"A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." -- John Singer Sargent

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Victoria Woodhull

This c. 1870 photo of Victoria Claflin Woodhall by Mathew Brady is on display in the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, DC.
The controversial, wealthy banker Victoria Woodhull announced her candidacy for President of the United States in 1870. Subsequently, she presented a memorandum to Congress requesting the right to “vote without regard to sex,” shocking many Americans. In response to Woodhull's testimony, nineteen anti-suffragists —all women— published their opposition in the Godey's Lady's Book, a magazine promoting traditional ideals of womanhood. A number of suffragists disapproved of Woodhull, too, and her fiery rhetoric did nothing to boost her popularity. For example, in 1871 she declared, “We mean treason; we mean secession We are plotting revolution.”  -- SAAM
Woodhull made a fortune as a magnetic healer and spiritualist. She  became even richer after she and her sister Tennie C. (Tennessee) Claflin became the first women to own a Wall Street brokerage.

 Victoria Woodhull (from the NY Evening World Feb. 20, 1888)

Although Mrs. Woohull's run for the presidency was not generally taken seriously -- she received no electoral votes and at age 34 was too young to qualify as president, she became, technically, the first woman to run for the presidency. Her running mate on the Equal Rights Party ticket in the 1872 election was Frederick Douglas.  In the congressional election of 1871 she actually attempted to vote, herself.

Mrs. Woodhull Asserting Her Right to Vote

Victoria Woodhull shocked the nation in April 1870, when she announced that she would run for president of the United States in the 1872 election. Soon after, Woodhull, her sister Tennessee Claflin, and three other women applied the strategy known as the "New Departure": they went to the polls and attempted to vote in the 1871 congressional elections. They were turned away but not before their actions created a stir in the newspapers. Harper's Weekly documented the event with this engraving.

Woodhull is shown standing directly behind the ballot box, with her finger pointed in the air as she asserts her right to vote. Later, in 1872, Woodhull published an article on “Pantarchy,” which she described as a society in which adults are free to live and, particularly, to love as they see fit. The “Free Love” movement rejected marriage as an oppressive institution and instead embraced sexual freedom—an extremely radical and controversial idea. -- SAAM
 Mrs. Woodhull's advocacy of Free Love won her the Thomas Nast treatment:

Victoria Woodhull: Be Saved by Free Love.

Get Thee Behind Me, (Mrs.) Satan! by Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly February 12, 1872, portraying Mrs. Woodhull as Mrs. Satan.

Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927) ran for president on a third-party ticket in 1872. By then, her support of “Free Love,” or sexual relations outside of marriage, had made her a social outcast. That year, the political cartoonist Thomas Nast depicted her as “(Mrs.) Satan” in a caricature that took up a full-page in Harper's Weekly, turning Woodhull's trademark hairstyle into devil's horns and fitting her with demon's wings. In the background, a married woman carries the heavy burden of her alcoholic husband and her children while climbing the steep and treacherous path of life. Despite such criticism, Woodhull continued to fight for women's equality. She highlighted a double standard of stricter sexual mores for women when she accused the nation's most respected clergyman, Henry Ward Beecher, of having an extra-marital affair with a member of his congregation, Elizabeth Tilton. The New York Times described the scandal as “one of the most pitiful episodes of human experience." -- SAAM
Nast included this woman carrying her drunken husband and three children on her back.

Wife (with heavy burden): “I'd Rather Travel the Hardest Path of Matrimony than Follow Your Footsteps.”
In 1871 Mrs. Woodhull accused the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher of practicing the Free Love that he denounced her for advocating. He was accused of having sexual relations with Elizabeth Tilton the wife of his close associate Theodore Tilton. Mrs. Woodhull wrote to the  NY World that:
Because I am a woman, and because I conscientiously hold opinions somewhat different from the self-elected orthodoxy which men find their profit in supporting, and because I think it my bounden duty and my absolute right to put forward my opinions and to advocate them with my whole strength, self-elected orthodoxy assails me, vilifies me, and endeavors to cover my life with ridicule and dishonor. . . . Let him that be without sin cast the stone. . . . My judges preach against “free love” openly and practice it secretly; their outward seeming is fair [but] inwardly they are full of “dead men’s bones and all manner of uncleanness.” For example, I know of one man, a public teacher of eminence, who lives in concubinage with the wife of another public teacher of almost equal eminence. . . . I shall make it my business to analyze some of these lives. . . . I have no faith in critics, but I believe in justice. -- See the New Yorker June  14 1954.
Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton (James E. Cook, c. 1875)

When a more explicit article about Beecher and Mrs. Tilton appeared in  Claflin & Woodhull' Weekly in November of 1872, the sisters and Victoria Woodhull's second husband Colonel James Harvey Blood were arrested for obscenity. Theodore Tilton brought charges against Beecher in 1874 for criminal intimacy with his wife. The inconclusive trial was widely followed in the papers of the time.

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