Woodhull set standard for women candidates

March 21, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- On the whole, I do prefer history-in-the-making. So I tip my hat to Elizabeth Dole as she places each foot ever so carefully on the runway to the title of "First Serious Female Contender for the Presidency."

Announcing her "exploratory committee" this month, Ms. Dole looked like the perfect focus group candidate: competent, competitive and compassionate.

Against the macho soundtrack from "Top Gun" she did a female-friendly Oprah impression. Despite a resume of jobs in five administrations, she assured us that she wasn't a politician. Even with a background of Bob Dole Republicanism, she presented herself as a cross between Helen Reddy and Clara Barton.

It was a class act for Year 2000. She even managed to speak of "a great American yearning" and the need to "rekindle the spirit in our hearts."

But since this is Women's History Month, I find myself harboring a different "great American yearning." I keep thinking back to the very first woman who ever ran for president of the United States.

I give you Victoria Woodhull. The charismatic and eccentric stockbroker, publisher, suffragist, spiritualist, and presidential candidate. That Victoria Woodhull.

She was the most famous woman in America on April 2, 1870, when she claimed "the right to speak for the unenfranchised women of the country" and announced her candidacy. At that moment, she had a personal story that the folks who put together videos for today's national conventions would die for.

Born the seventh of 10 children, Woodhull was educated haphazardly, married at 15 to a doctor and lout, divorced and remarried.

She and her sister -- with a little help from Cornelius Vanderbilt -- became the first women stockbrokers on Wall Street and were dubbed the "Bewitching Brokers." They published their own outspoken and muckraking newspaper and earned another nickname: "The Queens of Quill."

Back in the days before women could vote, running for the presidency was an act of civil disobedience, not a career move. The difference between 1870 and 1999, says Lois Beachy Underhill, who wrote "The Woman Who Ran for President" is "Today women run to win. She was running to make a statement."

But it's the statements made by Woodhull, who won the endorsement of the Equal Rights Party, that make me nostalgic for the era of daring.

If women candidates today are afraid of being tainted with the brush of women's rights, hear Woodhull. "Women are the equals of men before the law and are equal in all their rights." There is, she said, "no more important issue likely to arise before the presidential election."

If you think sex is a controversial issue now, consider Woodhull. She not only said women had the right to, um, "reciprocal benefits" but free love: "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 lover every day if I please ... "

For one brief comet-like streak, Woodhull stirred up a coalition of suffragists, spiritualists, labor activists. Then almost inevitably, her celebrity was followed by notoriety, which in turn was followed by scandal, financial ruin, and a media feeding frenzy.

In the end, after her newspaper outed famed preacher Henry Ward Beecher as an adulterer, Woodhull was jailed for passing obscenity through the mails and spent election eve behind bars.

I don't want to be too nostalgic. After all, the First Woman candidate was never allowed on any ballot. Ulysses Grant won the election. She was labeled "Mrs. Satan" in a Thomas Nast cartoon, and "The Terrible Siren" in a scurrilous pamphlet.

But years later a woman who had been part of the presidential effort offered Woodhull a glowing campaign epitaph: "You gave women the idea that they could own themselves."

Ellen Goodman writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 3/21/99

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