Victoria Woodhull

Victoria Woodhull

16 April 2024 | blog | Due 14 Mar 2024 | Ticket#32457644
Old Pros: Victoria Woodhull

Victoria Woodhull

Soothsayer, suffragette, stockbroker, “Mrs. Satan,” and candidate for President of the United States, Victoria Woodhull has been known by many names. The details of her life have been obscured by biographers, journalists, enemies, and her own testimony. Victoria Woodhull often shifted her story to suit the moment during her complicated and controversial life. She was accused of engaging in prostitution by many of her contemporaries, but the evidence that historians have found is circumstantial and non-conclusive. At Old Pros we believe that whether or not Victoria Woodhull ever exchanged erotic labor for money, she was besieged by the same whorephobia that continues to haunt public women today.

Victoria Claflin was born the seventh of ten children in a rural frontier town of Ohio. Her mother was illiterate, mentally ill, and a follower of the emerging spiritualist movement. Her father, Reuben “Buck” Buckman Claflin, Esq., was a lawyer, snake oil salesman, and a drunk. From a very young age Victoria and her sister Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin supported the family as child preachers and clairvoyants, and becoming the stars of their father’s roadshow.

At fourteen, Victoria married Dr. Woodhull, who proved to be a barely functioning alcoholic. After having two children, trying to support her family working at a cigar shop in San Francisco and pursuing some acting gigs – both possible sex working euphemisms – she left her husband. She and her sister began working as spiritualists together in Ohio before relocating to New York City, where they met Cornlieus Vanderbilt. He quickly became the sister’s best client.

Cornlieus, famed railroad magnate, paid the sisters well for their clairvoyant services and supported them as they established their own brokerage firm and newspaper– Woodhull & Clafin, Co. The sisters made headlines for defying the gendered expectations of the nineteenth century. Victoria became the first woman to address Congress on the issue of suffrage, arguing that the fifteenth amendment granted voting rights to women as ‘citizens.’

After some initial enthusiasm, her contemporaries in the suffrage movement would go on to shun Victoria and her sister for their enthusiastic support of ‘free love,’ and reputation as sex workers. ‘Free love’ during this period often meant the support for voluntary divorce, and the idea that men and women should enjoy intimate relationships with partners of their choosing, without coercion. Feminists and anti-feminists scrutinized Victoria’s gender and sexuality, slamming her skepticism of the sanctity of marriage. In 1870 Victoria Woodhull announced her campaign for presidency for the 1872 election, with Fredrick Douglas listed as her running mate, thoughDouglas did not agree or consent to being on the ticket.

Anthony Comstock, who would go on to criminalize birth control, made his career attacking Victoria Woodhull. She spent the 1872 election night in jail on charges of obscenity, for stories she published in her newspaper that enumerated the unethical sexual behavior of prominent men. After multiple high profile court cases, she and her sister eventually moved to London, where they both went on to marry wealthy men who supported their activism.

Victoria Woodhull was a pioneer of the women’s rights movement and suffrage, as well as a philanthropist. She has been both mythologized and erased from respectable historical narratives. She’s not often mentioned among the likes of Elizabeth Candy Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott as a leader of the movement, although Victoria’s presence was a concrete force in the fight for women’s rights in America and abroad.

There’s much we don’t know about Victoria Woodhull’s life, simply because it’s shrouded in mythology, unsubstantiated by archival evidence, obscured by biographies written by those who may have been enemies, or elements of her life she altered herself that may have benefitted her in the moment. Several accounts of Victoria Woodhull’s life state she was a sex worker, but we’ve been unable to identify any evidence to substantiate these claims. It is plausible that she engaged in sex work early in her life; but it’s also plausible that she was not a sex worker and that rumor was the result of her open views on sexuality, her public relationships, and her working-class origins. What we do know is that Victoria Woodhull was a force to be reckoned with, a trailblazer for women’s political and social rights, and a staunch advocate for women’s sexuality and control of their own bodies. Challenger of the patriarchy. Sex positive advocate. Complete badass.

At Old Pros, we claim Victoria Woodhull as a part of our history.

Dr. Charlene J. Fletcher is a historian, womanist, activist, and lover of most things Kentucky, Charlene holds a Ph.D. in History from Indiana University, specializing in 19th century United States and African American history and gender studies. Prior to attending IU, Charlene led a domestic violence/sexual assault program as well as a large reentry initiative in New York City, assisting women and men in their transition from incarceration to society. She also served as a lecturer of Criminal Justice at LaGuardia Community College and an adjunct lecturer in Global and Historical Studies at Butler University. Keep reading…

Oliver, Leon. The Great Sensation: A Full, Complete and Reliable History of the Beecher-Tilton-Woodhull Scandal with Biographical Sketches of the Principal Characters. Chicago: The Beverly Company, 1873.

Oliver’s monograph was the first book published about the Beecher-Tilton affair.

Various. The New York Times. 1870 – 1927.

