Women You Missed in History Class: Victoria Woodhull

Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927)

I really thought we were going to get our first female president this year.  I was pretty excited for it, too.  As great as it would have been to stop Trump and shatter that glass ceiling, the presidency still remains out of reach for women.  When Hillary Clinton conceded the Democratic Primary to Barack Obama in 2008, she said, “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”  Well it’s definitely got a lot more cracks in it now, but the first crack in that glass ceiling came in 1872, when Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for president.

Born September 23, 1838, Victoria Woodhull had quite an interesting childhood.  Her mother was a follower of the spiritualist movement, and her father was a con artist and petty thief.  They lived in the frontier town of Homer, Ohio until Victoria was eleven years old.  The family was driven out of town by a band of vigilantes after her father was exposed as having committed arson and insurance fraud.  Although Victoria only had three years of formal education, she was extremely intelligent, and worked to support her family from a young age.  When the family moved to New York City in 1868, Victoria and her sister became the first female stockbrokers on Wall Street.

Woodhull was a staunch believer in women’s rights, and a prominent activist in the women’s suffrage movement.  In 1872, she established the Equal Rights Party and ran for president against Ulysses S. Grant.  Her platform was extremely progressive for its time; it included an eight-hour work day, a progressive tax system, and several social welfare programs, as well as calling for equal rights and full suffrage for women.  A few days before the election, Woodhull was arrested for publishing an “obscene” newspaper article.  She spent Election Day in jail, but even if she hadn’t, she still wouldn’t have been able to vote for herself.  None of Woodhull’s many female supporters were able to vote for her, because women hadn’t gained the right to vote yet.

Though she didn’t receive a single electoral vote, Victoria Woodhull’s historic run for president was a major step towards breaking the glass ceiling.  She made that first crack that allowed Hillary Clinton to become the first nominee of a major political party 144 years later.  That ceiling is strong, but it will break.  Maybe next time around there will be enough cracks to shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.  It would certainly make Victoria Woodhull proud.


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