By Allison K. Lange, Wentworth Institute of Technology
In 1872, Victoria Woodhull decided to organize a convention and start a political party to launch her presidential campaign. The Equal Rights Party nominated her for president and listed the famed civil rights and women’s rights advocate Frederick Douglass for vice president. Woodhull’s political platform endorsed women’s votes, free love, labor reforms, and spiritualism.
Woodhull Loses Support from Activists
VictoriaWoodhull enjoyed support from activists for a while, but that shifted as they found out about her past. She still financially supported and even lived with her first ex-husband, Canning Woodhull, while she was in a relationship with her second husband. The public also didn’t like her support of Marxism and attacks on capitalism and wealth inequities. She started losing supporters, and her stockbroking firm on Wall Street, Woodhull, Claflin, & Co., started to lose clients.
Even leading activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had initially strongly supported Woodhull, changed her mind after Woodhull exposed the late 19th-century’s greatest scandal: the Beecher-Tilton Affair. In 1872, just before the presidential election, she named the famous and widely respected preacher Henry Ward Beecher as an adulterer. He was the brother of activists Catharine Beecher and her half-sister Isabella.
Woodhull published an article about his affair in her newspaper. She told everyone that Beecher and one of his parishioners Elizabeth Tilton were in a relationship. Plus, Elizabeth Tilton was married to the prominent reformer and editor Theodore Tilton!
Woodhull’s revelation became a scandal for Beecher’s church, and the reform community as a whole—especially for women’s rights supporters. Beecher was president of the American Woman Suffrage Association, and Theodore Tilton—Elizabeth’s husband—supported suffrage, too.
Woodhull exposed the scandal to try and convince Beecher and her fellow Americans to support free love. Henry Ward Beecher was already rumored to have had affairs with many women. So, he was clearly already practicing free love—just like Victoria. Woodhull proclaimed the hypocrisy of Henry Ward Beecher’s actions. She declared: “My judges preach against Free Love openly, practice it secretly.” Woodhull opposed the sexual double standard for men and women.
Ruined by the Beecher Scandal
The newspaper was a sensation. It sold quite well for several months and led to paid lecture opportunities, too. But it also led to charges against Woodhull for sending obscene materials through the mail. She and her sister were arrested, and they spent election-day in jail.
Woodhull lost the presidential race. This was the year that Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth cast their ballots, and soon afterward the Supreme Court ruled that female citizens did not all have the right to vote. Woodhull’s New Departure argument failed. She also lost many friends. Catharine Beecher condemned Woodhull in the press, though her half-sister Isabella Beecher Hooker thought Woodhull was right about her brother’s affairs and defended her for much longer.
Newspapers had headlines about the Beecher-Tilton affair for years. Henry Ward Beecher was investigated by his church, but they ultimately exonerated him. Theodore Tilton then filed a legal suit against Beecher in Brooklyn to recover damages for the affair. It was another media sensation. The jurors ended up being deadlocked. Despite the evidence, they couldn’t condemn the famous preacher. Theodore and Elizabeth Tilton and Woodhull were effectively ruined by this scandal, but Beecher retained his respectability.
This is a transcript from the video series 12 Women Who Shaped America: 1619 to 1920. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Reinventing Public Image
Rejected from New York society and with little options, Woodhull reinvented herself again. She realized that women had few options. They couldn’t afford to be hypocrites like Henry Ward Beecher. In 1877, she set off for England with her sister, Tennessee, and her family. She rejected free love and her activist life, and decided to create a more respectable public image for herself.
In 1883, she married the banker John Biddulph Martin and tried to cement her position as a lady. In 1892, she started working with her daughter, named Zula Maud, on a journal called the Humanitarian, which promoted eugenics, a field that aimed to supposedly improve the human race by choosing who they thought was good enough to reproduce. As one can guess, this organization promoted white Christians at the top of this imagined social hierarchy. The publication emphasized her conservatism and respectability.
Life Lived as a Gentlewoman
In 1893, the year after they started the Humanitarian, Woodhull and her new husband sued the British Museum for libel because they had books about the Beecher-Tilton affair. She had once been proud of her work to shine a light on sexual hypocrisy, but by then she pretended she had nothing to do with it. Even so, much of British elite society wanted nothing to do with her. In 1901, she stopped working on the journal to focus on philanthropy.
In 1927, she died in England at the age of 88. She lived as a gentlewoman for 55 years after she ran for president in 1872. Although she ended her life living by widely accepted feminine social norms, Woodhull also provided an exciting model for challenging them. Her choices did not catch on in 19th-century America, but one is left to wonder what she thought about the changing world of the 1920s. By the time she died, many women in the United States and Britain had the right to vote, love was a bit freer, and gender norms were far less strict.
Common Questions about Victoria Woodhull’s Life after Failed Political Aspirations
In 1872, Victoria Woodhull named the famous and widely respected preacher Henry Ward Beecher as an adulterer. Woodhull told everyone that Beecher and one of his parishioners Elizabeth Tilton were in a relationship. Woodhull’s revelation became a scandal for Beecher’s church, and the reform community as a whole—especially for women’s rights supporters as Beecher was president of the American Woman Suffrage Association.
Rejected from New York society and with little options, Victoria Woodhull realized that women couldn’t afford to be hypocrites like Henry Ward Beecher. So, in 1877, she set off for England with her family. She rejected free love and her activist life, and decided to create a more respectable public image for herself.
Victoria Woodhull‘s journal, called the Humanitarian, promoted eugenics, a field that aimed to supposedly improve the human race by choosing who they thought was good enough to reproduce.