First woman to run for president was no Hillary Clinton

HOMER, Ohio — This, according to Hillary Clinton, is where the movement to shatter the “highest, hardest glass ceiling’’ — the presidency — got started.

It began with Victoria Woodhull, who was born here in 1838 and 34 years later became the first woman to run for president.

Her problems then put Clinton’s now into perspective.

In 1872, Woodhull never had a chance. She couldn’t (as a woman) vote for herself. If elected she’d have been too young, under the Constitution, to serve. She got only a handful of votes (even her running mate, Frederick Douglass, voted for President Ulysses Grant). On Election Day she was in jail for slandering the nation’s most famous preacher.

With none of those handicaps, Clinton has a good shot of becoming the first female president — a seemingly momentous prospect that has nonetheless failed to excite much of the electorate, including many Clinton supporters.

But Woodhull’s admirers are trying to use Clinton’s run at history to gin up interest in their own heroine, who has largely been written out of history.

“No one’s paid much attention to her because there was no reason to,’’ Amie Hatfield, the local librarian, says of Woodhull. “Now, with Hillary running, there is.’’

A library display case devoted to Woodhull contains a letter from Clinton, who says of her predecessor: “As a leader of the women’s suffrage movement, and as the first woman to run for president, she was a pioneer for equal rights and put the first crack in the glass ceiling that we are still working so hard to shatter. And it all started in Homer.’’

Woodhull was also the first female Wall Street stockbroker, the first woman to testify before Congress and one of the first women to found a newspaper.

She was a prominent abolitionist, spiritual medium and advocate of what she called “free love,” by which she meant marriage law reform. Attractive and charismatic, she cut her hair short like men and wore masculine clothes. She married three times and divorced twice.

“She was ahead of her time,’’ says Judith Dann, a local resident and college history professor who gives lectures around Ohio on Woodhull. “Probably too far ahead.’’

But she had an impact. “Even if my campaign is not successful,’’ Woodhull said of her presidential race, “it will be educational for women.’’


Daddy was a con man

Like Clinton, Woodhull wanted to protect women’s health and children’s welfare. Like Clinton, she was controversial and divisive. Unlike Clinton, she was an outrageous, flamboyant free spirit.

Her inspirational ascent began in grinding rural poverty. Asked where she came from, Woodhull would say, “Nowhere.’’ It was close to the truth. Homer in those days was a frontier town, and her family life was a nightmare.

Her father was a con man who beat his children like dogs and worked them like slaves. Described by a neighbor as “a one-eyed, one man crime spree,’’ he left town after allegedly burning down his mill for the insurance and stealing money as postmaster. Townsfolk took up a collection to send his family after him.

It’s hard to know what to make of her mother, an illiterate eccentric who in one account “cursed until she foamed’’ and in another had “memorized the Bible backward and forward.’’

Victoria was the seventh of 10 children, four of whom did not make adulthood. She had a few years’ formal education before being put to work telling fortunes and selling her father’s fake elixirs.

Her marriage at 15 to a drunken, philandering physician, Canning Woodhull, produced two children and ended in divorce. (Later, when he was destitute and she had remarried, she took him into their household).

In 1868 she moved to New York and apparently contrived to meet the railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was obsessed with contacting his dead mother. Woodhull became his personal spiritual medium.

Probably through Vanderbilt’s largess, she and her sister in 1870 started the first female brokerage on Wall Street and a weekly newspaper that was the first to publish Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto in English.

Her challenge to contemporary sexual mores explained her nickname “Mrs. Satan.’’ She defined “free love’’ as a woman’s right “to love who I want for as long as I want’’ and then to divorce. Under the law, she said, marriage for women was slavery.

She was a millionaire by the age of 31. But when she walked into Delmonico’s restaurant without a male escort, she could not get seated.

She tried to vote in 1871, claiming that the 14th Amendment guaranteed women that right. “We don’t need the right to vote,’’ she told a congressional committee. “We have it.’’

In 1872 she won the presidential nomination of the Equal Rights Party. The former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass was named her running mate; he, however, never acknowledged the honor, stumping for Grant instead.

But even as Woodhull campaigned around the nation, a crisis was brewing that would change her life.

The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, had attacked Woodhull’s notion of free love from his Brooklyn pulpit. Shortly before the election, her newspaper (accurately) accused Beecher of having an affair with a married parishioner.

Under a federal law against mailing “obscene” material, Woodhull was arrested and jailed — which is where she spent Election Day. Stowe called her a "vile jailbird" and an "impudent witch." Others called her worse.

Woodhull was subsequently cleared at trial, but the controversy destroyed her health, finances and reputation.

In 1877 she moved to England, where she married a banker, espoused progressive causes and lived comfortably until her death in 1927.

She seemed destined for historical oblivion. The great suffragist Susan B. Anthony, with whom Woodhull disagreed on tactics and style, wrote her out of the six-volume history of the women’s suffrage movement she and colleagues published between 1881 and 1922.

But they never forgot her back in Homer, which today is still little more than a wide place in the road.

A year after her death The Terrible Siren, one of many unflattering biographies, was published. A decade later, a boy named Alan Megaw, having read virtually everything else in the Homer Library, was handed a copy of The Terrible Siren by the librarian.

He went home and asked his grandfather who this woman was. “We don’t talk about her,’’ Megaw, now 86, recalls being told.

He’s lived long to see that change. Recently a video crew was in town working on a documentary on Woodhull. “They said Homer could become a tourist attraction!’’ he says. He shakes his head.

'So cool'

The Victoria Woodhull Memorial Bell Tower sits atop the Robbins Hunter Museum, 15 minutes south of Homer, which this year has a special Woodhull exhibit. The memorial consists of a hand-carved and painted wooden bust of Woodhull on a computer-activated platform that on the hour emerges from behind two doors, amid the peeling of bells and a recorded organ processional.

Adelaide Sidwell, 24, was taking the sun one morning on a bench outside the museum when, to her immense surprise, the show began.

Sidwell is a 2016 graduate of Ohio State, where she concentrated on history and international affairs. Like many who learn about Woodhull, she was both amazed by her story and surprised she’d never heard it before.

“That’s so cool!’’ she exclaimed. “She was a beast!’’

Few would say that of Hillary Clinton. It’s one of several differences between the two candidates that may explain why the historic importance of Clinton’s bid has failed to gain much traction.

Woodhull was a political blank slate (despite her radical platform) and a novelty; the most significant thing about her candidacy was her gender. Clinton, on the other hand, has a résumé, a program and a reputation that makes her sex almost irrelevant. “Her candidacy might not resonate as much (as historic) because she’s been such a polarizing figure,’’ says Leslie Caughell, who teaches politics and women’s studies at Virginia Wesleyan College.

More than anything, it’s Clinton’s caution that distinguishes her from Woodhull, an agitator who in some ways more closely resembles Donald Trump.

Susanne Cordray, a Denison University professor who’s made a Woodhull documentary, says Clinton should listen to her spunky predecessor’s exhortation, written in last year of her life: “Come out from the ruck of grumblers, who do nothing, who criticize only, and try to do something to help humankind."

“If I were Hillary Clinton,’’ Cordray says, “for the next few weeks, that would be my mantra.’’

 

 

USA TODAY


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