About Victoria California Martin (Claflin)
Victoria Claflin Woodhull, later Victoria Woodhull Martin, (September 23, 1838 – June 9, 1927) was an American leader of the woman's suffrage movement.
Woodhull was an advocate of free love. She and her sister were the first women to operate a brokerage in Wall Street. She was the first woman to start a weekly newspaper; an activist for women's rights and labor reforms. In 1872, she was the first woman candidate for President of the United States.
Woodhull went from rags to riches twice, her first fortune being made on the road as a highly successful magnetic healer before she joined the spiritualist movement in the 1870s. While authorship of many of her articles is disputed (many of her speeches on these topics were collaborations between Woodhull, her backers and her second husband Colonel James Blood), her role as a representative of these movements was powerful. Together with her sister, she was the first woman to operate a brokerage firm in Wall Street, and they were the first women to found a newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly.
At her peak of political activity in the early 1870s, Woodhull is best known as the first woman candidate for the United States presidency, which she ran for in 1872 from the Equal Rights Party, supporting women's suffrage and equal rights. Her arrest on obscenity charges a few days before the election, for publishing an account of the alleged adulterous affair between the prominent minister, Henry Ward Beecher, and Elizabeth Tilton, added to the sensational coverage of her candidacy. She did not receive any electoral votes, and there is conflicting evidence about popular votes.
Many of the reforms and ideals which Woodhull espoused for the working class, against what she saw as the corrupt capitalist elite, were extremely controversial in her time. Generations later many of these reforms have been implemented and are now taken for granted. Other of her ideas and suggested reforms are still debated today.
Early life and education
Woodhull was born Victoria California Claflin, the seventh of ten children, in the rural frontier town of Homer, Licking County, Ohio. Her mother Roxanna Hummel Claflin was illiterate and had been born illegitimate. She had become a follower of the Austrian mystic Franz Mesmer and the new spiritualist movement. Her father Reuben Buckman Claflin was a con man and snake oil salesman. He came from an impoverished branch of the Massachusetts-based Scots-American Claflin family, semi-distant cousins to Governor William Claflin. Victoria became close to her sister Tennessee Celeste Claflin (called Tennie), seven years her junior and the last child born to the family. They worked together as adults.
Victoria wrote later that she was "a child without a childhood," as her parents hired her out as a menial. Her own connection to spiritualism began at an early age; Woodhull recounted that when the work was overwhelming, heavy objects seemed to be lifted by unseen hands and "...when walking it seemed my feet did not touch the ground." By age 11, she had only three years of formal education, but her teachers found her to be extremely intelligent. She was forced to leave school and Homer with her family after her father burned the family's rotting gristmill. When he tried to get compensated by insurance, his arson and fraud were discovered; and he was run off by a group of town vigilantes. The town paid for the rest of the family to follow him to Pennsylvania.
First marriage and family
When she was 14, Victoria met 28-year-old Canning Woodhull (listed as "Channing" in some records), a doctor from a town outside Rochester, New York. Her family had consulted him to treat the girl for a chronic illness. Woodhull practiced medicine in Ohio at a time when the state did not require formal medical education and licensing. By some accounts, Woodhull claimed to be the nephew of Caleb Smith Woodhull, mayor of New York City from 1849 to 1851; in fact he was a distant cousin.
Their marriage certificate was recorded in Cleveland on November 23, 1853, when Victoria was two months past her 15th birthday. She soon learned that her new husband was an alcoholic and a womanizer. She often had to work outside the home to support the family. She and Canning had two children, Byron and Zulu (later Zula) Maude. According to one account, Byron was born with an intellectual disability in 1854, a condition Victoria believed was caused by her husband's alcoholism. Another version said his disability resulted from a fall from a window. Woodhull divorced her husband.
About 1865 she married Colonel James Harvey Blood, who also was marrying for a second time. He had served in the Union Army in Missouri during the American Civil War, and had been elected as city auditor of St. Louis, Missouri. They divorced in October 1876.
In 1872 Victoria Woodhull had started a relationship with the anarchist Benjamin Tucker, which lasted for three years.
