The media is trumpeting that Hillary Clinton is the presumptive presidential nominee for the Democratic Party, which makes her America’s first woman candidate for a major political party.
And all I can think about is Victoria Claflin Woodhull.
In 1872, Woodhull ran for president on the Equal Rights ticket. Her platform included equal rights for women (this at a time when votes for women were still nearly 50 years off), improved civil rights, the legalization of birth control, and the abolition of capital punishment.
She didn’t stand a chance. Even the old guard of the suffrage movement — Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony — thought she was too radical, and they did not support her.
Woodhull had the chops for public life. She was a newspaper publisher, a stockbroker, and a medium/healer, but she was also a proponent of Free Love, or the idea that marriage could not contain love, and the heart wants what it wants. She said once:
Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.
This, reader, could not stand. These were the days of Queen Victoria. Suffragists were fighting, already, the idea that they were strictly in the game so they could get free and easy divorce, and that they were sexually loose. The right to divorce was part of the plan, yes, but it wasn’t the sole reason women wanted the vote. Most of the war horses of the movement (save for Anthony, who never married) were in marriages that were decades long. That Woodhull was also a brilliant strategist and a charismatic speaker paled to the fact that she did not stay within her own marital bounds.
It was the optics of the thing.
Yet Hartford suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker adored her (much to the distress of Hooker’s straight-laced family). But Woodhull’s stance on fidelity made her the nemesis of Hooker’s brother, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, who, Woodhull believed — hell, everyone believed except a few of his siblings — was also a proponent of Free Love — though not out loud. Woodhull said that when she once confronted the minister about his hypocrisy, Beecher responded “Milk for babies, meat for strong men.” meaning his congregation couldn’t handle the complexities of their shared belief.
That, to Woodhull, was hypocrisy. In 1875, she published a bombshell of an article about Beecher’s infidelities, and the scandal kept America — and much of the rest of the reading world — enthralled for months.
But in the end, Beecher, the revered minister from a famous family, survived and when he died, his obituary carried nary a mention of the scandal.
But for Woodhull, that was pretty much that. Her public influence waned — how dare she pick on the Rev. Beecher? — and she moved to England, where she continued publishing. There’s a story of her returning to the U.S. at least once, but she never again enjoyed the influence she dropped the bomb on Beecher.
Woodhull is no Hillary Clinton, but just watch this campaign and see how many times Clinton’s opponents attack her sexuality, or how many times Clinton’s pugnacious repudiation of that idiot Trump is questioned because Clinton’s a girl, and girls shouldn’t hit back. See if much has changed. I think it’s going to continue to be a bruising campaign. I think it’s going to get worse. I hope we keep our wits about us.