Articles spanning 1870-1927 covering various moments in Woodhull’s life including the Beecher-Tilton affair, family lawsuits, and Woodhull’s obituary.

Woodhull, Victoria C. and Cari M. Carpenter, ed. Selected Writings of Victoria Woodhull: Suffrage, Free Love, and Eugenics. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010.

This collection of Woodhull’s writings includes speeches on free love, women’s suffrage, and correspondence with other historical figures such as Lucretia Mott and the Equal Rights Party.

Woodhull, Victoria. The Victoria Woodhull Martin Papers, 1883-1927. Digital Commonwealth: Massachusetts Collections Online, Boston Public Library. Link to the source.

Boston Public Library’s digitized collection consists largely of correspondence between Woodhull and her husband John Martin. The collection provides insight into her financial, emotional, and physical well-being, as well as her relationships with her husband, daughter Zula, and her continued interest in women’s rights.

Woodhull, Victoria and Tennessee Clafin. Woodhull and Clafin’s Weekly (New York: Woodhull and Clafin, 1871. Link to the source.

Digitized issue of *Woodhull and Clafin’s Weekly* dated August 5, 1871.

Crouse, Russel. “Victoria Woodhull’s Campaign” in The New Yorker, October 20, 1928, accessed July 24, 2020. Link to the source.

Crouse’s article recounts Woodhull’s political ventures a year after her death.

Book Reviews

Frisken, Amanda. Victoria Woodhull’s Sexual Revolution: Political Theater and the Popular Press in Nineteenth-Century America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Link to the source.

Frisken’s work reviewed by Alison Parker. Frisken’s work centers on Woodhull’s political career and public presence from 1870 to 1877. Frisken utilizes newspapers, dailies, the Woodhull Papers, to explore how Woodhull and her sister Tennie were portrayed in the media and argues the pair took such great risks in business and politics because of their marginalized status.

Passet, Joanne E. Sex Radicals and the Quest for Women’s Equality. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003. Link to the source.

Passet’s work reviewed by Anita Ashendal. Passet’s work explores sex radical activism and women’s rights in the Midwest. Although this work is not solely centered on Woodhull, it provides a historical overview of Woodhull’s “free love” philosophy and its antebellum origins.

Horowitz, Lefkowitz Helen. “A Victoria Woodhull for the 1990s,” in Reviews in American History, 27 no. 1, (1999), 87-97.

Horowitz reviewed three monographs centered on Woodhull: Mary Gabriel’s Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored, Barbara Goldsmith’s *Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull*, and Lois Beachy Underhill’s The Woman Who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull.


Book Chapters & Journal Articles

Popa, Bogdan. “Shame as a Line of Escape: Victoria Woodhull, Dispossession, and Free Love,” in Shame: A Geneology of Queer Practices in the Nineteenth Century, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), 151-180.

Popa utilizes Queer theory to examine Woodhull’s use of rhetoric to wield sexual and political power in order to advance her platform. Methodologically, Popa uses shame as an analytical lens, to explore the role shame played in Woodhull’s early life and how she used shame to strategically dismantle notions of Victorian femininity and sexual mores.

Horowitz, Lefkowitz Helen, “Victoria Woodhull, Anthony Comstock, and Conflict over Sex in the United States in the 1870s,” in *The Journal of American History*, 87 no. 2 (2000), pp. 403-434.

Horowitz examines the Comstock-Woodhull case and its implications on 19th century public morals and views on sexuality. She notes four sexual frameworks of American sexual culture: evangelical Christianty, competing religious interpretations of lust, growing literature on sexuality embraced by urban populations interested in family planning, and the philosophy that sex is the core of one’s being. The author specifically notes that Woodhull became powerful, “…gaining an income by selling words about sex and in the simplifications of conflict her words became confused with the bawdy ones of popular culture.” (403)


Web Sources

University of Michigan. “Victoria Woodhull and Voluntary Motherhood,” in Birthing Reproductive Justice: 150 Years of Images and Ideas. Digital Exhibition, 2018. Link to the source.

This exhibit chronicles the history of reproductive justice in the United States and addresses contraception, pregnancy, and child rearing. Woodhull is mentioned as a proponent of free love and voluntary motherhood as forms of reproductive justice and it also briefly discusses the connection between eugenics and reproductive justice.

Renahan, Edward. “Strange Bedfellows: Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt and the Woodhull/Claflins,” in History News Network, accessed July 24, 2020. Link to the source.

Renahan’s article is a short biographical entry and one that claims Woodhull was at some point in her life a prostitute. The article, like many others, makes this claim but offers no evidence to support it.

Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries. “Woodhull, Victoria Clafin (1838-1927), in Social Welfare History Project, accessed July 24, 2020. Link to the source.

VCU’s online encyclopedia project features Woodhull as a suffragist leader. The site provides biographical information and an embedded link to Woodhull’s work, The Human Body, Temple of God, 1890.