By Allison K. Lange, Wentworth Institute of Technology
Victoria Woodhull was the first female stockbroker on Wall Street, the first female editor of a weekly newspaper, and the first woman to run for president! Woodhull preferred action over feminine influence. Starting with very humble beginnings, which included fortune-telling as a child and possible brothel ownership, Victoria’s tenacity took her to new heights.
Split over the 15th Amendment
Post-Civil War New York City hosted important debates about the nation’s future. In 1866, activists formed the American Equal Rights Association to win equal rights for women and Black people. However, reformers split over the 15th Amendment, women’s rights, and free love.
The 15th Amendment prohibited voter discrimination based on race, which effectively gave Black men access to the ballot. It passed in 1870, but some reformers—especially women’s rights activists—were furious that the amendment did not enfranchise women as well. Reformers split into two groups. One backed the 15th Amendment, the other, led by Susan B. Anthony, campaigned against the law.
This is a transcript from the video series 12 Women Who Shaped America: 1619 to 1920. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Woodhull Joins Politics
Victoria Woodhull started working with the leaders in these activist circles. She attended her first women’s voting rights convention in 1869. In April 1870, she announced that she would run for president during the election in 1872. She wrote a letter to the New York Herald to announce her choice. She declared: ‘While others of my sex devoted themselves to a crusade against the laws that shackle the women of the country, I asserted my individual independence … and I proved [men and women’s equality] by successfully engaging in business.’
Woodhull became the nation’s very first woman to run for president. But she had no chance of winning. She was 34, and the Constitution required presidents to be at least 35. Still, Woodhull claimed political power by running for office rather than working with suffragists to ask for it. The following month, Victoria and her sister, Tennessee, launched Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly to promote Woodhull’s political platform. The sisters became the first women to edit a weekly newspaper.
Address to the Congress
Woodhull traveled to Washington, DC, to lobby for a women’s voting rights amendment. Representative Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts invited her to address Congress. Since men had positions as political leaders and could vote, men like Butler were crucial advocates of women’s rights.
In January of 1871, she delivered a speech to the judiciary committees of the Senate and House of Representatives.
Woodhull was particularly prepared to be a good public speaker. She had been a performer for years—as a child preacher, stage actor, and spiritualist leader. She must have been brimming with confidence as she stepped in front of this group of powerful men who probably intimidated many.
She argued that under the Constitution, men and women should be equal. Woodhull told them: “The male citizen has no more right to deprive the female citizen of the free public, political expression of opinion than the female citizen has to deprive the male citizen thereof.”
While some suffragists argued that women were more moral than men, Woodhull stressed equality between the sexes. She declared “Women are the equals of men before the law, and are equal in all their rights as citizens” and even noted that men and women of all races should vote.
The most important argument in Woodhull’s speech is that she made the case that women already had the right to vote as citizens. Congress—or perhaps the Supreme Court—needed to annul state laws that put voter restrictions in place in order to honor the Constitution.
Featuring in Illustrated Newspaper
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper printed an illustration of Woodhull addressing the Judiciary Committee. Most newspapers still only featured text, but Frank Leslie’s was one of two newspapers famous for having illustrations. They did not have the technology to reproduce photographs, but they could cheaply print engravings. And, in an era without the Internet, one can imagine why readers would be curious to see portraits of political and cultural figures, landscape scenes of faraway places, and images of new inventions. The editors must have thought their readers would be curious to see this unusual moment for themselves. Women rarely addressed Congress.
In the engraving, Woodhull stands and reads her address. Around her, male politicians listen to her arguments. Women join the group, but they were interested citizens, not congressional representatives. The woman who sits on the right of Woodhull is likely supposed to be her sister, Tennessee. Behind Woodhull, we can identify Elizabeth Cady Stanton with her white curly hair.
The artist might not have actually even been at the meeting. And it’s unlikely that any photographs were taken. The engraver probably based the representation of these women on their public portrait photographs, which was a common practice.
Today, when we see an image like this one, we might be impressed by Woodhull. Some Americans might have felt that way in 1871, but many others would have felt appalled, angry, and anxious. In their minds, women were supposed to be private domestic figures, not political leaders like men.
Common Questions about Victoria Woodhull’s Political Journey
Victoria Woodhull was America’s very first woman to run for president. However, she had no chance of winning as she was 34 and the Constitution required presidents to be at least 35.
In her speech, Victoria Woodhull argued that under the Constitution, men and women should be equal. While some suffragists argued that women were more moral than men, Woodhull stressed on equality between the sexes. She even said that men and women of all races should vote. She made the case that women already had the right to vote as citizens.
Most newspapers only featured text, but Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper was one of two newspapers famous for having illustrations. They did not have the technology to reproduce photographs, but they could cheaply print engravings.