19th at 100: Commemorating the Suffrage Struggle and Its Legacies in Northeast Ohio

Victoria Woodhull, the "New Departure," and the First Female Presidential Campaign

One working class woman from Ohio, Victoria Woodhull, became a national sensation with her political activism, radical ideas, and controversial presidential run. She was the first woman in the United States to campaign for the office. Woodhull was not particularly respectable by any standards of the day, but she had good reason to agitate for women’s rights. Her father hawked her as a child preacher and a spirit medium to bring in money for her destitute family. Woodhull married young to escape her family but divorced her first husband after suffering from his unfaithfulness and alcohol abuse. After remarrying, she became a strong advocate for free love, by which she meant that women ought to be able to love and leave whom they chose, a scandalous position for the day.

Woodhull caught the attention of Stanton and Anthony when she argued before the House Judiciary committee in January of 1871 that the 14th amendment gave citizenship to all “persons” (including women) born in the United States, and that the “privileges” conferred upon these citizens included suffrage. Stanton and Anthony used this argument, called the “New Departure,” and urged suffragists to go to the polls. Several women in South Newbury, OH, did just that, voting several times between 1871 and 1876, although a local judge ruled these votes could not be counted. Many suffragists supported Woodhull's 1872 presidential run with the Equal Rights party, as the first woman to run for president, naming Frederick Douglass as her running mate and including a broad range of labor rights and women’s rights in her platform. (Douglass refused to campaign with her; in fact, he supported her opponent). Needless to say, her campaign didn’t get very far. 

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