January 11, 1871 was Victoria Woodhull’s moment to shine. With Congress addressing women’s suffrage for the first time, Woodhull – thirty-three year old, strikingly beautiful and intensely charismatic – received the honor of addressing them. She had the blessing of Benjamin Butler, the bloated, wall-eyed general-turned-congressman of ever-changing political views (evolving from a conservative Democrat to a Radical Republican and back again) and eccentric social circles. Though she didn’t appear before the entire Congress, merely the Judiciary Committee, it was still a momentous occasion – the first time any woman had spoken before Congress.
Woodhull had already taken a bold step the previous year, announcing her bid for President of the United States. This was supremely quixotic; not only wasn’t Woodhull allowed to vote in most states, at age thirty-four she would be too young in 1872 even to serve as President. Certainly her eccentric personal views and radical politics made her unlikely to attract many voters. Observers wouldn’t have known it, though, from the effectively speech she made that day.
At first, Woodhull seemed uncertain, flushed and wavering; some observers thought she might faint. Yet she eventually gained momentum, reading a prepared memorial that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution made no restrictions on rights or suffrage based on sex. “Your memorialist would most respectfully petition your honorable bodies to make such laws as in the wisdom of Congress shall be necessary and proper for carrying to execution the right vested by the Constitution in the citizens of the United States to vote, without regard to sex.”
The assembled Congressmen listened politely, while the audience (including fellow suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Isabella Beecher Hooker) applauded Woodhull’s words. Afterwards, other suffragists, including Woodhull’s sister, Tennessee Claflin, managed to buttonhole Butler and other members of the committee for private lobbying. Their efforts were for naught, however, as the committee voted 6-2 against suffrage. John Bingham of Ohio, who had screamed at Woodhull “you are a not a citizen, you are a woman!” shortly before her address, wrote an opinion insisting that “the Committee on the Judiciary be discharged from the further consideration of this subject.”
Yet Victoria Woodhull had spoken, and would not be silenced. A month later she addressed a feminist convention in New York and received renown as the movement’s coming leader, delivering a far more fiery speech than her memorial to Congress. If women weren’t granted equal rights, Woodhull vowed, “we mean treason; we mean secession, and on a thousand times grander scale than was that of the South; we will overslough this bogus republic and plant a government of righteousness in its stead.” Such outspokenness would be Woodhull’s calling card…and prove her downfall.
Woodhull presented an odd avatar for women’s suffrage. Accounts of her life read like a Gothic novel: daughter of a petty criminal and conman, raised in Homer, Ohio, she married at fifteen to her family doctor, who soon abandoned Victoria for the comfort of brothels and alcohol. Woodhull emancipated a few years later with her two children (including her mentally handicapped son), moving around the country before settling in New York with her sister, Tennessee Claflin. She was also a devout spiritualist who worked as a medium and faith healer, claiming that her chief adviser was the spirit of Demosthenes.
Spiritualism, in fact, likely paved Victoria’s road to feminism. Founded in the 1840s by the Fox sisters, two girls in upstate New York who claimed an ability to communicate with ghosts, spiritualism offered women an unusual degree of autonomy. Historian Myra McPherson writes that “Spiritualism was a breakthrough for intelligent women who loathed their role as silent partners deemed by society as unfit to speak in public….Savvy women soon took over the movement. They held forth as lecturers and moved into the homes of the rich and famous to conduct seances.”
It was Tennessee who offered the sisters’ entry point to respectable society. Tennessee also became involved in fake medicines and, in fact, fled Ohio after one of her healing agents (reportedly a mixture of mustard and lye) caused a patient to expire. Blonde, curvaceous and a strikingly beautiful young woman, she intrigued railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt (an avowed spiritualist) with her claims of magnetic healing, and became his lover. Eventually, Tennie and Victoria finagled a $50,000 loan from Vanderbilt, leveraging it into stock speculation. In February 1870 they opened their own brokerage, Woodhull & Claflin, the first woman-owned business on Wall Street.
Victoria and Tennie proved an instant sensation. Novelty drew much attention to their business, with male observers inevitably remarking on the apparent contrast between their feminine beauty and masculine attire. Each wore their hair “boyishly short,” sported silk bow ties and a solid gold pen alluringly propped behind their ears. Wags dubbed them the “Bewitching Brokers” and struggled to take their efforts seriously, noting the role of Vanderbilt and other investors in propping up their business.
Looks aside, the sisters were also remarkably good businesswomen. Taking advice from Vanderbilt and others, they made millions on stock speculation and investments; their business showed that women could succeed in a man’s world. Walt Whitman visited Victoria and told her, “you have given an object lesson to the whole world.” Susan B. Anthony was equally impressed, writing that “these two ladies…use their brains, their energy and their knowledge of business to earn them a livelihood.”
Tennie, the more practical of the pair, had no illusions about the financial basis for their independence. Very much a feminist (“I think a woman is just as capable of making a living as a man,” she boasted to a skeptical reporter), who would in fact run for Congress in 1869 (a year before Victoria declared her presidential candidacy), she nonetheless focused on the practical implications and social import of their work. “To have plenty of [gold] is to be pretty nearly independent of everything and everybody,” she reasoned.
Meanwhile, Victoria entertained ambitions far beyond monetary success. She claimed that “we went unto Wall Street..because I wanted to plant the flag of women’s rebellion in the very center of the continent.” Naturally, intelligent, outspoken and well-connected as Woodhull was, she and Tennie became involved in the era’s burgeoning women’s suffrage movement. Unfortunately, she entered the movement during a moment of division and disarray.
For a brief moment in post-Civil War America, it seemed like the era’s two leading progressive causes – civil rights for African-Americans, newly freed from Southern slavery, and women’s suffrage, having made little progress since 1848’s Seneca Falls convention – made natural allies. These movements formed a fusion group, the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), in 1866 which boasted abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison among its leaders. Yet over time, their alliance degenerated into sparring over which group, black men or women of any race, had pride of place in demanding change.
This split surfaced most dramatically at the AERA’s May 1869 convention in New York, spurred by debates over the 14th Amendment’s failure to mention gender in its equality proclamation. Despite Ulysses S. Grant’s recent election to the Presidency, Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued that black Americans’ moment in the sun had passed. “As the celestial gate to civil rights is slowly moving on its hinges,” she said, “it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see Sambo walk into the kingdom first.” That epithet evidently wasn’t offensive enough, as Stanton expressed horror at allowing “ignorant negroes and foreigners to make laws” and even warned, in the ugliest possible terms, that black suffrage “would culminate in fearful outrages on womanhood.”
Frederick Douglass, also in attendance, responded with eloquent fury. Noting Stanton’s history as an abolitionist and acknowledging that “the right of woman to vote is as sacred in my judgment as that of man,” Douglass argued that African-American rights were far more urgent. Invoking a recent race riot in New Orleans, Douglass commented that “when women, because they are women, are hunted down…when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lampposts, when their children are torn from their arms, and their brains dashed upon the pavement…they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.”
Many of the convention’s suffragists, led by Lucy Stone, sided with Douglass and agreed to give black suffrage priority in their campaigning. Such deference infuriated Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who soon split from the AERA to form their own group, the National Woman’s Suffrage Association (NWSA), who focused exclusively on women’s rights. Thus another chance for a united progressive front collapsed amidst ego clashes, infighting and other predictable failures in intersectional politics.
Victoria Woodhull, for her part, sought a broader progressive platform than either. Inspired by her second husband, Colonel James Blood, she became enamored of socialism and radical reforms; she advocated for racial and gender equality, an eight hour work day, atheism and numerous other causes which placed her on the left fringe of 19th Century politics. She and Tennie formed The Woodhull & Claflin Weekly, a newspaper whose scabrous editorials (some written by Woodhull, others by anarchist Stephen Pearl Andrews) attacked the Establishment, exposed institutional corruption and advocated radical reform of American society.
During this time, Woodhull openly flirted with communism. Her sister, Tennessee, led marches in New York commemorating the Paris Commune, and both joined Karl Marx’s International Working Man’s Association. Indeed, their paper became the first in the United States to publish the Communist Manifesto. (Karl Marx, for his part, was less than impressed, branding Woodhull a “humbug [who] preaches free love [and] has a banking business” and castigating her attachment to spiritualism.) Indeed, free love more than Marxism proved Woodhull’s biggest stumbling block.
“Free love,” in the 19th Century, was a remarkably flexible concept. In practice, it could accommodate any number of opinions, including liberalized divorce laws, legalized abortion and contraception, and a simple attempt to combat sexual double standards, concepts all radical enough in the High Victorian era. Yet the public invariably associated it with its most extreme manifestation: in the lurid words of the Woman’s Journal, “be not deceived: free love means free lust.”
Woodhull’s rhetoric on this score was ferociously antagonistic. She labeled women who married for money as “legalized prostitutes” and frequently noted the hypocritical (and sadly, still prevalent) double standard which encouraged male promiscuity while scorning sexually active women as whores. “There are two classes only who have anything more than an imaginary interest in maintaining the marriage system,” she proclaimed: “The hypocritical priests who get their fees for forging the chain and the blackguard lawyers who get bigger ones for breaking the fetters.”
Woodhull’s biggest misstep came on November 20, 1871 during a speech in New York’s Steinway Hall. After dancing around the issue of free love, Woodhull found herself baited by the audience and in particular, her deranged sister Utica, who heckled Victoria throughout the speech. “Yes, I am a free lover!” she shouted defiantly. “I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to change that love every day if I please.” This proclamation led to a cascade of boos and reams of popular opprobrium.
