American women have spent their entire lives choosing between presidential candidates of the opposite sex. That is until now. This year, Hilary Rodham Clinton made history by becoming the first female nominee from a major party. She is, however, not the first female presidential candidate. That accolade goes to Victoria Woodhull, a colourful suffragist and activist, who, in 1872, ventured above the political parapet to scratch at the highest and hardest of glass ceilings. Victoria couldn’t vote for herself, not only because American women were, at the time, still disenfranchised, but because on polling day, she was in prison.[pullquote] Victoria helped him to contact his dead mother and in return, Vanderbilt helped her establish a Wall Street brokerage firm.[/pullquote]
Victoria Woodhull’s life-story reads like the classic American tale of triumph over adversity. One of ten children, she was born in backwoods Ohio, to a dirt-poor, swindler father and an illiterate spiritualistic mother. Her mother named her for Queen Victoria, because she said, her daughter was destined for greatness. Her mother was right. From scanty schooling and working her father’s medicine show, Victoria metamorphosed into a fearless woman with a determined mission. Her mission, way ahead of its time, was simple- she demanded that women have an equal place in American society.
After her divorce from an alcoholic first husband, Victoria married a political and social radical who encouraged her self-education and interest in women’s rights. Working as a psychic in New York, she met the ‘richest man in America’, Cornelius Vanderbilt. Victoria helped him to contact his dead mother and in return, Vanderbilt helped her establish a Wall Street brokerage firm. The first female stockbroker, she was denied a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, (that glass ceiling wasn’t broken until 1967 by Muriel Siebert).
A millionaire at thirty, she founded a newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly. This was at a time when women’s employment didn’t venture beyond teaching, tailoring and factory-work. Daring to enter the male domain of finance, the New York Herald lampooned what it called, her graduation from Queen of Finance to Queen of Quill. Victoria’s newspaper carried blistering attacks on corruption in high places. She favoured writers like the bohemian, George Sand, and in 1871, printed the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto.
Defying the fashion of the day she cut her hair and dumped the constricting corsets. Accused of immodest dress, ‘her skirts were shortened’ she said, to avoid dragging them through filth (how she’d love Hilary’s pants suit). She challenged society’s rule that women couldn’t dine in restaurants without a male escort. Refused in Delmonico’s, New York, she rushed outside and dragged in a waiting coachman. Her trail-blazing peaked when the Equal Rights Party nominated her for president, selecting escaped slave and activist, Frederick Douglass, as her running-mate. [pullquote]Defying the fashion of the day she cut her hair and dumped the constricting corsets.[/pullquote]
Her harshest critics couldn’t deny her charismatic public speaking. IN a clear and melodious voice and with her supporters chanting; Victory for Victoria, she launched her unlikely, uphill campaign. Considering, that almost a century and a half separates Victoria Woodhull from Hilary Clinton, it’s disheartening to observe (excepting female suffrage), the similarity of their campaign issues: equal pay, universal health care, access to education…
She advocated free love, not in a 1960’s racy way. She believed in monogamy, but felt women should be free to marry whosoever they wished. ‘Women were groomed like racehorses, for marriage,’ she said. Then, they lost so many rights that they entered a civil death. She denounced the double standard that tolerated married men’s infidelity, but ostracized their wives for the same behavior. Her newspaper targeted the celebrated New York preacher and married pillar of the community, Henry Warn Beecher and published explicit details of his adulterous affair. Victoria was not accusing him, she said, of immorality, she was denouncing his hypocrisy. Public reaction was sensational, not least because Henry was brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Quills were sharpened and the salacious scandal riveted the reading public for months. Press support for Notorious Victoria was scant. Leading periodicals, Harper’s Weekly, ran a cartoon, caricaturing her as Mrs. Satan. However, she did have one public champion- Mark Twain.
He Wrote: ‘There is fire somewhere in all this smoke of scandal.’
On November 2nd, 1872, three days before polling, Victoria was charged with selling obscene material and detailed in Ludlow Prison, New York. Responding to news of the incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant’s landslide victory, she said; ‘I hardly expected to be elected… I am years ahead of this age and the un-enlightened mind of the average man.’
Today, we will see if Hilary Rodham Clinton can cement her place in history, by shattering the glass, so heroically scratched by Victoria Woodhull, almost a century and a half ago.
The enlightened will decide.