Please say hi to Nicole Evelina! She has a very timely novel to share with us about the first female presidential candidate.
Before Hillary, There Was Victoria, an Unlikely Presidential Candidate
Since Hillary Clinton became the Democratic nominee for President in July, many people have noted that she’s not the first woman to run for President. Our nation’s first female Presidential candidate was Victoria Woodhull, who ran as part of the Equal Rights Party, a party she founded, in 1872.
This relatively unknown woman who doesn’t appear in most history books obviously wasn’t elected and may have faded into oblivion if the 2016 election had taken a different turn. This is why I wrote my book, Madame Presidentess, a biographical historical fiction take on the life of this outrageous woman. I couldn’t stand the thought of another generation losing a female role model just because someone decided she wasn’t important enough to include in the history books, despite her many “firsts” for women:
- First woman to run for President in the US
- First woman to own a stock brokerage on Wall Street (with her sister, Tennie)
- First woman to speak before the House Judiciary Committee
- One of the first women to run a weekly newspaper (also with Tennie)
While we may not know how many votes she garnered in 1872 (they either weren’t counted or were destroyed), we do know a fair amount about Victoria. But unlike her modern counterparts, Victoria wasn’t bred for a life in politics. In fact, she’s just about the least likely candidate.
The Female Sex
Victoria Woodhull was female in an age when women had little authority. Women couldn’t vote or serve on juries. Personal ambition in a woman was considered evil and there were social taboos against women speaking in public. To call attention to oneself in public was thought unladylike and considered a form of treachery to one’s husband or father because when a woman strayed from her proper place in the home, she caused him shame. The one exception to this were Spiritualist mediums, who could speak freely because it was the spirits speaking through them, not their own opinions being expressed.
Of course, many women’s suffrage leaders ignored these rules. Victoria happened to be a Spiritualist medium, and she did couch many of her words in the context of conversations with the spirits, but she also wasn’t afraid to speak her own mind, even going so far as to call for women to overthrow the government and start a new one that will not only listen to them, but give them equal rights. But it was still unthinkable for a woman to run for office, let alone the highest office in the land. Fun fact: Victoria’s sister, Tennie, ran for a Congressional seat in 1872; she didn’t win. (The first woman wouldn’t be elected to the House until 1916 and the Senate in 1922.)
Victoria Woodhull was only 32 when she declared her candidacy and 34 when the election took place. According to the Constitution, one has to be at least 35 to serve as President. Whether or not Victoria or anyone else realized she was in violation of this requirement is up for debate. Chances are good a woman running to for President was controversy enough; it’s possible no one bothered to check her age.
Nowadays we tend to equate politicians with money and many of them have had it since birth. But Victoria was not born to a rich family; she grew up in a small shack in Homer, Ohio, with a father who was at best down on his luck and unemployed, and at worst, a con man who broke laws in several states. Her mother was a religious zealot some called insane. The fifth of seven children (or 10 depending on who you ask) with two out-of-work parents, Victoria learned early to earn her keep. She started working when she was a young girl as a clairvoyant and healer alongside her sister, Tennie, a job which she continued until she was married at 14. Her husband’s drinking kept them poor, and Victoria took a job as a seamstress and actress before returning to life as a magnetic healer and medium. A second marriage brought her a more stable living, but not what you would expect from a presidential candidate.
Victoria Woodhull certainly didn’t have the experience to become President, never having held any kind of governmental or elected position. According to her own recollection, Victoria had at most three years of formal education. How she went from that to being a self-made millionaire by the age of 33 is anyone’s guess. After moving to New York in 1868 she was employed by Cornelius Vanderbilt as his medium; it may have been from him that she and Tennie learned the ins and outs of Wall Street, but that has not been proven.
Whatever the source of their financial skill, Victoria and Tennie opened the first female-run (and owned) stock brokerage on Wall Street in 1870. Hailed as the “Bewitching Brokers” and the “Queens of Finance,” their firm was a hit despite being extremely controversial. Victoria made a fortune from the Black Friday crash of 1869 and continued amassing funds as her firm prospered, allowing her to afford to run for President on the merits of her financial success.
