She Was the First Woman to Run for U.S. President, But You’ve Never Heard of Her

By Stephanie Weber

An outspoken woman named Victoria Woodhull ran for president in 1872 before women could even vote, but her story doesn’t stop and start there.

An unlikely beginning

Victoria Woodhull was born poor in Homer, Ohio in 1838. It is astonishing then that after a brief period traveling the country working as a spiritual medium, she and her sister Tennessee Claflin moved to New York and began lucrative banking careers.

Her outspoken nature propelled her into the national spotlight

Victoria and Tennessee became the first female stock brokers on Wallstreet due to their friendship with Cornelius Vanderbilt.

They call this pose “The Woodhull”. Or at least they should.

With his encouragement, the sisters became very successful brokers and used their money to start a weekly newspaper called Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly which became popular after it printed the Communist Manifesto.

An outspoken activist and presidential nominee

Her outspoken nature propelled her into the national spotlight and she was ultimately the first woman invited to speak in front of Congress. This garnered great respect from National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA), as well as criticism from prominent suffragists who were horrified by her free love practices.

She chose Frederick Douglass as her running mate. Yep, that Frederick Douglass.

In 1872, she was nominated to run for president under the Equal Rights Party, a radical reform party that broke away from the NWSA in order to nominate Woodhull. Her running mate was Frederick Douglas although he never officially accepted.

Sadly, her campaign was largely overshadowed with controversy that occurred right before the election.

The scandal

The presidential nominee ended up being arrested days before the election due to a scandal involving Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (who has a famous literary relative).

There was a strange new law passed in New York City at the time called The Comstock Law that stated pornography could not be sent through the mail. Woodhull and Caflin’s Weekly wrote a nasty article about Beecher’s affairs.

Woodhull in a typical, mean political cartoon

Believe it or not, her indictment of Beecher’s affairs were considered “pornographic” at the time and she was sent to jail for mailing it. She lost the election, receiving very few official votes, and ended up with bigger media backlash than ever before.

Ultimately she was done with America. She settled down in England where she became a philanthropist and lived a long life where she was relatively forgotten in American history.

About the Author

Stephanie Weber
Stephanie Weber is a comedian and writer whose work has been published on Atlas Obscura, Slate, The AV Club, Reductress, The Whiskey Journal and more. She performs stand up comedy at The Lincoln Lodge in Chicago.

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