The First Female Candidate for President: Victoria Woodhull
- Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for president when she ran for the Equal Rights Party (a party she created, which nominated her at its May 1872 convention).
- Victoria Woodhull nominated the freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass as her running mate (making Frederick Douglass the first African-American ever nominated for Vice President; although he never took part in the campaign, and instead campaigned for Grant).
- Victoria Woodhull was an activist for women’s rights and labor reforms. She fought against the corruption of the era (see the corruption of the Gilded Age). Woodhull advocated free love, which she saw as the freedom to marry, divorce, and bear children without government interference; and also have the right to free-love. One might call this third-wave feminism today.
- Victoria Woodhull was only 34 years old at the time of the 1872 election.
FACT: Hillary Clinton wasn’t the first woman to run for President. See 5 Other Women Who Ran For President.
FACT: Victoria Claflin Woodhull, later Victoria Woodhull Martin (September 23, 1838 – June 9, 1927) was far ahead of her time in terms of advocating for equality. She campaigned on a platform of women’s suffrage, regulation of monopolies, nationalization of railroads, an eight-hour workday, direct taxation, abolition of the death penalty and welfare for the poor, among other things. She used the newspaper she started with her sister, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, and her minor celebrity status to propel her campaign and awareness of these issues.
Who Was Victoria Woodhull? – The Many Accomplishments of the Sisters Victoria Clafin Woodhull and Tennessee Celeste Claflin
Victoria Woodhull was a business person and political activist despite having little to no formal education.
She went from rags to riches twice with her sister Tennessee Celeste Claflin (Tennie). They made their first fortune as magnetic healers before joining a spiritualist movement in the 1870’s. During their times as healers in 1868, the sisters made close friends with railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt embraced the healers due to his distrust of medically trained doctors, and there were rumors that he and Tennessee were in a romantic relationship.
Playing off the stock tips they learned from Vanderbilt, the sisters became the first women to operate a brokerage firm on Wall Street (although they never gained a seat on the New York Stock Exchange; the first seat gained by a woman was in 1967). The sisters were also the first women to found a newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly.
In 1869 Woodhull attended a female suffrage convention and became a devout believer in a woman’s right to vote. On January 11, 1871, Woodhull declared to the panel that women had already won the right to vote under the recently enacted 14th and 15th amendments. Women are citizens, she argued, and “the citizen who is taxed should also have a voice in the subject matter of taxation.” Although the committee rejected her petition to pass “enabling legislation,” her history-making appearance immediately propelled her into a leadership position among suffragists.
Many of Victoria’s lifestyle and activist choices were controversial in their time, and this both gained and lost her the respect of other notable suffragists. She butted heads with Susan B. Anthony in later years, with Anthony telling a British women’s rights leader “Both sisters are regarded as lewd and indecent.” However, she had initially impressed other women’s suffrage leaders, earning the temporary respect of less radical feminists such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Isabella Beecher Hooker before her first Presidential campaign.
Victoria Woodhull’s campaign was marred by her arrest on the obscenity charge of “publishing an obscene newspaper” a few days before the election, which prevented her from voting the 1872 election and which probably affected her campaign.
The arrest added to the sensational coverage of her candidacy. She did not receive any electoral votes, and there is conflicting evidence about popular votes. Today historians debate if hers can be counted as a true election campaign, but factoring in the corrupt politics of the era and her arrest its hard to completely dismiss Woodhull and her Equal Rights party.
Woodhull again tried to gain nominations for the presidency in 1884 and 1892 before moving to England to remarry, and to focus on woman’s rights and her magazine.
Many of the reforms and ideals Woodhull espoused for the working class, against what she saw as the corrupt capitalist elite, were extremely controversial in her time. Generations later many of these reforms have been implemented and are now taken for granted. Some of her ideas and suggested reforms are still debated today.
FACT: On a federal level, women would not earn the right to vote in America until 1920. Some states allowed women to vote earlier, for instance, Wyoming Territory was the first to give women the vote in 1869. This means Woodhull ran for President nearly 50 years before women had secured the right to vote, a right whose history begins in America with suffragists like Anthony and Woodhull. See: Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. 
TIP: Several suffragettes would attempt to vote in the election. Susan B. Anthony was arrested and fined $100 for attempting to vote. It is likely that had Woodhull not have been in jail, her effort to vote (presumably for herself) would have yielded similar results.The Scandalous Victoria Woodhull: Stockbrocker, Free Love, Biography (1998).