Before Hillary eyed presidency, there was Ohio’s ‘Mrs. Satan’
Victoria Woodhull, who ran for president in 1872, became woman of firsts in United States
HOMER, OHIO— This, according to Hillary Clinton, is where the movement to shatter the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” — the U.S. presidency — got started.
It began with Victoria Woodhull, who was born here in Homer, Ohio, in 1838, and 34 years later became the first woman to run for president.
Her problems then put Clinton’s now into perspective.
In 1872, Woodhull never had a chance. She couldn’t (as a woman) vote for herself. If elected, she’d have been too young, under the Constitution, to serve. She got only a handful of votes (even her running mate, Frederick Douglass, voted for President Ulysses Grant). On Election Day, she was in jail for slandering the nation’s most famous preacher.
Woodhull’s admirers are trying to use Clinton’s run at history to increase interest in their own heroine, who has largely been written out of history.
“No one’s paid much attention to her because there was no reason to,” says Amie Hatfield, the local librarian. “Now, with Hillary running, there is.”
A library display case devoted to Woodhull contains a letter from Clinton, who says of her predecessor: “As a leader of the women’s suffrage movement, and as the first woman to run for president, she was a pioneer for equal rights and put the first crack in the glass ceiling that we are still working so hard to shatter. And it all started in Homer.”
Woodhull was also the first female Wall Street stockbroker, the first woman to testify before Congress and one of the first women to found a newspaper.
She was a prominent abolitionist, spiritual medium and advocate of what she called “free love,” by which she meant marriage law reform. Attractive and charismatic, she cut her hair short like men and wore masculine clothes. She married three times and divorced twice.
“She was ahead of her time,” says Judith Dann, a local resident and college history professor who gives lectures around Ohio on Woodhull. “Probably too far ahead.”
But she had an impact. “Even if my campaign is not successful,” Woodhull said of her presidential race, “it will be educational for women.”
Her inspirational ascent began in grinding rural poverty. Asked where she came from, Woodhull would say, “Nowhere.” It was close to the truth. Homer, in those days, was a frontier town and her family life was a nightmare.
Her father was a con man who beat his children like dogs and worked them like slaves. Described by a neighbour as “a one-eyed, one-man crime spree,” he left town after allegedly burning down his mill for the insurance and stealing money as postmaster. Townsfolk took up a collection to send his family after him.
Victoria was the seventh of 10 children, four of whom did not make adulthood. She had a few years’ formal education before being put to work telling fortunes and selling her father’s fake elixirs.
In 1868, she moved to New York and apparently contrived to meet the railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was obsessed with contacting his dead mother. Woodhull became his personal spiritual medium.
Probably through Vanderbilt’s largesse, she and her sister, in 1870, started the first female brokerage on Wall Street and a weekly newspaper that was the first to publish Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto in English.
Her challenge to contemporary sexual mores explained her nickname “Mrs. Satan.” She defined “free love” as a woman’s right “to love who I want for as long as I want” and then to divorce. Under the law, she said, marriage for women was slavery.
She was a millionaire by the age of 31, and tried to vote in 1871, claiming that the 14th Amendment guaranteed women that right. “We don’t need the right to vote,” she told a congressional committee. “We have it.”
In 1872, she won the presidential nomination of the Equal Rights Party. But even as Woodhull campaigned around the nation, a crisis was brewing that would change her life.
The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, had attacked Woodhull’s notion of free love from his Brooklyn pulpit. Shortly before the election, her newspaper (accurately) accused Beecher of having an affair with a married parishioner.
Under a federal law against mailing “obscene” material, Woodhull was arrested and jailed — which is where she spent Election Day.
Woodhull was subsequently cleared at trial, but the controversy destroyed her health, finances and reputation.
In 1877, she moved to England, where she married a banker, espoused progressive causes and lived comfortably until her death in 1927.
She seemed destined for historical oblivion. The great suffragist Susan B. Anthony, with whom Woodhull disagreed on tactics and style, wrote her out of the six-volume history of the women’s suffrage movement she and colleagues published between 1881 and 1922.
But they never forgot her back in Homer, which today is still little more than a wide place in the road.