“Lock her up!” is a common refrain in this election, with opponents of Hillary Clinton, the first woman to run for president on a major party ticket, loudly calling for her to spend election day in jail. Ironic then, that the first woman to ever run for President in the U.S., Victoria Woodhull, did just that in 1872.
Days before the November 4, 1872, election, she and her sister, Tennie, published a scandalous issue of their newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, in which Victoria accused Rev. Henry Ward Beecher of having an extramarital affair with one of his parishioners, and Tennie recalled the debauchery of a public party years before. Due to a quote Tennie used (which also appears in the book of Deuteronomy), the sisters were changed by Anthony Comstock, America’s self-appointed moral crusader, of sending obscene material through the mail and arrested.
I present to you my imaginings of what Victoria, Tennie and the other women of the suffrage movement might have posted on Facebook on and around Election Day.
As close to meeting Victoria Woodhull as I will ever get!
As some of you know, last weekend I had a the great privilege of participating in a re-enactment of the election of 1872 (the one Victoria Woodhull ran in) at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in south St. Louis County. I’ve never done re-enactment before (I’ve been to Renfaires, but only as a spectator), so this was a totally new experience for me. I was stationed at table with a few other women under the banner “Votes for Women.” We stayed in character some of the time as campaigners for Victoria, but the rest of the time was spent answering questions about her and about my book. I even got to do an impromptu Q&A session after Victoria gave her speech on Sunday.
Much to our surprise, Rebecca Rau and her camera man showed up to film part of their documentary about Victoria, The Coming Woman, at the event. Rebecca and I have become friends on Twitter and Facebook and she saw me post about it, hopped on a plane and there she was! I think she got a lot of good footage from the actors playing Victoria, Horace Greeley, Frederick Douglass, Virginia Minor and others. I particularly enjoyed Frederick Douglass – he’s a man I need to learn more about – and Virginia Minor, whose speech was so moving. And of course, they recorded the rest of us. She even interviewed me on-camera, so you may be seeing me in the film!
The park estimates we had 750-800 people come through. Yes, I may have sold some books by talking with people and handing out postcards (I wasn’t allowed to sell on-site), but more important than that is that this was a huge opportunity for me to get Victoria’s name out there and educate people about her. Only a handful of those we talked to had ever heard about her. Spreading the word about this amazing woman is the whole reason why I wrote my book in the first place, so through this event, I know I achieved my goal of helping get her name in the historical record where it belongs!
Oh, and we held a mock election. The men at the booth harassed us females good-naturedly for trying to vote (remember, this was 1872 and women didn’t get the right to vote in the US until August 1920). Although it was all in good fun, it gave me a small sense of what it must have been like for the women like Victoria, Tennie, and Susan B. Anthony who really did try to vote and were turned away due to their sex, and in Susan’s case, even arrested. In the end, Victoria came in second to Grant, beating Greeley by a long shot. While I would have LOVED to have seen her elected, I realize now that wasn’t likely when the event was being held on the grounds of Grant’s former home.
Speaking of, I also got to tour the grounds, which include Grant’s home of White Haven, a barn, a chicken house and several other buildings used by slaves and animals. As a history lover and life-long St. Louisan, I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know that this place existed until about a month ago. It was very interesting to see that such amazing history is right in my own back yard. I’ve been to nearby places like historic St. Charles, old town Florissant, downtown St. Louis and even Cahokia Mounds across the river in Illinois, but this place really struck a chord with me. Maybe it was because I could tie it to a specific small group of people and that made it more personal; maybe I’m just more aware now that I’m older and more educated through my research. Who knows. But I was fascinated by some of the stories told by the staff and on plaques in the houses. There may be a future novel there. But I need to get the other 20 or so written first!
This weekend if you’re in St. Louis and looking for something to do, I encourage you to attend a free unique event: a reenactment of the election of 1872, in which Victoria Woodhull ran for President. The event takes place September 9-11 at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in south St. Louis County. Here’s the website with all the details.
I will be there in period clothing “campaigning” for Victoria from noon – 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and noon to 4:30 p.m. on Sunday. The event includes a mock election, so make sure to cast your vote for Victoria! It would be really cool if we could get her to win 144 years later! Victoria will be speaking several times throughout the day, as will the other candidates.
And yes, I will post a few pictures after the event, for those who can’t make it.
