Victoria Clafin Woodhull was a fascinating character. She was a feminist, a free love advocate, a suffragette, a "magnetic healer" and a spiritualist. She probably had many other labels, many of which were unflattering, as she was despised by many of the men of her time who saw her as someone who did not know her place. One of her nicknames was Naughty Victoria. Born on September 23, 1838, she was the seventh of ten children (six of whom survived to maturity)/ She was born in the frontier town of Homer, Ohio. Her mother was Madame Roxanna "Roxy" Hummel Claflin, a follower of the Austrian mystic Franz Mesmer. Her father, Reuben "Buck" Buckman Claflin, is described as being "a con man, lawyer and snake oil salesman". (No, those terms are not synonymous.)
Woodhull grew up in an atmosphere of abuse. It is believed that she was both physically and sexually abused by her father. She managed to escape her horrific upbringing with the help of her younger sister Tennessee Celeste Claflin (called Tennie). The two would later start a stock brokerage and newspaper in New York City.
Victoria is described as being very intelligent, despite having only three years of formal education before being forced to leave school with her family. In a fraudulent scheme, her father insured the family's rotting gristmill before it burnt down. His arson was discovered and he was run out of town.
When she was 14, Victoria met a 28-year-old doctor who was either named Canning or Channing Woodhull. Dr. Woodhull practiced medicine in Ohio at a time when the state did not require formal medical education and licensing. According to some accounts, Woodhull abducted Victoria to marry her. The two were married in Cleveland on November 20, 1853 when Victoria was just 15. Dr. Woodhull was an alcoholic and a womanizer and Victoria had to work outside the home to support the family. She and Canning had two children, named Byron and Zulu (later called Zula). Byron was born with an intellectual disability in 1854, a condition Victoria believed was caused by her husband's alcoholism, possibly Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. After their children were born, Victoria divorced her husband, but kept his surname. In 1866, Victoria Woodhull married Colonel James Harvey Blood. It was also his second marriage. 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.
Her experiences from her first marriage led Woodhull to believe that the 19th century norms surrounding marriage were senseless. Even if the marriage was loveless or abusive, women had few options to escape. Divorce was only available in limited circumstances and was considered socially scandalous. Divorced women were stigmatized and often ostracized by society. Victoria Woodhull believed that women should have the choice to leave unbearable marriages. While she believed at first that relationships between men and women should be monogamous, she believed that women should have an equal right to consent to sex in a relationship, a notion not universally held in her time.
She gave a speech, which became known as the "Steinway speech," delivered on Monday, November 20, 1871, in Steinway Hall, New York City, in which 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." She went on to say:
"Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere."
Woodhull's earlier radicalism was inspired by the Christian socialism movement of the 1850s. But for most of her life, she was involved in Spiritualism, which she had learned from her mother. She also had a good mind for business. In 1870 Victoria, along with sister Tennessee (Tennie) Claflin, became the first female stockbrokers when they opened a brokerage firm on Wall Street. Wall Street brokers were shocked. The New York Sun described the situation as "Petticoats Among the Bovine and Ursine Animals." The firm was called Woodhull, Claflin & Company. The company had some clout, as it was backed by wealthy financier. Cornelius Vanderbilt, an admirer of Woodhull's skills as a medium. Vanderbilt was also rumoured to be Tennie's lover, which would explain his taking such an unprecedented step.
Woodhull made a fortune on the New York Stock Exchange by advising clients to make the same moves that Vanderbilt did. The firm made millions for their clients, and newspapers such as the New York Herald called Woodhull and Claflin "the Queens of Finance" and "the Bewitching Brokers."
On May 14, 1870, Woodhull and Claflin used money they had made from their brokerage to found a newspaper, the Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly. At its height it had a national circulation of 20,000. The newspaper had a special agenda: to support Victoria Claflin Woodhull's bid for President of the United States. The paper continued to published for the next six years. It's principal theme was feminism, but it also became notorious for publishing controversial opinions on taboo topics. For example it advocated for sex education, free love, women's suffrage, short skirts, spiritualism, vegetarianism, and licensed prostitution. The paper also printed the first English version of Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto in its edition of December 30, 1871. It supported organized labor also.
One of the paper's editorial targets was the hypocrisy of society's tolerating married men who had mistresses. In 1872, Woodhull publicly criticized well-known clergyman Henry Ward Beecher for having an adulterous affair with his parishioner Elizabeth Tilton, who had confessed to it. Beecher, a famous preacher of Brooklyn's Plymouth Church, had condemned Woodhull's free love philosophy in his sermons. When a member of his church, Theodore Tilton, disclosed to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a fellow suffragette, that his wife had confessed that Beecher was committing adultery with her, Woodhull decided to expose Beecher.
Beecher later 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. The trial ended with a hung jury, even though Beecher played the part of being the victim. On November 2, 1872, three dats before election day, Woodhull, Claflin and Col. Blood were arrested and charged with publishing an obscene newspaper and circulating it through the United States Postal Service. In the raid, 3,000 copies of the newspaper were found. Woodhull was later acquitted of the charge, but her incarceration following her arrest prevented her from attempting to vote in the election.
Woodhull used the publicity that followed her publication of the Beecher expose to gain publicity for her run for President. The previous year in 1871, she had used her connections to arranged to testify on women's suffrage before the House Judiciary Committee. There she advocated that that women already had the right to vote, all they had to do was use it. She said that the 14th and 15th Amendments guaranteed the protection of that right for all citizens, including women. Organizers of the 1871 National Woman Suffrage Association's third annual convention in Washington postponed the opening of the conference in order to attend the committee hearing. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Isabella Beecher Hooker all applauded Woodhull's statement.
Her appearance before the committee led Woodhull to move into the leadership circle of the suffrage movement. Woodhull was the first woman to petition Congress in person for suffrage. Numerous newspapers reported her appearance before Congress. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper printed a full-page engraving of Woodhull, surrounded by prominent suffragists. She joined the International Workingmen's Association, also known as the First International and supported its goals by articles in her newspaper, and by doing so, courted organized labor to her cause.
Woodhull announced her candidacy for president in a letter to the editor of the New York Herald on April 2, 1870. She 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. Her nomination was ratified at the convention on June 6, 1872. The convention nominated the former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass for Vice President. He did not attend the convention and he never acknowledged the nomination. Douglass took no part in it. His nomination stirred up controversy among critics about the mixing of the races and fears of miscegenation. The Equal Rights Party hoped to use the nominations to reunite suffragists with African-American civil rights activists
Woodhull's candidacy had led her opponents to comment in the media about her support of free love. This was among the reasons that Woodhull decided to devote an entire issue of Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly (November 2, 1872) to the adulterous affair between Elizabeth Tilton and Reverend Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher was a supporter of female suffrage, but he had also lectured against free love in his sermons. It is unclear whether Woodhull's arrest was a deliberate attempt to prevent her from voting, but on the same day that the edition was published, threedays before the presidential election, U.S. Federal Marshals arrested Woodhull; her second husband, Colonel James Blood; and her sister Tennie on charges of "publishing an obscene newspaper" because of the content of this issue. She and her sister were held in the Ludlow Street Jail for the next month. The arrest was arranged by Anthony Comstock, who considered himself to be a moral defender of the nation. Woodhull's supporters levelled accusations of censorship and government persecution. Nevertheless, the arrest prevented Woodhull from attempting to vote during the 1872 presidential election.
With the publication of the scandal, Theodore Tilton, Elizabeth's husband, sued Beecher for "alienation of affection." The later trial in 1875 was sensationalized across the nation and eventually resulted in a hung jury. Woodhull was later acquitted, though her defense was a technical one. The case was not decided on the merits.
As for her results at the polling booth, Woodhull received no electoral votes in the election of 1872, an election in which six different candidates received at least one electoral vote. Because any votes she received were considered to be spoiled ballots, it is unclear how many votes she may have received.
The lawsuit ruined Woodhull financially. She spent a fortune on her legal bills and lost her stock brokerage. The government confiscated her printing press, her personal papers, and her brokerage accounts. She received death threats and blackmail letters. She estimated her losses at half a million dollars but in a lawsuit for malicious prosecution, she offered to settle for $50,000. She never received anything and ended up bankrupt.
The whole affair seemed to bring about a change in Woodhull, perhaps in an effort to try to recoup her losses. In 1875, Woodhull began publicly espousing Christianity and changed her political stances. She kept publishing her periodical, using it to expose Spiritualist frauds. This alienated her Spiritualist followers. She wrote articles against promiscuity, calling it a "curse of society", and repudiated her earlier views on free love. Her writings now idealized purity, motherhood, marriage, and the Bible.
In October 1876, Woodhull divorced her second husband, Colonel Blood. After Cornelius Vanderbilt's death in 1877, William Henry Vanderbilt paid Woodhull and her sister Claflin $1,000 to leave the country because he was worried that would might testify in litigaton about the distribution of Cornelius Vanderbilt's estate. The sisters accepted the offer and moved to England in August 1877. There she gave her first public appearance at St. James's Hall in London on December 4, 1877. The lecture was called "The Human Body, the Temple of God." At one of her lectures she met banker John Biddulph Martin. They began to see each other and married on October 31, 1883. From then on, she was known as Victoria Woodhull Martin. Under that name, she published the magazine The Humanitarian from 1892 to 1901. After her husband died in 1901, Martin gave up publishing and retired to the country. She built a village school with Tennessee and her daughter Zula at Bredon's Norton school, and she became a champion for education reform in English village schools with the addition of kindergarten curriculum.
Victoria Woodhull Martin died on June 9, 1927 at Norton Park in Bredon's Norton, Worcestershire. In 2001, Victoria Woodhull was inducted posthumously into the National Women's Hall of Fame.In March 2017, Amazon Studios announced production of a movie based on her life, produced by and starring Brie Larson as Victoria Woodhull.