March for Women's History

A woman is running for president. She advocates for fair labor practices, social welfare programs and women's rights. She also appears a bundle of contradictions -- she is anti-abortion (as are most at the time), but pro-free love; a eugenicist, but also a civil rights supporter and socialist; a suffragist and a spiritualist. She has worked as a stockbroker, a lobbyist, a businesswoman and a newspaper publisher. She is both admired and despised by many. Nominated as her running mate is an African-American man.

No one really thinks she will win. However, everyone who nominates and supports her, including she herself, feels that it is important a message be sent to the U.S. government that it is time for a woman in government and in the White House.

During her run, personal -- rather than political -- attacks are made on her from all sides, in all the ways women who threaten the status quo, women who dare, are typically attacked: she is painted as a witch, a bitch, a prostitute, a woman of "loose morals." Her politics and platform are not critiqued: she is a woman, and so it is her person which is maligned and demonized. She is purposefully scandalized by people -- primarily men, or women acting as protectors of men -- with power to prevent her and any other woman from having any chance at all.

Sound kind of familiar? But it isn't 2007. It's 1872.

This isn't Hilary Clinton. It was Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to try and run for President of the United States, before women had even secured the right to vote.

"I am well aware that in assuming this position I shall evoke more ridicule than enthusiasm at the outset. But this is an epoch of sudden changes and startling surprises. What may appear absurd today will assume a serious aspect tomorrow. I am content to wait until my claim for recognition as a candidate shall receive the calm consideration of the press and the public."

Nominated as her running mate was once-slave, abolitionist leader and incredible orator Frederick Douglass. Woodhull was nominated by the Equal Rights Party, an offshoot of Susan B. Anthony's National American Woman Suffrage Association (but eventually shunned by Anthony for her outspokenness). By today's standards, her political stance would be a mix of libertarian and socialist party platforms: women's right to vote, work, love and marry freely; nationalization of land; cost-based pricing to reduce excessive profits; a fairer division of earnings between labor and capital; the elimination of exorbitant interest rates; human and civil rights; freedom of speech and a free press.

Woodhull grew up poor, with very little education -- over time, she educated herself -- and was married at 15 to an alcoholic doctor, who exploited her background as a spiritualist, and her talents as a persuasive speaker to sell his folk medicines. She'd also worked as a cigar girl (read: prostutute) while married. Flying in the face of convention as she would for nearly all of her life, she divorced around a decade later, remarried and settled in New York, where, since joining both the Suffragist Movement and the Marxist International Workingmen's Association, she began a salon where she's intellectually spar with other radicals of the day. Shortly thereafter, Victoria would become the first woman to establish a brokerage firm on Wall Street, which is how she first gained the attention of Susan B. Anthony, who applauded her achievements for women's equity in this regard.

"Rude contact with facts chased my visions and dreams quickly away, and in their stead I beheld the horrors, the corruption, the evils and hypocrisy of society, and as I stood among them, a young wife, a great wail of agony went out from my soul."

In 1870, Victoria and her sister Tennessee established Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly, a controversial journal, which in its six-year run, established a wide readership, and included brave exposes of capitalist swindles, as well as discussion of women's rights, civil rights and labor issues.

In that same year, Victoria announced her intent to run for President of the United States, and she would be the first woman ever to do so, even though women would still not even have the right to vote for another fifty years.

"I shall not change my course because those who assume to be better than I desire it."

In fact, in 1871, Victoria appeared before the House Judiciary Committee -- and was also the first woman to ever do that, too -- to deliver a speech on suffrage. Her strong argument was that women already had the right to vote, since the 14th and 15th amendments granted the right to all citizens. While this speech did not secure women the practical right to vote by Congress, they were strieed by her speech, and in addition, she caught the attention of some of the most influential feminists of the time: Anthony, Mott, and Cady Standon, all of whom -- at the time -- admired Woodhull, and welcomed her into the Suffrage Movement as a leader. Public speeches and performances of Woodhull's met with full, jubilant crowds and, by many, for a little while, she was seen as potentially THE woman to secure women the right to vote and change the landscape of women's rights substantially, because of her incredible speaking skills, her compelling arguments and her bold audacity.

But she wasn't loved by everyone, and support for her would dwindle quicky and cruelly. Some feminist women, for instance -- and many men -- mocked her on the basis of her support of free love, the idea that people should be free to love whomever they may (protesting against arranged marriages, loveless marriages, marriages of convenience, as well as the gender divides between men and women in regard to marriage and love), for however long they liked, not have to exlusively be with one person for the whole of one's life, and that the goverment should have no place in romantic, sexual or family affairs. Ironically, Harriet Beecher Stowe was one of her worst detractors, even going so far as to create a graphic novel parodying Woodhull as a vapid, immoral libertine who knew nothing about women's rights. All the while, Beecher-Stowe's husband, a reverend, was himself having an illicit affair.

