New-York Historical Society

Victoria Woodhull: First Woman Presidential Candidate

Geraldine Ferraro, who in 1984 became the first woman Vice-Presidential candidate on a major party ticket, is rightly being heralded as a political trailblazer in the wake of her death this week.

More than a century before Ferraro, however – indeed, almost 50 years before American women even had the right to vote – another pioneering woman made a bid to become America’s first female President. On May 10, 1872, Victoria Woodhull was nominated for President by the Equal Rights Party at the Apollo Hall in New York City. Her Vice Presidential candidate was abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass (although Douglass never acknowledged the nomination).

Victoria Woodhull

Admittedly, some people question whether she was really the first woman to run for president, since she was not legally permitted to vote and was also under the constitutionally mandated age of 35 at the time of her campaign (Woodhull’s 35th birthday was in September 1873, six months after the presidential inauguration in March, 1873).

Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, April 22, 1871.

Legal niceties aside, Woodhull was a “maverick” if ever there was one and very controversial in her time for her beliefs as well as her ambitions. She was known for promoting ideas such as women’s rights, sex education, spiritualism, worker’s rights, “free love” and vegetarianism. Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, blazed a trail for female Wall Street brokers, using their profits to publish a weekly newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, that promoted Woodhull’s presidency and her unconventional ideas.

Detail of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly announcing Woodhull’s nomination, April 22, 1871.

Among a number of notable firsts, her newspaper published allegations that the famous and well-respected Reverend Henry Ward Beecher was having an affair with a married woman (one of his parishioners) after Beecher publicly criticized her stance on free love. She exposed Beecher to protest the double standard and show his hypocrisy. The story caused sensationalized legal proceedings that strained Woodhull and Beecher, both financially and emotionally.

Woodhull died in England in 1927. Her radical ideas left her largely ignored by contemporary suffragists, if not by history; however, Woodhull was a remarkable figure who deserves greater recognition as a woman ahead of her time.

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