Woodhull's support of free love probably originated as she discovered the failings of her first husband. Women who married in the United States during the 19th century were bound into the unions, whether loveless or not, with few options to escape. Divorce, where possible, was scandalous, and women who divorced were stigmatized and often ostracized by society. Victoria Woodhull concluded women should have the choice to leave unbearable marriages. She railed against the hypocrisy of society's tolerating married men who had mistresses and engaged in other sexual dalliances. Woodhull believed in monogamous relationships, although she did state she had the right also to love someone else "exclusively" if she desired. She said:
“To woman, by nature, belongs the right of sexual determination. When the instinct is aroused in her, then and then only should commerce follow. When woman rises from sexual slavery to sexual freedom, into the ownership and control of her sexual organs, and man is obliged to respect this freedom, then will this instinct become pure and holy; then will woman be raised from the iniquity and morbidness in which she now wallows for existence, and the intensity and glory of her creative functions be increased a hundred-fold . . .”
After moving to England in 1877, Woodhull met John Biddulph Martin, a banker, at one of her first public lectures in 1877 in London. They married in 1883. He died in 1901.
Woodhull and her sister Tennessee (Tennie) Claflin became the first women brokers and in 1870 opened a brokerage firm on Wall Street. She made a fortune on the New York Stock Exchange. Woodhull, Claflin & Company opened in 1870 with the assistance of the wealthy Cornelius Vanderbilt, an admirer of Woodhull's skills as a medium and rumored to have been her sister Tennie's lover. Newspapers such as the New York Herald hailed Woodhull and Claflin as "the Queens of Finance" and "the Bewitching Brokers."[ Many contemporary men's journals (e.g., The Days' Doings) published sexualized images of the pair running their firm (although they did not participate in the day-to-day business of the firm), linking the concept of publicly minded, un-chaperoned women with ideas of "sexual immorality" and prostitution.
On May 14, 1870, Woodhull and Claflin used the money they had made from their brokerage to found a paper, Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, which published for the next six years. It became notorious for publishing controversial opinions on taboo topics, advocating among other things sex education, free love, women's suffrage, short skirts, spiritualism, vegetarianism, and licensed prostitution. Histories often state the paper advocated birth control, but some historians disagree. The paper is now known primarily for printing the first English version of Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto in its December 30, 1871 edition.
In 1872 the Weekly published a story that set off a national scandal and preoccupied the public for months. Henry Ward Beecher, a renowned preacher of Brooklyn's Plymouth Church, had condemned Woodhull's free love philosophy in his sermons. But a member of his church, Theodore Tilton, disclosed to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a colleague of Woodhull, that his wife had confessed Beecher was committing adultery with her. Provoked by such hypocrisy, Woodhull decided to expose Beecher. He ended up standing trial in 1875 for adultery in a proceeding that proved to be one of the most sensational legal episodes of the era, holding the attention of hundreds of thousands of Americans. The trial ended with a hung jury.
George Francis Train once defended her. Other feminists of her time, including Susan B. Anthony, disagreed with her tactics in pushing for women's equality. Some characterized her as opportunistic and unpredictable; in one notable incident, she had a run-in with Anthony during a meeting of the National Women's Suffrage Association (NWSA). (The radical NWSA later merged with the conservative American Women's Suffrage Association (AWSA) to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association).
Women's rights advocate
Woodhull learned how to penetrate the all-male domain of national politics. A year into earning substantial income on Wall Street, she arranged to testify on women's suffrage before the House Judiciary Committee. Woodhull argued that women already had the right to vote — all they had to do was use it — since the 14th and 15th Amendments granted that right to all citizens. The simple but powerful logic of her argument impressed some committee members. Learning of Woodhull's planned address, suffrage leaders postponed the opening of the 1871 National Woman Suffrage Association's third annual convention in Washington in order to attend the committee hearing. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Isabella Beecher Hooker, saw Woodhull as the newest champion of their cause. They applauded her statement: "[W]omen are the equals of men before the law, and are equal in all their rights."
With the power of her first public appearance as a woman's rights advocate, Woodhull moved to the leadership circle of the suffrage movement. Although her Constitutional argument was not original, she focused unprecedented public attention on suffrage. Following Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Woodhull was the second woman ever to petition Congress in person. Numerous newspapers reported her appearance before Congress. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper printed a full-page engraving of Woodhull, surrounded by prominent suffragists, delivering her argument.
Woodhull joined the International Workingmen's Association, also known as the First International. She supported its goals by articles in her newspaper. In the United States, many Yankee radicals: former abolitionists and other progressive activists, became involved in the organization, which had been founded in England. German-American and ethnic Irish nearly lost control of the organization, and feared its goals were going to be lost in the broad-based, democratic egalitarianism promoted by the Americans. In 1871 the Germans expelled most of the English-speaking members of the First International's U.S. sections, leading to the quick decline of the organization, as it failed to attract the ethnic working class in America. Karl Marx commented disparagingly on Woodhull in 1872, and expressed approval of the expulsions.
