Lessons from the Downfall of a Feminist Leader

A 19th century successful, edge-walking feminist entrepreneur, publisher and leading suffragette who racked up a number of firsts—in politics and business—suffered harsh consequences. What can we learn from Victoria Woodhull experience that still applies today?

Victorial Claflin Woodhull, Politician, Entrepreneur, Feminist

Victoria Claflin Woodhull became the first woman to run for president of the United States in 1872, more than a century before Shirley Chisholm and Hillary Clinton. She gave speeches at several suffragist conventions, befriended Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and advocated for women’s rights as a leader of first-wave feminism.

Yet few people have heard of Victoria Woodhull. Those who have don’t often realize that Woodhull was also a serial entrepreneur who notched many “firsts.” She was the first woman to set up a brokerage firm on Wall Street. She published the Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, the first feminist newspaper of its kind in the United States. It gained national notoriety, advocating for a woman’s right to control her own sexuality and calling out the societal hypocrisy of tolerating married men having mistresses. It was also the first American publication to print The Communist Manifesto.

Yet, after achieving all those firsts, Woodhull was tossed in jail, her reputation was shredded, and she lost the fortune she made. Her feminist beliefs came at a high cost. But there are many lessons feminists can take from the spectacular rise and downfall of this 19th century feminist entrepreneur.

Lesson #1: Dire Necessity Can Breed Opportunity

Victoria Woodhull’s entry into entrepreneurship wasn’t a choice, let alone a privilege.

Woodhull was born in 1838 in Ohio to an impoverished family, and her family’s hardships forced her into an enterprising way of life. Her father committed insurance fraud and gambled. Her mother only allowed Woodhull to attend school intermittently between the eighth and eleventh grades, and her parents forced her into marriage a few weeks before her fifteenth birthday, under the assumption that her husband—Canning Woodhull, 28, who claimed to be a doctor— would economically provide for his young wife. But her husband was an alcoholic, had several mistresses, and did not practice medicine.

Before divorcing her husband (and keeping his name), Woodhull returned to her parents’ house with her two children in desperate financial need. Her father set her up as a fortune teller in an Ohio boardinghouse. “At that time, there was enormous interest in the occult,” writes Woodhull’s biographer Marion Meade in Free Woman: The Life and Times of Victoria Woodhull. “Vicky predicted future events, gave business advice, solved bank robberies, straightened the feet of the lame, and made the deaf hear again. Or so she later would claim.”

And so, Woodhull launched her first business, offering psychic services, which set her on an entrepreneurial path that led to considerable success later in life.

Modern women entrepreneurs can see a version of their story in Woodhull’s. According to the 2018 Global Entrepreneur Monitor Report, as many as 17 percent of entrepreneurs in North America are motivated by financial need. Many women start businesses not because they want to quit full-time jobs or seek career fulfillment, but because they desperately need money and see no other options. This trend is known as “necessity entrepreneurship.”

In running her first business, Woodhull learned how to read the market for trends, honed her people skills through client interactions, and eventually won herself the mentor she needed to pivot to other businesses.

Lesson #2: The Precarity of Male Funding

In 1863, Cornelius Vanderbilt was the wealthiest man in the United States. Woodhull met him after she moved to New York City with her new husband, Colonel James Blood, and her younger sister, Tennessee (Tennie) Claflin. Keen to have his fortune told, Vanderbilt attended his first psychic reading with the sisters and became a repeat customer. Traces of sexual interest permeated through his relationship with the two—he asked Tennie to marry him; she refused—but he continued to book their services and eventually started teaching them how to buy and sell stocks.

The sisters acted on his advice. At the time, women were not allowed inside the New York Stock Exchange, even as visitors, so they sent Woodhull’s husband to make their trades on Wall Street. Eventually, the sisters opened their own brokerage firm, becoming the first women to do so, with Blood serving as their accountant and secretary. Vanderbilt agreed to invest in their enterprise. He was no feminist, but the idea of two women on Wall Street “appealed to his sense of humour,” biographer Meade wrote.

Vanderbilt’s role in Woodhull’s business has echoes in today’s relationship between male venture capitalists and women-run businesses. Vanderbilt provided crucial financial support, and Woodhull knew that having a male mentor in her corner was advantageous, but their business relationship didn’t change the rules of the patriarchal culture she operated in.

Initially, Woodhull’s reputation soared, and with it came financial success. Journalists had unusually kind words for the first woman to ever work on Wall Street, and she became an immediate sensation in the press (though, as one might expect, reporters focused more on her elegant outfits and physical beauty than her business).

Woodhull soon became very wealthy. She moved into a mansion in Manhattan, opened her doors to her family, and turned her home into something of a salon for New York City radicals.

But the precariousness of Woodhull’s reliance on Vanderbilt’s investment became clear after she developed a public persona as a feminist. She spoke at women’s suffrage conventions and, with her sister Tennie, started the feminist newspaper Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. She helped launch a new political party, the People’s Party, later named the Equal Rights Party, and ran for president in 1872.

Not surprisingly, when Woodhull’s advocation of “free love” (a woman’s right to decide when to marry, divorce, and bear children without social restriction) sparked criticism, Vanderbilt withdrew his support and money, with disasterous consequences for Woodhull’s brokerage firm and newspaper. Without Vanderbilt’s stamp of approval, she was no longer considered a dignified businesswoman. Other men stopped doing business with Woodhull, and she was forced to shutter her newspaper and her office on Wall Street.

