Victoria Woodhull – First Woman to Run for U.S. President
This is an excerpt from ProLife Feminism: Yesterday and Today. The introduction was written by Mary Krane Derr.
Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927) and Tennessee Claflin (1845-1923)
Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, sisters from a poor, chaotic Ohio family, became the first female stockbrokers on Wall Street after a stint as Spiritualist mediums (ministers). In 1870, Woodhull declared herself a candidate for the presidency — the first woman ever to do so.
The next year she presented a speech to the U.S. Congress, arguing that women already had the vote under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, which had recently enfranchised Black men.
Some feminists welcomed the sisters; others found them unpalatably outrageous. The sisters’ notoriety came from their colorful personal lives and the views they expressed on their speaking tours and in their flamboyant newspaper, whose motto was, “Progress! Free Thought! Untrammeled Lives! Breaking the Way for Future Generations.” Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly (1870-1876) advocated Spiritualism, alternative medicine, and radical economics. The first American periodical to run a translation of the Communist Manifesto, it promoted woman suffrage and “free love.”
“Free lovers” wished for sexual relationships to be based on personal, mutual choice, respect, and affection, rather than the man’s legal ownership of the woman. They attacked the sexual double standard, especially as practiced by nineteenth-century counterparts of today’s sexually abusive clerics. Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly broke the news of the Beecher-Tilton scandal after the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher excoriated the sisters for their “free love” views. Anthony Comstock, an adulating member of Beecher’s congregation, was incensed by the sisters’ accusation that Beecher was a hypocrite who had had an affair with Elizabeth Tilton, another congregant. Comstock arranged for the sisters’ arrest on obscenity charges.
Among their published “obscenities” was their repeated observation that the prime cause of “so much murder of unborn children, is that to have them is to make a slave of the mother.” Community responsibility for child care and education would “result not only in increased benefit to such children as escape ante-natal death,” but “decrease the desire . . . to commit this class of murders” and “relieve the worn-out mothers of the country.” 2 So, too, would the exposure and abolition of clerical sexual abuse and hypocrisy.
The Slaughter of the Innocents
Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, 20 June 1874.
by Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin
If there is one fact in modern society more horrible, and at the same time more sorrowful than any other, it is that one which relates to the deathrate among the young from the time of conception up to five years of age. It is one of those things against which almost everybody willfully shuts his eyes and professes to think that it does not exist: and everybody pretends to everybody else that he knows nothing about it; while on every hand — in every household — the young drop off like leaves before the autumn wind . . .
But this enforced ignoring of one of the horrible facts of modern society is engendering in society itself a morbid condition of mind regarding children which, if not speedily checked, will prove fatal to civilization itself . . . [Humanity] . . . is seemingly indifferent to the life or death of the young.
Its practices cut them down like grass before the scythe. Parents deposit one-half of their young in the grave-yards before they reach the age of five years.* What a commentary this is on the social condition! . . . Childhood ought to be the healthiest period of life, but in our condition it has degenerated until it is ten times more fatal than any other period. And yet we talk of the sacredness of human life as if it were so regarded at all! A human life is a human life and equally to be held sacred whether it be a day or century old; and that custom which cuts off one-half of the young almost in infancy, is as virtually murder as would be the same death-rate among adults resulting from compelling them to the use of life-destroying food.
Children die because they are not properly cared for. If adults received equally improper treatment as children received, they would die at the same rate; but adults, being capable of judging for themselves as to what is proper and what is improper, by choosing the former, decrease the deathrate ten times below that which obtains among the classes who depend upon others for their treatment . . .
But this fact regarding the indifference to life that exists among parents is not perhaps the worst feature of modern society. It is not only a fact that this terrible death-rate persistently continues among children, but that there is still another death method not included in its horrible details, which, if possible, is still more revolting, and which is nonetheless a slaughter of the innocents . . .
Wives . . . to prevent becoming mothers . . . deliberately murder [children] while yet in their wombs. Can there be a more demoralized condition than this? . . . Why should the birth-rate decrease as the people become more enlightened? . . . Simply because with increased knowledge comes increased individuality; and with increased individuality, increased repugnance to submission to the slavery that child-bearing almost necessarily entails in our society as at present organized; and with these also the knowledge that pregnancy can be broken up, sometimes with little present evidence of evil to the, otherwise, mother . . .
If this practice prevail so widely among wives, who have no need to resort to it “to hide their shame,” but merely to prevent an increase in the number of their children, how prevalent it must be among the unmarried class who have social death staring them in the face when they become pregnant without the consent of the canting priest or the drunken squire? . . .
Is it not equally destroying the would-be future oak, to crush the sprout before it pushes its head above the sod, as it is to cut down the sapling, or cut down the tree? Is it not equally to destroy life, to crush it in its very germ, and to take it when the germ has evolved to any given point in its line of development? . . .
We ask the women of this country to consider carefully the subjects thus hastily presented, and see if they do not find in them an unanswerable argument for sexual freedom for themselves . . . We speak of these things in connection with the subject of child-murder, because originally they are the foundation for it . . . And yet there are still to be found apparently intelligent people who seem honestly to think that the social question ought not to be discussed publicly! . . .
For our part, so long as the terrible effects of our unnatural sexual system continues to desecrate humanity, there is no other question to be considered in which the health, happiness, and general well-being of the race is so intimately involved.
* Editor’s note: Official statistics show the child mortality rate in the United States, accounted from birth to age 5, was 462.9 deaths per thousand births in 1800 – that is, over 46%. By 1875 when this is written, it was 347.49 per thousand, so over a third.
For more of our posts on individual historic women, see:
Dorothy Day and the Consistent Life Ethic: Rejecting Conventional Political Paradigms