Victoria Woodhull is known mainly for being the first woman to run for President of the United States, and it should tell you something about her that's definitely not the coolest thing about her. I'd say it's in the top five, but it's facing some heavy competition. Victoria Woodhull was easily the greatest woman named Victoria in the 19th century. In fact, from now on, I declare that the term "Victorian Era" refers to the years of Victoria Woodhull's life, not to anything having to do with any Imperialist queen. (The Victorian Era will now therefore be considered as beginning a year later than it is traditionally thought of as starting, and lasting until 1927. Look at that; not only is she the better Victoria, she just lengthened the Victorian era by twenty five years! What a great Victoria, is our Victoria Woodhull.)
Victoria (the cool one, not the queen) was the born in a tiny town in Ohio, daughter of a Scottish-American man named Reuben Claflin, a con artist, snake oil salesman, arsonist, and occasional fraudulent doctor. It was probably from him that she inherited her epic amounts of chutzpah. She was 14 when her family took her to an unlicensed doctor named Canning Woodhull (unlicensed doctors were not a particularly uncommon occurrence in rural Ohio in the 1850s), and when she was 15, she and Canning were married. He was 29. The fact that he was nearly twice her age did not bother her, but the fact that he was a womanizing alcoholic started to get on her nerves after a while. She had two children by him, often working outside the home to support the family while he was off drunkenly womanizing. Victoria responded as any well-brought up 19th century woman would; by becoming a passionate advocate of free love.
Victoria was the best type of free love advocate; she believed people should have the right to love whoever they wanted, in whatever type of relationship they wanted, which means that she did not oppose monogamous relationships, she just felt people should have the right to choose if they wanted them or not. She advocated for the right to divorce without the intense social stigma, and for the rights of women to (warning: groundbreaking idea coming up) choose whether or not they wished to have sex with someone before sex occurred. She got out of her own shitty marriage, and eventually started a relationship with anarchist Benjamin Tucker.
She wasn't just about the free love, though, this lady. She also, along with her sister, Tennessee, took Wall Street by storm. She wasn't particularly well-educated; she was mostly self taught, but you don't have to be a college graduate to know that Wall Street is a place where money is. She and her sister were the first female stockbrokers on Wall Street, and they made a ton of money. Naturally, this displeased the menfolk of Wall Street, who made a big thing of referring to the sisters as though they were doing something wrong in trading stocks. Amazingly, they somehow made the leap from "women in the business world" to "prostitution," and basically implied that if these women were trading stocks, they must also be, you know, trading stocks, winkwink, nudgenudge, knowwhatImean? Victoria didn't care, because she was rich now.
The sisters used the money they made in the stock market to start a newspaper, one that published stories on such controversial topics as vegetarianism, sex education, free love, short skirts (gasp!), and women's suffrage. The paper also published the first English version of the Communist Manifesto, as well as exposes of financial scams. A prominent minister attacked Victoria's free love ideas, and, since the hypocrisy of a society that allowed men to screw around but insisted on female chastity was a huge focus for her, she had no choice but to publish evidence of his adulterous affair. (That is exactly the 19th century equivalent of an anti-gay politician being caught with a "wide stance" in an airport bathroom). Scandal ensued. Scandal has always been our real national past-time. The preacher did not come out looking good. Do not fuck with Victoria Woodhull.
There were plenty of attempts to get a scandal going about Victoria herself. When she was speaking about free love, some spectators (including one of her sisters; she had a strained relationship with most of her family) called out, asking her if she was herself a "free lover." Victoria threw down her speech notes and replied with epic awesomeness:
"Yes, I am a free lover! I have an unalienable, constitutional, and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can, to change that love every day if I please!"
This may sound mildly scandalous to us; we could imagine a few raised eyebrows. It was a little worse than that. The crowd went nuts; they'd just heard a woman standing on a public stage admit to sleeping with people. Like, multiple people. Because she wanted to. Not only did she not get a chance to finish her speech, her family was evicted from their home. It didn't do any harm to her notoriety, or to her ability to get speaking gigs. It did do harm to her ability to, you know, exist, though; unable to find anywhere to live, she and her family ended up sleeping on the floor of the newspaper office. Her private life came under intense scrutiny; much more than a man in her position would have had to endure, and it eventually came out that she and her current husband were, for a while, sharing a home with her former husband (he showed up, sick, addicted to drugs, and in need of help, and Victoria took him in), with lovers also visiting the house. Moral outrage occurred.
For reference, here is what contemporaries thought of Victoria's ideas of free love:
Victoria was rising to prominence in the women's suffrage movement (though unlike many suffragists, she maintained that women's ability to be financially independent was just as vital to their achieving equality as the vote), and in 1870, she announced her plans to run for President, on a platform of social reform. In 1872, she was nominated by the Equal Rights party. Frederick Douglass was nominated as her running mate, though he never actually acknowledged the nomination, perhaps not taking it seriously. I want you take a moment to imagine how goddamn cool it would have been if Frederick Douglass and Victoria Woodhull had been in the White House in the 1870s. Someone write an alternate history novel where that happens, and I will bake you some cookies or something.
If you were paying attention in US History class, it might strike you as a bit odd that a person legally unable to vote would run for office, but Victoria claimed that the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution actually had granted women the right to vote, and that all they needed to do was start voting. It definitely wasn't illegal for a woman to run for office, although astute historians have pointed out that she was not of the legal age (35) necessary to be President. And then there's the fact that she refused to release her long form birth certificate, despite persistent rumors of having been born in Kenya. (Note: previous sentence not true) Ultimately she got around 2,000 votes. So...not that many, but more votes than a person not legally permitted to vote might have expected.
Exposing the hypocrisies of men who slept with whoever they wanted, but condemned and opposed the free love movement proved to be a dangerous idea. Victoria and her sister were accused of criminal libel, and for distributing obscene material, and Victoria was actually in jail on Election Day the year she ran for President. Jail, fines, and other badness followed. Her next presidential campaign, in 1892 went even less well (yes, it is possible for a presidential campaign to be worse than one where the candidate is in jail on election day) as it wasn't really taken seriously in the press. This was because Victoria, a lifelong spiritualist and occasional fortuneteller, announced that she was prophesied and destined to be President. Admittedly, that's maybe not something a presidential candidate should go around saying if they want people to listen to them.
There were other problems with Victoria as a figure to admire. Big problems. Big, eugenics-shaped problems. Though not a particularly strong advocate of eugenics, she, like many early proponents of birth control, definitely believed in it, and also seems to have fallen into the trap of believing that for white women to be treated as the equals of white men, it was necessary for women to help maintain white supremacy. I'm not going to attempt to make any excuses for her. What I will say is that she was a great, and admirable woman in many respects, and a reprehensible one in others. We can condemn her racism and still be inspired by her good qualities.
Causes: Feminism, women's suffrage, anti-slavery, communism, spiritualism.
Specific Lessons for Modern Activists: It may seem like a good idea to raise your own oppressed group up by doing a little oppressing of your own, but ultimately, you're just going to look like an asshole. Also, live your beliefs. But be aware that living with your husband and your morphine-addicted ex-husband and taking a series of lovers will not help your political career. It would, however, make a great sitcom.