In late 1871, Victoria added to her resume when she became the first woman to testify before a sitting House committee. She unsuccessfully argued that the wording of the Fourteenth Amendment already gave women the right to vote. This launched a successful speaking career that carried her to the 1872 election and beyond even though she had little directly applicable experience.
Why Didn’t We Learn About Her in School?
No one knows for certain, but I believe it to be a combination of two factors. First, when Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton released their History of Woman Suffrage, a multi-volume account of the suffrage movement, Victoria was barely mentioned. (This may have been in revenge for personal slights from Victoria against the two suffragists who had formerly been her friends.) Second, the 1928 publication of The Terrible Siren, a scathing biography of Woodhull by Emanie Sachs, did severe damage to Victoria’s reputation. Sachs’ biography (which has since been proven to be mostly false) painted Victoria as a seductress, blackmailer and even a prostitute, a reputation that practically banned her from the history books.
It is my hope that Madame Presidentess, while fictional, can undo some of this harm and help get Victoria Woodhull into the history books where she belongs.
Forty-eight years before women were granted the right to vote, one woman dared to run for President of the United States, yet her name has been virtually written out of the history books.
Rising from the shame of an abusive childhood, Victoria Woodhull, the daughter of a con-man and a religious zealot, vows to follow her destiny, one the spirits say will lead her out of poverty to “become ruler of her people.”
But the road to glory is far from easy. A nightmarish marriage teaches Victoria that women are stronger and deserve far more credit than society gives. Eschewing the conventions of her day, she strikes out on her own to improve herself and the lot of American women.
Over the next several years, she sets into motion plans that shatter the old boys club of Wall Street and defile even the sanctity of the halls of Congress. But it’s not just her ambition that threatens men of wealth and privilege; when she announces her candidacy for President in the 1872 election, they realize she may well usurp the power they’ve so long fought to protect.
Those who support her laud “Notorious Victoria” as a gifted spiritualist medium and healer, a talented financial mind, a fresh voice in the suffrage movement, and the radical idealist needed to move the nation forward. But those who dislike her see a dangerous force who is too willing to speak out when women are expected to be quiet. Ultimately, “Mrs. Satan’s” radical views on women’s rights, equality of the sexes, free love and the role of politics in private affairs collide with her tumultuous personal life to endanger all she has built and change how she is viewed by future generations.
This is the story of one woman who was ahead of her time – a woman who would make waves even in the 21st century – but who dared to speak out and challenge the conventions of post-Civil War America, setting a precedent that is still followed by female politicians today.
Excerpt from Madame Presidentess
With James’s support and my newfound conviction, I approached the second day of the conference not as the wide-eyed innocent of yesterday but as a potential future leader. The urge to speak out, to give voice to all of those whom society silenced hummed in my veins. The only remaining question was how.
Among the morning’s speakers was my old friend from St. Louis, Virginia Minor. After she was introduced, Mrs. Minor wasted no time in getting to the point of her speech. “You may know that my husband and I are vocal proponents of the idea that the Constitution already gives us the right to vote. But we are willing to put before you an additional piece of supporting evidence, found in the Fourteenth Amendment, that I believe gives all women the right to vote.
“As persons born in the United States, women are citizens. Nowhere in the text does it specify ‘males’ or ‘men,’ only ‘persons,’ which is a term without gender and therefore should include both men and women. The Constitution gives all citizens the right to vote. Therefore, as citizens, we already have the right to vote. The next line of the amendment elaborates, noting that no state is allowed to legally deprive citizens of their rights or deny them equal protection.”
I followed Mrs. Minor’s words closely, taking in each argument and dissecting it carefully. I was not trained to debate the finer points of law, but I could find no flaw in the woman’s logic. In fact, the longer I listened, the more I found myself agreeing. Around us, women whispered to each other, nudging husbands and companions in agreement with Mrs. Minor’s peaceful call to arms.
“Therefore, if the right is already ours, all we need do is take it back. Yes,” her voice rang out like the peal of an Easter church bell, “I mean we must take action. Perhaps you have heard of the Spiritualist town of Vineland, New Jersey? There, late last year, nearly two hundred women cast their votes. They pledge to do so annually until they are acknowledged. This is what I call on you to do.