I wish I could explain how important this event is to me. I fell in love with Victoria through my research and so short of time travel, this is as close to doing her justice as I will ever get. I’m looking forward to sharing the knowledge I gained from my research and hopefully getting her into office, even if only symbolically. I hope you can join me for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live history!
In June 1871, Victoria Woodhull was anxious to re-launch her campaign for presidency, which had stalled since her shocking announcement of candidacy more than a year before. She began hosting parties in her home, which she called “at homes,” intimate affairs where the rich and powerful could get to know her as person in her private space, rather than just as a political figure. She invited bankers, lawyers, editors, clergymen, Congressmen, and even members of President Grant’s family (including his brother and father, Jesse Grant).
It is said that at one of these meetings “Congress was in session,” a congress of the people, that is, as it was a meeting of trade union workers, suffragists and other reformers, in addition to usual politicians and businessmen. Someone remarked that this was really the forming of a new political party, as they were people of like mind, supporting their candidate, Victoria. Together, they decided that instead of using the original name of Victoria’s party – The Cosmopolitical Party, which had too much of Stephen Pearl Andrew’s philosophy in it for the public’s taste – they would instead nominate her under the banner of the Equal Rights Party, a name with a storied past that would immediately call to mind unity and suffrage.
On July 4, 1871, the following letter was sent to Victoria, and later appeared in Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly:
Madame – A number of your fellow citizens, both men and women, have formed themselves into a working committee, borrowing its title from your name, calling itself THE VICTORIA LEAGUE.
Our object is to form a new national political organization, composed of the progressive elements in the existing Republican and Democratic parties, together with the Women of the Republic, who have been hitherto disenfranchised, but whom the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, properly interpreted, guarantee, equally with men, the right of suffrage.
This new political organization will be called THE EQUAL RIGHTS PARTY, and its platform will consist solely and only of a declaration of the equal civil and political rights of all American citizens, without distinction of sex.
We shall ask Congress at its next session to pass an act, founded on this interpretation of the Constitution, protecting women in the immediate exercise of the elective franchise in all parts of the United States, subject only to the same restrictions and regulations which are imposed by local laws on other classes of citizens.
We shall urge all women who possess the political qualifications of other citizens, in the respective states in which they reside, to assume and exercise the right of suffrage without hesitation or delay.
We ask you to become the standard-bearer of this idea before the people, and for this purpose nominate you as our candidate for President of the United States to be voted for in 1872 by the combined suffrages of both sexes.
If our plans merit your approval, and our nomination meet your acceptance, we trust that you will take occasion, in your reply to this letter, to express your views in full concerning the political rights of women under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
Offering to you, Madam, the assurance of our great esteem, and harboring in our minds the cheerful presence of victory which your name inspires, we remain,
The Victoria League
The letter did not bear any member names. In her biography of Victoria, Lois Beachy Underhill argues that Victoria penned that letter herself, and it’s entirely possible. Victoria was a master of public relations, thanks in part to the skills her learned at her father’s knee and the influence of Stephen Pearl Andrews. Victoria and Theodore Tilton both strongly hinted that the Victoria League was supported and possibly even led by Cornelius Vanderbilt, a charge the railroad tycoon neither confirmed nor denied.
On July 20, 1871, Victoria wrote a lengthy response (too long to reproduce here, but carried in full in The Victoria Woodhull Reader) to the Victoria League letter in which she accepted their nomination and expounded upon her views. It contains one of my favorite lines of hers, “Little as the public think it, a woman who is now nominated may be elected next year” and this gem of pure grandeur and hubris so typical of Victoria’s attitude:
“Perhaps I ought not to pass unnoticed your courteous and graceful allusion to what you deem the favoring omen of my name. It is true that a Victoria rules the great rival nation opposite to us on the other shore of the Atlantic, and it grace the amity just sealed between our two nations, and be a new security of peace, if a twin sisterhood of Victoras were to preside over the two nations. It is true also that its mere etymology the name signifies Victory! and the victory for the right is what we are bent on securing…I have sometimes thought myself that there is perhaps something providential and prophetic in the fact that my parents were prompted to confer on me a name which forbids the very thought of failure.”
Have you heard of the Victoria League? Nowadays it’s better known as the name of a charitable organization for people of the Commonwealth countries. But it started as a reference to dear ol’ Vickie.
Gabriel, Mary. Notorious Victoria. Stern, Madeleine B. The Victoria Woodhull Reader. Underhill, Lois Beachey. The Woman Who Ran for President.