The amazing life of the first woman to run for US president

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Victoria Woodhull.
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Wikimedia Commons

US Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is not the first woman to run for president.

As Janet Tavakoli at Tavakoli Structured Finance pointed out on Monday, a woman was first nominated in 1872.

Victoria Woodhull, also the first woman to work on Wall Street, secured a third-party nomination by the Equal Rights Party in the 1872 election.

Her opponents were Horace Greeley, of the Liberal Republican Party, and incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant, of the Radial Republican Party.

Grant won, but Woodhull, along with her vice presidential candidate, Frederick Douglass, put up a good fight 48 years before women were even able to vote.

Her story is one of adversity and optimism – a rags-to-riches story of a woman from a rural town in Ohio who made it to Wall Street and then the presidential race.

Scroll to read more about Woodhull’s incredible life:

Lucinda Shen contributed to an earlier version of this post.


Woodhull was born September 23, 1838, in Licking County, Ohio. She was the seventh of 10 children raised by a con man and an illiterate spiritualist. Her sister Tennessee Celeste Claflin, the youngest, was born in 1844.

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Honolulu Academy of Arts/Wikimedia Commons

When Woodhull was 11, her con-man father burned their family enterprise, a gristmill, to collect the insurance benefits, but the townspeople caught on, and the family was driven out of town instead.

Source: “Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored” by Mary Gabriel


At 14, Woodhull and Claflin, then 7, were marketed by their father as mediums who could heal people and communicate with the dead. They became the family’s primary breadwinners.

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Tennessee Claflin, the younger of the two sisters who would make their way to Wall Street.
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WIkimedia Commons

Her father wrote to Victoria: “Girl your worth has never yet been known, but to the world it shall be shown.”

Source: “Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored” by Mary Gabriel


At 15, Victoria married 28-year-old Canning Woodhull, her doctor, who turned out to be a nobody. He had no steady medical practice and proved to be a serial adulterer and a drunkard. Woodhull had her fairy-tale notions of romance quickly dispelled.

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Victoria Woodhull, circa 1870.
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Wikimedia Commons

Source: “Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored” by Mary Gabriel


Woodhull had just three years of schooling from elementary school, but she’d always believed she was destined for great things.

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Victoria Woodhull, undated.
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Wikimedia Commons

Source: “Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored” by Mary Gabriel


She had two children with Canning and worked to pay for his alcoholic habits. She was rumored to have been a cigar girl, stage girl, and a topless waitress. She soon divorced Canning.

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Trading cards for Gypsy Queen cigarettes in the 1800s.
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Time Passages Nostalgia Company

Source: “Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored” by Mary Gabriel


Woodhull and Claflin set up shop once more as traveling spiritualist mediums, with the Civil War raging in the background. They made a small fortune as medical clairvoyants and by selling spiritual wares.

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http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/95/Union_soldiers_entrenched_along_the_west_bank_of_the_Rappahannock_River_at_Fredericksburg%2C_Virginia_%28111-B-157%29.jpg

At some point in this era, Claflin was sued for manslaughter; one of her cancer patients died despite her spiritualist treatment.

Source: “Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored” by Mary Gabriel


Woodhull had a second marriage in 1866, ending in 1876. The divorces, heavily stigmatized, may have led to Woodhull’s activism later in life. She supported the freedom to marry, divorce, and bear children without government intervention. She also supported the legalization of prostitution.

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Victoria Woodhull, circa 1860.
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Wikimedia Commons

Source: “Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored” by Mary Gabriel


In 1868, the sisters became spiritualist advisers in New York. Claflin became the clairvoyant to famed railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, 73 — and they were rumored to be lovers. He called her ‘my little sparrow,’ while she called him ‘the old goat.’

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Cornelius Vanderbilt.
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Wikimedia Commons

In 1870, the sisters opened the door of their brokerage house — Woodhull, Claflin and Co. — with the backing of Vanderbilt. It prompted The New York Sun to write that they were “petticoats among the bovine and ursine animals.” Wall Streeters crowded to the brokerage’s windows to get a glimpse of the female traders.

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“A new sensation was afforded Wall Street in the announcement that two ladies had taken rooms on the street, and were about to do a first-class brokers busi-ness, dealing in stocks and gold. The ladies rejoiced in the name of Victoria C. Woodhull, and Tennessee C. Claflin,” the writer of the ‘Twenty years among the bulls and bears of Wall Street’ wrote in 1870.
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Wikimedia Commons

Vanderbilt gave the sisters stock tips — one led to a profit of $700,000, which is about $13 million today.

