Friday, March 20, 2009

Victoria Woodhull

According to her contemporaries, Victoria Woodhull was a woman 100 years ahead of her time. Although few have heard of her today, when she ran for President of the United States in 1872, she was one of the most famous women in the country. She advocated many things which we take for granted today: the 8-hour work day, graduated income tax, social welfare programs, and profit sharing, for example. Victoria California Claflin was born September 23, 1838 in Homer, Ohio, to a down-on-its-luck family. She was only 15 years old when she was married for the first time to Canning Woodhull. When she died on June 9, 1927, she had come a long way from her modest surroundings in Homer. She died in a Manor House in Bredon's Norton, Worcestershire, England, as the wealthy widow of a British banker. She was no "respecter of persons." She offered her hospitality to prostitutes and royalty alike. She was a bundle of contradictions. Although she was opposed to the organized Christian religion, she lived its principles: She fed the hungry, cared for the sick, and visited the prisoners. She believed that living those principles was more important to saving souls than preaching the resurrection of Christ. She owned a newspaper which was the first to print the Communist Manifesto in English; and yet, she was also the first female stockbroker on Wall Street. Her life was unique, to say the least. Victoria was nominated for the U.S. Presidency by the Equal Rights Party. Her candidacy attracted an unusual coalition of people, which included laborers, female suffragists, Spiritualists, and communists, among others. The members of the coalition represented diverse--and often conflicting--opinions. The one thing that they all agreed upon was that the government needed reform. They wanted a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people." They wanted a government with principles. Not only did the Equal Rights Party nominate the first female presidential candidate, they were also the first to nominate a black man, Frederick Douglass, for Vice President. Although few seriously thought Victoria Woodhull would win, they knew her campaign would send a message to Washington. It's time for a woman in the White House. Victoria faced many obstacles to election besides the obvious one of running when most women couldn't even vote. One obstacle was campaign fund-raising and organization. She formed "Victoria Leagues." She held "Congresses" of her followers in her own home. She attempted to raise money by selling bonds that would be redeemable during her administration. Still, she couldn't get the support she needed to launch a formidable campaign. When she began her run, she had personal funds to draw from like Steve Forbes. She was the publisher of a New York journal, "Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly." She owned a stock brokerage, "Woodhull, Claflin & Company." Eventually, though, her funds ran out. She remarked of her own campaign, "The press suddenly divided between the other two great parties, refused all notice of the new reformatory movement; a series of pecuniary disasters stripped us, for the time being, of the means of continuing our weekly publication, and forced us into a desperate struggle for mere existence. . . . The inauguration of the new party, and my nomination, seemed to fall dead upon the country; and . . . a new batch of slanders and injurious innuendoes permeated the community in respect to my condition and character." Instead of debating Victoria on the issues, her opponents attacked her personally. They called her everything from a witch to a prostitute. They accused her of having affairs with married men. At first, Victoria responded to the slanders by taking the high road and ignoring the abuse. She believed that the private matters of public figures were just that, "private." Still, the rumors didn't subside, and she found she had to justify her private behavior in public. The rumors eventually led Victoria and her family to be evicted from their home. They literally spent one night homeless on the streets of New York because landlords were afraid to rent to the "Wicked Woodhull." Victoria believed certain members of the Beecher family--Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe--were responsible for the insidious rumors. In desperation, Victoria and her second husband Col. Blood wrote to Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. They asked him to help put an end to the persecution. Rev. Beecher turned a cold shoulder to them. Because Henry Ward Beecher refused to listen to her pleas, Victoria felt there was no choice but to fight back and reveal the hypocrisy of her attackers. She published the story of Rev. Beecher's affair with a married woman, hoping that his family would stop the personal attacks. Instead, they enlisted the help of the United States marshals and the YMCA. The first female presidential candidate spent election day in jail. The U.S. government arrested her under the Comstock Act for sending "obscene" literature through the mail. (As late as 1996, this act was still in effect as a part of the internet Communications Decency Act.) The alleged obscenity wasn't pornography. The obscenity was an article about Rev. Beecher's affair with Lib Tilton, the wife of Beecher's best friend, Theodore Tilton. At first, people took the side of the government. They were glad to see the "Wicked Woodhull" in jail for smearing one of their favorite celebrities. As time went by, though, they realized that the principle of free speech was at stake. Victoria, her sister Tennie C., and her husband Col. Blood were in jail for publishing what they believed to be the truth. The government didn't care if it was the truth. They wanted to destroy Victoria Woodhull and her newspaper, "Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly." Some members of the press joined in. A Chicago editor admitted to an intentional campaign to destroy her. He said, "Editors know that all she has said about Beecher is true, and we must either indorse her and make her the most popular woman in the world, or write her down and crush her out; and we have determined to do the latter." The scandal erupted into numerous trials for obscenity and libel. Victoria was on the defensive and was arrested eight times. Henry Ward Beecher and Theodore Tilton denied everything. They said that woman was lying. In 1875, Theodore Tilton had a change of heart. He took Reverend Beecher to court for alienation of his wife's affection. To some, it seemed a vindication of Woodhull. To others, it proved Theodore Tilton was part of a vast conspiracy to bring down Rev. Beecher. The Beecher-Tilton trial was the biggest news since President Lincoln had been assassinated. It received more coverage than the impeachment of President Johnson. It was as widely covered as the O.J. Simpson trial. It created thousands of pages of testimony and numerous books like the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. The country was sharply divided. Some believed Beecher was guilty. Others believed Woodhull made the whole thing up. They thought she published the article because she wanted fame or increased circulation. Victoria, Tennie C., and Colonel were eventually acquitted of any crimes, but the lawsuits ruined them. They spent a fortune in legal bills and bail. They lost their stock brokerage. The government confiscated their printing press, their personal papers, and their brokerage accounts, which were a major source of their income. They had received death threats and blackmail letters. They estimated their losses at half a million dollars and told the government they would be satisfied if they received $50,000 in restitution. They never received anything. With its malicious prosecution, the federal government bankrupted its first female presidential candidate--financially and emotionally. It's been nearly 128 years, and still no woman has made it to the White House. No person of color has even made it to the Vice Presidency. Money is still a major obstacle for candidates. The private lives of public figures are still an issue. The people still feel the politicians aren't representing them. It seems little has changed in politics in the past century. Courtesy of:

No comments: