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The Suffragette Series: A Deeper Look Into First-Wave Feminist Causes (Part II)

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Women’s suffrage has long been the conventional icon of the early women’s rights movement in America — but suffragettes were vying for much more than the vote at the turn of the 20th century.

In celebration of 100 years since the ratification of the 19th amendment, we’re delving further into the causes these women were fighting for: the right to their own bodies, the freedom of sexual expression and the dismantling of systemic racism.

Part II: Victoria Woodhull, A Flagship Feminist

Victoria Woodhull is a name that doesn’t show up in history books quite as often as Susan B. Anthony’s or Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s. The free-thinking, first-wave feminist was much more radical than most of her counterparts.

Born in 1838, Woodhull had a remarkably progressive outlook on sexuality and was hence alienated from the mainstream feminist movement. 

Despite being written out of much of the early women’s rights movement, she was the flagship for many female achievements in the United States during the late 19th century. Here are some remarkable facts about Woodhull and her accomplishments for womankind:

1. She was the first woman to run for president of the United States.

In 1870, Woodhull announced her candidacy for president of the United States, campaigning on issues like women’s suffrage, abolishing the death penalty and welfare for the poor. She also established the Equal Rights Party, which nominated her in May 1872. 

The party also nominated Frederick Douglass, a major player in the abolitionist movement, as her running mate. Douglass, however, did not acknowledge the nomination. 

Many did not take Woodhull’s candidacy seriously, her name only appearing on the ballot in some states. Furthermore, no one knows how many votes for president she had, as they were not counted.

She also spent Election Day in jail after publishing an article in her own newspaper berating Henry Wood Beecher for his extramarital affairs. She was charged for releasing “obscene content.”

2. She was the first woman to address a congressional committee, own and publish a national newspaper and run a Wall Street brokerage firm.

Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, were the first women in American history to run a brokerage firm on Wall Street, named Woodhull, Claflin, & Co. The two opened the firm in 1870 with the help of Cornelius Vanderbilt, a railroad industry titan and one of the wealthiest Americans in history

That same year, Woodhull and her sister also founded Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, the first national newspaper to be owned by women.

Woodhull also became the first woman to address a congressional committee when, in 1871, she testified before the House Judiciary Committee that women should have the right to vote and a bigger voice in politics. 

Woodhull argued that women had already won suffrage under the 14th and 15th amendments, which established that citizens could not be denied the right to vote based on race. She said women were also citizens, and as tax-payers as well, should have a voice in government.

While the committee rejected her assertions, Woodhull’s address helped her establish a leading role in the early feminist movement. 

3. She was a proponent of “free love.”

Woodhull was a major advocate for “free love” — a social movement that insisted the government should have no involvement in citizens’ personal and sexual lives. 

In 1871, she gave a speech at Manhattan’s Steinway Hall titled The Truth Shall Set You Free, where she famously said, “Yes, I am a free lover. 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.”

Woodhull became a face of the movement but was chastised by many, even earning the label “Mrs. Satan,” from political cartoonist Thomas Nast in a comic. Her liberal attitude toward sex also lost her the support of feminist leaders like Anthony and Stanton, who viewed her as promiscuous. 

Anthony then shifted the focus of early feminism to suffrage and rewrote its early years to reflect that, alienating Woodhull from the mainstream movement.

Despite the stigma Woodhull carried as an activist in the late 19th century, she led the charge for many female accomplishments in the early days of the United States. Her efforts, while overshadowed by more conservative activists at the time, were historically significant victories for womankind that revolutionized the way some Americans viewed women. 

In Part III, we look further into how first-wave feminism intersected with the abolitionist movement.

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