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political pioneers

Victoria WoodhullLibrary of Congress

To some Americans struggling with the tumult of the post-Civil War years, she was "the Joan of Arc of the women's movement." To others, less swayed by charisma, she was Mrs. Satan, a "brazen, snaky adventuress" bent on destroying the country's moral fabric. As one tabloid headline recorded at the height of her fame, she was "The Prostitute Who Ran for President."

Victoria Woodhull may well have been a prostitute at one point in her astonishing life. Certainly she was a blackmailer, a newspaper publisher, a leading figure in the fight for women's suffrage, one of the country's most prominent spiritualists, an outspoken advocate of free love, and the first woman to run a brokerage firm on Wall Street.

And, in 1872, she achieved another milestone, when she became the first woman to run for president of the United States. If she could not even cast a vote for herself in that election, it was because history and fate had conspired against her: For one thing, women had not yet won the franchise; for another, she was locked in a New York jail cell on election day, held on obscenity charges alongside her equally outré sister, Tennessee.

Ms. Woodhull would have seen her life more simply. She was, as she put it, an "evangel," a champion of change and progress who had been put on Earth to achieve women's emancipation, with the assistance of some powerful men and her spirit guide from the next world, Demosthenes.

"She was a woman before her time in a world that was not ready to receive her," wrote Barbara Goldsmith (who died last month) in her masterful 1998 biography, Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull.

While there are few parallels between Ms. Woodhull's shambolic campaign and the well-oiled machinery behind Hillary Clinton, the first woman to win a major party's presidential nomination, there are definite resonances in the political atmos- phere between then and now.

Ms. Woodhull lived through a time of political and spiritual upheaval, in a country shattered by civil war and riven by racial divides. She witnessed the bitterness of Reconstruction politics, the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, stock-market fixing, near-economic collapse, corruption at the highest levels, and the sometimes internecine warfare over who was more worthy of the vote, black Americans or women. Crucially, it was a time when the growing spiritualist and suffragist movements fed and strengthened each other – even as the women's movement was being torn apart by infighting.

All the while, she and Tennessee were involved in a series of scandals that today would have turned the Democratic National Committee's hair white. In the end, it would be her advocacy of free love, and her belief that marriage was state-authorized slavery for women, that would be her downfall. Until, that is, one final fortuitous marriage saved her.

Victoria Woodhull's life, which contained enough adventure and turmoil for a dozen novels, began in dingy circumstances on Sept. 23, 1838, in Homer, Ohio. She was the pretty daughter of Buck Claflin and his wife, Roxy, a pair of good-for-nothing opportunists. The Claflins were "a shouting, accusing, quarrelsome clan," as Johanna Johnston wrote in her 1967 biography, Mrs. Satan.

Victoria, however, knew she was destined for greatness from childhood, when a handsome figure from ancient Greece appeared to her in a vision. "You will know wealth and fame one day," he told her. "You will live in a mansion in a city surrounded by ships and you will become a ruler of your people."

This figure, Demosthenes, would provide Ms. Woodhull with guidance all her life, alongside two other spirit counsellors, Napoleon and Josephine.

It sounds crazy to read that now, but mid-19th-century America was in the grip of a spiritualist frenzy, with one group particularly in thrall. As Ms. Goldsmith wrote, "For women – sheltered, repressed, powerless – the line between divine inspiration, the courage of one's convictions, and spirit guidance became blurred."

Buck Claflin used his daughters as spiritualist milk cows, making them perform séances and psychic readings for cash. Victoria escaped, at the age of 15, by marrying a doctor named Canning Woodhull. They would have two children, Byron and Zulu Maud (no one ever knew quite why she received this eccentric name), but the marriage was doomed. The dissolute Canning Woodhull would prove to be a cheating and useless husband.

Victoria's path to emancipation and fame began when she met Colonel James Harvey Blood, a proponent of free love, during a psychic consultation in St. Louis. She ran away with Col. Blood, but brought her whole family along, too, including the hapless Mr. Canning, as she made a living across the country as a medium, actress and, possibly, a part-time prostitute. (The clan were chased out of one town for running a "house of assignation.")

After moving to New York, Ms. Woodhull met three men who, ironically, helped her to be free of male oppression.

Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the priapic tycoon who was having an affair with Tennessee, used Victoria's skills as a medium to help him in his investments. When her ostensibly trance-induced tips paid off, he rewarded her with a handsome sum, allowing the two sisters to open Wall Street's first female-owned brokerage firm.

The second man, Stephen Pearl Andrews, helped to form Ms. Woodhull's notions of workers' liberation (the weekly newspaper she launched with her sister would be the first in America to print The Communist Manifesto) and, more important, free love. "Yes, I am a free lover!" she said to one of the many crowds who now gathered to hear the notorious Ms. Woodhull. "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." This was, to say the least, a contentious position in the 1860s, and earned her more hostility than support. Thomas Nast, the cartoonist who created the modern version of Santa Claus, and the Republican elephant, drew her as a winged demon he named "Mrs. Satan."

Finally, there was politician Benjamin Butler, who helped bring Ms. Woodhull to the attention of suffragists, and also brought her, literally, to the seat of American power. In 1871, she addressed both houses of Congress, arguing powerfully but unsuccessfully for female enfranchisement.

That this upstart got such a plum spot in the limelight irked two stalwarts of the women's movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but once they witnessed Ms. Woodhull's charisma, they realized she would be an asset to the movement and drew her in.

But the women's movement was divided into factions, conservative versus progressive. Ms. Woodhull, seen by many as dangerously radical, announced her presidential ambition at the 1872 convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association, a meeting so combative that Ms. Anthony had the janitor snuff the hall lights to bring it to a close.

She formed the Equal Rights Party to back her bid, but the campaign was always more show than go: She chose as her running mate the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, without actually mentioning it to him. "I never heard of this," he said, when told of his new political path. A former slave, he would have won the right to vote himself only two years before.

Most people, if not Victoria, realized what an uphill slog it would be for a woman to run in an election in which she could not even vote. As Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, wrote: "Whoever is set up to be President of the United States is just set up to have his character torn off from his back in shreds, and to be mauled, pummeled, and covered with dirt by every filthy paper all over the country. And no woman that was not willing to be dragged through every kennel, and slopped into every dirty pail of water like an old mop, would ever consent to run as a candidate. Why, it's an ordeal that kills a man."

Indeed, the election pitting incumbent Ulysses S. Grant against newspaper editor Horace ("Go West, young man") Greeley, with Ms. Woodhull as a diversion, "deteriorated into one of the most vicious in American history," as Ms. Goldsmith noted in Other Powers. Ms. Woodhull had other things to worry about. During the campaign, her newspaper ran a scandalous story about a New York orgy that led to the arrest and imprisonment of Victoria and Tennessee on obscenity charges. (That issue also contained a story about the adulterous habits of America's most famous preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Stowe, which would lead to one of the most celebrated civil trials of the century.)

Although she was eventually released and cleared of the charges, Ms. Woodhull began to decline. The public had had enough of her shenanigans. She became ill and nearly died, and was forced to perform gruelling speaking tours across the United States to earn enough to support her large and shiftless family.

Life today would be largely unrecognizable to Ms. Woodhull, but perhaps she would not be surprised that female politicians like Ms. Clinton have not escaped the shadow of sexism. A woman who was used to hostile 19th-century crowds would recognize the modern chants of "Lock her up." Mrs. Satan might be dismayed, but not shocked, that, 144 years later, female presidential candidates are still called "witch" and "bitch" and are said by their opponents to be on Lucifer's payroll.

There would be one last chapter in Ms. Woodhull's extraordinary life. In 1877 Cornelius Vanderbilt died, and Victoria, in possession of incriminating letters about the old man, probably extorted money out of his heirs. She disappeared with her family to England, where the great critic of wifely servitude manufactured a counterfeit family history for herself, renounced free love, and found safety and respectability in the arms of a rich new husband, banker John Biddulph Martin. (This incursion into polite British society was said to be the inspiration for Henry James's story The Siege of London.)

Her reputation was never rehabilitated, though her defenders would have had it otherwise. In 1875 Elizabeth Stanton said, "Victoria Woodhull has done a work for women that none of us could have done. … She will be as famous as she has been infamous."

Ms. Woodhull was 88 when she died in comfort but obscurity in England in 1927, seven years after American women won the right to vote.

Elizabeth Renzetti is a Globe and Mail columnist and feature writer.

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