Victoria Woodhull

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Victoria Woodhull

Brief Biography

Victoria Claflin was born in Homer, Ohio, September 23, 1838, to Roxanna (Annie) Hummel and Reuben Buckman (Buck) Claflin (Condray 89).  She was the seventh of ten children (Underhill 11).  Her mother had been raised in a spiritual family, and was known around Homer as being quite eccentric.  She was also illiterate (Underhill 13).  Buck was not financially successful and eventually lost his “fortune” which sent him into bouts of drinking in which he became abusive to Victoria and her siblings.  Annie, who was never very emotionally balanced, became erratic, and she would shift from being indulgent to her children, thanking God for the gift of them, and cheering her husband on as he beat them (Underhill 17).  After the family’s home burnt to the ground, for which Buck was suspected of arson, the family left Homer.  Victoria, despite being a child of unusual intelligence, only had two years of formal education (Condray 89).  She became caretaker to the family, and frequently claimed to have visions.  This could be in part because of the spiritualism that her mother imparted to her in her early childhood.          

When Victoria was fifteen her mother fell severely ill and was treated by a 29 year old physician by the name of Canning Woodhull (Underhill 23).  The two married shortly after Victoria turned 15, her parents apparently quite pleased with the match.  Victoria, though charmed by her husband at first soon learned that he was not all that he claimed to be.  He was a chronic alcoholic, and frequently was unchaste, and made no attempts to hide this fact from his bride (Underhill 25).  This time seemed to have a strong effect on the views that Victoria would later adopt, especially the birth of her son, Byron, who due to his father’s alcohol abuse was of limited intelligence, known at the time as an “imbecile” (Underhill 25).  Victoria’s second child, a daughter she named Zula Maud was healthy.  During her marriage to Woodhull, Victoria had a brief career on stage, however, she did not seem to warm to acting, despite her skill at it (Underhill 27).  After 11 years the Woodhull’s divorced. 

            Her second husband was Colonel James Blood, who seemed a very different man from Woodhull, and supported to goals outside of the marriage.  The two married in 1866.  At this point, after spending time with her family, and especially her younger sister, Tennessee, Victoria seemed determined to be able to support herself and her family, as well as use to her advantage the impressive mind that she had.  She embraced spiritualism, and the sisters moved to New York as spiritualist physicians.  Under this guise, they encountered Cornelius (Commodore) Vanderbilt who helped the two establish themselves as the first women stockbrokers, who relied heavily on their communication with the spirit world (Condray 89).  While in New York, Victoria and Tennessee developed their own publication, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, which endorsed woman suffrage, sexual freedom, marriage reform, spiritualism, international justice, and economic and labour reform (Condray 90), and was the first American paper to publish the Communist Manifesto in English.  It was here that Victoria began her rhetorical career in 1870.       

            Victoria became a well-known speaker who delivered speeches that called for political reform to bring about equality (Condray 91).  She advocated for women’s rights to birth control, need for sex education, an 8 hour work day, graduated income tax, and social welfare programs, thus also appealing to the labouring classes.  At first Victoria was admired and adored by other feminists, however, as her speeches took a more radical tone and became more confrontational, their support ebbed (Condray 91).  She was much criticized for her stance on marriage, when she said “in some cases marriage was form of legalized prostitution whereby partners sold themselves for economic or social reasons without mutual respect or love” (Condray 93).  She also advocated “free love” of which she claimed to be a practitioner.

            Victoria went on to create the Equal Rights Party, and was a candidate in the 1872 Presidential election, making her the first woman to do so (Condray 91).  It was at this time that Victoria became much maligned by the media and other politicians and rhetoricians.  She was frequently accused of having affairs, being a witch, and leading other women down a path to hell.  One of her chief accusers was Henry Ward Beecher, a well-known minister in New York.  Angered at having her personal life dragged through the mud she sought to inform the public about the hypocrisy of it all by revealing, in her Weekly, that Beecher himself was having an affair with a parishioner (Condray 94).  The result was that both Victoria and Tennessee spent election night in jail on obscenity charges. They in fact went on to spend seven months in and out of both jail and court (Condray 94).  The legal problems, the election itself, and helping to support her large extended family (Steinem xv), all contributed to Victoria’s eventual destitution.      

            In 1877, after yet another divorce, Victoria moved to England.  There she met and married John Biddulph Martin, a wealthy banker from London (Condray 95).  She continued to deliver speeches, however her tone changed drastically.  Her radicalism shifted to scientific positivism.  She rejected ideas that had previously been her own, she “now insisted she had never espoused free love, never believed in radical causes; it was all a misunderstanding” (Steinem xvi).  Victoria Woodhull Martin, a wealthy widow living in England, died in June of 1927 (Condray 96).

