Victoria Woodhull, was born September 23, 1838, in Homer, Ohio. Her father was an itinerant con man and a thief; her mother was illegitimate, illiterate and a religious fanatic. Victoria was raised in filth and squalor, beaten and starved, given little education and exploited in her father’s traveling carnival show as a clairvoyant and fortune teller. She demonstrated psychic powers, located missing objects and people, cured ailments and was said to be a medium.
At 15, in order to escape her father’s brutality, Victoria eloped with an alcoholic doctor, 28-year old Canning Woodhull from a town outside of Rochester, New York. Dr. Woodhull was an Ohio medical doctor at a time when formal medical education and licensing were not required to practice medicine. He fathered a mentally retarded son, Byron and so botched the delivery of their daughter, Zulu (later Zula), that the baby nearly bled to death. After five grueling years, Victoria left him.
Victoria’s belief in the spirits enabled her to form alliances with such powerful men as Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, enabling her to become the first female Wall Street broker. She opened Woodhull, Claflin & Company in 1870 with the assistance of a wealthy benefactor, and her admirer, Cornelius Vanderbilt. She was also the first woman to found her own newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, which stayed in publication for six years, and was notorious for publishing controversial opinions on taboo topics. The paper advocated, among other things, women’s suffrage, short skirts, spiritualism, free love, vegetarianism, and licensed prostitution. The paper is now known primarily for printing the first English version of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto in its December 30, 1871 edition. She spoke before Congress demanding that women be given the right to vote and finally, ran for U.S. President in 1872 against the popular incumbent, Ulysses S. Grant, and powerful newspaperman, Horace Greeley.
Victoria’s era was a difficult one for women, who had almost no rights to property or person. If a married woman worked, her wages were given directly to her husband. She could not dispose of her property upon death. If she divorced, she automatically forfeited custody of her children. Women could not enter universities, law schools or medical schools. They could not serve on juries, and they could not vote.
There were no laws to protect women from physical abuse at the hands of their husbands or fathers, although some states stipulated the size of the objects that might be used to inflict discipline. They had no right to deny their husbands sex. The professions open to women were few, domestic housework, factory work, teaching, prostitution and, for the privileged, writing.
Only women who committed adultery were subject to a jail sentence, not men. In 1868, Victoria Woodhull bravely instructed women to demand a single sexual standard and not to accept the view that sexual desire in females was vulgar. “What! Vulgar!” she said. “The instinct that creates immortal souls vulgar…be honest…it is not the possession of strong powers that is to be deprecated. They are that necessary part of human character.”
Victoria was a pioneer in diet, exercise, and dress. She adhered to the diet prescribed by Sylvester Graham (known for inventing Graham Crackers!). Graham was a sickly child and cured himself through proper nutrition. He recommended no alcohol, caffeine, meat, lard or other types of shortening. Victoria was a vegetarian.
Women of the day were thought desirable if they were delicate, frail, but Victoria advocated vigorous exercise. She rode horseback and walked at least three miles a day. She advocated drinking at least two pints of water a day and eating fresh fruits for good health.
She often wore men’s clothing and urged other women to do the same.
Victoria, used alternative medicine. She practiced homeopathy, a treatment begun by Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, who took a minuscule amount of a disease-causing agent and diluted it with liquid to create what he called a “spiritlike essence.” Dr. Hahnemann believed that when this substance was introduced into the body, the person would become immune to the disease. Victoria was also a well-known “magnetic healer.” The use of therapeutic magnets dates to the ancient Greeks, who used them to halt bleeding, soothe inflammation, purge infection and promote general healing.
Because Victoria Woodhull said what she thought and antagonized certain people, a campaign was organized against her. She was jailed repeatedly on charges of sending obscene material through the mail, and the press depicted her as “Mrs. Satan” and “The Prostitute Who Ran for President.”
She died on June 9, 1927 at Norton Park in Bredon’s Norton, Worcestershire, West Midlands, England, United Kingdom. She had moved there in October 1876. She met her third husband, banker John Biddulph Martin, and married him on October 31, 1883. From then on, she was known as Victoria Woodhull Martin. Under that name, she published a magazine called the Humanitarian from 1892 to 1901. As a widow, Woodhull gave up the publication of her magazine and retired to the country, establishing residence at Bredon’s Norton.