If you’re looking to learn more about the fascinating first female Presidential candidate in United States history (1872), there are a surprising number of biographies of Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927) – especially given that she’s not generally taught in school history textbooks.
The ones written near or within her lifetime – Victoria C. Woodhull, a Biographical Sketch by Theodore Tilton and The Terrible Siren by Emanie Sachs – are considered unreliable by modern historians for a number of reasons, so you’re better off consulting a modern biography. I’ve read most of them and here are my top 5 picks (images link to the Amazon page for the book):
1) Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull
By Barbara Goldsmith
This is my favorite biography because it is so rich in detail, especially in regards to Victoria as a spiritualist and medium, an area many other biographies skim over, dismiss as ludicrous, or choose to omit entirely. But to understand Victoria as a person, you have to understand her belief in the spirit world and how it drove/guided her decisions. Regardless of what you believe now, Victoria and many of her peers took Spiritualism very seriously and it was an important part of their world view.
This book is also rich in other history, especially in regard to the major players of 19th century American suffrage and politics. It covers Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Catharine, Isabella and Harriett (Stowe) Beecher, Anna Dickinson and many others in detail. I had to skip over much of that to focus on the areas concerning Victoria, but this is a book I will definitely someday give a second read so I can absorb the rest of the history.
Be forewarned that this is a large, complex book, so unless you have some knowledge of the period, it may not be the best place to start. It was one of my later sources in my research for that reason. But it is certainly worth your time.
2) The Woman Who Ran for President
By Lois Beachy Underhill
This is the place I recommend people new to Victoria’s life start out. It’s a well-written, easy to read, and concise biography. Honestly, it’s my go-to for fact checking because I find it to be the most reliable and easy to navigate.
There are a few things I don’t agree with the author on, such as her assertion that Victoria had an affair with Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (I don’t think that likely), and her relatively rosy portrayal of Victoria’s childhood (which is at odds with many other sources, both modern and contemporary to Victoria). But to each their own. I’m a fiction writer and she’s a biographer, so I trust she has her sources and her reasons. Still, it’s a wonderfully detailed overview that no one interested in Victoria should pass up.
If you search for this title on Amazon, it appears under two authors, Lois Beachy Underhill and Gloria Steinem. Don’t be fooled into thinking they are separate books with the same title, as I was, even though they show two different covers. Steinem wrote the introduction for the book Underhill wrote. Because of this confusion, I have an extra copy that I’m willing to give away for free. If you’re interested, let me know in the comments, leave your email address, and I’ll contact you about mailing (US only, please). First come, first served.
3) The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age
By Myra MacPherson
This is the most fun (and by that I am in no way lessening the scholarship) biography that I read. One of the most recent contributions to the Victoria cannon, it’s written in a more novel-like format that sucks you into life as Victoria would have known it. It also provides detail that other biographies lack.
Also, as the title implies, this book gives more attention to Tennie than any other to date. This is important not only because Tennie has an important story in her own right that deserves to be told, but because knowing her better illuminates Victoria and the relationship between the sisters. Because they were close and often lived and worked together, this relationship is paramount to understanding why Victoria did the things she did.
I’ve been in touch with the author several times to ask questions and verify facts, and I have to say that she is very accessible and kind, which is always a plus. I’m actually hoping to have her as a guest on this blog in the future.
4) Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored
By Mary Gabriel
If you want to hear Victoria’s voice and read newspaper accounts about her, this is the source to use. Gabriel liberally quotes from Victoria’s speeches, writings and letters, as well as contemporary newspaper articles to provide color and depth unparalleled in other sources.
As someone attempting to bring Victoria to life, I found this book invaluable, both in terms of understanding her personality, but also in understanding how the political and social/cultural world around her reacted to her sometimes outrageous words and actions.
5) Victoria Woodhull’s Sexual Revolution: Political Theater and the Popular Press in Nineteenth-Century America
By Amanda Frisken
Less biography and more discourse on how the press treated women and the idea of sex in 19th century America, this is a valuable source for anyone wishing to get to know Victoria, especially in context of her often volatile relationship with the press.
One of the most interesting parts for me was to learn how she was treated in the so-called “sporting press” of gentleman’s papers. These papers, frequently read by young men, often satirized women in cartoons, depictions we would today find high offensive, but which were par for the course for the time. The images alone, many of which cannot be found online, are worth the cost of the book, but more important is the context in which Frisken places them, showing the sexist attitudes that prevailed at the time in a way most other books don’t.
There is also a section that is more biographical, so please don’t think she left that out. I just found the other parts more interesting.
Of course, these are just my personal opinions. You may have a different experience. There are a number of other good biographies and books referencing Victoria, so this is by no means a complete list. Check out my research page for more. I’m currently reading the latest, Crossing Swords: Mary Baker Eddy vs. Victoria Claflin Woodhull and the Battle for the Soul of Marriage by Cindy Peyser Safronoff. I’m not far enough into it yet to render an opinion, but will be one of my sources for my fictional account.
Victoria’s daughter, Zulu/Zula also attempted to write a biography of her mother, but was never successful. Bits of her writing can be found with Victoria’s letters in the Boston public library’s archives. I did not have a chance to see that information before writing the book, but I’m hoping to get to see it when I visit Boston next June.
And of course, the best way to get to know someone is through their own writings. There are many collections of Victoria’s books and speeches available online, as well as in book form. You can even find digitized versions of her newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, online.
What are some of your favorite biographies of famous people? Have you ever read a book about Victoria or seen reference to her? If so, where? Do you have questions about any of these books?