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Victoria Woodhull, seen here, and her sister were the first women to launch a stock-brokerage firm on Wall Street.

Victoria Woodhull was ahead of her time. In 1868, she made a fortune in the stock market. Two years later, she and her sister were the first women to launch a stock-brokerage firm on Wall Street.

Then, in 1872, she became the first female to run for U.S. president. Women who tried to vote back then were arrested and fined $100. But the law did not expressly forbid them from campaigning, so Woodhull entered the presidential race. She just couldn’t vote for anyone, including herself.

With Aug. 26 being Women’s Equality Day, it’s a fitting time to tell her extraordinary story.

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Woodhull was born in 1838 to Buck and Roxy Claflin. When she was still a child, they put her to work as a spiritual medium in the family’s travelling medicine show. At 15, she married Dr. Canning Woodhull. They had two children and divorced after 11 years (but she kept his last name).

Meeting railway tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt was pivotal to her stock-market fortune

Woodhull and her younger sister, Tennessee Claflin, later moved to New York to set up shop as clairvoyants and faith healers. That’s when they met Cornelius Vanderbilt, the wealthiest man in the United States.

Vanderbilt, then in his senior years and recently widowed, wanted to communicate with his deceased mother. Woodhull obliged, holding séances to put him in touch.

He also hired Claflin for her talents as a massage healer. Rumours soon circulated of some intimacies and a marriage proposal from Vanderbilt (he was turned down).

The other thing Vanderbilt wanted was for Woodhull to use her clairvoyant skills to make stock recommendations. Her picks were hugely successful, netting close to a million dollars in 1868. The gains were shared with the sisters.

In reality, Woodhull was getting the stock tips not from the spirits but from her good friend Josie Mansfield, mistress of Wall Street titan Jim Fisk. She heard firsthand of his market moves and passed on what she had learned to Woodhull.

An important manoeuvre for Fisk at the time was buying up gold to corner the market. The plan was to push up prices and squeeze the short sellers (press them to buy back and return the stocks they had borrowed), then sell at the top to the momentum and trend-following traders. Woodhull’s spirits made sure Vanderbilt’s trades were on the right side of market trends.

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Wall Street brokerage is a success

Impressed by Woodhull’s stock-picking track record, Vanderbilt helped the sisters open a Wall Street brokerage in 1870. It proved a success. New York had a lot of wealthy widows who felt more comfortable with female brokers.

Running for president

When Woodhull ran for U.S. president in 1872, she ended up spending election day in jail, charged with libel for an article she wrote. The charge was later dismissed.

She and her sister live happily ever after

After Vanderbilt died in 1877, the sisters moved to England. Woodhull married into the landed gentry and lived a very respectable and affluent lifestyle for the next 50 years. Her sister also married well, becoming a baronetess and one of the wealthiest persons in England.

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