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  Wendy McElroy

Victoria Woodhull: An Unacknowledged Individualist
January 16, 2001
by Wendy McElroy, mac@ifeminists.com

With speculation about Hillary Clinton becoming the next President of the United States, it is interesting to consider anew the first woman to throw her cock's feather hat into the Presidential ring -- Victoria Claflin Woodhull, who ran against Ulysses S. Grant in 1872.

Woodhull was also the first female stock broker on Wall Street, and a successful one. She was the first woman to argue for woman suffrage before a Congressional body. Her periodical, the "Woodhull & Claflin Weekly," had 20,000 subscribers: a particularly notorious and sold-out issue went for as much as $40 on the street. Her brilliance as an orator coupled with provocative subject matter drew crowds of thousands to her speeches. In short, Woodhull was one of the best known and progressive women of her day, yet modern feminists have only started to claim her as their own. Indeed, until recently, Belva Lockwood was often referred to as the first 'Woman for President' even though her campaign occurred years after Woodhull's. This inaccuracy has been corrected, but a more fundamental one remains.

Woodhull is one of the many colorful figures within the radical individualist movement of 19th century America. Yet she is often viewed as "from the left," and there is reason for this confusion. For example, when Section Twelve of the newly formed International Workingmen's Association (IWA) was organized in New York in 1871, Woodhull became one of its leaders. She was quickly expelled, yet historians rightfully remark that the organization she sought to control was Marxist. It is necessary to understand that, in the 1870's and 1880's, American individualist attempted to forge a bond with other radical ideologies. For example, when the IWA revived in the early '80s, Benjamin Tucker -- the most prominent and rigorous individualist of that century -- wrote, "To this momentous event, which marks an epoch in the progress of the great labor movement...Liberty, in the present issue, devotes a large portion of her space."(August 20, 1881, p.2)

In her book, "Anarchist Women," the historian Margaret S. Marsh remarked on the eagerness of individualists to co-operatewith left-leaning reformers, "Their conflict...came after a brief period of good will and co-operation with the European anarchist movement. In 1881, the editor of 'Liberty' hailed the creation of the anarchist 'Black International,' proposing that his paper serve as its English-language organ."(p.12)

This fellowship of ideologies would shatter within the decade. Tucker would bitterly and publicly regret his former generosity. Individualists and radicals from the left became ideological enemies. Yet, during the window of goodwill, Woodhull and Tucker journeyed together to Europe and marched in protest with other reformers through the streets of Paris. Upon their return, Tucker continued to promote the economic theories of the socialist Proudhon, especially his free banking -- all the while attempting to set it within an individualist framework of private property. Meanwhile, Woodhull published the first English version of Marx's "Communist Manifesto" in her "Weekly." It is not difficult to see how Woodhull would be identified with the left.

Yet, if you look beneath the rabble-rousing rhetoric of which she was fond, it is clear that Woodhull's philosophy was drawn directly from the individualist tradition. Her intimate associates not only included Tucker, but also Stephen Pearl Andrews, whom historian James J. Martin considers to be "the fourth [most] prominent exponent" of individual sovereignty of his day.(Men Against the State, p.153) Andrews became her mentor. He believed that every individual had an inalienable right to act in a peaceful manner, and the State had no right to intervene. Woodhull's most theoretical work -- "Origin, Tendencies and Principles of Government" -- first appeared as a series of articles in the "New York Herald" (1870) and it was published the next year in book form. These articles were such a restatement of Andrews' views with so little additional theory that Tucker accused her of plagiarism.

Woodhull's restatement of Andrews was a passionate one. Delivered in the voice of a woman, it did much to popularize his ideas. Indeed, other individualist periodicals found themselves caught up the power of her popularizing. The first issue of the prominent periodical "The Word," -- edited by the indomitable Ezra H. Heywood -- proclaimed itself to be dedicated to publishing the views of "Woodhull and Claflin," among a handful of others.(I.#1,p.1) The American Labor Reform League and the New England Labor Reform League (NELRL) -- for both of which "The Word" served as an organ -- boasted Woodhull as an Honorary Official. A spin-off organization from NELRL, the New England Free Love League, was founded, with the assistance of Tucker. Its expressed purpose was to engage Woodhull in a speaking tour. The connections that establish Woodhull firmly within the individualist tradition run on and on.