Thus, Victoria began her presidential campaign under a cloud of scandal. Henry Bowen branded Woodhull’s speech “one of the dirtiest meetings that has ever been held in New York” and even her feminist allies deserted her. Susan B. Anthony barred Woodhull from speaking at suffrage meetings and even Elizabeth Cady Stanton spurned her company. Thomas Nast caricatured Woodhull as “Mrs. Satan,” a horned figure touting free love as a cure for all societal ills. Yet Woodhull’s antics didn’t seem out of place in a remarkably corrupt era of American politics.
Ulysses Grant’s administration, beginning on an optimistic note of reconciliation (“Let Us Have Peace”), descended into controversy. His tough Reconstruction policies alienated Southerners and Northern moderates (the rights of African-Americans, of course, mattered little to these critics); worse, the myriad scandals encircling his administration disgusted many Americans. The Liberal Republicans, led by German emigre Carl Schurz, broke with Grant, formed an alliance with the Democrats and nominated Horace Greeley, the mercurial editor of the New York Tribune (who once advised suffragists that Woodhull “will resign the craft to the bottom if she is not thrown overboard”). Alexander Stephens, one-time Vice President of the Confederacy, complained that Grant and Greeley offered “a choice between arsenic and strychnine.”
While less obviously racist than Stephens, the Liberal Republicans minimized the racial violence underpinning the country’s divisions. Their focus on corruption alienated black leaders like Frederick Douglass, who remarked that “if as a class we are slighted by the Republican Party, we are as a class murdered by the Democratic Party.” Certainly Horace Greeley, a crankish gadfly with a weakness for bizarre social and dietary fads, abandoned his youthful idealism for reconciliation with the South. Both tickets mostly ignored women’s rights, aside from a vague, platitudinous plank at the Republican convention which Elizabeth Cady Stanton dismissed as the “Philadelphia Splinter.”
Even so, Woodhull’s campaign (under the banner of the Equal Rights Party) attracted little support from fellow suffragists. In a well-intentioned though doomed effort to attract black support, Woodhull named Frederick Douglass as her running mate. (For his part, Douglass was too busy campaigning for Grant’s reelection to notice.) Woodhull did retained vocal, if shallow support among radicals and working class Americans, especially socialist-inclined urban workers who appreciated her advocacy for a classless society and an eight hour work day. But the rich benefactors who’d supported her business and speaking careers found little interest in a quixotic presidential campaign.
Despite her sympathy towards African-Americans, Victoria forged few friendships within their community. Tennessee, on the other hand, became the honorary Colonel of the 85th New York, the state’s only black militia unit. She assured her men that “I would rather accept the colonelcy of a colored regiment than that one of composed of white men.” This experiment earned her ridicule from white society, who mockingly wondered if she would “wear the long riding habit of her former sex, or adopt the trousers and saddle of the masculine sex.” Her landlord was so disgusted by Claflin consorting with black soldiers that he evicted Tennessee from her apartment.
Thus, Victoria’s presidential campaign doomed the sisters’ already shaky reputations, and their better-established livelihoods in New York. And, worse, their efforts earned the wrath of America’s leading moral arbiter.
Henry Ward Beecher was post-Civil War America’s most famous preacher. Though renowned as a reform-minded evangelical (his shipments of Sharps rifles to abolitionists in “Bleeding Kansas” became known as “Beecher’s Bibles”), Beecher’s views became suspect after the war. Notably, he defended capitalism against labor – “man cannot live by bread alone, but the man who cannot live on bread and water is not fit to live,” he chided a group of strikers. Beecher supported woman’s suffrage, saying that “the integrity and strength of the state will…be advantaged when when woman shall be…a participator in public affairs,” but he abjured the movement’s more provocative leaders.
Worse, in Victoria’s eyes, Beecher honored his own pronouncements on the sanctity of marriage and the “Gospel of Love” with flagrant womanizing. Biographer Debby Applegate characterized Beecher’s marriage to Eunice Baker a “classic marital cycle of neglect and nagging,” with four of their eight children dying and love rapidly fading. Beecher sought solace with other women, liaisons which failed to diminish Beecher’s reputation. Thus, despite his progressive views, Beecher embodied the very patriarchal hypocrisy which Victoria regularly denounced. A collision between them was likely inevitable; their ultimate conflict would tarnish the reputations of both.
As early as November 1870, Woodhull and Reverend Beecher sparred through the pages of her newspaper. Stephen Pearl Andrews published in the Weekly an editorial attacking Beecher “on the ground of moral vacillation and cowardice” for his equivocation on supporting Woodhull. Sister Isabella Beecher Hooker, who supported women’s suffrage, nonetheless resented Woodhull’s success (not least because her historic address to Congress usurped Hooker’s own planned speech a day later), attacks on her brother and her more radical opinions, urging fellow suffragists to distance themselves from Victoria.
