Bittinger: Victoria Woodhull

Jul 29, 2016

The first women who sought the American presidency in the 19th century did so in order to turn a spotlight on the fact that women had neither the right to vote nor full rights as citizens.

When the famous suffragist, Susan B. Anthony, stated in 1860 that “cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform” she might have had Victoria Woodhull in mind - a bold figure who threw caution to the wind.

Woodhull had a Wall Street brokerage firm and a weekly newspaper with articles urging reform - both firsts for women. She was a famous spiritualist speaker, and once argued before the Judiciary Committee of the House that the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution actually did give women the vote.

Since the mainstream political parties would not let women join or vote, Woodhull launched her own party, the Equal Rights Party, in 1872, with the goal of running national candidates. At a party meeting, she stated that “A revolution shall sweep over the whole country, to purge it of political trickery, despotic assumption, and all industrial injustice.” She was nominated as the presidential candidate by acclamation of all in the New York hall.

But Harriet Beecher Stowe, famous author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and advocate of married women’s rights, warned that any presidential candidate must expect to “have his character torn off from his back in shreds and to be mauled, pummeled, and covered with dirt by every filthy paper all over the country. And no woman that was not willing to be dragged through every kennel, slopped into every dirty pail of water like an old mop, would ever consent to run as a candidate.”

A cartoon by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly destroyed Woodhull’s candidacy by depicting her as Mrs. Satan, an advocate of free love who didn’t care about a second figure in the picture: a symbolic poor woman with ragged children and a drunken husband strapped to her back.

When Woodhull countered by publishing accounts of adultery by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother, a famous clergyman, an obscure postal law was used to jail her for sending obscenity through the mails.

Woodhull spent Election Day in jail.

Susan B. Anthony voted for Ulysses S. Grant and was arrested three weeks later for the act of voting.