History: Hillary Clinton's Predecessor From 1872

Everything about the first woman to run for president—her youthful radicalism, her defiance, her willingness to attack and her ability to absorb criticism—caused followers to flock around her like a prophet. Supporters cheered when she decided that the most famous black man in American would be an ideal running mate, even when he showed no interest in being No. 2.
Critics reviled her for questionable investments, her attitude about extramarital affairs and her assault on one of the nation's most politically active religious leaders. They also hated her radical ideas on the nature of the family. Mostly, critics reviled her gall to anoint herself a candidate for the White House.

When Victoria Claflin Woodhull ran for president in 1872, she knew she had no chance to win. At the age of 34, she was a year shy of eligibility for the Oval Office. And women did not even enjoy the right to vote.

The long and colorful life of Victoria Woodhull offers intriguing clues about the challenges facing women in American politics, including Hillary Clinton. Both Woodhull and Clinton joined the national conversation by taking radical stances on family, labor and women's issues. Both made a lifelong project of finding new ways to communicate with the public. Both got caught in charges and countercharges about sex scandals, were mocked for their spiritual values and were patronized for their maneuvering in a man's world. Through it all, both changed the possibilities for women everywhere.

Woodhull, the daughter of a failed mill owner who was run out of town for passing counterfeit money and committing arson, found fame early in life. As a teenager, Victoria and her sister Tennessee performed medicine shows, one year earning more than $100,000 for their act. One contemporary biographer wrote: "She straightened the feet of the lame; opened the ears of the deaf; she detected the robbers of a bank … she solved psychological problems." After Tennessee got a call to become Cornelius Vanderbilt's masseuse, the commodore gave the sisters inside stock advice that helped them make a small fortune. Vanderbilt also gave them seed money for a newspaper. Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly agitated for a radical platform of reform and published gossip about Wall Street and celebrities.

In January 1871, Woodhull became the first woman ever to address a congressional committee with her claim that Article IV, Section 2, of the Constitution—which states that "citizens of each state shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states"—already gave women the vote. Forty-two members of Congress supported the idea. When suffragists met in Washington, Woodhull won lavish praise from the mothers of the movement, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

The Woodhull formula for fame was one part stubborn insistence on radical change and one part dramatics. She attracted countless enemies and angered many of her erstwhile allies. In May 1872, at another suffragist convention, Woodhull disrupted proceedings by calling for delegates to follow her to a new party convention to nominate her as president. By this time, she had already alienated Anthony and Stanton. But it didn't matter—at least, it didn't seem like it mattered.

Six hundred people moved over to New York City's Apollo Theater to anoint Woodhull the presidential candidate of the Equal Rights Party and name author-activist Frederick Douglass the candidate for vice president. (Delegates roundly rejected a suggestion that the convention telegraph Douglass to see if he was interested.) And they cheered enthusiastically for a comprehensive plan of social revolution.

In four short years, Woodhull jolted the feminist movement leftward. In 1868, radicals favored national reforms to grant women the right to vote, while moderates favored a state-by-state approach. By 1872, radicals now favored the complete transformation of all aspects of domestic life, while moderates had adopted a nationwide strategy for securing the woman's right to vote. Woodhull's platform called for a new civil and commercial code, abolition of the death penalty, banning of monopolies, direct taxation, uniform wages, public works programs and free trade.

Mainstream suffragists like Anthony and Stanton, once delighted by this mystical upstart, supported New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley for the White House against President Ulysses Grant. And they watched in dismay as a scandal about sex put her in jail.

The scandal involved Henry Ward Beecher, a famed Brooklyn preacher and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Bothered by Beecher's condemnation of her "free love" attitudes—"I have an inalienable and natural right to love whom I may, to love for as long or as short a period as I can, and to change that love every day if I please," she said—Woodhull published reports in her newspaper that the moral prig himself had an affair that led to the breakup of a marriage.

In response, Beecher directed what might be called a "vast right-wing conspiracy" against Woodhull. Anthony Comstock, a prude, prodded federal prosecutors to charge Woodhull with obscenity for her published accounts of Beecher's affair.

With the charges, Woodhull fell as ferociously as she rose. She lost her home twice and once found herself living on the streets. Judges set bail at $16,000 for the sisters, an absurdly high amount for the day. Her former friends ignored her plight, underscoring the verity that the way you treat people on the way up affects how they treat you on the way down. Woodhull spent Election Day in cell 11 at the Ludlow Street Jail.

After the election--in which she received thousands of write-in votes—Woodhull prevailed in the obscenity case and resumed her lucrative speaking career, giving speeches titled "The Naked Truth" and "Moral Cowardice and Modern Hypocrisy."

And then in 1877, she left. With $100,000 Vanderbilt left Woodhull and her sister in his will, the sisters moved to England to begin a new life. Victoria lived until she was 90, beloved by all who knew her there. Toward the end, she denied that she had ever espoused the free-love ideas that caused such controversy in America. In her new life, she reinvented herself the way she once tried to reinvent American politics.

Victoria Woodhull and Hillary Clinton are completely different women from different times. But the way they stirred ideas and emotions tells us something important about American politics. Both were charismatic stars and the subjects of rampant gossip. Both were hated by their opponents and subjected to constant personal attacks. Both were ridiculed for their attitudes about monogamy—Woodhull for her "free love" notions and Clinton for "standing by her man." Both embraced a goofy spiritualism—remember Clinton's séances with Eleanor Roosevelt—and radical new theories about the family.

Both were driven politically by their husbands and were attacked for those relationships. They were both criticized for shady-looking stock deals. Both bewailed the hypocrites of their time who preached rigid values but could not uphold those values.

The Sturm und Drang of their lives came from wanting to live both ways. Both wanted to be part of the establishment, surrounded by luminaries, living in lavish homes, enjoying easy access to power. At the same time, they were radical critics of every aspect of society. That's not a contradiction so much as a reality for people trying to break barriers. To make change requires living in the worlds of both the powerful and the weak.

Clinton's politics tilted left as a student and in her early career. At Wellesley, she worked on Eugene McCarthy's antiwar campaign in 1968 and wrote her thesis on Saul Alinsky's model of street-level activism. At Yale Law, she edited a journal that included cartoons depicting police as pigs. Later, she clerked for the law firm that defended Black Panther Huey Newton in his trial for murder of a cop.

As a practicing attorney and activist, she embraced a broad understanding of children's rights. In 1973 and 1979 academic articles, she suggested a broad range of categories in which children should be considered "competent," and therefore entitled to sue for their interests, even against their parents. She has endorsed broad abortion rights, comparable pay and other liberal stances.

Still, Hillary Clinton isn't really a radical. Her first political hero was Barry Goldwater. As senator, she has imitated Alfonse D'Amato, one of her predecessors, in her zeal for fund-raising, constituency service, pork and media.

The biggest difference between Victoria and Hillary? Clinton had a long career as a lawyer, building contacts and promoting her husband's career until he reached the top. Then she cashed in her own IOUs and played the establishment game in the U.S. Senate.

Does Woodhull's experience suggest a future direction for Clinton if she loses the Democratic nomination? Only that failing a grand quest often leaves little desire for returning to the policy trenches. Some party insiders suggest making Clinton the Senate's majority leader, but her husband's post-White House years suggest a different model—trading on celebrity to make millions and building a worldwide activist organization. Clinton could return to her family-policy roots and build a foundation on education, health care and equity issues.

No matter what happens during this presidential race, people like Woodhull, a radical who never made it, prepared the ground for Clinton. Victoria's impatience and radicalism made way for Hillary's deliberate and moderate approach.