Woodhull cannot be rediscovered without appreciating her ideological underpinnings.

The Ongoing Re-Examination of Woodhull

I do not mean to diminish the value of recent research into Woodhull. The first book of this decade to reclaim Woodhull was "The Woman Who Ran For President: the Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull" (Penguin, 1996) by Lois Beachy Underhill, translated by Gloria Steinem. In the past year alone, two major treatments have appeared: "Other Powers: the Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull" (Knopf, 1998) by social historian Barbara Goldsmith, and "Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored" (Algonquin, 1998) by Mary Gabriel. These books constitute powerful re-evaluations of this pioneering feminist, whom history tended to dismiss as a crank or worse.

There were good reasons for the dismissal. Consider just one fact from Woodhull's life: she was a prominent spiritualist who channeled voices from the dead to advise the railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt on financial matters. Moreover, she was the 'muckraker' who broke one of the greatest sex scandals of the 19th century. Interestingly, for publishing these accusations, the first woman Presidential candidate spent election day in jail. No wonder two previous books on Woodhull are entitled "'The Terrible Siren'" (1928) and "Mrs Satan" (1967).

To their credit, the current re-evaluations of Woodhull look beyond the sensationalism of her life and of the incendiary quotations that are repeatedly offered as representative of her whole philosophy. The books appeal to the wider social and political context of Woodhull to portray a passionate reformer with deep ideological commitments. True, in this emerging portrait, Woodhull's sense of flash often overwhelms her substance, but the substance is there. In particular, Gabriel's "Notorious Victoria" provides extensive text from Woodhull and offers perspective.

Woodhull is rightfully identified as an advocate of free love. That is, she believed the State had no place in regulating the private sexual arrangements between consenting adults. Such matters as marriage, divorce, and the recognition of illegitimate children should be left to the consciences of those involved. The specific arrangements should be a matter of consent and contract, not of regulatory law. In a modern-sounding manner, she defended prostitutes as 'victims,' while excoriating the men who patronized them. At one point, she threatened to publish the names of prominent male customers in the "Weekly." When unsolicited 'hush money' flowed into her office, some people accused her of blackmail.

With high drama and ideological confusion running rampant, it is useful to step back and look at what we know of the fascinating woman who was born Victoria Claflin in 1838 in the wilds of Ohio. What steps led her to announce her candidacy for first woman President of the United States?

The Journey Toward Notoriety

To those of a cynical bent, Victoria Claflin's childhood was the ideal preparation for politics. Her father Buck Claflin was a drifter and a "pitch man" who sold patent medicine while he preached spiritualism. Eventually, the Claflin family became a medicine show traveling the Mid-West. The unusually beautiful and magnetic Victoria drew crowds by singing and dancing, then she joined her mother in telling fortunes -- occasionally falling into a lucrative trance. Her younger sister, Tennessee Celeste Claflin ran seances and sold an elixir of life that sported her image on the label. Her brother, Hebern, was a 'cancer doctor.'

At fifteen, Victoria married the adventuring Dr. Channing Woodhull whose alcoholism led to their separation and divorce twelve years later. Thus, when Victoria and Tennie (Tennessee) arrived in New York City in the late 1860s, the elder sister was an experienced entertainer, a woman of the world and -- perhaps -- more than a bit skeptical about the conventional role of women, especially within marriage. She beguiled the elderly and immensely wealthy Commodore Vanderbilt, who became so intrigued by Tennie that he backed the sisters in opening the first "Lady Broker's Office" on Wall Street. He is said to have supplied them with timely market tips. This inside information, along with massive newspaper coverage, assured the Lady Brokers of success. And of being less than respectable in the eyes of 'better' society.

Flush with money and fame, on April 2, 1870, Woodhull abruptly announced her candidacy for President in the upcoming election of 1872. Six weeks later, the "Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly" appeared, initially intended as a campaign publicity vehicle. During its six-year run, the Weekly was edited primarily by Stephen Pearl Andrews and Col. Harvey James Blood, Victoria's husband.

