Victoria Claflin Woodhull: Lost Suffragette
Victoria Claflin Woodhull was as famous in her day as Susan B. Anthony, but Woodhull's wild politics and eccentric lifestyle landed her in court and into obscurity.
When people think of the Women's Suffrage Movement, they think of respectable matrons and young women, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, enduring outdated prejudices, while wearing bloomers and stern expressions.
Victoria Claflin Woodhull wanted women's rights, but in a very different way than her more famous contemporaries. She was born in 1838 with an immediate headstart on eccentricity. Her family was highly invested in the supernatural, practicing spiritualism and faith-healing. The family was nomadic, moving from place to place holding seances, selling "magical potions," and practicing faith healing. By the time she was 16, Victoria had married Dr. Canning Woodhull. (He was only a doctor in name, by virtue of a small amount of medical training.) He joined the Claflin family in traveling the country to sell his "elixir of life."
Victoria's marriage ended in divorce before 1868, leaving her free to travel with her life-long companion, her younger sister Tennessee Claflin (or Tennie C). While they were in Ohio, the sisters ran into a decrepit, ailing, but still rich Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. The business tycoon was so impressed with the beautiful young women's faith-healing and clairvoyant skills that he sent them to New York City, and set them up in their own business on Wall Street. Vanderbilt didn't see any potential for the women as spiritualists, nor did he fund their magic tricks. Instead, he offered them the chance to be stockbrokers.
The sisters prospered in business dealings with a delighted, but also surprised Wall Street. They were beautiful, well-to-do and extremely unconventional. After only a few weeks, they earned the nickname the "Bewitching Brokers."
In 1870, Victoria and Tennessee expanded their business and began to publish their own news magazine called Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly. The paper was ostensibly about social and political reform, though it collected an odd lot of different things and put them together. The contents combined news of interest to their Wall Street clients, their Spiritualist family, their feminist friends and any local anarchists. Prostitution, socialism, communism, sex, free love, birth control and stock prices were always among the weekly topics.
Considering Victoria Woodhull's personality, politics and profession, it seems impossible that she would ever be in league with Susan B. Anthony and her suffragette following. Woodhull was a breed apart, believing that a single standard of morality should apply to both men and women, and that standard ought to be the one more often applied to men. Many suffragettes were also involved in temperance and human aid movements and wanted men to treat them with respect and be more like them. The Claflin sisters wanted to be more like the offensive men: having many lovers, wild business affairs, and in general living the fast life.
Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone (three of the most important suffragettes) wanted to be legally allowed to do all the things respectable men did out in the open: voting, owning property, contesting issues in courts of law. Victoria and Tennessee wanted to completely change what was considered scandalous for men and women.
Though there were differences, there were also similarities. Victoria did want to start by "freeing" women from their assigned position in life and law, and she made an effort to do so. In 1871, Victoria arranged a hearing before a Congressional committee. She prepared a speech and gave it to a captivated audience of senators. Susan B. Anthony was in Washington, DC, that day, and she read in her morning paper that Victoria Woodhull would be addressing the committee. She decided to attend the meeting herself. When Victoria finished giving a well-thought-out, reasonable, and resolved speech, the senators asked Susan to make an impromptu speech for the same cause.
Susan was so impressed with Victoria's speech and speaking ability that she invited her to speak at the upcoming Suffrage Convention. Victoria agreed and began her involvement with the National Women's Suffrage Association. She wrote and delivered speeches on women's rights for the next several months.
However, Victoria Woodhull was unlike the other suffragettes. Her personal life was anything but respectable. It was well-known around New York City that Victoria, her ex-husband Dr. Canning Woodhull and her new husband Colonel C. H. Blood and Tennessee all lived in the same house and it was suspected that Victoria might be involved with both her former and current husbands, and her younger sister might as well. An unpaired New York, clinging to its history, was scandalized by these rumors.
Lucy Stone considered Victoria's shameful personal behavior a liability to the women's movement, and wanted nothing to do with her. But Lucy Stone's feminist organization had already split off from Susan B. Anthony's, due to other disagreements. Unlike Lucy, Susan's initial response to Victoria's scandalous life was to say, "I would welcome all the infamous women in New York if they would give speeches for freedom."
In the fall of 1871, Susan went on one of her long lecture tours out west, leaving the National Women's Suffrage Association on its own for a season. Meanwhile, Victoria's plans were getting grander and stranger by the moment. Shortly after a seance, Victoria announced that Demosthenes, a 4th century senator and speaker had informed her that would become president of the United States. Never one to look in the mouth of a friendly spirit, she had every intention of carrying through on the prophecy.