“What I am asking of you is revolutionary, this I know. It goes against all we are raised to believe and how society demands we behave, but I urge you to open your minds to the idea. As a group, we have the power to change state laws, something which Miss Anthony, Mrs. Stanton, and other leaders of this group will be working to put into action. But each of us bears personal responsibility as well. So on your next election day, I ask that you hand over your ballot, not meekly but with pride, and demand to be counted among the citizens of this fine country. Only in that way can we hope to affect change in time to cast our votes for the next president in 1872.”
The crowd roared with applause, and I leapt to my feet, clapping as loud as my hands would let me. This woman was onto something.
“We should do this,” I mouthed to Tennie, who nodded enthusiastically. I would have to discuss the possibilities taking shape in my mind with James.
“They’ve got motivation now,” said a man in the row behind me. “Too bad they don’t have the money to see it through.”
His offhand comment snagged my attention. The party needed money, and I needed a way into its upper echelons. If Josie’s stock tips had taught me anything, it was that there was money to be made in the stock market—lots of it. Perhaps that could be my entry into suffrage society. I mulled over the thought as other people spoke. By the time Elizabeth Cady Stanton delivered the closing address, I was determined to work with Tennie to see how our budding business relationship with Mr. Vanderbilt might help advance our work for women.
When Mrs. Stanton said, “The need of this hour is a new evangel of womanhood to exalt purity, virtue, morality, true religion, to lift man up into the high realms of thought and action,” a chill raced down my spine. Those words were meant for me.
My sight blurred, and I blinked as a vision took over my consciousness. I stood in the center of a spotlighted stage, speaking to throngs larger even than the crowd gathered for this convention, as Demosthenes had promised.
A flash, then I sat on a platform next to the three Fates who ran the organization. I was the golden child sent to breathe new life into a movement desperately in need of new energy.
The next thing I knew, Miss Anthony was announcing me as president of the National Women’s Rights Convention.
Another shift and the vision began to fade, but not before a newspaper headline blared the fulfillment of the highest of Demosthenes’ prophecies: “Victoria Woodhull Makes History as First Woman President.”
Yes! I will bring this movement to the masses. I will show them that a woman like them, raised in the dirt, who works for a living, can be an agent of change. Then they shall see one Victoria sitting on the throne of England while her namesake guards the interests of women in the United States. Less than four years from now, I shall be president.
Nicole Evelina is a multi-award-winning historical fiction and romantic comedy writer. Her most recent novel, Madame Presidentess, a historical novel about Victoria Woodhull, America’s first female Presidential candidate, was the first place winner in the Women’s US History category of the 2015 Chaucer Awards for Historical Fiction.
Her debut novel, Daughter of Destiny, the first book of an Arthurian legend trilogy that tells Guinevere’s life story from her point of view, was named Book of the Year by Chanticleer Reviews, took the Grand Prize in the 2015 Chatelaine Awards for Women’s Fiction/Romance, won a Gold Medal in the fantasy category in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, a Gold Medal in the fantasy category in the Reader’s Favorite Awards, and was short-listed for the Chaucer Award for Historical Fiction. Its sequel, Camelot’s Queen, was awarded the prestigious B.R.A.G Medallion. Been Searching for You, her contemporary romantic comedy, won the 2016 Colorado Independent Publishers Association Award for Romance, the 2015 Romance Writers of America (RWA) Great Expectations and Golden Rose contests and was a finalist in the chick-lit category of the Readers Favorite Awards.
Nicole’s writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Independent Journal, Curve Magazine and numerous historical publications. She is one of only six authors who completed a week-long writing intensive taught by #1 New York Times bestselling author Deborah Harkness. As an armchair historian, Nicole researches her books extensively, consulting with biographers, historical societies and traveling to locations when possible. For example, she traveled to England twice to research the Guinevere’s Tale trilogy, where she consulted with internationally acclaimed author and historian Geoffrey Ashe, as well as Arthurian/Glastonbury expert Jaime George, the man who helped Marion Zimmer Bradley research The Mists of Avalon.
Nicole is a member of and book reviewer for The Historical Novel Society, as well as a member of the Historical Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, the St. Louis Writer’s Guild, Women Writing the West, Alliance of Independent Authors, the Independent Book Publishers Association and the Midwest Publisher’s Association.
Her website is http://nicoleevelina.com/. She can be reached online at: