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Victoria Clafin Woodhull: The Original Presidential Maverick


Though she ultimately lost out to Barack Obama in the race for the Democratic Party nomination for President of the USA, there was much to be excited about, I think, in the fact that Hillary Clinton was running for the top job. After all, how rare for a woman to climb the political ladder to such heady heights. But she wasn’t the first. Here, Philip Carter, Publication Editor for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, introduces an excerpt from the biography of Victoria Clafin Woodhull. She was the first woman to run for the US presidency, in 1872, and was, one might say, the original presidential maverick. I can tell you, it really does make for fascinating reading. Over to Philip…

For 50 years, until her death in 1927, Woodhull lived in England where—as in the USA—she attracted considerable attention for her ambition and unorthodox lifestyle. The Oxford DNB biography, written by the dictionary’s editor Lawrence Goldman, brings together the two halves of Woodhull’s remarkable transatlantic life. The following is an extract from her biography which can be read in full either on the ODNB website, or can be downloaded as a podcast.

The sisters faced criticism and opprobrium in England as in America. Henry James’s novella The Siege of London (1882) was read by many as a fictionalized account of Victoria Woodhull’s campaign to woo and win her third husband. Angered by constant public references to her past, in February 1894 Victoria Woodhull Martin and her husband brought an action for libel against the trustees and the librarian of the British Museum for making available to readers two pamphlets in the library on the Beecher–Tilton affair that were admitted to be libels against her….

… Featured in Country Life (14 June 1902), she engaged in local educational and rural philanthropy, but ceased any involvement in women’s suffrage or purity campaigns. A particular enthusiasm was for a scheme to develop a women’s agricultural community at Bredon’s Norton, renting out small plots of land to allow women to learn the rudiments of farming. She was one of the earliest motor car owners in Britain, driving a Mercedes Simplex and undertaking motoring tours in Britain and France, and was a founder member of the Ladies Automobile Club (1904). Having long urged that the fourth of July should be celebrated as Interdependence Day, she became a leading promoter of Anglo-American links, active in plans to mark the centenary (December 1914) of the treaty of Ghent….

….[at her daughter’s] instigation, a memorial plaque to her mother was unveiled in Tewkesbury Abbey in July 1943, paying tribute to her as ‘An American citizen long resident in this neighbourhood who devoted herself unsparingly to all that could promote the great cause of Anglo-American friendship’. Victoria Woodhull died an honoured member of her adopted country and community in a life of two quite distinct halves. That she was able to recreate herself so successfully in England after such notoriety and ignominy in America was tribute to her remarkable adaptability and force of personality.

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