Victoria Woodhull mostly worked on her own to create change, and less often collaborated with other reformers to coordinate a broader movement. She won powerful allies, but she also lost them. We celebrate many of her achievements today, but an overwhelming majority of 19th-century Americans viewed her story as a cautionary tale for women. Why so?
Victoria Woodhull’s Portrait in Manly Clothing
Sometime soon after Victoria Woodhull moved to New York City in 1868, she went to the photography studio of the famous Mathew Brady. By then, many celebrities—including Abraham Lincoln—had come to Brady’s studio.
She wore a top hat with a bow and military-style jacket. The unbuttoned jacket allowed room for her breasts and even seemed to suggest that she’s wearing men’s clothing. A faux bowtie completed the ensemble. Political cartoons mocked women’s rights activists as masculine, and here she was dressed up in manly clothing! Additionally, her pose was far from ladylike. Woodhull leaned against a wooden desk in an unladylike pose.
She appropriated the costumes and poses from caricatures of political women and demonstrated her power over the gender norms. She teased the many Americans who feared that political women would become masculine. The photograph confirmed the fears of Americans concerned that political women challenged the accepted social order.
Woodhull had recognized that women who occupied the roles usually held by men made people nervous.
This is a transcript from the video series 12 Women Who Shaped America: 1619 to 1920. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Support from Suffragists
Woodhull and her ideas became popular among some women’s rights leaders. She delivered her address to the Judiciary Committee on the same day of a suffrage convention in Washington, DC. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were so impressed that they invited her to speak. Additional speaking invitations followed, and she gained a following.
Woodhull had argued to the Judiciary Committee that female citizens already had the vote, and activists adopted this idea. Suffragists called this new legal strategy the New Departure and planned to force the courts to rule on whether voting was a right of citizenship.
Suffragists across the country coordinated a plan to vote in the presidential election of 1872. They wanted to be prevented from voting or even be arrested, so that the courts would have to rule on this question.
Woodhull promoted this plan. After all, she planned to run for president in 1872. Perhaps she hoped the women would vote for her. But, within the year, the suffragists whose admiration she had just won shunned her.
Victoria Woodhull’s Controversial Opinions
When the suffragists first met Woodhull, many didn’t know much about her or her past. But she soon became the most famous—or infamous—for it, especially for her divorcing her husband, having sex outside of marriage, and promoting free love. Her ideas about free love were a precursor to the free love movement of the 20th century. Woodhull believed people should marry for love, or perhaps not even marry at all. They should be able to divorce if they are no longer in love.
Even more controversial, she argued that sex did not have to be confined to marriage, and evidence suggests that she practiced that lifestyle. Women deserved to control their own bodies and decide if they were willing to risk getting pregnant. She believed that women should be able to say no to sex with their husbands—this was when marital rape was not seen as a crime, and women were expected to submit to their husbands’ desires. Woodhull declared marriage ‘sexual slavery’, and suggested that it was akin to prostitution.
Many Americans, including some suffrage leaders, started to disapprove of her. They didn’t like her ideas about equality, that she was running for president, and that she had such an unconventional lifestyle.
Harper’s Weekly Shows Woodhull as Devil
In February 1872, just a year after the fairly positive portrayal of her in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Harper’s Weekly—the main illustrated competitor to Frank Leslie—printed their own engraving of Woodhull. Thomas Nast, one of the most famous cartoonists, represented Woodhull as a devil and labeled her ‘Mrs. Satan’; she had horns, large black wings, and a sign that said, “Be Saved by Free Love.”
Woodhull was shown ignoring the impoverished family behind her. Rather than helping this poor woman who suffered because of her husband’s drinking and the burden of having to help her family, Nast suggested that Woodhull just wanted to promote her scandalous free love ideas.
In reality, however, Woodhull advocated for policies to represent working, poorer people. After all, she was one of them.
Opposition to Attacks on Woodhull
At first, leading activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Catharine Beecher’s half-sister Isabella Beecher Hooker stood by Woodhull.
Stanton was disgusted by attacks on Woodhull for her disregard for feminine norms. In 1871, she wrote to fellow women’s rights leader Lucretia Mott. She said: “We have had women enough sacrificed to this sentimental, hypocritical prating about purity. This is one of man’s most effective engines for our division and subjugation… He creates the public sentiment, builds the gallows, and then makes us the hangman for our sex.”
Stanton wanted women to stop holding each other to men’s ideals for women. She wanted them to stop taking each other down. Stanton ultimately concluded, “If Victoria Woodhull must be crucified, let men drive the spikes and plait the crown of thorns.”
Common Questions about Victoria Woodhull’s Life
Victoria Woodhull had argued to the Judiciary Committee that female citizens already had the vote, and activists adopted this idea. Suffragists called this new legal strategy the New Departure and planned to force the courts to rule on whether voting was a right of citizenship.
When the suffragists first met Woodhull, many didn’t know much about her or her past. However, many Americans, including some suffrage leaders, started to disapprove of her when they got to know about her divorcing her husband, having sex outside of marriage, and promoting free love.
In February 1872, Harper’s Weekly printed their engraving of Victoria Woodhull. Thomas Nast, one of the most famous cartoonists, represented Woodhull as a devil and labeled her ‘Mrs. Satan’; she had horns, large black wings, and a sign that said, “Be Saved by Free Love.”