First in Their Field: Victoria Woodhull

Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for President of the United States as the candidate for the Equal Rights Party.

She was a suffragette, a champion for equal rights (as her party’s name suggests), and an advocate for “free love,” which she meant as the freedom for people to marry, divorce, and bear children without government interference.

Woodhull’s groundbreaking run for the presidency is even more impressive when its full context is considered: She ran for president in a time when women did not even have the legal right to vote. Woodhull was a pioneering suffragette, and she believed, and publically argued, that women actually already had the legal right to vote under the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Constitution. She presented this argument before the House Judiciary Committee in 1871, but the Supreme Court ruled against her interpretation of the Constitution. Women who showed up to the polls to vote for any party in the 1872 election were arrested.

Woodhull’s campaign was also revolutionary in its nomination for vice president, electing former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass to its ticket (though Douglass never publically acknowledged the nomination). It was the goal of Woodhull and the Equal Rights Party to reunite the causes of women’s equality and racial equality, as a schism between the movements was created two years earlier when the 15th Amendment granted African American men the right to vote but still denied the right to women of every race.

For all her revolutionary acts on behalf of women’s rights, Woodhull had trouble securing the support of even the most revolutionary female thinkers and activists in the country—the women who perhaps should have realized, better than most, what Woodhull’s run for the presidency meant for their own lives and their liberal causes. (It’s, sadly, a familiar tale even today, told by Hillary and her strained—sometimes non-existent—support from female Obama and Bernie loyalists.) The most striking example of women denying support to Woodhull involves suffragette Susan B. Anthony.

Thirteen years before Woodhull’s run for the presidency, in 1859, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a leading figure of the early women’s rights movement, wrote to Anthony, “When I pass the gate of the celestials and good Peter asks me where I wish to sit, I will say, ‘Anywhere so that I am neither a negro nor a woman. Confer on me, great angel, the glory of White manhood, so that henceforth I may feel unlimited freedom.’” The correspondence between the friends and peers shows their early recognition of the disadvantages women of all races faced in the U.S. However when it came to the 1872 election, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton did not vote for Woodhull, though both publically applauded Woodhull’s pioneering efforts on behalf of all women. Anthony’s (illegal, and therefore irrelevant) vote was cast for a straight Republican ticket. Woodhull did not receive any electoral votes, and Republican Ulysses S. Grant won the election.

Woodhull tried again to run for president in 1884 and 1892, gaining more traction in ‘92, when she was nominated to be the presidential candidate by the National Woman Suffragists’ Nominating Convention. Marietta Stowe was nominated to Woodhull’s ticket as the Convention’s candidate for vice president. The nominations were more symbolic than anything, unfortunately, as the nominating committee was unauthorized and nothing came of their proposed Woodhull/Stowe ticket.


Ryan Frost, Guest Blogger

Ryan runs a feminist Instagram account called feminism_sisters

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