One hundred and forty-four years separate the first woman to campaign for the presidency of the United States and the latest to have done so. Despite this extended period of time, during which America has changed dramatically, it is interesting to note that the lives and views of Victoria Woodhull and Hillary Clinton are similar in ways that are striking. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same).
Who was Victoria Woodhull? A journalist writing for the Atlanta Journal & Constitution deftly captured her eccentric personality when he said, “If you spliced together Hillary Clinton, Madonna, Heidi Fleiss, and Margaret Thatcher, you might have someone like Victoria Woodhull.” The comparison with Hillary Clinton is justified. Both were ardent feminists who embraced liberal views on sex, love, marriage, contraception, and divorce. Both married men who took a dim view of marital fidelity. And both were haunted by the law.
Victoria Woodhull was nominated for president on May 10, 1872, by the newly formed Equal Rights Party. She ran on a platform of women’s suffrage, equal rights, government reform, and free love, which she defined as the ability to marry, have children, and divorce free from government constraint. “Yes, I am a Free Lover,” she had proclaimed in a speech the year before. “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.” Frederick Douglas, a former slave, was nominated as her running mate but apparently declined to be part of the campaign. Woodhull’s arrest on an obscenity charge (stemming from a sensational story she had printed in Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, the newspaper she co-founded in 1870) a few days before the election added to an already scandalous image. She spent the day of the election in jail. Because women were not allowed to vote, she wouldn’t have been able to vote for herself even if she had attempted to do so. She received no electoral votes. Biographer M. M. Marberry claimed that she received no votes at all. However, a man in Texas did admit to voting for her as a protest against Ulysses Grant.
Woodhull’s life and views were sufficiently disreputable that her 12-year-old daughter had to assume an alias in order to attend school without being harassed. Because of her sullied reputation, Woodhull could not find housing for them in Manhattan. Exhausted and burned out, in 1877 the “Queen of the Quill,” as she was called, fled to England where she lived until she passed away at the age of 88—twenty years before the birth of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Though she returned for a couple more presidential attempts, the mood of America was not on her side during her turbulent political life. It would be an understatement of considerable magnitude to say that she was not a person for the times in which she lived.
But how the public attitude toward her has changed! In 2003, the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance, an American human rights and sexual freedom advocacy group, was named in honor of Victoria Woodhull. On September 26, 2008, St. John’s University Law School in Queens, New York, a Catholic institution, posthumously awarded her the “Ronald H. Brown Trailblazer Award.” A 2012 opera, Mrs. President, was inspired by Woodhull’s life, as was the 1980 Broadway musical, Onward Victoria. Several biographies of her have been penned. The accolades are numerous. Will comparable honors be heaped upon Hillary Clinton in the future? No doubt the dominant memory of her, one she shares with Victoria Woodhull, is that she ran for the presidency and lost.
The once scandalous eccentric of 1872 is now, at least in certain circles, an honored figure. One may ask the question, “Is Victoria Woodhull looking more like Hillary Clinton today, or is Hillary Clinton looking more like Victoria Woodhull?” Woodhull’s image is a barometer that indicates how drastically attitudes toward morality have changed.
There is one significant difference between Victoria and Hillary, though it is a tenuous one. Woodhull opposed abortion. “The rights of children as individuals,” she wrote, “begin while they yet remain the foetus.” But her stance was unrealistic and one that would logically and inevitably lead to the acceptance of abortion. “Every woman knows,” she claimed, “that if she were free, she would never bear an unwished-for child, nor think of murdering one before its birth.” In this regard, Woodhull was anticipating the mantra of “reproductive freedom” and “control of my body.” Such radical freedom and control, of course, do not exist. Unwanted pregnancies persist and human beings remain as mortal and prone to the vicissitudes of life as ever before.
Like Victoria, Hillary is a dreamer who espouses a kind of freedom that is impossible. Both women would reject a moral order, especially in the sexual sphere, which, if observed, can bring about a more realistic understanding of freedom, namely, the freedom of personal authenticity. Freedom apart from the moral order is an illusion.
When we examine “now” and “then,” Hillary and Victoria, we realize that our moral obligations remain the same. Sex within marriage, fidelity between spouses, and the parental care of children continue to be fundamental. And these obligations are not restrictions but ways in which we can better realize who we are as responsible human beings.