Born into poverty in Ohio in 1838, Victoria Woodhull went on to become one of the most notable—and perhaps most infamous—women of her time. In addition being the first woman to address Congress and the first woman to run for president, Woodhull was also the first woman to open a brokerage on Wall Street when she started Woodhull, Claflin and Co. with her sister Tennessee in 1870. She was an outspoken suffragist, activist and proponent of free love—which in the late 19th century, meant a woman’s freedom to choose whether to remain married, or indeed, whether she wanted to marry at all.
Many of her views were formed as a result of her first marriage– at 15, she married Dr. Canning Woodhull, who was 26, and who turned out to be an alcoholic. She had two children by him, one of whom was severely mentally handicapped. Woodhull attributed his disability to his father’s alcoholism, and was embittered by society’s expectation that she should stay with her husband in spite of it.
Woodhull and her sister used the proceeds from their very successful brokerage business to publish their radical newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly. In it, they waged war against Victorian morality, and covered many controversial issues that included suffrage, free love, vegetarianism and spiritualism. Part of the driving force behind the newspapers was Woodhull’s second husband, Colonel James Blood.
In 1872, the Weekly broke a story that Henry Ward Beecher, famous minister of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn who had denounced Woodhull’s views on free love, had been having an affair with one of his congregants. Woodhull was arrested later that year for sending obscene materials (her newspaper) through the mail. Beecher was sued by his mistress’ husband in 1875, in a highly-publicized trial that was followed around the country.
Woodhull remained a focus of public attention and controversy until she left the United States in 1877, after divorcing Colonel Blood. She remarried John Biddulph Martin and lived out the rest of her life quietly in England.