Congratulations to Ms Clinton – but hands up who remembers the first woman to stand for US president, with an African-American as her vice-president, and when?
The answer is Victoria Woodhull (pictured), sister of Tennessee Clafin, in 1872. Their mother was a fanatical devotee of spiritualism and Victoria claimed to have had visions from the age of three. In 1853 she married Dr Canning Woodhull, by whom she had two children and for a time the whole family travelled in a medicine show. She gave spiritualism exhibitions and her sister’s picture was on the labels of the Elixir of Life bottles sold as their brother Herbert posed as a cancer doctor.
Tennessee was now signing herself Tennie C. Clafin. The girls then travelled to New York and met Cornelius Vanderbilt through his interest in spiritualism. They made a fortune on the stock market and, always keen on feminism and suffrage, became involved in socialist movement the Pantarchy.
In 1870 the sisters launched the magazine Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, with its banner Progress! Free Thought! Untrammeled Lives! Two years later she stood for president on the Equal Rights Party ticket supporting women’s suffrage and equal rights.
Unfortunately she and Tennie C were arrested on obscenity charges after their magazine published an account of the alleged adultery between the minister Henry Ward Beecher and the wife of Theodore Tilton. A bitter battle followed, with the pair spending long periods in prison before they were defended by the English criminal turned No 1 trial advocate in New York, William F Howe. He produced one of his greatest examples of barnstorming oratory, ending: ‘Verily the days of Republican institutions are drawing to a close. Must it be as the poet says: Truth forever on the scaffold – Wrong forever on the throne?’
After that sort of rubric how could anyone convict the sisters? Certainly not a New York jury. As for the election, she received no electoral votes and it is not clear how many popular votes were in her favour. There were also allegations that the sisters had influenced the elderly Vanderbildt in drawing up his will – at any rate, they sailed away to England where Victoria married into society. She died in 1927.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor