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Women’s Equality Day 2017: Why we should remember Victoria Woodhull

To mark Women’s Equality Day 2017, Dr. Ruth Larsen, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Derby, discusses how women’s rights have evolved over the decades and why Victoria Woodhull is a huge role model in this day and age.

By Dr Ruth Larsen - 24 August 2017

What is Women’s Equality Day?

‘Women’s Equality Day’ is celebrated on 26 August in the United States of America to mark the anniversary of the signing the proclamation granting women the constitutional right to vote in US elections. In 1920, the nineteenth amendment was passed, which reads: ‘The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.’ This constitutional amendment was the result of many decades of campaigns by supporters of female suffrage, including Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Burns, to name just a few.

However, 1920 was not the first time women in America entered the political arena. Women had been active in American politics even when they were unable to vote. They played a key role in the American Independence movement in the 1770s, in campaigns for the abolition of slavery, within the American Civil War and, at the end of the nineteenth century, in campaigns for social and economic reform. Most remarkably, even before women were able to vote in presidential elections, there were women who were keen to stand for office, and two actually stood in elections to be president, Belva Ann Lockwood (1830-1917), who stood in 1884 and 1888, and the remarkable Victoria Woodhull (1838–1927), the first woman to stand in a presidential election in the United States.

Who was Victoria Woodhull?

Woodhull was a well-connected woman. With the support of the extremely wealthy railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, Woodhull successfully invested in the gold market in 1869. Using the profits from this she and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, opened the first firm of female Wall Street stock brokers. Then, in 1870, the sisters published a newspaper called the Woodhull and Claflin Weekly. This paper mainly discussed issues associated with feminism and socialism, but also uncovered various financial scandals on Wall Street. It was also in this paper where the first complete English translation of the Communist Manifesto was published, on 30 December 1870.

What was Woodhull’s link to politics?

She became increasingly active in mainstream politics; she petitioned Congress in person in 1871 when she argued that as citizens of the United States, women already had the right to vote under the terms of the fourteenth amendment of 1868. She did succeed in getting herself on the electoral register but was prevented from voting in a municipal election in New York in 1871. She stood as the presidential candidate for the Equal Rights Party in 1872. Her campaign primarily focused on female suffrage, but it also covered other women’s rights issues regarding employment, and free love, and wider issues such as land nationalization and the need for greater equality in the distribution of wealth.

Challenges facing voting

Woodhull’s campaign faced numerous barriers; not only was she a woman, but also women were still unable to vote. She was also just too young; aged just under thirty-five years old in November 1872 she did not meet the constitutionally required minimum age to be president. Another barrier was that, although former slave Frederick Douglass was nominated to be her vice-president, he never formally accepted the nomination. Also, on the day of the election, she was in jail. She had been arrested and was facing a charge of sending obscene mail through the federal posts following the publication of a story in her newspaper.

Unsurprisingly, Woodhull did not win any Electoral College votes in 1872, and it is unclear whether she received any popular votes either. However, this did not deter her and she sought further nominations to stand as president on at least four more occasions, despite the fact that she moved to England in 1877. Here, she continued to deliver lectures on spiritualism, marriage, and sexual freedom. She developed links with the higher echelons of society within Britain, and became a key advocate of Anglo-American relations; she died in Worcester in 1927.

Fighting for women’s rights

Woodhull was just one of many women who fought for female suffrage and women’s rights in North America during the nineteenth century. While she was not successful in her electoral campaign, the fact that Belva Ann Lockwood gained about 4800 popular votes in 1884 suggests that there was some sympathy amongst a few male voters for female equality.

Women continued to stand for election as president and vice president throughout the twentieth century, albeit without success. Lockwood, when asked in 1914 whether there would ever be a female president, noted that there probably would be, but: “It will be entirely on her own merits, however. No movement can place her there simply because she is a woman.

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About the author

Ruth Larsen

Dr Ruth Larsen
Senior Lecturer in History; Programme Leader for BA (Hons) History and Integrated Masters in History; Subject Lead for Joint Honours History

As a Senior Lecturer in History, Ruth Larsen is the Programme Leader for undergraduate History programmes. She has research expertise in British History of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially relating to gender history and the history of the country house.

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