In 1870, with the help of Cornelius Vanderbilt, she and her sister were the first women to run a brokerage firm on Wall Street. In 1872, she was the first woman to run for president (with Frederick Douglass as her running mate). And at a time when respectable and well-connected suffragists were still strategizing ways to get their foot in the door to address Congress, the mysterious Victoria Clafin Woodhull seemed to come out of nowhere, waltz past the channels that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had so carefully fought to establish, and become the first woman to address Congress on the subject of women’s suffrage.
Not bad for a woman who came from an impoverished family of con artists.
Regardless of her sketchy upbringing — she and her sister were pushed to perform as clairvoyants, among other things — the brazen Victoria Woodhull knew how to stay in the spotlight. After they opened their brokerage on Wall Street, she and her sister became something of a spectacle…who ever heard of women on Wall Street? She channeled her notoriety into a successful newspaper that she used as a mouthpiece for her radical views, but these views would ultimately be her downfall.
Woodhull had been married off at fourteen to a much older man and had a mentally disabled son during that awful marriage, a life-changing experience that shaped her political views:
Victoria had vowed to become a leader in the fight for women’s rights. She was determined that no woman should be forced to endure her early heartache, to offer her body — in marriage or on the street — in exchange for financial security…the fight for women’s equality was not simply a matter or gaining access to the ballot box — it was a matter of winning the much more basic right of self-ownership.
For a while, she and her sister were media darlings, and after she addressed Congress on the subject of women’s suffrage, the leading first wave feminists of the time scurried to bring her into their fold, as Woodhull was so high-profile by that time. For a brief time, women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott had to take a back seat to Victoria Woodhull, even at National Woman’s Suffrage Association events.
But it wasn’t to last: Woodhull published the details on an Henry Ward Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother) and Elizabeth Tilton a few days before the presidential election she was running in. The affair was pretty common knowledge, but the public airing infuriated the Beecher sisters and they moved to destroy Woodhull, who claimed that Catharine Beecher threatened her, “Remember Victoria Woodhull, that I shall strike you dead.” Woodhull was arrested on obscenity charges, the first of many such arrests in her life.
In subsequent years, Woodhull would be outed as a “free lover” (which at the time meant to love, divorce, and procreate as one wished, free from government intervention). Her terrible first marriage had shaped these views, and she was infuriated that women could be left destitute and have their children taken away if their husbands left them, yet had no legal recourse to leave abusive situations themselves. As she grew more brazenly outspoken on her radical views (and, as such, was no longer a woman of virtue), she was shunned by the suffragists who had once claimed her as one of their own; in fact, they are one of the biggest reasons Woodhull’s role in women’s suffrage was written out of history for so long.
Woodhull would continue to speak on behalf of women’s rights, including the plights of marginalized people in society like immigrants and prostitutes, but her willingness to speak plainly about things like sex (and sex work) was as scandalous as it was scathing. In just one of her speeches, she said:
Of all the horrid brutalities of this age, I know of none so horrid as those that are sanctioned and defended by marriage. Night after night, there are thousands of rapes committed, under cover of this accursed license; and millions — yes I say it boldly, knowing whereof I speak — millions of poor, heart broken, suffering wives are compelled to minister to the lechery of insatiable husbands, when every instinct of body and sentiment of soul revolts in loathing and disgust…
I say it boldly, that it is the best men of the country who support the houses of prostitution. It isn’t your young men, but the husbands and fathers of the country, who occupy positions of honor and trust…So when you condemn the poor women, whom you have helped to drive to such a life, remember to visit your wrath upon the best men of the country as well…
Go where I have been, visit the prisons, insane asylums and the glittering hells that I have visited; see the maniac mother at the sell door of her son, to be hanged in the morning, as I have seen her — cursing god, cursing man, cursing until nothing but curses fill the air…Follow her home, and when the agony of the gallows has come and gone, ask her the meaning of all this, and she will tell you, as she has told me: ‘That boy was forced upon me; I did not want him; I was worn out by childbearing; and I tried in every way I know to kill him in my womb…’
Suffice it to say, a woman speaking of marital rape, prostitution, and abortion was positively scandalous in 1873. Though she maintained these beliefs and did speaking tours for years before retiring from the public eye, the scandals and arrests on obscenity charges took their toll. By the time she died 1927, Victoria had been married a third time and was by then known as Victoria Woodhull Martin. She lived a quiet life in the countryside by then, publishing a magazine with her daughter, Zula, until 1901.
Gabriel’s book was at times fascinating (how could it not be, with Woodhull’s incredible story?) but was often bogged down by the details. On one hand, I loved getting to read Woodhull’s speeches at length — she’d probably still shock people now with some of the things she said. On the other hand, Gabriel probably could have afforded to be choosier with her quotes; some parts unnecessarily dragged on and on with things that could have been more smoothly said in a couple of paragraphs. I liked the book, and I’m grateful that it was written , but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it could’ve been better.
Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored was originally published in January 1998 by Algonquin Books.