Woodhull soon found herself evicted from her home. Her daughter was viciously harassed in school. She lost important clients. She and her newspaper had exposed two meaty scandals -- one on a stockbroker who boasted about the young girls he sexually exploited, and onother on the Reverend Beecher's affair -- and were sued for libel (calling a woman a whore or an adulterer were perfectly acceptable, even when inaccurate: exposing a man for same, even when accurate, was not), which also resulted in death threats, threats of blackmail and the confiscation of all the newspaper's property. Woodhull was painted as "Wicked Woodhull" or "Mrs. Satan," by the public, maligned massively as a shameless Jezebel, a brainless twit, and the underminer of all things moral and good.

If you nominate a woman in the month of May,
Dare you face what Mrs. Grundy and her set will say?
How they'll jeer and frown and slander chattering night and day;
Oh, did you dream of Mrs. Grundy in the month of May?

If you nominate a negro, in the month of May
Dare you face what Mr. Grundy and his chums will say?
How they’ll swear and drink and bluster, raging night and day;
Oh, did you dream of Mr. Grundy in the month of May?

Yes! Victoria we've selected for our chosen head.
With Fred Douglass on the ticket we will raise the dead.
Then around them let us rally without fear or dread
And next March, we'll put the Grundys in their little bed. ~ the 1872 Campaign Song for Woodhull

As if all of that and more wasn't enough to thwart her attempts for the presidency, just two days before the election, Anthony Comstock, under his Comtock Laws -- laws which also, at the time, kept information on birth control from being distrubuted, and would also criminalize Margaret Sanger as well -- arrested, charged and imprisioned Woodhull for sending obscenity-by-post for the Beecher-expose issue.

What little chance Woodhull might have had -- even at just completing her campaign, though it stands to mention that the Equal Rights Party was the largest third party of that election year -- were gone. Ulysses S. Grant won the election, Woodhull became ill after her release from prison, went into seclusion, and in the final issue of her journal, backpedaled in support of marriage. She spent the rest of her life trying to earn some measure of societal respect, and eventually married again, becoming a Lady to the Baron she wed. While she made some humanitarian efforts over the rest of her life, it is unfortunately safe to say, they killed her feminist spirit.

Bear in mind, that in 1872, at the time of the election and her arrest, pending all of her other achievements, Woodhull was only 34 years old.

Most likely, however prepared Woodhull was for the ridicule she said she expected, like so many women before and after her, she wasn't prepared for how extensive and how destructive it could be, to herself, to her family, to women as a class. She had stated in a speech at one time, "I am subject to tyranny!" Perhaps she didn't realize how subject -- or perhaps she did, equally likely, and took the risks she did anyway, knowing their value and import. The way things went for Victoria Woodhull is often the way things go for feminist women, for women who dare: it is a hard, but clear, reality, that the price of even our small gains is often terribly high, and quite often, even when we fail, we will be maligned, punished and ridiculed for even making the effort to try. The discomfort fighting for our equality may create may be so strong as to quite literally wear us out. To make those efforts all the same, no matter the contradictions, no matter the flaws, no matter the failures, is worthy of recognition, visibility and admiration, and Woodhull is one woman in history of so very, very many who all too often goes unseen and unsung.

Regardless, Woodhull left us several vital legacies. Regardless, Woodhull made very real strides for women other women before her had not made, and was very clearly a woman well ahead of her time. Victoria Woodhull and I have some critical things in common. Victoria Woodhull and I also have some vast differences and conflicts. All the same, Victoria Woodhull has my respect, my awe and my sincerest gratitude. Just knowing about her bold spirit emboldens me; just knowing about her endless efforts, how far and wide she reached, how much she gave to the things she held dear, and what grave risks she took inspires and energizes me.

This is the legacy of women's history, and our history needs be seen, heard and celebrated.

My first introduction to Woodhull was at the age of 13, when I was doing a paper for my social studies class on muckracking, and as is often the case with women in history, my teacher had no idea who she was, and I had to dig deep in the library to find her myself: far, far deeper than I had to dig to find out about men who'd done even half of what she had. This is all too often the case with women's history, even with women who have made amazing achievements. All too often we and everyone else know more about men who have done little to nothing of note than we do about the women who have shaped and challenged the world. The invisibility of our history -- especially the history of women who have challenged the hegmony, rather than enabled and supported it -- is part of the oppression of our class.

This month, each of our bloggers and board members will be writing an entry for Women's History month, one for each day, to make this wide legacy of women in history, feminist historical events, strides and wins visible and tangible. We are asking each of them to pick a woman or an event led by women, to benefit women, in our global history to highlight. How they choose to do so -- and what they choose to highlight -- will be as individual as they are.

So, bloggers: answer this Roll Call with the history of your choice. Tag your entry with: AGA Roll Call: March for Women's History. Readers and commentors, talk away! Share your stories, or come over to the forums and strike up some conversation.

Should you need a few more words to motivate, I leave you with one last passage of Victoria's: "If women would today would rise en masse and demand their emancipation, the men would be compelled to grant it. "