Given that all US presidents have been men, it may be surprising to know that the push for a woman in the Oval Office dates back over a century. Victoria Woodhull, born September 23, 1838, was the first woman to run for U.S. Presidency. And she ran for president even before women had won the right to vote. Her radical political views, combined with her eclectic lifestyle, made her into one of the most controversial figures of her time. It’s no wonder then — though it is unfortunate — that some of her arguments for gender equality are still being debated today.
Woodhull was an early advocate for women’s rights, and saw gender equality as human rights issue, saying, “I come before you to declare that my sex are entitled to the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Woodhull grew up in a large family with a petty criminal for a father. Missing out on a formal education, she and her sister Tennessee were put to work by their father at a young age selling clairvoyant services. Woodhull claimed she was a psychic with healing powers to would-be customers. After moving to New York City in 1868, the sisters befriended a highly successful man in the railroad business by the very J.K. Rowling name of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Using his advice, Victoria and Tennessee eventually became successful stockbrokers.
The next few years in Woodhull’s life became somewhat of a roller coaster. She became a devout and prominent suffragette at the start of 1869. By 1870, she had officially announced her candidacy for the upcoming Presidential election.
In 1871 she became the first woman to address a congressional committee. Soon after, she organized the Equal Rights Party, which formally nominated her in 1872. Although her votes were never counted, her name did appear on ballots in several states.
In addition to fighting for votes for women, Woodhull had radical views — for her time — on bodily and sexual autonomy and promiscuity. She publicly advocated for a woman’s right to her own body, to use birth control, and to love freely regardless of religion, age, or marital status, saying, “Let women issue a declaration of independence sexually, and absolutely refuse to cohabit with men until they are acknowledged as equals in everything, and the victory would be won in a single week.”
In a time of Victorian values, this was all manner of shocking.
After a whirlwind time in politics and publishing, Victoria and Tennessee made the move across the pond to England, where Victoria would stay until her death. Her writings and achievements are not widely known now due in part to the many political enemies she made over her career.
Victoria Woodhull’s actions and beliefs seemed to inspire more opposition than veneration, and this article is only a partial account. But more than a century later, we’re still hearing her arguments in the fight for gender equality. Woodhull may not have been the model — or even typical — politician, but she was a groundbreaking revolutionary nonetheless.