photo credit Mathew Brady – Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum
The first female presidential candidate ran on a platform of pleasure. (Nope, not Hillary Clinton!)
Her name was Victoria Woodhull, and she believed in the scandalous proposition that women had the right to leave loveless marriages.
Even more shocking, she believed that women had the right to choose when and where and with whom they had sex.
“To woman, by nature, belongs the right of sexual determination,” she proclaimed.
Only then—once women could say no to sex they didn’t want (and yes to sex they DID want)—would women finally be equal to men.
It was an unlikely platform to run a presidential campaign on. Especially when women didn’t even have the right to vote.
In the late 1800s, America was a different place. Divorce was scandalous. Women had no choice but to marry. Once married, they couldn’t leave. They were bound to their husbands, even if those husbands proved to be drunks or cheats or spendthrifts.
Woodhull knew this from experience.
She was only 15 when she married a young doctor and bore two children. But his alcoholism and adultery made him impossible to live with. So she left him and went back to her own family, where she made a living as a fortune-teller.
She became rich from it. Her listening skills gave her an incredible insight into the hopes, dreams and fears of ordinary Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War.
She decided that a man and a woman should marry for no other reason but love. And if they stopped loving each other, why, then no law on earth could force them to remain together.
I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.”
She called her idea free love, though it bore little resemblance to the free love that would sweep society 100 years later. She simply meant that women deserved the right to “marry, divorce, and bear children without government interference.”
Woodhull practiced what she preached.
She finally divorced her first husband and married a Civil War veteran who introduced her to the reformist movement. She moved to New York City where she opened the first female brokerage firm with her sister. She became a suffragette, started a newspaper, and began giving speeches that drew standing-room-only crowds.
In May 1972, the Equal Rights Party nominated her as their presidential candidate, with Frederick Douglass as her running mate. Douglass didn’t accept the nomination, but it would have been a dream team for a party dedicated to achieving equality for all.
Her candidacy immediately hit trouble. Her brokerage firm went bust, and she ended up penniless. She published a story exposing the infidelities of a respected preacher and was sent to prison on charges of indecency and obscenity.
The scandal was the final nail in the coffin of her candidacy. She spent Election Day in jail. Had she been free, she couldn’t have even voted for herself. She was a woman, after all.
Woodhull didn’t win the presidency. She didn’t even receive any electoral votes. But she remains an important figure in America’s fight for women’s equality.
Today, women have the vote, but they don’t yet have the freedom Woodhull envisioned.
The #MeToo movement has made it clear that women don’t always feel they have the right to say no to sex, especially when powerful men demand it.
Although it’s easier to divorce, it’s by no means free from government interference. Marriage is still ultimately a legal contract, disguised as a declaration of love.
And the possibility of a female U.S. president?
Let’s just say that it seems as far away as ever.
Woodhull was a woman ahead of her time. Nearly 150 years ago, she believed that women should be free to love as and when they wished. Political equality rests on sexual freedom.
She even had a clever plan to achieve that equality. Had the suffragette movement taken it up, who knows how soon American women would have gotten the right to vote?
Let women issue a declaration of independence sexually, and absolutely refuse to cohabit with men until they are acknowledged as equals in everything, and the victory would be won in a single week.”
Were Woodhull still alive today, what would she tell us?
Perhaps she’d remind us we have more power than we think.
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The women you see featured in glossy magazines, climbing sheer rock cliffs and heading Fortune 500 businesses and crafting unique Etsy art from the comfort of their own homes, got there on guts and faith.
They didn’t know if they’d be able to succeed at their dream. But each and every one made the decision to take the first step. And the second. And the third.
We hope these profiles of brilliant women inspire you to reach for your dreams.