HILLARY CLINTON claims to have shattered the glass ceiling as America’s first female nominee for the White House but 144 years ago an extraordinary woman, who believed in “free love”, women’s rights and was reportedly a prostitute, beat her to it.
Leaving only a marble plaque in a churchyard in the Cotswolds, where she spent the final decades of her controversial life, Victoria Woodhull was the first woman nominated by a political party to run for president of the US. Almost forgotten in today’s rush to hail Hillary Clinton’s groundbreaking nomination, Woodhull achieved that against far tougher odds 48 years before American women won the vote in 1920. A handsome woman, inevitably squeezed into a high-collared black dress and with short dark hair, Woodhull was formidable: a 19thcentury mix of Margaret Thatcher, Madonna and Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss.
She was one of the first women to open a stock brokers on Wall Street and publish a newspaper. A pioneering advocate for women’s suffrage, birth control and legalised prostitution she was elected the nominee for the Equal Rights Party, the largest third party in the 1872 US presidential election. But her steamy love life shocked Victorian sensibilities with her three marriages and allegations – possibly promulgated by enemies – that she ran a brothel. Others were offended by her belief in spiritualism and clairvoyance. The Chicago Tribune branded her “obscene and libidinous,” while others dubbed her the Terrible Siren, Wicked Woodhull and the Petticoat Politician yet she became a powerful voice for feminism.
“Women are the equals of men before the law and are equal in all their rights,” she told the House Judiciary Committee in Washington, DC, in 1871, a century before America’s equal rights movement took flight. But until women had the vote she advocated financial independence as the best revenge. “A woman’s ability to earn money is better protection against the tyranny and brutality of men than her ability to vote,” she said.
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