecy of the prison enclosure, which, were they revealed, would shock the moral sense of all mankind.

In the broadest sense, I claim to be the friend of equal rights, a faithful worker in the cause of human advancement; and more especially the friend, supporter, co-laborer with those who strive to encourage the poor and the friendless.

If I obtain the position of President of the United States, I promise that woman's strength and woman's will with God's support, if he vouchsafe it, shall open to them, and to this country, a new career of greatness in the race of nations.

In accordance with the above, we shall assume the new position that the rights of women under the Constitution are complete, and hereafter we shall contend, I not for a Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, but that the Constitution already recognizes women as citizens, and that they are justly entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens.

It will therefore be our duty to call on women everywhere to come boldly forward and exercise the right they are thus guaranteed. It is not to be expected that men who assume that they alone, as citizens of the United States, are entitled to all the immunities and privileges guaranteed by the Constitution, will consent that women may exercise the right of suffrage until they are compelled. We will never cease the struggle until they are recognized, and we see women established in their true position of equality with the rest of the citizens of the United States.

(4) Victoria Woodhull, speech, (February, 1872)

These privileged classes of the people have an enduring hatred for me, and I am glad they have. I am a friend not only of freedom in all things, and in every form, but also for equality and justice as well. These cannot be inaugurated except through revolution. I am denounced as desiring to precipitate revolution. I acknowledge it. I am for revolution, if to get equality and justice it is required.

(5) Cincinnati Commercial, May 11, 1872

Last night I stepped into Apollo Hall, one of the noblest and most picturesque halls in the city, where the National Convention of the Woodhull and Claflin, Male and Female Labor Party are holding a two days’ session. As I approached the place, I heard the voice of Mrs. Woodhull resounding through the hall, and when I entered I found her standing in front of the platform, which was filled with people of both sexes, and declaiming in the most impassioned style, before a crowded audience of men and women who had been wrought up to a very high state of excitement. The scene was really dramatic, and to those who were in sympathy with it, it was, doubtless "thrilling," "glorious," "sublime." Somehow or other, Mrs. Woodhull, as she stood there, dressed in plain black, with flushed face, gleaming eye, locks partly disheveled, upraised arm and quivering under the fire of her own rhapsody, reminded me of the great Rachel in some of those tragic or fervid passages in which the dominating powers of her nature and genius were displayed in their highest effect. She seemed at moments like one possessed, and the eloquence which poured from her lips in reckless torrents swept through the souls of the multitude in a way which caused them to burst, every now and then, with uproarious enthusiasm. A moment after I entered there was one of these spiritual explosions, which brought her to a brief pause, and the first sentence I heard was her exclamation, in loud, clear tone: "Who will dare to attempt to unlock the luminous portals of the future with the rusty key of the past?" Age, indeed who will? was the thought which involuntary came to one’s mind while looking at the extraordinary spectacle displayed in Apollo Hall.

When her declamation ended, the audience, masculine and feminine, sprang to their feet and cheered till their wind was exhausted, cheered with a frenzy and force that must have startled the multitudinous promenaders who swept along Broadway. The heroine of the moment disappeared from the platform, but the multitude encored till she returned, stepped to the front, and bowed once and again her acknowledgments for the applause.

Then a stout and hearty personage, who was recognized by the Chair as Judge Carter of Cincinnati, stepped quickly to the front, and in stentorian tones nominated Mrs. Victoria C. Woodhull as a candidate for the Presidency of the United States. "All who are in favor of the nomination, say aye" were the words from the Chair, and instantly the shouts of the Convention, delegates and outsiders, burst forth in a roar, thunderous and continuous, which might have blown the roof of the building to the skies. Again Mrs. Woodhull appeared on the platform, and accepted the nomination in a few words.

Then followed an hour’s wrangle, with countless speeches as to the candidate for the Vice Presidency. The first nomination made was that of Frederick Douglass, who was eulogized by half a dozen speakers in succession, and opposed by two or three, on various grounds. We had the oppressed sex represented by Woodhull; we must have the oppressed race represented by Douglass. Other names followed: Ben Wade, Theodore Tilton, Spotted Tail, Ben Butler, Henry Ward Beecher, Robert Dale Owen, Governor Campbell, Wendell Phillips, Richard Trevithick, and others. Frederick Douglass, however, at last got the vote of the Convention. And was thus nominated for the second place on the Woodhull Presidential ticket - the Executive Committee being empowered to substitute another name in case of his refusal to accept.

The platform of the party, which demands a new National Constitution, and numerous other things in the revolutionary line, was subsequently adopted.

I forgot to say that throughout the entertainment, the audience were excessively merry and were as wildly enthusiastic. She left the place pretty well exhausted with cheering. The audience were highly respectable, as well as large and strikingly American in physiognomy and appearance. There were large numbers of fashionable dressed ladies, and most of the gentlemen evidently belonged to the business and professional classes. There were also plenty of "Reformers," and in fact, it was they who contributed the real genius of the assemblage.

At the close of the session, Mrs. Woodhull, the nominee for the Presidency, passed into an ante-room, where her friends crowded to congratulate her. She was in ecstasy, and so was her sister, Miss Claflin. Her face beamed under her high-crowned Neapolitan black hat. She shook hands with the gentlemen enthusiastically. The ladies kissed her and embraced her, kissed each other, and kissed her again. I never before saw so much kissing and hugging in public, nor, for that matter, in private either. Men were not afraid to pass hands round women who were not their wives, and women indulged in political osculation till they were tired.

