While Victoria California Woodhull’s endeavors did not all end successfully, she was very successful at laying a foundation for women to build on in business and politics.
Woodhull’s childhood was unstable. Her family was poor, and love seemed to be a commodity her parents, Roxanna and Reuben Buckman Claflin, couldn’t afford. The best way Claflin knew to deal with his ten children was to beat them. Ironically, he had acquired wealth through real estate speculations, but lost everything when Victoria, the seventh child, was three. Roxanna was born into money, the heiress of a rich Pennsylvania German family. Being waited on hand and foot limited her motivation, and she never became literate or gained any ability to fend for herself.
Woodhull’s formal education copied her mother’s. She only spent a few years in school because she was pressed upon to help out so much at home, being treated almost like a slave. Woodhull missed going to school and was an excellent student, but she acquired knowledge from other sources.
BEING GUIDED BY THE SPIRIT Woodhull believed in angels and lived with them as friends. Every day she went into a trance and communicated with them, often sitting on the roof of the house for hours to escape the cruel, demanding life inside. She had a simple faith in God, and took great comfort in relating to the angels and receiving channeled messages from them. She credits these beings with giving her the ability to retain everything she read.
The angels were not imaginary beings but the spirits of people close to Woodhull. When she was three, her nurse died suddenly. Woodhull clearly remembered joining the nurse on her journey to the spirit world, being carried there by her. Her mother recounted that her daughter’s body lay immobile, as if she were dead, for the three hours of this experience. Woodhull also lost two sisters who died in childhood, and they became invisible playmates to her. She also claimed to receive a prophecy from a spirit who confirmed that she would one day be a writer and publisher and leader of her people.
THIRD TIME’S A CHARM On the way to fulfilling her destiny, Woodhull married at age 14. Her husband was 28, and it was not a happy union. For two years she had become increasingly sick with the fever, and eventually Dr. Canning Woodhull was called to treat her. When she recovered, he escorted Woodhull to a picnic and on the way home proposed marriage. This terrified her but her parents accepted the offer, and four months later they were married. Dr. Woodhull’s fidelity lasted two days before he resumed his life as a philanderer and a drunk who lived beyond his means.
Within two years they had a baby boy, and it was born developmentally disabled. Woodhull and the baby returned to her family and she earned her living with her clairvoyance and wisely invested her money. Then she had a healthy baby girl by another drunken philanderer.
Woodhull finally met her soul mate in Col. James H. Blood, a loving and compassionate man who was also a Spiritualist. They were married spiritually if not legally, and Woodhull retained the name she was known by. When Woodhull would go into a trance and channel the messages of the angels, Blood would diligently write down every word.
GOING WHERE NO WOMEN HAD GONE BEFORE In 1869 Woodhull turned her attention to business and with her sister, Tennie, became the first female brokers on Wall Street when they established Woodhull, Claflin & Company. They were supported partly by Woodhull’s investments and the respect and deep pockets of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who appreciated Woodhull’s clairvoyant abilities. The sisters did not participate in the daily operations of the company, but they were nevertheless mocked in the press for being women in influential positions in finance.
The following year, these entrepreneurs started a journal called Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly which became a platform for their views on politics, finance and women’s issues. If they weren’t controversial before, they were now. Their opinions varied widely from the mainstream, and no topic was off limits. They advocated the elimination of the gold standard, graduated income tax, legalized prostitution, spiritualism and vegetarianism. They promoted women’s rights including sex education and “free love.” Woodhull believed in monogamy, but also that a woman retained the right to determine with whom she had sex. And, contrary to the social mores of the time, she strongly defended a woman’s right to leave a bad marriage. Woodhull quickly became a leader in the women’s suffrage movement preaching equality, freedom of choice, and the right to vote.
IT’S AN HONOR TO BE NOMINATED In 1871 Woodhull received a message from the same spirit that had earlier predicted her future, telling her to run for President. Her husband dismissed the notion as ridiculous, and the friends that she consulted laughed at her. But, the idea grew on her, and she trusted her spirit’s guidance. She announced her intention to run, and in June 1872, she was officially nominated as the candidate to represent the newly created Equal Rights Party. Frederick Douglas, a former slave, was nominated as her running mate, but he did not accept. Woodhull’s platform was to advance women’s political equality with men. She received support from trade unions, socialists and women’s rights advocates, but some of her ideas were so radical that more conservative suffragists like Susan B. Anthony would not support her.
Woodhull’s nomination was controversial not only because of her gender, but the legality of it was suspect. Technically she was ineligible because she wouldn’t be 35 years old, as mandated by the Constitution, until six months after the inauguration. However, since Ohio, her birth state, didn’t require birth certificates until 1867, Woodhull’s age couldn’t be confirmed. Also, the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote wasn’t ratified until 1920, which implied that a woman couldn’t run for President either. And some believed that because she was a woman she was not a citizen, also a requirement for President.
Ulysses S. Grant easily won reelection, leaving Woodhull’s destiny unfulfilled. In 1876 she divorced Colonel Blood and a few months later moved to England with her children. She earned her living on the lecture circuit. Wealthy banker John Biddulph Martin attended one of her talks and ended up becoming Woodhull’s third husband when she was 45 years old. This time she assumed his name. As Victoria Woodhull Martin, she and her daughter published a magazine called the Humanitarian until she was widowed. She died in England on June 9, 1927.
QUESTION: What are the best and worst things about being President of the United States?
© 2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved