Vote Victoria for president

I’ve seen a lot of people get excited all over the Internet, saying that Hillary Clinton is the first female presidential candidate. We can file this one under “It’s online, so it must be true.” Quit making me correct the Internet. I hate to be the one to break this to everyone, but honestly, you should know better.

Even the Associated Press made this mistake in a headline. Damn it, AP, I expect this sort of thing from Wikipedia. But you? I’m disappointed. (Unless you pick up one of my columns, AP, and then all is forgiven.)

To begin, “first female presidential candidate” is a pretty broad term. What do you think Carly Fiorina was? How about Michele Bachmann? They were female presidential candidates. Not particularly successful ones, but that wasn’t included in the phrase. Hillary Clinton is not the first female candidate in this election alone.

But before any of them, we had Victoria Woodhull.

Victoria Claflin Woodhull is widely known as America’s first female presidential candidate, way back in 1872. And she was from here.

Victoria Claflin was born in Beech Creek on September 23, 1838, not quite a year before this became Clinton County. Yes, I am aware that there’s some town in Ohio that claims she was born out there, but property research has shown that her parents were living in Beech Creek at the time. So much for Victoria’s Wikipedia entry. (Again, Internet, quit making me correct you!)

Victoria’s father, Buck Claflin, was one of those hucksters who sold elixirs that could cure anything. If you had cancer, and wanted to be rich and good-looking, chances are Claflin had something in a bottle for that. Her mother, Roxanna, was a very religious woman who would pray loudly in the backyard for God to forgive the sins of her neighbors, which she would enumerate at the top of her lungs. It was into this mess that Victoria and her sister Tennessee were born.

Early on, her father put them both into a traveling psychic show where they “predicted” the future. This worked well, in the sense that the show would have traveled elsewhere by the time anyone realized the predictions hadn’t come true.

At age 14, Victoria was discovered by Canning Woodhull, a New York man who claimed to be a doctor but was actually about as licensed as Buck Claflin was. Woodhull took an interest in Victoria, and asked her father permission to marry her. Claflin, figuring one daughter would do about as well as two in the psychic show, gave permission. Neither of them consulted with Victoria.

It soon turned out that Woodhull was a drunk and a womanizer. Victoria divorced him about 1854 and got involved in the women’s rights movement. While giving a speech to an equal rights political party, Victoria became a subject of interest and was asked to run for president on their ticket.

She ran on a platform of free love, better divorce laws, and equal rights, with Frederick Douglass as her running mate. I suppose I would be belaboring the point if I mentioned that the other candidates vilified her.

Several important political figures spoke out against Victoria, this scandalous woman who wanted equality. One of these was the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, who simultaneously campaigned against Victoria’s positions while having an affair himself. Victoria was more offended by the hypocrisy than the affair, and she wrote articles revealing Beecher’s activities in a magazine she was publishing at the time.

That was essentially all the politicians needed to press charges against Victoria – she was arrested on trumped-up charges of obscenity, partially because she’d used the federal mail system to send these magazines. Victoria spent election day in jail. Needless to say, she lost the election.

Victoria had something of a happy ending, however. She later moved to England and married again, publishing another magazine there with the help of her daughter. She became popular in England, giving speeches and running her publications, and she lived fairly happily until passing away on June 10, 1927.

She never managed to be president, but Victoria Woodhull definitely left her mark on history. And who knows? Maybe I’ll even vote for her as a write-in. She’s been dead for almost 90 years, but in this election, I’m not sure that makes a difference.

Lou Bernard is a Lock Haven resident with a keen interest in the history of this area. He is adult services coordinator at Ross Library and may be reached at ross13@rosslibrary.org or 570-748-3321.