HOMER, Ohio (AP) — Nearly a century and a half before Hillary Clinton, a fiery activist from Ohio became the first woman nominated for U.S. president.
Victoria Woodhull’s varied and colorful life makes her difficult to pigeonhole. The suffragist, medium, businesswoman, stockbroker and newspaper publisher was “Mrs. Satan” to some, a visionary champion of women’s and children’s rights to others. She rode motorcycles, preached “free love” and followed the guidance of an ancient Greek orator she believed had presented himself to her as a spirit guide.
The Equal Rights Party nominated Woodhull to face incumbent Republican Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 and Democrat Horace Greeley, nearly 50 years before women had the right to vote. At 34, she was a few months shy of the required age, but most historians still view her nomination and run as the first.
Woodhull lost, of course, but by how much is unclear. The number of votes she received in losing to Grant was never officially recorded, and historians surmise many were discarded. Nonetheless, interest in Woodhull’s life is on the rise with Clinton’s historic candidacy this year as the first female nominee of a major party.
Woodhull is being honored in and around her hometown in Homer, Ohio, with exhibits, lectures and prominent mention in the village’s bicentennial parade this Saturday. A documentary, “The Coming Woman,” is in production. Visits are up at the only U.S. memorial to Woodhull: a clock tower in nearby Granville where her wooden likeness emerges hourly to organ music.
“What’s kind of funny about Hillary Clinton’s campaign bringing everyone out is that this is a very contentious campaign, and it was the very same way in 1872,” said Judith Dann, a professor of ancient history at Columbus State Community College who has made a project of Woodhull’s life since moving to Homer around 2000.
Licking County antiquarian Robbins Hunter conceived the Woodhull memorial in the 1970s, not wanting to see the legacy of a local daughter forgotten. Dann has created a display cabinet for Woodhull at the Homer Public Library and presented at the museum’s lecture series, which runs through next month.
Dann said a rivalry with Susan B. Anthony and others in the early suffragist movement may have led to Woodhull’s exclusion from history books. Her radical beliefs on women and marriage also caused consternation.
One of 10 children, Woodhull was beaten and starved, possibly abused, by her father as a child. She later blamed the disability of her first child on her first husband’s alcoholism and drug addiction. When she preached “free love,” Woodhull wasn’t talking about sex, but of the institution of marriage, Dann said. She saw the day’s legal prohibition against divorce as akin to slavery. Woodhull also favored legalizing prostitution as protection to women.
The family was effectively run out of Homer when Woodhull was a girl, Dann said.
After relocating to New York City, Woodhull, born Victoria California Claflin, and her sister, Tennessee Celeste Claflin, befriended railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. With his help and with money earned helping him communicate with the spirit world, they became the first women to open a Wall Street brokerage house, earning nicknames including “the bewitching brokers.”
They also started a newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, to support Victoria’s presidential run and to promote edgy ideas like short skirts and vegetarianism. Woodhull was in jail on Election Day 1872, charged with publishing obscenity for an article about a prominent minister’s alleged extramarital affair; she was later acquitted on a technicality.
Even before Clinton landed the nomination, the Robbins Hunter Museum had decided her run would be a good opportunity to promote Woodhull. Its exhibit focuses largely on the women’s suffrage movement but also features photos, newspaper clippings and books about Woodhull.
Rebecca Dungan, a board member who leads the museum’s program committee, said some are fiction books that she won’t read because they make her blush.
“They’re titles like Notorious Victoria, The Terrible Siren, Mrs. Satan, Outrageous, The Scarlet Sisters, Renegade Queen, Free Lover,” she said. Well before the story of a Founding Father became “Hamilton,” there was even a Broadway musical, 1980’s “Onward Victoria,” telling Woodhull’s story.
Woodhull’s party picked Frederick Douglass, the runaway slave turned abolitionist, as her running mate — though Douglass never acknowledged it.
Despite her campaign fading into history, Dann said, she had a lasting impact.
“Victoria’s here,” she said. “She left her mark. We just don’t know to look for it.”
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This story has been corrected to show that the Greek orator presented himself as a spirit guide, not a spirit.
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