Pete's January 1997 Article.


"Victoria Claflin Woodhull" (What a woman!) By Pete Bennett

The most famous feminists of the 19th Century and early 20th Century were nearly unanimous in their condemnation of abortion; they included Sarah Grimke, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Gage, Mattie Brinkerhoff, Victoria Woodhull, Sarah Norton, and Emma Goldman. Of these, Victoria Claflin Woodhull was the one who I feel effected the most influence over the women's rights movement.

I mentioned Victoria in a previous articles as a girl who is believed to have lived in Sinnemahoning, PA, my hometown. Well, since writing that article I've discovered a lot more about this controversial nineteenth century feminist, that just may interest you the readers.

Born Victoria Claflin on September 23, 1838 perhaps in Homer, OH( no birth records survive) she grew up while traveling with a medicine show which was run by her parents (Buckman and Roxy Claflin) and in which, she and her sister Tenny C. Claflin (who was called Tennessee) practiced spiritual healing. I suspect it was during these years that they may have moved to Sinnemahoning where some believe that her father Buckman ran a mercantile store. At the age of 15 Victoria married Dr. Canning Woodhull and the two sisters continued their spiritualist activities, first in the Midwest and, after 1868, in New York City, where they attracted the support of railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. With Vanderbilt's help they established their own brokerage firm in 1870.

In collaboration with Victoria's lover, Colonel James H. Blood, (she may have been married to him) and a socialist reformer named Stephen Andrews, they started a newspaper called Woodhull, Claflin Weekly (1870-76), using it to advocate free love, equal rights for women, and a variety of other causes. She was also a broker and financial speculator there. In 1871 the sisters became leaders of the New York section of Karl Marx's International Workingmen's Association, and Victoria argued the case for woman suffrage before the judiciary committee of the U.S. House of Representatives (the first woman to ever appear before a house committee.) It was said she had a glorious voice for oratory. She had also been prevented from voting that year.

In May 1872 she was nominated for the U.S. presidency by the Equal Rights party, an offshoot of Susan B. Anthony's National American Woman Suffrage Association, where she battled Ms. Anthony for her leadership roll. Her running mate was Frederick Douglass, another famous orator. U.S. Grant won the election, but this may have been the highest point of her career. Her vigil tongue and spirit ness soon got her more than a few raised eyebrows... She was called "The Terrible Siren" and "Mrs. Satan" for advocating free love. It was about this time that their paper published Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto. She was later arrested for sending obscene material through the mails after she printed an accusation of adultery against America's most beloved preacher, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher. She had found out earlier that this distinguished man who spoke out against free love, secretly practiced it, in his affair with a parishioner Elizabeth Tilton, a married, mother of four! Victoria at first endorsed his practice of free love, though annoyed at the hypocritical secrecy. Yet she was chastised throughout the papers for her views, ideas and actions whereas he escaped any notions of scandalous acts!

She decided to come out with the details of the Beecher-Tilton affair at the Spiritualist Convention of 1872. Most papers refused to print any such "obnoxious, slanderous speech" so she decided to publish this in her own paper the Weekly. She printed the whole story of the affair along with numerous other scandalous acts, especially of young girls being seduced by men. She announced how every affair seemed to end with men still respected in society, but the women's names forever in shame, no matter who was to blame. Scandal and gossip has always sold, even in the 1800's,  this edition of the Weekly was selling, by that very evening, for $40.00 a copy!

Unfortunately this led to the downfall of the general society's support of Victoria. She was becoming too dangerous to endorse and became un-befriend by most. Victoria began to lose not only respect, prestige and future but her finance stability as well. Although the sisters were acquitted, their public career was over. In 1877 and they moved to England, where they both married wealthy businessmen (Victoria had divorced Woodhull in 1864) and where they lived for the rest of their lives.

"Victoria Woodhull is a classic example of someone with intuitive intelligence," says Victoria Weston, the maker of a documentary called "America's Victoria" to be shown on PBS station WPSX Clearfield, sometime in January 1997. "She didn't have advantages like education or money. She only had spiritual intuition and passion to get where she got." The Atlanta film maker , who I contacted for background on Ms. Woodhull, hails from the local area, being from Allegheny, NY. So where ever I go for a story I find home. Hope you enjoyed this story and will watch for the documentary on PBS. All I can say is, Victoria Woodhull, what a woman!


footnote: WPSX broadcast the program on March 24, 1997. Watch for future re-broadcasts!

Further research indicates that: Victoria's name, along with her running-mate, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, did not appear on the ballot in 1872, due to the fact that she was one year shy of the constitutionally mandated age of thirty-five.

Click to read the text of Victoria's "and the truth shall make you free"- speech/ from 20 NOV 1871.


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