Victoria Woodhull ran for President of the United States in 1872 as the nominee of the Equal Rights Party. Frederick Douglass was her running mate although it is not clear if he ever agreed to serve in the position.
Woodhull was on the ballot in twenty-two states and, as Jessa Crispin points out in her recent piece in The Baffler, she did not receive any electoral votes. But she was a fascinating presidential candidate nonetheless. In addition to being a female candidate for the highest office in the county in a political world dominated by men, Woodhull worked as a clairvoyant and was an adherent of Spiritualism.
Here is a taste of Crispin’s piece:
When Victoria was fifteen, she married Canning Woodhull, and by the time she left him after ten years of marriage, her radicalization was well under way. Taking Woodhull’s name, their two children, and not much else, she did what she had to do to survive, as the saying goes. Sometimes that was telling fortunes. Other times, that was working as a prostitute. And as she established herself in the arena of social reform, that was writing radical tracts about the importance of education for girls and women, labor rights, and family planning.
Under the circumstances, trying to raise a mob of women willing to fight and die for their rights was even harder than raising spirits. Defying fathers and husbands meant defying God himself. (Woodhull was freer than most from the Calvinist hold. Neither her visionary mother nor her criminal father could be described as God-fearing.) Though women like Mary Greeley—the wife of New York Tribune founder, anti-women’s-suffrage campaigner, and future presidential hopeful Horace Greeley—would go on to become important allies, for the time being they were stuck. Greeley was pregnant again and again, and five of her seven children died young.
Spiritualism offered people a different story about both life and death. Those dead children were not in hell; they were still within reach. They could be communicated with. Perhaps more important, Spiritualism got rid of sin. In the Spiritualist world, there was no “fall” of mankind, and it certainly wasn’t orchestrated by Eve. Preachers had been using that old story since the beginning of the church to express the devious nature of woman and warn against their rebellious, destructive ways.
Determinism was another target. In Calvinism, everything is already decided; you are marked from birth with damnation or salvation. What, then, is the use of trying? Everything, including your own suffering, is God’s will. The Spiritualists replaced this idea with the concept of spiritual evolution. The more you progressed as an individual, the higher into the spheres of heaven you could ascend. That progression depended on your behavior here on earth, on how you treated your fellow man and woman. That was something worth fighting for. Spiritualism, in the words ofRadical Spirits author Ann Braude, “presented an extreme case of the rejection of Calvinism that pervaded women’s culture” at the time.
Read the entire piece here.
Want to read more about Woodhull? I recommend Amanda Frisken’s Victoria Woodhull’s Sexual Revolution: Political Theater and the Popular Press in Nineteenth-Century America .