History

Who was Victoria Woodhull?

Jessica Evans Avatar
Victoria Woodhull
Cabinet card portrait photograph of Victoria Woodhull.

In short – Victoria Woodhull was America’s first female presidential candidate. But the fact is she was truly so much more.

Hillary Clinton may have come closer to being president than any other woman, but she certainly wasn’t the first to run. Ladies started chipping away at the glass ceiling back in 1871. That’s when Victoria Woodhull became the first to try for a win.

Unlike most presidential candidates, Victoria had a humble start. Her father, Reuban Claflin, was a con man… and not a very good one. The guy could barely keep food on the table with his pitiful schemes. The Claflins were so poor that Victoria had to work as a fortune-teller to support her siblings.

A Fortune Teller or a Scam Artist?

She claimed to have true psychic powers and eventually got some very high-profile clients. In fact, the railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt hired her to contact his dead wife. Victoria must have succeeded because Vanderbilt gave her and her sister quite a lot of dough over their lifetimes.

Victoria raked in so much cash from her ghost whispering that she started her own brokerage firm. With all that new wealth, she could stop chatting with dead billionaires and focus on more important matters.

Of course, her claim to fame was just getting started. Was she secretly dreaming of becoming the president? Or did a spirit whisper something in her ear? There’s no telling, but it’s safe to say she probably kept her occult-ish skills close to the chest in the next iteration of her notoriety.

victoria woodhull portrait
Victoria Woodhull, c. 1860s.

Progressive Opinions Need an Outlet

In 1870, Victoria co-founded the Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly. Now, the Weekly covered women’s issues that other papers wouldn’t dare touch. Victoria advocated for equality between the sexes in the workplace and in politics. She even wrote racy articles about sex education, women’s healthcare, and free love. Mind you, this was the Victorian era when most women were expected to get married, pop out some kids, and keep quiet.

But as you can guess, that wasn’t Victoria’s style. Long before 1921, when women could vote, she told Congress that women had the right to cast ballots in elections. She believed that since the 14th and 15th Amendments gave voting rights to all citizens, that included women.

Congress didn’t agree, of course. But you can’t keep a good woman down. Instead of giving up, in 1871, she decided to run for president. She probably wanted to meet some of the ghosts who haunt the White House.

Time to Run

Victoria’s party was progressive, to say the least. It nominated Frederick Douglas, an ex-slave, as her running mate. That’s right. The first woman to run for president would have had a black vice president in the 19th Century . . . had they actually won. Of course, that’s not how things panned out.

Victoria was not victorious. She received a total of zero votes by the end election night. Some believe that her votes were tossed out by people who couldn’t stomach the idea of a female president. Even if she’d had won the election, it’s unlikely she could have taken office. You see, presidential candidates are required to be at least 35 years old. Victoria was only 33, and I doubt the country would have made an exception for her. She was too ahead of her time with all that free loving and talk of equal pay. Still, Victoria Woodhull made history, becoming the first woman (and psychic) to appear on a presidential ballot. Had she managed to win, she would have learned some interesting facts about the White House.