The standard biographical dictionary, "Notable American Women" describes the impact of Andrews upon Woodhull in strange terms that, again, contribute to confusion. The entry under Woodhull reads, "[f]resh inspiration had entered her life in the person of Stephen Pearl Andrews. A fifty-eight-year-old *aberrant* philosopher, Andrews carried the *baggage of a long career in radical reform*."(Belknap Press of Harvard, 1971. p.653) [Emphasis added.] Thus, Andrews' individualist philosophy is dismissed in passing as 'aberrant,' although it was no more abnormal than other leading reformers of the day. Andrews' distinguished record in the anti-slavery movement, his lifelong work for marriage and labor reform, and his immense contributions to the theory of radical individualism are disregarded as "baggage."

What was the philosophy of Andrews, Woodhull's mentor?

Woodhull as a Popularizer of Andrews

Stephen Pearl Andrews' key theoretical work is "The Science of Society," which was published in two parts (1852). Andrews did not claim to originate the ideas expressed within. In the introduction to 'No.1' (entitled "The True Constitution of Government in the Sovereignty of the Individual as the Final Development of Protestantism, Democracy, and Socialism") Andrews wrote, "For the principles in question...the author confesses his great indebtedness...to the genius of Josiah Warren of Indiana..."(v-vi.) When that intellectual anchor of 19th century individualism, Lysander Spooner, read No.1, he wrote to Andrews, "It is very able and I think the most of it is true. I go for individualism to the last extent, and I think the time may possibly come when the rights of the individual, and the law resulting from them, will be so well understood that little government will be necessary to protect the former from encroachment."(July 4, 1851, Baskette Collection)

Part One of "The Science of Society" expressed the most pervasive theme of the 19th century movement. Warren and Andrews called it "Sovereignty of the Individual;" others termed it "self-ownership." This was the idea that every human being -- male or female, black or white -- had a moral jurisdiction over his or her own body against which no one and no agency (e.g. government) could rightfully aggress. Andrews' most rigorous application of this principle concerned the need for women to have autonomy over sexual matters, including a claim to their own children. The principle of self-ownership was the intellectual glue that held the individualist movement together as a cohesive whole despite ensuing differences on the second theme expressed in No. 2 of "The Science of Society."

Part Two of Andrews' work was entitled "Cost the Limit of Price: Scientific Measure of Honesty in Trade as One of the Fundamental Principles of the Solutions of the Social Problem." This constituted a version of the 'labor theory of value' expressed by Adam Smith and, later, by Karl Marx. Although it is a severe departure from modern individualism which is expressed largely through Austrian Economics, "Cost the Limit of Price" was not an anti-free market philosophy. In his essay "The Spooner-Tucker Doctrine: An Economist's View" in "Egalitarianism As a Revolt Against Nature," the theorist Murray Rothbard explained:

"...it was their [Spooner and Tucker's] adoption of the labor theory of value that convinced them that rent, interest and profit were payments exploitatively extracted from the worker. In contrast to the Marxists, however, Spooner and Tucker, understanding many of the virtues of the free market, did not wish to abolish that noble institution; instead, they believed that full freedom would lead, by the workings of economic law, to the peaceful disappearance of these three categories of income."(p.129)

In general terms, this was the 19th century individualist view of economics: profits were stolen from working people through an alliance of capitalism and government. This union was a disease that could be cured only through "society by contract" and the free market system. This sounds odd to modern ears -- the free market as a defense against capitalism. Even odder, many staunch advocates of the free market referred to themselves as socialists. By this term, they meant to advocate a society based upon co-operation rather than upon imposed laws. Consider the NELRL -- an organization defined by the individualists Heywood, Tucker, Josiah Warren and Wm.B. Greene. The NELRL adamantly opposed "profit-taking." The self-expressed purpose of the NELRL, "Free contracts, free money, free markets, free transit, and free land -- by discussion, petition, remonstrance, and the ballot, to establish these articles of faith as a common need, and a common right, we avail ourselves of the advantages of associate effort..."(T

This was the basic philosophy -- mixed with spiritualism and many other peccadilloes -- that Woodhull brought to her Presidential aspirations.

