Victoria Woodhull: The First Woman To Run For President (Before Women Could Vote)

By Karen Harris
Portrait of American feminist Victoria Claflin Woodhull (1838–1927), circa 1872. (Getty Images)

If you Google "Who was the first woman to run for president of the United States?" you may expect articles about Hilary Clinton to pop up, but Clinton wasn't the first woman to throw her hat into the ring in the race for the White House. That was Victoria Woodhull, whose daring and controversial 1872 presidential campaign took place nearly half a century before women in the United States had even earned the right to vote.

Who Was Victoria Woodhull?

Woodhull was born in Ohio in 1838 to con man who ran a traveling medicine show called "Dr. R.B. Claflin, American King of Cancers." Victoria and her siblings were forced to perform in the show and relentlessly abused offstage, so as a desperate 15-year-old, she eloped with one of her father's rivals, Canning Woodhull.

If she was hoping for an escape, however, she didn't find it—the much older man, who was addicted to morphine and often too strung out to work, proved nearly as abusive as her father. The newly stylized Woodhull soon found herself a young mother with two children and a shiftless husband to support, and since few jobs were available to women in the 1850s, she turned back to the trade of her youth and worked as a fortune teller.

After 11 years, Woodhull had had enough. In the 1800s, the wives of abusive, deadbeat, or otherwise unfit husbands were expected to simply deal with their lot, but Woodhull rarely did what was expected of her. Much later, Woodhull's critics cast her first husband in a cartoonishly angelic light, framing him as an upstanding husband who was blindsided by his evil wife's divorce.