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First Woman To Run For President of United States

Victoria Claflin Woodhull was one of the 19th century’s most colorful characters and, by any definition, a remarkable woman. Running for President was just one of her trailblazing 'firsts'.

Victoria Claflin Woodhull photographed in New York
Victoria Claflin Woodhull.

Born into poverty in rural Ohio, Victoria married the 28-year-old Dr. Canning Woodhull when she was only 15 - but soon found out that her husband was a whoring drunkard. To help make ends meet, she worked in a variety of jobs: a cigar store clerk, a seamstress, a stage actress, and as a spiritual medium. After her divorce from Dr. Woodhull, Victoria began her association with the Free Love movement, which sought to erase the stigma of divorce and make it easier for women to escape abusive marriages.

Victoria resettled in New York and married Civil War veteran Colonel James Blood. As luck would have it, she became acquainted with railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. Victoria (and her sister, Tennie) were able to capitalize on their relationship with Vanderbilt to make a fortune. Acting on tips from the tycoon - in what today would probably be called insider trading - the sisters succeeded in building a fortune of almost $700,000 (roughly $16 million in today's money) within a matter of weeks.

This enabled them, in 1870, to open the brokerage firm of Woodhull, Claflin, and Company, making them the first women to operate a brokerage firm on Wall Street. The press labelled them “the Bewitching Brokers” and the “Queens of Finance.” Victoria set her sights on greater ambitions, however. To her, the opening of the brokerage firm was a means to build a bigger stage where she could advocate for women’s rights, laborers, and the poor.

Later in 1870, the "Bewitching Brokers" used the money they had made from their brokerage to found a newspaper, the Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, which at its height had a national circulation of 20,000. Its primary purpose was to support Victoria for President of the United States when, two years later, she threw her hat into the ring.

In the meantime, in 1871, she was in touch with Massachusetts congressmen Benjamin Butler about women’s votes and the recent defeat of the Sixteenth Amendment, which would have guaranteed female suffrage. Butler was one of the amendment’s few supporters and offered Woodhull the chance to address the House Judiciary Committee. She jumped at this opportunity, becoming the first woman to directly address a congressional committee. She argued women already had the right to vote thanks to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, but Congress should immediately take another vote on the proposed Sixteenth Amendment to fully guarantee women’s voting rights. Sadly, she was unsuccessful.

The following year, in 1872, Victoria mounted a presidential campaign against Ulysses S. Grant (Republican) and Horace Greely (Liberal Republican) after being nominated by the Equal Rights Party. Her campaign platforms included universal gender and racial equality under the law, civil service and taxation reform, and opposition to land grants given to railroads and other corporations. Even though she had not yet reached the Constitutionally mandated age of 35 to serve as President, Victoria Woodhull is still regarded as the first female presidential candidate.

In 1876, after her second divorce, and with their fortune nearly depleted, Victoria and her sister sailed across the Atlantic to set up home in England, and both married into wealthy families - and successfully reinvented themselves as aristocrats and patrons of the arts. While their days of agitating for women’s rights and social reform were over, both lived to see women gain the right to vote both in the United States and their adopted homeland of Great Britain.

Victoria Woodhull died in 1927 at the age of 88, near the town of Tewkesbury and today a cenotaph stands in the town’s abbey in her memory.

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