Lesson #3: The Personal is Political

As Woodhull built her public reputation as an entrepreneur, publisher, and politician, she kept her personal life out of the public eye. Her marriage situation would have been confounding to her contemporaries. Divorce was rare. She and her husband considered themselves “free lovers,” engaging in extramarital affairs. Woodhull even welcomed her first husband back into her home in Manhattan when he showed up at her door, drunk and homeless.

Woodhull’s personal life blew open in the New York press when her vengeful mother, Roxanna Claflin, filed a lawsuit against Woodhull’s husband, claiming he tried to murder her. The charges were quickly debunked in the courtroom, but reporters covering the case leapt on the salacious details of Woodhull’s home life, revealing to all of New York City that Woodhull lived with “both of her husbands.” By then, Woodhull was a widely recognized feminist, and the negative press fuelled accusations that the women’s movement would destroy the crux of Victorian society: the sacred family unit.

The scandal accelerated the bankruptcy of Woodhull’s brokerage firm and snuffed out her nascent political career.

Modern women entrepreneurs may identify all too well with the web of “conditionals” that trapped Woodhull: You can use your voice, so long as the public approves of what you say; start a business, but only if you can attract and retain the financial support of men; pursue sexual freedom, but at your own peril and risk losing your career and reputation.

Woodhull’s downfall utterly disproved the belief she held at the peak of her success, that women simply have to act like men’s equals in order to become their equals. Only after her business and political ambitions imploded did Woodhull understand how wrong she had been.

Lesson #4: Patriarchy Has Many Ways to Silence Difficult Women

Desperate to save her reputation, Woodhull used her newspaper to plead her case and amplify her voice. She wrote in the Weekly: “Victoria C. Woodhull’s personal and individual private life is something entirely distinct from her public position…. If Mrs. Woodhull has valuable ideas, what has her past history to do with them?” When that didn’t win over detractors, she took a more aggressive stance in a letter to the New York Times, contending that plenty of men practiced free love and received no criticism for it. “I shall make it my business to analyze some of the lives,” she concluded.

The first person she took to task was Reverend Henry Beecher, the most famous pastor in the country with more than 2,000 congregants gathering for his Sunday sermons. He publicly railed against free love and prostitution, while privately conducting numerous extramarital affairs. Woodhull was friends with one of the couples involved in Beecher’s infidelity, so she published an exposé about the reverend’s hypocrisy in the Weekly.

A young male lawyer levelled obscenity charges at Woodhull for her article on Beecher’s affairs, and Woodhull was actually jailed—for weeks—as her trial date was continually postponed. With Woodhull behind bars, the Reverend’s reputation was restored, while Woodhull’s was further damaged.

When Woodhull was finally released, she fled to England, married a wealthy count and lived out her remaining 44 years disavowing feminist philosophies she once held so dear and had worked so hard to make reality. Woodhull became the type of woman her younger self would have been dismayed by: fearful, quiet, repressed.

Lesson #5: The Strength of Feminism Is in Diversity

It’s hard not to read Woodhull’s story as a dire warning. When a woman speaks up, it’s often her reputation and personality rather than her ideas that are put on public trial. Perhaps this is especially true when the woman in question is an entrepreneur, politician, or media figure—or all three as Woodhull was. The financial and personal repercussions were severe for Woodhull who lost her home, her family, her life’s savings, even her faith in feminism. With such an historical precedent, is it any wonder that more of us don’t start companies, dare to effect change, or run for office?

Certain aspects of Woodhull’s plight remain shockingly relevant. Women-run businesses still rely heavily on financial support from male investors who determine the (patriarchal) rules they must abide by. The media still puts women on trial for the public offence of being a woman—passing judgement on looks, dress, personality, and behaviour—as well as punishing every deviation outside “acceptable” norms. Woodhull’s allegations against the untouchable Reverend Beecher foreshadow #MeToo exposés of powerful men, but a lone woman’s voice still doesn’t carry much weight; it took many years and victims before Harvey Weinstein was brought to justice. And Woodhull’s wrongful imprisonment for daring to take on a powerful man sadly echoes in President Trump’s “lock her up” taunts aimed at his political rival, Hillary Clinton.

Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly feminist newspaper had challenges that contemporary feminist publications still face. In her final post on Rookie, founder and editor Tavi Gevinson wrote about the complexities of raising money from male investors and then having to be answerable to them, as Woodhull was with Vanderbilt. Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner parlayed their public personas to grow an audience for Lenny Letter, which tied the fate of the publication to the reputations of the founders, as Woodhull’s newspaper was. When the two celebrities tweeted their support for a man accused of sexual assault, some writers were so angry they boycotted the site, undoubtedly contributing to the closure of Lenny Letter soon after.

Woodhull’s rise and fall, both in the context of her own time and ours, has a key takeaway: there is a particular danger in over-identifying any one person, business, or publication with the feminist movement. Today’s socially conscious entrepreneurs seem to understand the pitfalls of attaching a feminist media business to a personal platform. Consequently, more publications try to amplify a multiplicity of perspectives. Kayla E., editor-in-chief of Nat. Brut literary magazine, emphasizes that publishing a feminist magazine comes with this responsibility. “It’s not just about my singular vision as an editor,” she says. “We have a duty to advocate for our readership. I want Nat. Brut’s legacy to be that we cared, that we saw people, heard people, and gave a platform to people who wouldn’t have otherwise had one.”

Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly didn’t survive past its sixth birthday. Hopefully, feminist publishing successors, amplifying a chorus of feminist voices, will be much harder to stamp out.


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