Monday, April 28, 2008

Woman Warrior: Victoria Woodhull

During Women's History Month (March), I featured a few women who made an impact in our world: whether by pursuing women's right to vote, progressing women's economic independence, or simply by living outside the box that patriarchal society put them in. There are so many of these women warriors who have inspired a change in our world, that I have decided to continue the features beyond Women's History Month. I hope you find these stories, profiles, quotes, features, and pictures as inspiring as I do.

Today, we face the very real possibility of our very first female president. Hillary Rodham Clinton is not, however, the first woman to run for the presidency: there have been 16 contenders before her. The first was Victoria Woodhull.

She was known for her work supporting women's rights, free love, and labor reforms. Her first "first", however, was as a broker: Victoria and her sister were the first female Wall Street brokers. It was their work as newspaper editors, however, that gave Victoria a chance to start addressing issues close to her: women's suffrage, short skirts, spiritualism, free love, vegetarianism, and licensed prostitution. The paper is now known primarily for printing the first English version of Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto in it's December 30, 1871 edition.

Also in 1871, suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Isabella Beecher Hooker heard her address the House Judiciary Committee. Woodhull argued that women already had the right to vote - all they had to do was use it - since the 14th and 15th Amendments granted that right to all citizens. They applauded her statement: "women are the equals of men before the law, and are equal in all their rights." Woodhull catapulted to the leadership circle of the suffrage movement with her first public appearance as a woman's rights advocate. Although her Constitutional argument was not original, she focused unprecedented public attention on suffrage. Following Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Woodhull was the second woman to petition Congress in person.

Woodhull was nominated for President of the United States by the newly formed Equal Rights Party on May 10, 1872, at Apollo Hall, New York City. Her nomination was ratified at convention on June 6, 1872. Former slave Frederick Douglass was nominated for Vice President. Although the first woman to run for President, some critics argue the legality of her run citing one of the following reasons:

-The government declined to print her name on the ballot.
This criticism is not valid as the government wasn't responsible for printing ballots.
-She was under the constitutionally mandated age of 35.
This is the most cited criticism in the 20th and 21st centuries, but was hardly noticed in the 19th. There also is no legal primary evidence that Woodhull was born in 1838. Ohio did not require the registration of births until 1867.
-She didn't receive any electoral and/or popular votes.
While it's true that Woodhull received no electoral votes, there's evidence that Woodhull did receive popular votes that weren't counted.
-Women couldn't legally vote until August 1920.
Although it's true that most women couldn't legally vote until 1920, some women did legally vote and hold public office prior to 1920. Some believe that when the 19th amendment passed giving women the right to vote, it implicitly gave women the right to run for President.
-She was a woman.
This was the most cited legal impediment in the 19th century. Some of Woodhull's contemporaries believed that because she was a woman she was not a citizen and, therefore, not entitled to vote. Since the Constitution required that the President be a citizen, she would also be excluded from holding the office of President. Others believed women were citizens, but that the states had the right to limit the franchise to males only. Some Woodhull supporters believed that even if Woodhull couldn't vote legally, that wouldn't have excluded her from running for public office. United States law has its roots in English common law, and under English common law, there was an established precedence of women holding public office.

It wasn't just her gender that made Woodhull's campaign notable; her association with Frederick Douglass stirred up controversy about the mixing of race and fears of miscegenation.

On Saturday, November 2, just days before the presidential election, US Federal Marshals arrested Woodhull, her husband Colonel Blood, and her sister Tennie C. Claflin for sending obscene material through the mail: she published an article in their newspaper in order to highlight what she saw as a sexual double-standard between men and women. The event incited worthy questions about censorship and government persecution, but also prevented Victoria from attempting to vote during the 1872 presidential elections due to her incarceration. Woodhull attempted to secure nominations for the presidency again in 1884 and 1892.

Here we are over 130 years later and women are still trying for the highest office in our nation. Instead of debating Victoria on the issues, her opponents attacked her personally. If Hillary didn't have to deal with critics shouting "iron my shirt" or condemning her for sounding like she is 'scolding', imagine the lively debates we would have. We've come a long way, but we sure have further to go.


FairiesNest said...

Excellent post!! I have so enjoyed reading your "women warrior" series, Keep them coming!

Athena's Armoury said...

Thanks, fairiesnest! I'm fascinated with the topic, so there will be more.