A Woman to Know: Victoria Woodhull

I anticipate criticism; but however unfavorable, I trust that my sincerity will not be called into question. — Victoria Woodhull

(image via Smithsonian)


In the midst of the Civil War, Victoria and her sister Tennessee traveled the country in a medicine show caravan, telling fortunes and reading palms. Victoria got married at 15, but her husband didn't approve of her fortune-telling ways. She divorced him, and turned to one of her wealthiest clients -- the railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt -- for help. Vanderbilt was so impressed with Victoria's intelligence and charisma that he trained the Woodhull sisters in financing, setting them up as America's first female stockbrokers.

Their stock brokerage firm took off, but Tennessee and Victoria weren't in it for the money -- they were in it for the power. The two used their profits to start a suffragist newspaper, "Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly." The paper built a dedicated readership, but didn't win support with authorities. Victoria was charged with "publishing an obscene newspaper." She used her time in jail to plot her next move: an 1872 presidential run with the newly-formed Equal Rights Party.

"I am quite well aware that in assuming this position I shall evoke more ridicule than enthusiasm at the outset," she wrote in her nomination announcement. "But this is an epoch of sudden changes and startling surprises. What may appear absurd today will assume a serious aspect tomorrow."

She lost, of course. She was still 48 years ahead of the 19th amendment. She couldn't even vote in her own election.

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