Woodhull's Bid for the Presidency

On early January, 1871, the National Suffrage Convention [for women] was in session in Washington, D.C. To its surprise, the leadership learned that Woodhull had been invited to give an address on woman suffrage to the House Judiciary Committee the next day, the 11th. The leadership of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) decided to attend.

In addressing the congressional body, Woodhull argued that women already had the vote under the Constitution which proclaimed, "All persons...are citizens." She asked, "are women not persons?' The Constitution continued, "No state shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens....nor deny to any person equal protection of its laws." She asked again, "are women not persons?" Moreover, she insisted, nowhere did the Constitution prohibit women from voting nor grant that right exclusively to men. Therefore, it was only custom -- not the Constitution -- that barred women from casting a ballot.

Carried away by Woodhull's eloquence, several of her former critics -- including Susan B. Anthony -- became admiring supporters. Anthony's opinion changed in 1872 when Woodhull published a manifesto in her "Weekly," in which the NWSA leadership appeared to be calling for the formation of a new political party to facilitate Woodhull's entry into the Presidential race. Anthony repudiated the manifesto and moved to curb Woodhull's influence within the NWSA. In response, Woodhull appeared at her own convention at Apollo Hall in New York City and, by unanimous vote, became the presidential candidate of the new "Equal Rights Party." According to some accounts, when Woodhull stepped onto the stage, the jubilance of the audience could be heard blocks away. She was introduced as the woman who would "attempt to unlock the luminous portals of the future with the rusty keys of the past."

The brilliant orator and former slave, Frederick Douglass was nominated as her vice presidential candidate. He did not bother to acknowledge the honor, preferring Grant for President.

Ultimately, the fate of Woodhull's candidacy -- which could never have been successful, but might have become notorious -- was decided by the anti-obscenity crusader Anthony Comstock. Under what became known as "the Comstock Laws," American citizens were prohibited from sending obscenity through the mails. Woodhull choose to expose the affair that famed preacher Henry Ward Beecher was having with a parishioner and the wife of his best friend, prominent editor Theodore Tilton. She exposed it in a particularly public manner. She offered the details in the pages of the "Weekly." For mailing this issue, Woodhull was charged and arrested for postal obscenity. Although the case was eventually dismissed, the months that would have gone to campaigning went instead to fighting legal battles and imprisonment. After her release from prison, Woodhull became dangerously ill and went into relative seclusion.

Then, Commodore Vanderbilt died in 1877, leaving the bulk of his estate to his son William. The rest of the family sought to overturn the Commodore's will on the grounds of "incompetence." Vanderbilt's dalliance in spiritualism and the influence of the Woodhull sisters were considered evidence of such senility. Victoria and Tennie abruptly departed for England, amid rumors that William was funding their relocation to prevent them from testifying.

Clearly, Woodhull was ready for a life change. She divorced Col. Blood for adultery and, in the last issue of the "Weekly," she proclaimed marriage to be "a divine provision.

The Self-Rehabilitation of Woodhull

Those who are tempted to lock the often questionable Woodhull in some closet within the structure of individualism may find comfort in the fact that Woodhull agreed with them. In essence, she repudiated herself. Victoria spent the latter part of her life attempting to erase the earlier Woodhull and become respectable. Former colleagues seemed at a loss on how to react...with the exception of Tucker, who condemned the repackaged Woodhull.

In London, she met John Biddulph Martin, of Martin's Bank when he attended a lecture she delivered entitled "The Human Body the Temple of God." After six years' of arguing with his genteel family, Martin married Woodhull in 1883. She went about the business of rewriting history, going so far as to sue the British Museum for holding pamphlets that described her part in exposing the Beecher-Tilton scandal. Meanwhile, Tennie married a wealthy businessman named Francis Cook. When he became a baronet, she became Lady Cook.

Victoria Woodhull died in her sleep at the age of eighty-eight in Tewkesbury, England. According to Mary Gabriel, "[I]n a dark corner behind the high altar at Tewkesbury Abbey...a single candle in a red votive cup still illuminates a tribute to her."

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