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Victoria Woodhull: Broker, Spiritualist, Presidential Candidate

By Madeleine Foley

The first woman to run for president probably isn’t who you think it is. Today, on the 147th anniversary of the first American female presidential candidate, Maddy Foley takes us back — and asks what we’ve learned.

FOLEY_1 : Historian Isobel Plowright and I are standing on 28th street, near Madison Square Park. Plowright points across the street.  


In 1872, this would have been a large theater. It would have been a very sort of busy place in New York at that time. (0:12)

FOLEY_2: And now?


It is now a parking garage, or at least looks like it’s heavily under construction. (0:14)

FOL EY_3: There’s no plaque, no statue, no trace of what happened on May 10, 1872 at Apollo Hall — when Victoria Woodhull became the first woman presidential candidate in American history.

FOLEY_4: Victoria Woodhull was born into poverty in rural Ohio. She worked as an exotic dancer and later as a traveling lecturer on spiritualism. In 1870, Woodhull and her sister became the first female brokers on Wall Street. That same year, they founded a newspaper: Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly.

Sarah Handley Cousins teaches history at the University of Buffalo.


I mean, she, she does everything. She has a finger in every different thing that’s happening in this latter part of the 19th century. It’s wild. (0:14)

FOLEY_5: So what don’t we talk about her today? Cousins suspects it’s because Woodhull was just too radical. She didn’t just want the right to vote. She wanted a revolution, something her fellow suffragettes weren’t interested in.


I think that she kind of falls out of the narrative when we talk about women in politics because she didn’t play by any of the rules. Like, she didn’t even care about the rules. She was envisioning something much bigger and much more systemic. She saw a different possibility.

FOLEY_8: Cousins says Woodhull’s nomination was ultimately symbolic. No one expected her to win. Woodhull couldn’t even cast her own vote. But she was a woman, a suffragette, a free love supporter, a Marxist and a business owner — in her, the Equal Rights Party saw the future.

FOLEY_9: But the greater public? They saw a woman talking loudly in a space dominated by men. And they responded…poorly.  

FOLEY_10: In one cartoon from Harper’s Weekly, now archived at the Museum of the City of New York, Woodhull is given horns and wings, and labeled as “Mrs. Satan.” She holds a sign that reads “Be saved by free love.” Behind her, a ragged woman carries several babies and a drunken husband on her back as she walks up a mountain.

FOLEY_11: Today, the Democratic party alone currently has six female candidates running in the 2020 presidential race. But, as Cousins notes, the public reaction to many of their campaigns is very, very old.


I don’t know what lessons we can say that we’ve learned from Victoria Woodhull, because I feel like you’re very much in the same place when it comes to women in politics. Right? I mean, I think women in politics at any level get this kind of vitriolic response

FOLEY_12: Ultimately, Ulysses S. Grant became the 22nd president of the United States.

We aren’t sure how many votes Woodhull actually got in the 1872 presidential election. On election night, Victoria Woodhull was in jail, behind bars for public indecency.

Maddy Foley, Uptown Radio.


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