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.


The Homer Pub­lic Library pays trib­ute to Vic­to­ria Wood­hull. She was the first fe­male Wall Street stock­bro­ker and the first woman to tes­tify be­fore Congress.

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