“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.”
Hey, did you know that women have been running for president since 1872? Yeah, me either. Ever heard of Victoria Woodhull? No? I didn’t think so. My favorite part of writing this blog is stumbling across women like Woodhull who quickly work their way onto my personal hero list. Not only was she a major leader in the Women’s Suffrage movement, but she was also an advocate of free love (by which she meant the freedom to marry, divorce, and bear children without government interference). She also started her own weekly newspaper, and went from rags to riches not once, but twice.
Woodhull was born Victoria Claflin and was the seventh out of ten children from Homer, Licking County, Ohio. Her mother was an illegitimate child, completely illiterate, and a huge follower of the spiritualist movement. Her father was a con man and a snake oil salesman. Her family was not very wealthy and by age 11 Woodhull had completed only three years of formal education before she was forced to leave school after her father insured their gristmill, set it on fire, and tried to collect the insurance. His arson and fraud were easily perceived and they were run out of town.
By the age of 15, Victoria married a doctor–Canning (some records list him as “Channing”) Woodhull–from Rochester. Canning Woodhall had treated a 14-year-old Victoria for chronic illness and on November 23, 1853 they recorded their marriage in Cleveland. Unfortunately for the young Victoria, Canning turned out to be an alcoholic and a womanizer, which often forced her to work outside the home in order to support the family. She had two children with Canning, Byron and Zulu Maude. Victoria had enough of her husband by this point and divorced him, though she did keep his surname.
Her love life remained interesting and around 1866 Victoria married Colonel James Harvey Blood who was also on his second marriage. Unfortunately, this marriage did not work out either and ten years later in October of 1876 they divorced. Victoria had started a relationship with a notorious anarchist, Benjamin Tucker, in 1872 and the relationship lasted for about three years.
These failed and tumultuous relationships are what most likely helped shape Woodhull’s views on free love. Women in the 19th century were frequently trapped in their marriage unions with little option for escaping a bad or abusive relationship. Divorce when and where possible was quite scandalous and many women who divorced were ostracized from “civilized” communities. She railed against the hypocrisy of society’s tolerating of married men who had mistress and other sexual exploits on a regular basis. Woodhull believed in monogamy but she also believed that women also had the right to love someone else “exclusively” if they desired.
“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…”
In 1870, with her sister Tennessee, Victoria opened a stock brokerage firm and made a fortune at the stock exchange. With the profits they then opened their own newspaper–Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, with it’s primary purpose being to garner support for Victoria’s bid for the presidency. Although feminism was the primary purpose of the paper, it quickly gained a reputation for publishing controversial articles on taboo topics. Many things that they published would seem blase by today’s standards, but at the time they were pretty revolutionary ideas: sex education, free love, women’s suffrage, short skirts, spiritualism, vegetarianism, and licensed prostitution. Some even believe that the paper advocated birth control, but there is mixed evidence as to the validity of that theory.
All of this culminated in 1872 when Woodhull was nominated for President of the United States via the newly formed Equal Rights Party. She had previously argued before congress that women were already granted the right to vote by the 14th and 15th amendments (14th-defines citizenship and 15th-prohibits the denial of suffrage based on race, color, or previous conditions of servitude). The simple but logical aspect of her argument had already swayed some in congress, and had certainly rallied many women to her cause. She also caused quite a stir when she declared her running mate/vice presidential nomination was for Frederick Douglass (there is no evidence that Douglass ever accepted or acknowledged the nomination). A few days before the election, Woodhull, her then husband Blood, and her sister Tennessee were all arrested on the charge of “publishing an obscene newspaper.” Unfortunately, being in jail prevented Woodhull from voting in the election. They were all eventually acquitted six months later, in a heavily sensationalized court hearing (one that spurred protests about government censorship). She attempted to run again in 1884, and 1892, obviously with little success.
Eventually, depressed and downtrodden, she left for England to get a fresh start on her life and while lecturing at St. James Hall in London, she met her third husband John Biddulph Martin, who she remained with until his death in 1901. After his death she retired from all of her pursuits and moved to the countryside where she lived until her death on June 9th, 1927.
Woodhull’s politics might not seem too radical to us now, but I’m sure given the era she lived in when women, like children, were mostly to be seen and not heard, I can imagine the difficulties Victoria must have had to endure. The fact that she was passionate, outspoken, and straight up ballsy enough to run for President when she technically didn’t even have the right to vote is pretty damn impressive.
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