(6) Victoria Woodhull, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly (15th June, 1872)

From various quarters we hear the query, "Do these reformers really mean what they have put forth as their platform, or have they willfully perpetrated a large joke?" Had the inquirers been present in Apollo Hall and taken note of the sort of material that constituted the convention which constructed the platform, there would have been no need of making this inquiry. If there ever were serious people, meaning every word they said, those to whom we refer were such. And although the enthusiasm of the occasion raised, at times, to a high degree, it never ruled, at the expense of wisdom and discretion.

Hence, we may safely assure everybody that every word which appears either in platform or resolutions which that convention formed, was intended in dead earnest. Some brainless editors who have never grasped an idea or had the capacity to entertain a principle, but who, from a continuous practice of lines of policy, bring all their natural capacities to do either, may talk of its being child’s play and nonsense; but they will live long enough, if they live only till next November to learn that their wisdom is indeed foolishness.

Many imagine because, in reality, they have never stopped to think about it, that our systems of law, organism and execution, are consistent with the theory laid down in the Declaration of Independence. There could be no greater error than this supposition. There is not even the faintest shadow of truth in it, unless, perhaps, it may be said that the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment may be an exception; and whatever of salvation there was in that, they attempted to defeat, by the next section, fearing to let a single grain of real freedom and equality stand free from the tares of despotism.

The declaration that the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is inalienable in the individual was the first expression of the great change in the uses of government, which is but just now beginning to be understood. We say beginning to be understood, for there is no law upon the statute books of any country, whose first purpose is to establish and protect human rights, but they, one and all, are for the purpose of establishing and protecting property rights, to the utter ignoring of those of the higher sort.

If the right to life were, by law held to be, as the declaration maintains it to be, inalienable, there could be no law providing for the death penalty. In the abstract sense, the taking of life, whether by the individual or by the State, is equally murder, and there is no sort of logic that can controvert this fact. If it were necessary that a murderer should be hung to save the lives of members of the community, there might be a reasonable argument in favor of capital punishment; but nobody pretends that any such proceeding is necessary in these days of safety asylums like our prisons. Therefore, when the community commits murder, the crime is multiplied from the individual into the whole number who constitute the community, each one of whom is equally guilty with the person whom they murder for having murdered, and there is no way of escaping the inevitable law of divine compensation and justice, which is administered without regard to any arbitrary distinctions.

The same rule is applicable in the same way when persons are deprived of their liberty for any purpose except for the protection of the community. The present imprisonment of criminals is to carry out the idea of punishment. Nothing that is thus administered can by any possibility be just, since justice exists alone in the immutable laws of the universe, while human laws ought to be so founded upon principles as not to militate in any manner whatever against their prerogatives.

But if in our systems, the inalienable rights to life and liberty are infringed, how much more so is that to the pursuit of happiness. This right is hedged upon every possible side by all conceivable forms of law and standards of public opinion. Instead of being formulated to protect this inalienable right, our laws could not have been better constructed if prohibition were their purpose.

The right to the pursuit of happiness means that every individual has the right to seek his or her happiness, as he or she may determine; and as a corollary the necessary implication follow that in whatever manner the individual shall choose to seek that happiness, all other individuals should respect and the community as a whole protect.

But, says the objector, if everybody shall be permitted to follow his or her own inclinations in the pursuit of happiness and there should be no law to prevent it, what assurance is there that such pursuit will not interfere with the rights of others. Now this is the great stumbling-block everywhere raised to oppose the spread of the new interpretation of individual freedom, but at the same time the most fallacious one possible to be conceived of. Nobody denies the right of community to erect and maintain a government; but it is demanded that government be restricted to its legitimate uses, the protection of individual rights. If this idea be properly conceived of, the objection named will vanish before is as mist before the noon-day sun.

Up to, and including this time, governments have not been maintained to protect the inalienable rights of individuals, but to enforce the edicts of one class of the community upon its other classes; and no better illustration of this statement could be had than the manner in which one-half of all the people are denied a right freely exercised by the other half, this other half being the denying power. This is a self-evident exemplification of the various theories which our governments, national and State, vitalize; and which are declared by the platform of the Equal Rights Party, to be far behind our present civilization.

It is the mission of this party to reconstruct the government so that the theories it shall give vitality to shall be those set forth in the Declaration of Independence, which are in strict accordance with the theory which involves all other theories; the theory that there are such things as human rights, all-sided freedom, equality, justice and equity; not only in one specific department of life, but in all departments; in the political, the social, the industrial and the educational departments; which then include all that can properly be brought within the legitimate limit and sphere of government; since it has not jurisdiction over those things that necessarily are matters of individual thought and conscience.

At least seven-tenths of all the people, whether conscious of it or not, naturally and inevitable belong to the Equal Rights Party. Not a person who is not constitutionally opposed to freedom and equity, can deny a single proposition of principle laid down as its platform. It is too true, however, that, heretofore the people generally have had no considerable realization of the theories laid down by the founders of our government. But it may safely be assumed that they require only to be presented to be apprehended, appreciated and accepted; and in this fact rests the certain success of the Equal Rights Party.