Each year as Valentine’s Day approaches, thoughts turn to romantic love. Everyone is searching for their perfect match so that they can live happily ever after. Victoria Woodhull’s quest for true love led her to challenge every social convention from marriage vows to prostitution to women’s suffrage.
Victoria Claflin was born in 1838 into a family of crooks and con artists. Her father was a snake oil salesman, who often posed as a doctor or a lawyer. Her mother dabbled in religion, speaking tongues and dancing wildly at revival meetings when she wasn’t busy blackmailing folks. The family moved often to stay ahead of the law and angry defrauded marks of their cons.
Victoria and her sister, Tennessee (Tennie) Claflin, teamed up to escape their parents’ chaotic lives so they could lead their own lives of chaos. They lured in men with their good looks and when charm didn’t work, blackmail usually did. Through it all, they searched for Prince Charming. What they found was a world that treated women like sluts for talking about sex.
Tennie argued that society was hypocritical for ostracizing women who became prostitutes, while their male clients faced no social stigma. She believed this double standard contributed to the spread of venereal diseases by discouraging women from seeking medical treatment for fear of being accused of prostitution. She wanted to legalize prostitution to encourage women to get medical help and to end the stigma of sex outside of marriage. She also wanted women to have the right to sue men who seduced them with promises of marriage and then abandoned them.
Victoria advocated “free love,” by which she meant no-fault divorces and a fairer division of marital property. In the 19th century, married women had no right to own property in their own name. Physical or emotional abuse was rarely grounds for a divorce. Women often lost custody of their children, even when they were not at fault for the divorce because courts had no obligation to award alimony or child support.
Victoria had first-hand experience of bad marriages. Her first husband was an alcoholic, who couldn’t hold a job and blew her money on his booze. Victoria divorced him and soon remarried. Then her first husband turned up again asking for help, so Victoria shared her house with her first and second husbands, until the former died of alcoholism.
To advance women’s social equality, Victoria and Tennie supported voting rights for women. They were disowned by the women’s suffrage movement for repeatedly going off-message to talk about other social issues. The suffragists feared (correctly) that talking about other social inequities would stiffen resistance to voting rights.
So Victoria decided to run for president, in 1872, to spread the word about “free love”. She had to form her own party because the established political parties refused to acknowledge her candidacy. Preachers called her “Mrs. Satan” and denounced her as an offense to God and the natural order of things. Their outrage was heightened by the fact that she chose a black man, Frederick Douglass, as her running mate.
Life in the U.S. became so unpleasant due to their notoriety that Victoria and Tennie moved to England where they eventually found their final true loves. Tennie married a baronet and became Lady Cook. Victoria married a wealthy businessman.
Victoria and Tennie managed to support themselves by wit, guile, and sometimes sordid intrigue. They would be remarkable even in today’s society. To read more about their adventures see, The Scarlet Sisters, by Myra Macpherson (2014).