Woodhull was nominated for President of the United States by the newly formed Equal Rights Party on May 10, 1872, at Apollo Hall, New York City. A year earlier, she had announced her intention to run. Also in 1871, she spoke publicly against the government being composed only of men; she proposed developing a new constitution and a new government a year thence. Her nomination was ratified at the convention on June 6, 1872. They nominated the former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass for Vice President. He did not attend the convention and never acknowledged the nomination. He served as a presidential elector in the United States Electoral College for the State of New York.
While many historians and authors agree that Woodhull was the first woman to run for President of the United States, some have questioned that priority given issues with the legality of her run. They disagree with classifying it as a true candidacy for the following reasons:
The government declined to print her name on the ballot.
At the time, political parties rather than the federal government were responsible for printing ballots. This practice changed in the United States between the years 1888-1892 with the adoption of the Australian ballot. About 50 years after the election, The Washington Post claimed that the Equal Rights Party published ballots bearing Woodhull's name and that they were handed out at the polls. Because no Equal Rights Party ballot for 1872 has been preserved, this claim cannot be confirmed. The first woman to appear on a presidential ballot printed by the federal government was Charlene Mitchell in 1968.
She was younger than the constitutionally mandated age of 35.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, this is the most cited criticism by political analysts, but election coverage by newspapers does not suggest it was a significant issue in the 19th century. The presidential inauguration was in March 1873. Woodhull's 35th birthday was in September 1873. Some contend attorney Belva Lockwood was the first woman to run for President, because she was the legal age at the time of candidacy, but other critiques were similarly posed against the legality of her candidacy. No primary documentation supports Woodhull's birth in 1838. Ohio did not require the registration of births until 1867. The probate court in Licking County, Ohio, burned down in 1875 and destroyed all previously recorded records except land records.
She did not receive any electoral and/or popular votes.
There is evidence that Woodhull received popular votes that were not counted. Official election returns also show about 2,000 "scattering votes." It is unknown whether any of those scattering votes were cast for her. Supporters contend that her popular votes were not counted because of gender discrimination and prejudice; critics contend the votes were not counted because they had other legal defects besides gender. The first woman to receive an electoral vote was Libertarian Tonie Nathan, who received a vote for Vice President in 1972.
Women could not legally vote until August 1920.
Some women legally voted in state, territorial or local elections, and held public office prior to 1920. The Wyoming Territory granted women the vote in 1869. Susanna M. Salter was elected Mayor of Argonia, Kansas, in 1887, and Jeannette Rankin of Montana was elected to Congress in 1916. In New York, Woodhull's state of residence, propertied women had the right to vote until 1777, when it was withdrawn. In 1871, Woodhull went to the polls for a local election in New York and was allowed to register, but when she returned to vote, her ballot was refused by election officials.
Some scholars say that it was not until passage of the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote, that women implicitly had the right to run for President. For that reason, they contend Senator Margaret Chase Smith was the first woman presidential candidate; she was nominated at the 1964 Republican National Convention. Smith is often identified as the first woman to be nominated for President by a major party. But, Laura Clay and Cora Wilson Stewart of Kentucky were nominated as candidates for the presidency at the 1920 Democratic National Convention and received "the first vote cast for a woman in the convention of either of the two great parties."
She was a woman.
In the 19th century, this was the most cited legal restriction to her candidacy. Some of Woodhull's contemporaries believed that as a woman, she was not a full citizen, as she was not entitled to vote. Since the Constitution required that the President be a citizen, she was excluded from holding the office. Others believed women were citizens, but that the states had the right to limit the franchise to males only. Some Woodhull supporters believed that although Woodhull could not vote legally, other could vote for her. United States law has its roots in English common law, and it had an established precedent of women holding public office.
Woodhull's campaign was also notable for the nomination of Frederick Douglass, although he did not take part in it. His nomination stirred up controversy about the mixing of whites and blacks in public life and fears of miscegenation (especially as he had married a much younger white woman after his first wife died.) The Equal Rights Party hoped to use the nominations to reunite suffragists with African-American civil rights activists, as the exclusion of female suffrage from the Fifteenth Amendment two years earlier had caused a substantial rift between the groups.
The circumstances leading up to Woodhull's nomination had created a rift between Woodhull and her former supporter Susan B. Anthony, and almost ended the collaboration of Anthony with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton, who had unsuccessfully run for Congress in New York in 1868, was more sympathetic to Woodhull. Anthony voted for the Republican candidate, Ulysses S. Grant in the presidential election. Like many of Woodhull's protests, her nomination for the presidency was first and foremost a media performance, designed to shake up the prejudices of the day.
Having been vilified in the media for her support of free love, Woodhull devoted an issue of Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly (November 2, 1872) to an alleged adulterous affair between Elizabeth Tilton and Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent Protestant minister in New York (he supported female suffrage but had lectured against free love in his sermons). Woodhull published the article to highlight what she saw as a sexual double-standard between men and women.
That same day, a few days before the presidential election, U.S. Federal Marshals arrested Woodhull, her second husband Colonel James Blood, and her sister Tennie C. Claflin on charges of "publishing an obscene newspaper" because of the content of this issue. The sisters were held in the Ludlow Street Jail for the next month, a place normally reserved for civil offenses, but which contained more hardened criminals as well. The arrest was arranged by Anthony Comstock, the self-appointed moral defender of the nation at the time. Opponents raised questions about censorship and government persecution. The three were acquitted on a technicality six months later, but the arrest prevented Woodhull from attempting to vote during the 1872 presidential election. With the publication of the scandal, Theodore Tilton, the husband of Elizabeth, sued Beecher for "alienation of affection." The trial in 1875 was sensationalized across the nation, and eventually resulted in a hung jury.
Woodhull tried to gain nominations for the presidency again in 1884 and 1892. The newspapers in 1892 reported that she was nominated by the "National Woman Suffragists' Nominating Convention" on September 21 at Willard's Hotel in Boonville, New York, presided over by Anna M. Parker, President of the convention. Mary L. Stowe of California was nominated as the vice presidential candidate, but some woman's suffrage organizations repudiated the nominations, saying that the nominating committee was not authorized. In 1892 Woodhull was quoted as saying she was "destined" by "prophecy" to be elected President of the United States in 1892.
Life in England
In October 1876, Woodhull divorced her second husband, Colonel Blood. Less than a year later, exhausted and possibly depressed, she left for England to start a new life. She made her first public appearance as a lecturer at St. James's Hall in London on December 4, 1877. Her lecture was called "The Human Body, the Temple of God," a lecture which she had previously presented in the United States. Present at one of her lectures was the banker John Biddulph Martin. They began to see each other and married on October 31, 1883. (His family disapproved of his marriage.)
From then on, she was known as Victoria Woodhull Martin. Under that name, she published the magazine, The Humanitarian, from 1892 to 1901, with help from her daughter Zula Woodhull. After her husband died in 1901, Woodhull Martin gave up publishing and retired to the country, establishing residence at Bredon's Norton.
She died on June 9, 1927 at Norton Park in Bredon's Norton, Worcestershire, England near Tewkesbury, England, United Kingdom.
Legacy and honors
A cenotaph of Victoria Woodhull-Martin is located at Tewkesbury Abbey.
The Woodhull Freedom Foundation & Federation, is a sexual freedom advocacy organization named in honor of Victoria Woodhull.
She was honored by the Office of the Manhattan Borough President in March 2008 and was included in a map of historical sites related or dedicated to important women.
Victoria Woodhull was a passionate campaigner for social justice who combined deep belief in Spiritualism, radical views on achieving equal rights for women, advocacy of divorce law changes, birth control, working people's rights, and tax reform as her platform for change. She was the first American woman to address Congress and the first to run for the office of President of the United States.
Overcoming childhood poverty, abuse and exploitation, Woodhull supported her family by working as a medium and fortuneteller. Her success as a clairvoyant connected her with Cornelius Vanderbilt. His backing made it possible for Mrs. Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin to own and operate a brokerage firm and publish the highly successful Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly.
Woodhull's charisma, sense of mission, incisiveness, wealth, and independence made it possible for her to briefly reinvigorate the women's movement. Many of Woodhull's views and themes were prophetic of issues and debates of the twentieth century. Stanton and Anthony at first embraced Woodhull but drew back as her extreme critiques of marriage and America's class disparities, involvement in flamboyant scandals, and "free love" doctrines made her increasingly controversial.
After years of speeches before packed houses, the adulation of thousands, and acceptance in the wealthiest circles of the nation, Woodhull lost support because of her embroilment in scandal and manipulation, her scathing critiques and unveiling of hypocrisies. She and her sister moved to England in 1877, married wealthy men and lived comfortable, conventional lives.
Victoria Woodhull (Claflin)'s Timeline
September 23, 1838
Homer, Licking, Ohio, United States
June 9, 1927
Bredon's Norton, Worcestershire, England