Dreaming of a Woman President, 138 Years Later

November 17, 2010


If you think it’s hard for a woman to run for president today, consider how hard it must have been in 1872. That was when Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to be officially nominated for president of the United States.

Victoria Woodhull circa 1860

Image of Victoria Woodhull circa 1860 by EraserGirl (Matthew Brady), via Wikimedia Commons

Woodhull was born Victoria Claflin in 1838 in Homer, Ohio, the fifth of seven children. When Woodhull was 15 years old, she married an alcoholic, womanizing doctor named Canning Woodhull. They were married for 11 years and had two children. Two years after their divorce, Woodhull married her second husband, Col. James Harvey Blood, a kind man who introduced Woodhull to the concept of free love. Woodhull soon became active in the free love movement.

Woodhull and her family moved to New York City in 1866, opened up a salon, and started the first woman-run stock brokerage company. In 1870, Woodhull and her sister started publishing the 20,000-circulation Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, a journal discussing women’s suffrage, labor relations, personal freedoms, and other hot topics.

When Woodhull announced her presidential candidacy in 1870, women were still 50 years away from the right to vote. However, there was no law prohibiting them from running for office. She ran as the nominee for the Equal Rights Party and was supported by suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton among others. On January 11, 1871, Woodhull became the first woman to deliver a speech to Congress, speaking on the necessity of a woman’s right to vote.

Just a few days before the 1872 election, Woodhull, her husband, and her sister were arrested on obscenity charges after Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly ran an article about minister and orator Henry Ward Beecher’s alleged extramarital affair. Woodhull wanted to address the sexual double standard between men and women, but since she was targeting a prominent figure, the article ended up being more of a scandal than the affair itself. The three were eventually acquitted on a technicality, but the damage to Woodhull’s reputation had been done.

She tried to run for president again in 1884 and 1892 but was unable to secure an official nomination. She died in 1927 at the age of 88.

Woodhull once said, “The truth is that I am too many years ahead of this age, and the exalted views and objects of humanitarianism can scarcely be grasped as yet by the unenlightened mind of the average man.”

Her ambitions were certainly stifled by the obstacles of her era, whereas women today face far fewer institutional challenges. However, the public still has a hard time taking female candidates seriously the higher they climb up the political ladder. Woodhull was criticized for her strong-willed, independent personality — the same way Hillary Clinton was treated during her candidacy in 2008.

That’s why AAUW is so passionate about fostering an encouraging political atmosphere for women through programs like the Elect Her initiative and Name It. Change It.

What traits do you think women need to succeed in a presidential campaign? Are those traits the same ones likely to be demonized in women?

This blog post was written by former communications fellow Nicole Dubowitz.



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By:   |   November 17, 2010

1 Comment

  1. Julie Harrison Kleszczewsk says:

    Hi Folks:
    Some years ago, we read Victoria’s biography in our Evening Literature Group (New York City Branch). We were astounded to learn a woman had actually run for president before women in our country had the right to vote.
    She was very good friends with some very powerful men. She didn’t make it. But the day will come when a woman who is hopefully sympathetic to women and families (remember the twelve years it took to pass the Family Medical Leave Act!) and diverse populations will be elected who can at the same time be a credit to us in the world and be a dream come true for those who need a good job and education. We all work hard for our women politicians who are the leaders of the future, visionary, dedicated, smart, clever and beneficent.

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