“Victory for Victoria” celebrates first woman to run for president — in 1872

Some 144 years before Hillary Clinton’s historic run for the White House, Victoria Woodhull waged her own campaign for president.

She ran against Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 — 48 years before women gained the right to vote. At 34, she was just shy of the constitutionally mandated age.

Neither reality stopped her.

A musical written by three Milwaukee-area women honors Woodhull’s efforts and celebrates her colorful personal history.

Playwrights Susan Peterson Holmes (book), Peggy Peterson Ryan (lyrics) and Alissa Rhode (music) tapped numerous historical sources for Victory for Victoria, which Milwaukee Opera Theatre presented as a staged reading in 2013.

This time, the show is a full-blown production, with 10 cast members and three musicians telling the story of one of history’s most fascinating women, according to Milwaukee Opera Theatre artistic director Jill Ponasik.

“It’s an American musical that’s steeped in Americana and folk idioms specific to the time,” said Ponasik, who is directing the production. “There are 26 songs and spoken text in between that comprise the production.”

Milwaukee Opera Theatre presents Victory for Victoria in four performances Oct. 27–30 at the Wauwatosa Women’s Club.

The many firsts of Victoria

The musical begins on Election Day in 1872, and then looks back to Woodhull’s modest and violent upbringing.

Woodhull was born in 1838 in Homer, Ohio, to an illiterate mother and a brutish father, who worked as a traveling snake oil salesman and allegedly beat and sexually abused her. Woodhull had only three years of formal education, but was considered very bright by her teachers.

At age 14, she married her first husband, Canning Woodhull, an alcoholic and womanizer, and they had two children.

The exploits of her husband led her to embrace “free love” — the idea that women too are empowered to marry, divorce and love whom they choose. This was a revolutionary stance for an age when women were treated as their husbands’ chattel.

Victoria also acted on this approach to love, leaving her first husband and eventually marrying James Blood, a former colonel in the Union Army.

Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Clafin eventually traveled to New York, where they met and had liaisons with railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, who reportedly admired Woodhull’s skills as a spiritualist and medium.

According to some accounts, the sisters managed to accumulate $20,000 from their romantic exploits, primarily with Vanderbilt, and used the money to open Woodhull, Clafin & Co., the first women-owned stock brokerage on Wall Street. They advised Vanderbilt and other wealthy clients.

Victoria California Claflin Woodhull
Victoria California Claflin Woodhull

From their accumulated earnings at the firm, the sisters then started Woodhull & Clafin’s Weekly, one of the first women-owned newspapers in the United States. It was established primarily to support Woodhull’s presidential run.

The paper’s editorial platform was grounded in feminism and alternative lifestyles. It was also the first to publish an English translation of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.

However, that wasn’t what got Woodhull into trouble.

Obscenity and suffrage

In the early 1870s, the renowned preacher Henry Ward Beecher was denouncing Woodhull’s free love philosophy from the pulpit of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church.

Woodhull learned from suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton that Beecher was having an affair with a married church member and she exposed the liaison in print.

A few days before the election, Woodhull was arrested on obscenity charges for publishing the story and she remained behind bars as her presidential dreams were dashed.

Any votes cast for Woodhull or her Equal Rights Party, which supported the women’s suffrage movement, were never counted.

Woodhull went on to become a leader in the women’s suffrage movement. But not all the movement’s leaders saw her as a positive influence, including Susan B. Anthony, who was troubled by Woodhull’s confrontational tactics, Ponasik said.

“She ran afoul of Anthony, who left her out of the record of women’s suffrage,” Ponasik said. “She must have been a terrifically difficult person to get along with, but I admire her … for her spunk and the sense of justice with which she lived.”

Woodhull remains an important figure in the women’s movement and clearly was ahead of her time.

“Even though she’s not included in the volumes on women’s suffrage, she was part of the tidal shift underway in the United States at the time and one of the people leading that charge,” Ponasik said. “At this point, there was no going back.”

Woodhull and Clafin eventually moved to England, thanks to a financial stipend from Vanderbilt’s son William Henry Vanderbilt.

Woodhull divorced her second husband and married a third time in 1883. She lived to 89, dying in 1927.

Victory for Victoria does not follow Woodhull to the end of her days, but does include enough material to make important points about her life and its influence on modern feminism, Ponasik said.

“The through line of the show for me is seeing the reward of her hard-won victories and what people had to sacrifice to get to this point,” Ponasik added. “She had a great capacity for care and a moral obligation to do the right thing. That was her strength.”

On Stage

Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s production of Victory for Victoria runs Oct. 27–30 at the Wauwatosa Women’s Club, 1626 Wauwatosa Ave., Wauwatosa. Tickets are $28 general admission, $18 for students/artists and $16 for the Oct. 27 preview. Order tickets at milwaukeeoperatheatre.org or by calling 800-838-3006.