Night&Day March 2001
She was an amazing woman who, at the age of 33, nominated herself as a candidate for the US presidency – at a time when women couldn’t even vote. She was seen as a bold, beautiful ground breaker by some, and a dangerous demoness by others. This ‘feminist fatale’, Victoria Woodhull, slipped into the margins of women’s history for generations. Is she only now, at the beginning of the 21st century, comimg into her own?
In one of those strange constellations of sudden interest, two superb biographies recently revisited her turbulent life, and a documentary and a major feature film, starring Nicole Kidman, are in the making. Our organization, the Woodhull Institute – devoted to training women to be just as courageous and clear in their goals as she was – seized upon her name and achievements as exemplifying a new mood among women of rejecting victim status and of having confidence in their power to achieve positive social change.
Woodhull was like the Emmeline Pankhurst of her time. She also fought for the full education of women, forgoing the 19th-century belief that daughters, mothers and wives should be silent ‘angels of the house’, submissively catering to their husbands’ needs. Like Pankhurst, she called for vote and a voice. But there the resemblance ended – for she was in many ways a quintessentially modern woman, and far ahead of her time. She spoke frankly of the need for women to take control of their reproductive life and health – so frankly that she was not received in the most respectable drawing rooms, even by feminists.
She used her fortune – raised on Wall Street through a series of shewd deals mentored by the financier Cornelius Vanderbilt – to launch her own newspaper, her own political movement and her own run for the highest office in the land. While the suffragettes were often circuitous and genteel, Woodhull never minced her words. Every speech – and in her heyday she attracted riotous standing-room only audiences – was ablaze with an almost suicidal honesty as she savagely criticised the Victorian hypocrisies and political inequities that suffocated women.
There were other dramatic departures from ladylike standards of the time: women’s education, she believed, should include practical training,which would give them the self-sufficiency to achieve their dreams. In a time when ladies were supposed to be ignorant of markets or money, Woodhull called for female financial literacy – and used her Woodhull and Claflin Weekly to teach women about finance.
But what was so scandalous about Woodhull, that she was portrayed in cartoons as ‘Mrs Satan’, a beautiful women with devil’s horns? Apart from the wild challenges she often made to the repressive social mores of her time, and her advocacy of ‘free love’ – her belief that marriage should be of equals and rest upon love, not dependency – the real scandal was that she not only believed in women’s empowerment, but acted on it with a shocking fearlessness.
She taught women to feel comfortable with financial success, professional ambition and even the desire to shine in the spotlight as a unique personality – and she was certainly that. Born in1838 to destitute parents, she spent an itinerant childhood travelling as part of a family medicine show until she was married off, aged 15, to a brutal alcoholic many years her senior. The neglect and abuse she suffered gave her a passionate commitment to, and identification with, the oppressed, and fostered her belief that marriage should be a free choice of equal partners.
Along with her equally daring, equally captivating sister, Tennessee Claflin, Woodhull went to New York in 1868 to reinvent herself and start a new life. Their success was astounding. To show women that they could participate in what was then a man’s world of finance, they opened Woodhull, Claflin and Company, the first women-owned brokerage on Wall Street. Before their firm eventually went under, their initial investment in gold and stocks earned a net worth of $700,000 – the equivalent of millions today.
Unwilling to wait years for women to be handed the power to vote, Woodhull used her newspaper to call on women to actively advocate for immediate change. She also used her public speaking to motivate women to stand up for their rights and assert their new-found power. Woodhull was a magnetic public speaker whose speeches have been described as ‘brave, eloquent [with] an unanswerable argument’. They were not just about suffrage, but addressed other reform issues such as railroad monopolies, the excessive profits of national banks and the corrupt civil service. For Woodhull, politics was not just about changing women’s rights, but about changing the world.
What, then, went wrong? Why did she slink into the shadows of American history? The brokerage firm’s bankruptcy certainly contributed to her problems; without financial backing she could not support her political aganda. With court charges and debts piling up, her reputation began to slip from her. The blackest cloud hovering over Woodhull’s character was, however, the Henry Ward Beecher scandal. Her decision to expose in her newspaper the well-respected preacher for taking mistresses from his congregation while he condemned sexual freedom was probably her greatest regret. She and her sister were prosecuted for printing ‘improper material’, and her own advocacy of ‘free love’ did not help her case. Her claim to the right to own her ‘body and spirit’ was turned against her; she was slandered as a woman of easy virtue. The sisters were jailed for the ‘crime’ – though acquitted the next year.
Ironically, Woodhull’s sister suffragettes stayed in the background throughout the controversy and eventually revoked their support for her presidential bid. This may have resulted from Woodhull’s challenge to the suffrage movement. Instead of simply backing the move for the women’s vote, Woodhull became the leader of the Equal Rights Party, whose platform was to expand suffrage to a ‘human rights’ platform. She was also voted the president of the Spiritualists, a group which believed that intellectual power had its foundations in spiritual inspiration. This, too, marginalised her and undermined her credibility as a national figure, just when she needed to consolidate her base for her presidential run.
Finally, Woodhull could not take her notoriety, and fled to Britan, where she found a peaceful life in a happy marriage with a respectable, supportive – and comfortably situated – husband, who was a banker in the Worcestershire village of Bredon Norton.
She continued her political activism in Britain, beginning the journal, Humanitarian, in which she published a number of feminist articles. She started a women’s agricultural college in Bredon Norton after converting a barn into a village hall, with space for lectures and meetings; served Christmas dinners to the poor; provided local children with new boots, and sponsored a nursery.
Her home became the headquarters for the Ladies’ Automobile Club, the International Peace Society and the Women’s Aerial League of Great Britain. She organized Red Cross sewing sessions to support Allied intervention during World War I and donated hats for the village Land Army. She even made a second attempt at the presidency in 1892.
Woodhull’s courage to step forward, even after a devastating fall, is a quality that should inspire young women today. Her fearlessness, originality, boldness and resilience should be cheered, especially since she showed the world these qualities in an age when public speaking was considered sinful and women were arrested for trying to vote.
Now her time has come around again. Woodhull will arise from her near-forgotten status through Hollywood’s film of her life, with Nicole Kidman in the leading role, directed by Paul Verhoeven of Showgirls and Basic Instinct fame. The question is, in what form will Woodhull finally return to us? Will Hollywood tell the complete story of this truly empowering woman, a woman of firsts? Or will she greet the public simply as a controversial figure who espoused and practised free love, destroyed the reputation of a famous man of the cloth, divided the suffragette unity of feminists and ended up in hiding?
Let’s hope that she will be revealed in all her glory, not as a figure of melodrama, but as a feminist role model who practised courage, compassion, political action, equality and initiative – a worthy contender on the political battlefields of her time, and an inspiration for the battles we have yet to win in our own.