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Sometimes, in order to make history, you have to be "scandalous."
Victoria Woodhull was about as scandalous as them come. She had to be. For her mission was far from simple. Indeed, it continues to this day.
In 1800s USA, respectable women were expected to marry early, raise children, and remain silent about most things, but especially about politics. The idea of women having the "vote" or running for office was considered by most to be ridiculous and undignified.
Victoria Woodhull was neither dignified nor respectable, and was not afraid to appear ridiculous when it came to her rights.
Victoria was born in an Ohio frontier town in 1838. As was customary for many families at that time, she was married off at 15 to a man twice her age. Her new husband may have been the local doctor, but he was also drunk and a serial womanizer. He was found in a brothel not three days after their wedding.
Unable to rein in her husband's drinking and carousing, Victoria had little choice but to support herself and two children on her own. She worked as an actress and seamstress. After ten unhappy years, she left her marriage, determined never to allow a man to mistreat her again.
Victoria soon found work as a medium, a job popular among followers of the "Spiritualist" movement. Mediums were young women who claimed to be able to contact the dead and heal sickness with supernatural powers. We'll never know if Victoria truly possessed the power to channel the dead. But what we do know is that through spiritualism Victoria learned that every woman had the power to resist injustice and transform society. Her goal: to help create a world where men and women lived as equals.
In 1869, Victoria and her younger sister Tennie traveled to New York City to ply their spiritual trade. There, they came to the attention of Cornelius Vanderbilt, then the richest man in the USA. Impressed with the young women, Cornelius offered Victoria stock tips in exchange for spiritual advice.
In 1870, Victoria and Tennie opened a brokerage firm, becoming the first female stockbrokers in history. The firm made the two sisters rich, and from the proceeds, they founded a newspaper dedicated to promoting feminism and social reform.
In April of 1870, Victoria announced her intention to enter the 1872 race for President of the United States. Women were then barred from voting as well as from running for political office, but this didn't stop Victoria. She traveled to Washington, D.C. to make her case before Congress. Wealthy and articulate, Victoria managed to convince them to grant her a public hearing on the topic of women's suffrage.
The "Woodhull Memorial" of January 11, 1871, claimed that women, as citizens of the United States, already possessed the right to vote under the Constitution. If a woman could be tried as a criminal or testify in court, there could be no legal grounds to bar her from political participation. Unsurprisingly, the all-male Congress was not persuaded, but Victoria's declaration received national coverage. The Woodhull Memorial created a small crack in patriarchal politics that would eventually break open the way to women's suffrage fifty years later.
Victoria's presentation to Congress won her the support of older feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who join her on that famous visit to Washington. As running-mate and Vice Presidential candidate, Victoria invited none other than Frederick Douglass, the famous African-American leader, writer, and activist for equal rights.
Victoria's outspoken opinions on sex would soon get her into trouble, however. She understood all too well, given her experience as a young woman, that men frequently used marriage to control women while they secretly engaged in infidelity. In response, Victoria advocated for "free love" in her newspaper, maintaining that men and women should be able to form sexual relationships as they pleased, without legal or cultural barriers to ensnare and/or punish them. While Victoria preferred monogamy, she also believed that she had "an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can."
Victoria's support of free love convinced many that she was an enemy of "family values" and of religion. Her detractors nicknamed her "Ms. Satan." In the fall of 1872, Victoria became aware that Henry Ward Beecher, America's most famous preacher, was having an affair with a married woman named Elizabeth Tilton. She published the story of his adulterous hypocrisy in her newspaper, illustrating exactly how marriage enabled men to do as they please while keeping unhappy women in virtual slavery.
This was too much for the government to bear. Authorities had Victoria arrested on November 2, 1872, on the charge of obscenity. She spent the night of the presidential election not campaigning, but in jail. She received no electoral votes, although to this day no one knows how many write-in votes were cast in her name.
Unhappy with the puritanical attitudes of the United States, Victoria decided to move to England in 1877, where she remained for the rest of her days. At the age of 81, in 1920, she witnessed US women gain the right to vote, fulfilling one small piece of her lifelong efforts to create a society characterized by equality between the sexes. That's why she's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.
Who's your #HistoryHero?
Message us (above) or tell us in the comments (below) and we'll let you know when we feature him or her on the #HistoryHero BLAST.