On May 10th 1872 one hundred and forty four years ago today Victoria Woodhull a thirty four year old leader of women’s suffrage became the first female candidate for President of the United States. An activist for women’s rights and labor reforms, Woodhull was also an advocate of free love, by which she meant the freedom to marry, divorce, and bear children without government interference.
She was born Victoria California Claflin, the seventh of ten children (six of whom survived to maturity), in the rural frontier town of Homer, Licking County, Ohio. Her mother, Roxanna “Roxy” Hummel Claflin, was illiterate and was illegitimate. She had become a follower of the Austrian mystic Franz Mesmer and the new spiritualist movement.Her father, Reuben “Old Buck” Buckman Claflin, was a con man and snake oil salesman.He came from an impoverished branch of the Massachusetts-based Scots-American Claflin family, semi-distant cousins to Governor William Claflin. Victoria became close to her sister,Tennessee Celeste Claflin (called Tennie), seven years her junior and the last child born to the family. As adults they collaborated in founding a stock brokerage and newspaper in New York City.
By age 11, Woodhull had only three years of formal education, but her teachers found her to be extremely intelligent. She was forced to leave school and Homer with her family after her father, after having “insured it heavily,” burned the family’s rotting gristmill. When he tried to get compensated by insurance, his arson and fraud were discovered; he was run off by a group of town vigilantes. The town held a “benefit” to raise funds to pay for the rest of the family’s departure from Ohio.
When she was 14, Victoria met 28-year-old Canning Woodhull (listed as “Channing” in some records), a doctor from a town outside Rochester, New York. Her family had consulted him to treat the girl for a chronic illness. Woodhull practiced medicine in Ohio at a time when the state did not require formal medical education and licensing. By some accounts, Woodhull claimed to be the nephew of Caleb Smith Woodhull, mayor of New York City from 1849 to 1851; in fact he was a distant cousin.
They were married on November 20, 1853.Their marriage certificate was recorded in Cleveland on November 23, 1853, when Victoria was two months past her 15th birthday.She soon learned that her new husband was an alcoholic and a womanizer. She often had to work outside the home to support the family. She and Canning had two children, Byron and Zulu (later Zula) Maude. According to one account, Byron was born with an intellectual disability in 1854, a condition Victoria believed was caused by her husband’s alcoholism. Another version said his disability resulted from a fall from a window. Victoria divorced her husband after having the two children, and kept his surname.
bout 1866 Woodhull married Colonel James Harvey Blood, who also was marrying for a second time. He had served in the Union Army in Missouri during the American Civil War, and had been elected as city auditor of St. Louis, Missouri.
Woodhull’s support of free love probably originated as she discovered the failings of her first husband. Women who married in the United States during the 19th century were bound into the unions, even if loveless, with few options to escape. Divorce, where possible, was scandalous, and women who divorced were stigmatized and often ostracized by society. Victoria Woodhull concluded women should have the choice to leave unbearable marriages. She railed against the hypocrisy of society’s tolerating married men who had mistresses and engaged in other sexual dalliances. In 1872, Woodhull publicly criticized well-known clergyman Henry Ward Beecher for adultery. Beecher had an affair with his parishioner, Elizabeth Tilton, who later confessed to the affair.Woodhull sent the accounts of the affair through the federal mails, landing her in jail.Woodhull believed in monogamous relationships, although she did state she had the right also to love someone else “exclusively” if she desired. She said:
To woman, by nature, belongs the right of sexual determination. When the instinct is aroused in her, then and then only should commerce follow. When woman rises from sexual slavery to sexual freedom, into the ownership and control of her sexual organs, and man is obliged to respect this freedom, then will this instinct become pure and holy; then will woman be raised from the iniquity and morbidness in which she now wallows for existence, and the intensity and glory of her creative functions be increased a hundred-fold .
In a speech she delivered on Monday, November 20, 1871 in Steinway Hall, New York City, Woodhull stated her opinion on free love quite clearly: “Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, 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 that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.”
“Get thee behind me, (Mrs.) Satan!” 1872 caricature by Thomas Nast: Wife, carrying heavy burden of children and drunk husband, admonishing (Mrs.) Satan (Victoria Woodhull), “I’d rather travel the hardest path of matrimony than follow your footsteps.” Mrs. Satan’s sign reads, “Be saved by free love.”