Primary Sources

 Woodhull, Victoria. “Speech Before Judiciary Committee.” U.S. House of Representatives, January 2, 1871. HWS 2:444-445; VWR IIA1:1-6.

 “A Lecture on Constitutional Equality.” Lincoln Hall, Washington, D.C., February 16, 1871. VWR IIA2:1-33; WSBH:108-129.

 “A New Political Party and a New Party Platform.” NWSA convention, Apollo Hall, May 11, 12, 1871. VWR IIB6:1-8.

“Principles of Finance.” Cooper Institute, New York City, August 3, 1871. VWR IIIB4:1-29.

“The Principles of Social Freedom.” Steinway Hall, New York City, November 20, 1871. VWR IA1:1-44; OW:227-251.

“Carpenter and Cartter Reviewed.” NWSA Convention, January 10, 1872, Lincoln Hall, Washington DC. VWR IIA3:1-36.

“Impending Revolution.” Music Hall, Boston, February 1, 1872; New York Academy of Music, February 20, 1872. VWR IIIA2:1-39.

“Speech [nomination acceptance], Ratification Meeting of the Equal Rights Party.” June 22, 1872. VWR IIB9:1-2.

“Naked Truth; or, the Situation Reviewed!” Cooper Institute, New York City, January 9, 1873. VWR IA3:1-26.

“Reformation of Revolution, Which?” Cooper Institute, New York City, October 17, 1873. VWR IIIA3:1-39.

“Tried As By Fire: or, the True and the False, Socially.” Various Audiences, 1874. VWR IA5:1-44.

“The Human Body, the Temple of God.” St. James Hall, London, December 1877.  Humanitarian 2 (March 24, 1893):49-55.

“Stirpiculture; or, The Scientific Propagation of the Human Race.” London, February 1888. VWR IB6:1-31.

“The Garden of Eden,” London, 1890. Excerpts, Sachs, 1928:292-293.

“The Rapid Multiplication of the Unfit.” London, 1891. VWR IIIB7:1-39.

“Humanitarian Money: The Unsolved Riddle.” London, 1892. VWR IIIB5:1-26.

“Pharmacy of the Soul.” Humanitarian 6 (September 1895):172-6; 6 (October 1895):249-255: 6 (November 1895):328-336; 7 (January 1896): 7-13.

“The Financial Crisis in America.” Humanitarian 7 (November 1896):330-338. VWR IIIB6:1-10.

Woodhull, Victoria Claflin. A Fragmentary Record of Public Work Done in America, 1871-1877. London: G. Norman & Son, 1887.

Martin, Victoria Woodhull. The Human Body, the Temple of God; or The Philosophy of Sociology. London, 1890.


Secondary Sources

Brough, James. The Vixens:  A Biography of Victoria and Tennessee Claflin.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

 Condray, Suzanne E. “Victoria Claflin Woodhull (1838-1927), a radical for woman’s rights.” Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925. Ed. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1993. pp89-98.

 Ek, Richard A. “Victoria Woodhull and the Pharisees.” Journalism Quarterly 49 (Autumn 1972): 453-459.

 Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

 Johnston, Johanna. Mrs. Satan: The Incredible Saga of Victoria Woodhull. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1967.

 Kisner, Arlene, ed. Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, The Lives and Writings of Notorious Victoria Woodhull and Her Sister Tennessee Claflin.  Washington, N.J.” Times Change, 1972.

 Marberry, M.M. Vicky: A Biography of Victoria C. Woodhull. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1967.

 Meade, Marion. Free Woman: The Life and Times of Victoria Woodhull. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

 Sachs, Emanie. The Terrible Siren: Victoria Woodhull. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1928.

Steinem, Gloria. "Introduction." The Woman Who Ran For President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull by Lois Beachy Underhill. New York: Penguin, 1995. pp. xiii-xvii.

 The Victoria Woodhull Reader. Ed. Madeline B. Stern. Weston, Mass.: M&S Press, 1974.

Tilton, Theodore. Victoria C. Woodhull: A Biographical Sketch. New York: Golden Age Tract No. 3, 1871.

Underhill, Lois Beachy. The Woman Who Ran For President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull. New York: Penguin, 1995.


Available Images

"Victoria Woodhull, the Spirit to Run the White House"



Prepared by Julie Schroeders (2004).

Nipissing University
Contact:  Professor Ann-Barbara Graff
Department of English Studies
Last modified: October 12, 2004