© 2024 Connecticut Public

FCC Public Inspection Files:
Public Files Contact · ATSC 3.0 FAQ
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

150 years ago, Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for president


One hundred fifty years ago, Victoria Woodhull did something no woman had done before. Woodhull was a clairvoyant, a businesswoman, an advocate of sexual freedom and a magnet for media attention and scandal. And in the election of 1872, almost 50 years before women would get the right to vote, Woodhull became the first woman in U.S. history to run for president. Radio Diaries brings us the story.

SCOTT CLAFLIN: My name is Scott Claflin, and I am a descendant of Victoria Claflin Woodhull. The first time I began to become aware of my relative was in 1964, when the Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith was running for president of the United States.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Senator Smith posing now for the photographers, wearing her traditional rose, looking very happy and very pleased about the whole thing.

CLAFLIN: They were talking about history being made with Margaret Chase Smith being the first woman to run for president. We're watching, and my dad said, that's not right. These guys don't know what they're talking about.


AMANDA FRISKEN: My name is Amanda Frisken, and I wrote the book "Victoria Woodhull's Sexual Revolution." Woodhull came from an unusual family, the Claflins. She grew up in a small town in Ohio, but they moved a lot, kind of traveling salesman, catch-as-catch-can. And at the age of 14, Woodhull was married off by her parents to a man who proved to be an alcoholic. And she had a pretty hard life with him. She was traveling around when she said she had a revelation to go out there and declare her right to be a woman in public and to be a powerful woman. And so she packed up and came to New York.

CLAFLIN: This was an era where a woman could not vote, could not enter a restaurant, a store, an establishment of any kind unless she was escorted by a man. It was controversial for women to do anything, but she had the foresight not to accept the way society was.

FRISKEN: She started a radical newspaper. She opened the first woman stock brokerage firm. But the thing that gave her national fame was when she sent a card to the New York Herald declaring her candidacy for the presidency.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) Letter to the New York Herald, April 2, 1871 - I claim the right to speak for the unenfranchised woman of the country and announce myself as a candidate for the presidency.

FRISKEN: For a woman at that moment to be running for president when most women in the country couldn't even cast a ballot made this a pretty extreme act.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) If the men should see the women going to the polls...

FRISKEN: In the 19th century, lots of women were making claims about women's rights. You might think that women suffragists turned to Woodhull, and some of them did. But the suffragists in the 1870s tended to be middle-class to upper-middle-class women, more conventional, more serious. Woodhull was really an outsider - not well-educated, rather uncouth. And some of them just thought she was insane.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) Though all the men should frown on us when going to the polls.

FRISKEN: The thing that really made Woodhull notorious was when she gave a speech in New York City on November 20, 1871, entitled "The Principles Of Social Freedom." In that speech, she claimed marriage was a form of tyranny for women.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) It is high time that your sisters and daughters should no longer be led to the altar like sheep to the shambles. The sexual relation must be rescued from this insidious form of slavery. I protest...

CLAFLIN: She was speaking, and a woman yelled out and said, do you believe in free love? And she said, yes, I believe in free love.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) Yes, I am a free lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to change that love every day if I please. And neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.

FRISKEN: She was really just making a rhetorical point in the middle of a much more complicated speech. But that's the one that everyone put in the paper. It became known as her free love speech. It gave her instant national fame but not necessarily the kind that she had hoped for.


CLAFLIN: 1872, she was nominated by the Equal Rights Party at a convention in New York City.

FRISKEN: It was very easy for the press to lampoon this. They thought it was ridiculous.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: About 800 members of the Woodhull wing assembled yesterday morning at Apollo Hall. The exercises were opened by the singing of "Hail, Columbia," after which a frivolous and tedious discussion on irrelevant topics arose.

FRISKEN: The Equal Rights Party advocated women's rights to fair wages in the workplace, shorter workdays, and they also advocated civil rights for freed men and women. And when the discussion over the vice presidency came up, they nominated probably the most well-known African American man at the time, Frederick Douglass. But they didn't ask him first, and he never accepted the nomination. He felt that it was probably wiser not to dignify the nomination with a response.

The convention was really the high point for Woodhull. And after that, things really went downhill for her. As a result of the notoriety of the nomination, Woodhull was evicted from her home, and she had some trouble making ends meet. She then lashed out at a former ally, Henry Ward Beecher, who was a very prominent minister, saying that he wouldn't support the free love cause he wouldn't support social freedom publicly, that he was a coward for not doing that because everyone knows Beecher is privately practicing free love, that he had dozens of mistresses. And she then decided to publish the story. That didn't help her situation. It made it a lot worse.

CLAFLIN: She was arrested for sending obscenities through the mail under laws that no longer exist, the Comstock Laws. And on Election Day, she sat in jail.


FRISKEN: Woodhull wasn't on the ballot anywhere on the election of 1872. So in terms of actual voting numbers, we have no record that anyone voted for Woodhull. She was a woman who has a terrible reputation, who may have at least temporarily done the cause more harm than good. But she's the first woman to put her name out there and say, I want to run for president. It makes for a very complicated founding narrative for women. You want someone really beyond reproach. You want the George Washington for women. And you don't get that with Woodhull. She was a flawed first, but she's still the first. I mean, she's the one we have to live with.


CHANG: That story comes to us from Radio Diaries. To hear more of their stories, visit the Radio Diaries podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Richman
Samara Freemark

Stand up for civility

This news story is funded in large part by Connecticut Public’s Members — listeners, viewers, and readers like you who value fact-based journalism and trustworthy information.

We hope their support inspires you to donate so that we can continue telling stories that inform, educate, and inspire you and your neighbors. As a community-supported public media service, Connecticut Public has relied on donor support for more than 50 years.

Your donation today will allow us to continue this work on your behalf. Give today at any amount and join the 50,000 members who are building a better—and more civil—Connecticut to live, work, and play.