Source: Museum of the City of New York


It was a time when women had nothing of their own — but the sisters soon had a regular coterie of society wives, widows, teachers, actresses, and high-priced prostitutes served behind private doors at the brokerage. The firm was an instant success.

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Auguste Toulmouche’s “Reluctant Bride” of 1866.
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Auguste Toulmouche/Wikimedia Commons

Canning was also allegedly still living with her and her husband at the time.

Source: The New York Times


In May 1870, the two used their brokerage firm’s profits to found Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly — used to support Woodhull’s bid for president. It published on topics including sex education, free love, and women’s suffrage.

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Wikimedia Commons

Claflin also ran for a New York congressional seat in the 1870s.

Source: History.com


They would start taking on Wall Street, too. They took on Tweed rings, fraudulent railroad schemes, fire-insurance companies, bond-scheme frauds, and more.

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Joseph Keppler and Bernhard Gillam/Wikimedia Commons

Source: “The Human Body the Temple of God: or the Philosophy of Sociology” by Victoria Claflin Woodhull and Lady Tennessee Claflin


The public, however, was eager to paint a sexualized picture of the pair as they became more public.

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A caricature of Woodhull by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly, February 17, 1872.
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Wikimedia Commons

Wall Streeters also found their background as spiritualists shady, as the practice was sometimes associated with prostitution.


They used money earned from the brokerage firm to help fund the suffrage movement, and Woodhull would come to be known as the first woman to petition for women’s suffrage in front of a congressional committee.

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Harper’s Weekly, November 25, 1871, edition: “Mrs. Victoria Woodhull … was more determined and more demonstrative than her sister reformers.”
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WIkimedia Commons

Source: Museum of the City of New York


Woodhull later said: “We went unto Wall Street, not particularly because I wanted to be a broker … but because I wanted to plant the flag of women’s rebellion in the center of the continent.”

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The British activist Emmeline Pankhurst. She traveled constantly, giving speeches throughout Britain and the US. She delivered one of her most famous speeches, “Freedom or death,” in Connecticut in 1913. Woodhull also traveled throughout the US doing the same.
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Wikimedia Commons

Source: Museum of the City of New York


Woodhull was nominated as the presidential candidate for the Equal Rights Party. Her vice presidential candidate was Frederick Douglass, though he never acknowledged it.

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Amazon

Source: History.com


Things started going downhill. In response to the virulent attack lobbed at her from media, Woodhull published stories about the sexual scandals of minister Henry Ward Beecher and stockbroker Luther Challis. She was arrested for sending obscene mail and spent election night in prison.

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Henry Ward Beecher and famed author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe was Beecher’s supporter and would vehemently attack Woodhull.
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Wikimedia Commons/Bowdoin College Museum of Art

Woodhull published details about how the popular minister had committed adultery, and that Challis had gotten two teenage girls drunk and seduced them.

Source: Harvard University Library’s Open Collections Program


Woodhull’s mother reportedly tried to blackmail Vanderbilt. The tycoon withdrew his financial support of the sisters’ firm.

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Wikimedia Commons

Source: The New York Times Learning Network


The sisters soon lost the respect of their women’s suffrage comrades in part because of their political ambitions. In one of the first published books on the women’s suffrage movement, both were omitted.

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Victoria Woodhull, circa 1870.
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Wikimedia Commons

The brokerage firm also stuttered to a stop in the Panic of 1873. Some clients sued the sisters when the firm’s performance suffered. Their father’s debt collectors also came knocking.

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Tennessee Claflin in 1922 with other suffrage advocates.
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Wikimedia commons

Source: Think Advisor


Woodhull continued to speak publicly about women’s suffrage throughout the 1870s, though her paper, the Weekly, closed in 1876. She married a wealthy English banker in 1883 after moving to England.

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Winslow Homer, “Croquet Scene” in 1864.
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Wikimedia Commons

Source: “Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored” by Mary Gabriel


Woodhull tried again in 1884 and 1892 for the presidential nomination.

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Victoria Woodhull, circa 1870.
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Wikimedia Commons

Woodhull died in 1927. The New York Times wrote that she ‘engaged in the banking business for a short time in New York’ in her obituary. Claflin died in 1923.

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Via New York Public Library

Source: Think Advisor


It wasn’t until 1967 that another woman made her way onto Wall Street and became the first woman with a seat on the New York Stock Exchange — Muriel Siebert.


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Wikimedia

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