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Past & Present: Victoria Woodhull for President

When Hillary Clinton became the Democratic Party’s nominee for president, she made history as the first woman to represent a major party on the presidential ticket. However, she was not the first woman to run for president. That honor goes to Victoria Woodhull.

Born in 1838, 82 years before women could vote, Woodhull ran for president in 1872. While just shy of the required 35 years of age, Woodhull was an outspoken supporter of women’s rights, a spiritualist and a magnetic healer, a divorcée and advocate of free love; and, with her sister, was the first woman to open a brokerage firm on Wall Street and to found a newspaper.

Woodhull became more politically active after women were denied suffrage rights in the 15th Amendment in 1870. Two years later, she declared her candidacy for president, representing the Equal Rights Party that supported women’s suffrage and equal rights.

Woodhull was a controversial candidate. As her public fight with moralist Reverend Henry Ward Beecher over free love heated up, Woodhull published a scathing exposé of Beecher’s alleged adulterous affair, pointing out the sexual double standard for men and women. Two days before the election, US Federal Marshalls arrested Woodhull on obscenity charges. While Woodhull never provided much threat to the Republican nominee, former Civil War general, and future president, Ulysses S. Grant, her candidacy in 1872, and her subsequent runs in 1884 and 1896, show that whether Hillary Clinton wins the 2016 presidential election or not, she stands on the shoulders of Woodhull, who paved the way not only for Clinton, but for female political candidates to run campaigns and win elections throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.