The Queen of My Self

In honor of Aung San Suu Kyi and to celebrate her release, and with a nod to Election Day, this week’s theme is admirable women leaders of democracy.

The Queen Who Would be President – Part 1

Victoria Woodhull lived a century ahead of her time. She is unknown to most people today, but when she ran for President of the United States in 1872, she was one of the most famous women in the country.

Victoria California Claflin was born September 23, 1838 in Homer, Ohio, to a down-on-its-luck family. She was only 15 years old when she was married to Canning Woodhull, an Ohio medical doctor.
As it turned out, her new husband was an alcoholic and a womanizer, and it soon became clear that she would often be required to work outside the home to support herself and her two children, Byron and Zulu.

“Rude contact with facts chased my visions and dreams quickly away,” she wrote, “and in their stead I beheld the horrors, the corruption, the evils and hypocrisy of society, and as I stood among them, a young wife, a great wail of agony went out from my soul.”

Stuck in an unhappy union in an era when women were bound to remain faithful with few options to escape — women who divorced were stigmatized and often ostracized by society — Woodhull concluded women should have the choice to leave unbearable marriages.

She divorced Dr. Woodhull and married Colonel James H. Blood. The couple and her sister Tennessee moved to New York City where she found her public voice. In addition to free love and freedom for women, she advocated many things which we take for granted today: the 8-hour work day, graduated income tax, social welfare programs, and profit sharing, for example.

From an early age, Woodhull was extremely contradictory in her political and social views. Although she was opposed to the organized Christian religion, she lived its principles. She fed the hungry, cared for the sick, and visited prisoners. She believed that living Christian principles was more important to saving souls than preaching the resurrection of Christ.

Along with her sister, Tennessee Caflin, she established the first female brokerage house on Wall Street. Woodhull, Claflin & Company opened in February 1870 with the assistance of Cornelius Vanderbilt, a wealthy benefactor and her admirer. They made a fortune.

Newspapers like the New York Herald hailed Woodhull & Claflin as “the Queens of Finance” and “the Bewitching Brokers.” Many men’s journals of the time published sexualized images of the pair running their firm, which tainted the image of independent, publicly-minded, unchaperoned women with suggestions of “sexual immorality” and prostitution.

“For a woman to consider a financial question was shuddered over as a profanity.”

With the earnings from their business, Victoria and Tennessee established a newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, which debuted in May 1870 and stayed in publication for the next six years. The paper became notorious for publishing controversial opinions on such taboo topics as women’s suffrage, short skirts, spiritualism, free love, vegetarianism and licensed prostitution.

The sisters were muckrakers at heart and published exposés on stock swindles, insurance frauds, and corrupt Congressional land deals. They also printed the first English version of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto

Above all, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly advanced the editors’ commitment to the equal rights of women in the work place, the public political arena, the church, the family, and the bedroom. And the content of the paper showcased the words and deeds of ordinary and extraordinary women.

A year after she set up shop in Wall Street, Woodhull spoke at the opening of the 1871 National Woman Suffrage Association’s third annual convention in Washington. She argued that women already had the right to vote since the 14th and 15th Amendments granted that right to all citizens. That all they had to do was use it.

This simple but powerful logic impressed some committee members. Suffragists, including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Isabella Beecher Hooker, saw her as their newest champion. She thrilled them when she declared, “women are the equals of men before the law, and are equal in all their rights.”

Her Constitutional argument was not original, but her notorious reputation focused unprecedented public attention on women’s suffrage. Following Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Woodhull was the second woman to petition Congress in person. Newspapers reported her appearance before Congress.
“I come before you to declare that my sex are entitled to the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I ask the right to pursue happiness by having a voice in that government to which I am accountable.”

In 1871, 49 years before women won the right to vote, Queen Victoria Woodhull announced her intention to run for President of the United States. In 1872 she was formally nominated by the newly formed Equal Rights Party. The Vice Presidential candidate was former slave Frederick Douglass.

Part 2 tomorrow.

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Queen Mama Donna offers upbeat, practical and ceremonial guidance for individual women and groups who want to enjoy the fruits of an enriching, influential, purposeful, passionate, and powerful maturity.

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