Today, she’d fit right into the city’s progressive political world.
But when she arrived in New York from her home state of Ohio in 1868, 30-year-old Victoria Claflin Woodhull was a century ahead of her time: an advocate of suffrage, socialism, and sexual freedom.
First, she was a Wall Street trailblazer. In a stock market–obsessed post–Civil War city, she and her sister opened the first female-owned brokerage house. Newspapers had a field day, dubbing the two the “Bewitching Brokers.”
The sisters did have some help. Railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt gave them an assist; when they first came to New York, they worked for the doctor-distrusting Vanderbilt as his “medical clairvoyants.”
They also launched a newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, which ran the first English translation of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.
Perhaps her most audacious move was her run for president in 1872 on the ticket of the Equal Rights Party, which she organized. Her platform sounds more 1972 than 1872.
“She campaigned on a platform of women’s suffrage, regulation of monopolies, nationalization of railroads, an eight-hour workday, direct taxation, abolition of the death penalty and welfare for the poor, among other things,” explains the History Channel.
Woodhull’s presidential aspirations obviously didn’t pan out (above, attempting to vote, Election Day 1872). Her support for free love was just too much.
“Yes, I am a free lover,” she addressed her critics at a Boston campaign stop.
“I have an inalienable, constitutional, and natural right to love whom I may, to love for as long or as short a period as I can; to exchange that love every day if I please…. and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame has any right to interfere….”
She also ran into trouble when she outed popular Brooklyn preacher and national abolitionist leader Henry Ward Beecher (above) as an adulterer. Beecher was one of her fiercest critics, and arguably a hypocrite. But her move backfired.
“Instead of being shocked by the revelations, the press rushed to Beecher’s defense while U.S. Marshalls arrested Woodhull for transmitting pornographic materials through the mail (one of the articles used the word “virginity”), states one source.
“As America voted in 1872, its first female candidate sat confined in the Ludlow Street Jail.” Well, American men, anyway.
By 1877, Woodhull and her sister moved to England. There she married for a third time and continued to support suffrage and women’s equality. She died in 1927, seven years after American women went to the presidential polls for the first time.