“Victoria did have a messianic aspect in all she did, which led her to believe she could make a major statement – that women should have the right to run for office, as well as get the vote – even if not in her lifetime,” said Myra MacPherson, author of the Woodhull biography “The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age.”
Woodhull was a contemporary of famed suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but “she was a feminist, not a suffragist,” MacPherson explained. The distinction was significant. While Anthony and Stanton primarily sought the right to vote, Woodhull espoused sexual, societal and economic liberation, concepts controversial to many suffragists.
She advocated for “free love,” a Victorian-era concept that espoused sexual and societal liberation for women and, most controversially, that women should be allowed to have sex outside marriage. Woodhull saw the institution as nothing more than a trap that robbed women of their identity, and denied them ownership not only of property but their own bodies. At that time, when women married, they were completely subsumed by their husbands, with their rights to property and their children rendered moot. Long before “domestic violence” entered the public lexicon, Woodhull was speaking before crowds about the evils of rape within marriage.
…And then, in November 1872, Woodhull and Claflin published a salacious accusation that a famous Protestant minister, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, was having an affair. (For more context on Beecher’s standing: His sister was abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”) Beecher had preached against “free love,” and Woodhull saw the affair as an example of a double standard for men.
The article ran afoul of the era’s obscenity laws and spelled doom for her political career.
“The whole thing just explodes, it becomes this national sensation,” Lemay said. “Victoria Woodhull gets arrested for spreading pornography, and put into jail for a couple months.”
Imprisoned, Woodhull could not campaign, and never actually did as a presidential candidate.