Victoria Woodhull (1838 – 1927) was a pioneer of the woman’s suffrage movement, an advocate of free love, the first woman to have a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, the first women to start a newspaper, and the first female candidate for President of the United States. No stranger to either poverty or wealth, Woodhull’s career was an ebb and flow of successes and controversies.
Born in Homer Ohio, Woodhull was exploited by her destitute parents when they discovered her remarkable ability to tell fortunes with uncanny accuracy. Dragged from town to town and humiliated by this carnival atmosphere, she escaped by marrying a doctor who she thought would bring stability to her life. She soon discovered that she was locked in a miserable relationship from which she could not escape. She offered her clairvoyant services to other women seeking spiritual solace, and realized that most of them were also prisoners of abusive relationships. This confirmed her determination to use her powers of persuasion to help women achieve independent lives. Believing that spirits guided her, she moved to New York City where she met the financier Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was impressed with her bold, fearless nature and who provided her with a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. At first ridiculed, to the amazement of all, she was wildly successful, amassing a fortune. This enabled her to start a newspaper which circulated her liberal ideas and gave her the means to promote her candidacy for president.
A brilliant public speaker, she gained notoriety with her unconventional platform of free love, proclaiming in an 1871 speech in New York: “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! And with the right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.”
She was stigmatized by the press as a dangerous woman who threatened to unravel the moral fabric of society, and was branded “Mrs. Satan” by Harper’s Weekly. Her principal adversary was the celebrated preacher Henry Ward Beecher, considered saintly by his adoring congregation, but secretly seducing many of his female parishioners. Woodhull, who knew of his licentious activities threatened to expose them in her newspaper unless he supported her campaign, reasoning that he represented the epitome of a free lover, although he was too cowardly to admit it. At first fascinated by her endorsement of what others condemned, Beecher temporarily flirted with the idea of supporting her until he realized that such a move would ruin his brilliant career. Instead, he viciously turned on her, having her arrested and thrown in jail on election night. Abandoned by all of her supporters and penniless, she remained undaunted, her vision reaching out to the future where she knew that her ideas would be taken up by others and brought to fruition.