Here’s a presidential campaign trivia question for you: Who was Frederick Douglass’s running mate in the 1872 election?
That’s right, Frederick Douglass—the famous former slave and abolitionist whose eloquence stirred the conscience of America. She deserves more recognition than she presently gets, for both good and bad reasons.He appeared on the general election ballot in 1872 as the vice-presidential candidate of the Equal Rights Party. Who was at the top of the ticket?
Time’s up. Douglass’s running mate was Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States. Don’t feel bad if her name didn’t spring to mind. She deserves more recognition than she presently gets, for both good and bad reasons. To end this on a positive note, I’ll list the bad ones first.
Before approving a suggestion that Douglass be her running mate, Woodhull didn’t bother to ask him about it. He wasn’t among the 668 delegates at the Equal Rights Party convention, didn’t consent to his nomination, and campaigned not for the Woodhull/Douglass ticket but for her Republican opponent, incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant. Oops.
Under the terms of the US Constitution, which sets the minimum age to be president at 35, Woodhull couldn’t take office even if she had won. She didn’t turn 35 until 10 months after the election. Running a half-century before women were even given the vote, she garnered microscopic support at the ballot box. Grant, of course, was re-elected in a landslide.
Today we have presidential candidates who advocate a kind of economic spiritualism called socialism.
Woodhull and her sister Tenny (short for “Tennessee”) were deep into spiritualism, earning a living for a time as spiritualists before becoming stockbrokers and newspaper publishers. In their day, that meant a belief that they could communicate with the dead.
Victoria and Tenny conducted seances, read palms, and claimed to be active mediums through which dead people spoke. Using both their alleged paranormal skills and their very real sexual appeal, they even conned a tidy sum of money out of one of America’s richest men, steamship and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. Whacky? Undoubtedly. But don’t forget that today, we have presidential candidates who advocate a kind of economic spiritualism called socialism—the belief that elites can make dumb, disastrous ideas cooked up by dead scribblers a winning formula for running other people’s lives.
Woodhull possessed a minimal grasp of economics, which may explain why she embraced the oxymoronic claptrap she called “Christian communism.” She regarded it as “an idealized political expression of spiritualism,” according to biographer Lois Beachy Underhill, and “made no attempt to rationalize her capitalistic brokerage business with the new doctrines she was expounding so enthusiastically.” She claimed that Jesus Christ was himself a communist, a disgraceful delusion that defies the facts.
Scandal (both real and alleged) followed Woodhull wherever she went, largely related to her public profession in favor of “sexual experimentation.”
Woodhull personally bankrolled the Equal Rights Party’s 1872 convention, so it should come as no surprise that its platform called for wealth redistribution, nationalization of industries, a graduated income tax, communal ownership of land, the abolition of interest payments, guaranteed jobs for all, and world government. Those dubious propositions overshadowed the party’s laudable endorsement of women’s suffrage and the equality of rights between the sexes.
Scandal (both real and alleged) followed Woodhull wherever she went, largely related to her public profession in favor of “sexual experimentation.” She was a leader of the nascent “free love movement,” which in its most charitable form is the belief that government should not interfere in the private, consensual activities of adults. To many Americans of the Victorian era, “free love” sounded like rationalizing licentiousness and promiscuity.
Victoria Woodhull was no saint, but neither was she all sinner. She was way ahead of her time on matters related to suffrage and women’s equality. She had some weird notions but possessed the courage to let you know what they were. She didn’t just pontificate; she put herself out there—delivering hundreds of speeches, forming a political party, running for president, and managing both a brokerage business and a newspaper. Even though women couldn’t legally vote, she showed up at a polling place once demanding a ballot; when it was denied, she didn’t leave until she delivered a blistering jeremiad about the injustice.
Nor was she afraid to call out a hypocrite when she saw one (even though she never quite grasped that she was one herself when as a capitalist she denounced capitalism). Women won the right to vote in the United States when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on August 18, 1920.On the Saturday before the presidential election in 1872, she outed the sanctimonious Rev. Henry Ward Beecher as a serial Don Juan. Though she was right about him (and was later acquitted of obscenity charges), she spent election day behind bars for it.
Sadly, many of Woodhull’s friends deserted her after the election. Even fellow suffragettes disowned her because of her radicalism and eccentricities. At age 39, she divorced her husband and sailed with her children and sister Tenny to England, where she lived out her days.
Women won the right to vote in the United States when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on August 18, 1920. Seven years later at age 89, a largely forgotten Victoria Woodhull died, but she was probably smiling when she did.
For additional information, see
The Woman Who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull by Lois Beachy Underhill
Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored by Mary Gabriel
A Woman for President: The Story of Victoria Woodhull by Kathleen Krull
Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria by Barbara Goldsmith
Scandalous: Fame, Infamy and Paradise Lost by Neal Katz
Was Jesus a Socialist? by Lawrence W. Reed