This distaste extended to Beecher’s other siblings. Catharine Beecher, in particular, labeled women’s suffrage as “contrary to common sense” and regularly sniped at Woodhull’s quixotic candidacy in the press. Mutual friends arranged a meeting in February 1871, which turned into a disastrous carriage ride through New York’s Central Park. The two engaged in a shouting match which drew the attention of passers by; it ended with Catherine vowing: “Remember Victoria Woodhull, that I shall strike you dead!” Victoria urged Catherine to “strike as much and as hard as you please!” before departing from the carriage.
Another sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, did her best to oblige. The author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, far less enlightened about feminism than abolition, despised Victoria as “a snake [who] should be given a good clip with a shovel” and Tennie as “an amphibious animal.” She breathed life into these sentiments with her acid roman a clef novel, My Wife and I, which caricatured Woodhull and Claffin as promiscuous ninnies. Yet Victoria nursed an even more personal reason for despising the Beechers.
While preparing her presidential campaign, Victoria formed an alliance with Theodore Tilton, an anarchist-minded reformer from Boston. Tilton wrote editorials for Woodhull’s Weekly and penned an effusive campaign biography. At some point in their acquaintance the two became lovers, further complicating their professional relationship. Perhaps Tilton took to Victoria’s bed because his wife, Elizabeth, was having affairs of her own…specifically, one with Henry Ward Beecher.
After months of indelicate hints and sniping, Victoria published a long diatribe exposing Beecher’s affair with Elizabeth Tilton on November 2, 1872. “I intend that this article shall burst like a bombshell into the ranks of the moralistic social camp,” she announced, before laying out what she knew. She remarked of Beecher’s high-minded sisters, “it would ill-become these women…to talk of antecedents or to cast any smirch upon Miss Woodhull, for I am reliably assured that Henry Ward Beecher preaches to at least twenty of his mistresses on Sunday.” She further denounced the Reverend himself as “a poltroon, a coward and a sneak.”
It’s unlikely that Woodhull won many votes, especially after her arrest, though precise totals are hard to come by. Certainly her feminist sisters deserted her. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton held rallies in support of Grant’s reelection that fall; in November, Anthony would be arrested attempting to vote for the President. (Grant, still immensely popular with the public, won in a landslide; Horace Greeley, his health and reputation broken, died a month after the election.) A campaign that had begun with high idealism, if little chance of success, degenerated into scandal.
Reverend Beecher was predictably infuriated by Woodhull’s expose, and sought to destroy her. Anthony Comstock, notorious moralist, indicted Woodhull on obscenity charges within days. “Obscene literature…breeds lust,” he proclaimed. “Lust defiles the bodies, debauches the imagination, corrupts the mind, deadens the will, destroys the memory, sears the conscience, hardens the heart and damns the soul.” Now he desperately wished to damn the soul of Victoria Woodhull for the crime of human feeling (who memorably mocked Comstock as “an illiterate puppy”).
Woodhull spent several months in court with her sister Tennessee, charged separately with libel against financier Luther Challis. In court, Woodhull seemed alternately amused and annoyed by Comstock’s accusations, defending her free love speech while admitting “I have been perfectly willing that the world should think the other way.” (Behind the scenes she was less sanguine, suffering a nervous breakdown so bad she was erroneously reported as dead.) In late 1873, the jury found the two women not guilty, leading the Judge announce their verdict “shameful and infamous.” Victoria and Tennie were free, but their reputations were in tatters.
The Woodhulls spent several more years in the United States, but never recouped their influence or reputation. Assorted legal contests with Beecher dragged on through 1875; once their brokerage and newspaper collapsed, both sisters relocated to England. Though Victoria resumed writing and lecturing, she never regained her popularity, with her ideas growing increasingly eccentric and distasteful (she became an enthusiastic proponent of eugenics and “scientific” racism). Tennessee remarried Sir Francis Cook, an English baronet, and soon eclipsed her sister both as a society lady and an activist. Tennessee died in 1923, mourned by many; Victoria died four years later, remembered by few. Both lived to see the 19th Amendment’s passage in 1920, finally granting American women the right to vote.
Victoria Woodhull’s moment upon the American stage was brief and fleeting, her political career a disaster. Yet her story illustrates the fickleness and infighting of progressive movements, the ease with which reformers (especially women) are smeared as eccentrics, and the prejudices and double standards afflicting all women in public life. Prejudices and double standards which, a century-and-a-half later, still prevent American women from breaking the ultimate glass ceiling.
Sources and Further Reading
This article draws mainly upon: Mary Gabriel, Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored (1998); Barbara Goldsmith, Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull (1999); Myra Macpherson, The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age (2014); and Brenda Wineapple, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis and Compromise, 1848-1877 (2013).