While Susan was lecturing in the west, Victoria convinced her second in command, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to merge the National Woman's Suffrage Association with a new political party she was creating and help support her as a candidate for the presidency.
This was beyond revolutionary; the revolution was trying to secure women equal rights and the vote, but Victoria Woodhull was reaching for even more. She wanted a full-fledged political party, running women for the highest public office in the land. She managed to convince Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the rest of the suffragettes to support her political party and nominate her for president, with Frederick Douglas as her running mate.
Sadly, the idea was doomed to fail from its inception. The women who supported the campaign couldn't even vote yet, and there was a very, very slim chance Victoria was going to find any men willing to vote for her. She was not only a woman, but an infamous, scandalous woman. Frederick Douglas had never even heard of the party when he was nominated for vice president, and when he found out he respectfully declined the offer, having no interest in running for political office.
A few months later, in January 1872, Susan got word of what was happening back east, by looking at a newspaper one morning. The most shocking thing for her was seeing her signature on a document from the Equal Rights Party, nominating Victoria and Frederick Douglas for president and vice president. She had not seen the document, much less signed it, and suddenly she had had it with Victoria Claflin Woodhull. She immediately returned to New York City to dissuade her friends and associates from following Victoria Woodhull.
Victoria was not actually responsible for Susan's forged signature. Victoria never would have bothered, as she didn't see the need to have Susan's signature, real or fake. The actual perpetrator was Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Susan may never have discovered this, because she persuaded all the women from the National Women's Suffrage Association to withdraw their support of Victoria, but she did not break off her relationship with her long-time friend Stanton.
The suffragettes abandoned Victoria at Susan's insistence, but Victoria continued her campaign for presidency, with her own following backing her. Despite her avid following, the campaign was still destined to meet with failure, which came later in 1872, when Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly, selling poorly and in need of a hot scoop, published Victoria's account of the love affair. It was no ordinary scandal. Supposedly, famed abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher was committing adultery with Mrs. Elizabeth Tilton, a well-known feminist and the wife of Theodore Tilton, a liberal editor and lecturer. All the New York journalists had known of the affair, but were afraid to touch it in their publications. Once Victoria published the story, every other magazine, journal and newspaper followed suit.
Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly had a unique angle on the story. Victoria praised the participants for their bravery, and the entire world for the progress it had made, demonstrated by the fact that upstanding citizens like Mrs. Tilton and Reverend Beecher could have a love life despite their marital status. Victoria was a bit quick in praising the world: no one else shared her view of the incident, including the participants. But someone must have been interested, as the story did sell amazing well, copies of the Nov. 2, 1872, paper sold for as much as $40 each.
Victoria paid a high price for her story. She alienated Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the last of her suffragette supporters, who had learned of the affair, either from Susan, who was a personal friend of many of the involved parties, or directly from Mr. Tilton. Prior to the article's publication, Elizabeth told the gory details to Victoria in confidence, which Victoria disregarded. When the story was published, Elizabeth sided with most of the world in thinking it was scandalous, and not something anyone would or should be proud of.
Opponents of the National Woman's Suffrage Association, and of women's rights in general, used the incident against the movement as proof that these women and what they stood for was immoral. Meanwhile, Mr. Tilton sued Victoria for libel, bringing her political campaigning to an end. She was jailed, but since the story was completely true, the charges were inevitably cleared. The election was over by then, and Victoria had lost most of her support.
After her campaign failed, she gave up on her "destiny," but continued to lecture on it, even claiming she had been Theodore Tilton's lover. Eventually, she married a rich Englishman and moved to England with him and her sister, and perhaps her two ex-husbands came along as well. Not much is known about her after she left the United States. She died in 1927, almost 90 years old, forgotten by the feminist movement.
Victoria's ideas were ahead of even the suffragettes, and she suffered criticism from them and everyone else. Her vision was of a free world where people did what they'd always been doing behind each other's backs out in the open.
The suffragettes eventually achieved their goal of the vote and many other rights for women. Victoria's ideas looked ahead even farther, to a myriad of social revolutions of the 20th century, and the sexual revolution of the 1960's. Many of her ideas are still just dreams, but the dream of being able to live like a man, in addition to having equal legal rights, has become common to many women.