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March 2015

Free Love: Victoria Woodhull

Victoria Woodhull was a political radical in the free love movement and the first woman to run for president.

When the feminist lightning rod Victoria Woodhull (née Claflin) is remembered at all, it is usually for being the first women ever to run for President of the United States, her candidacy in the election of 1872 coming at a time when women were still legally barred from even casting a vote. Woodhull’s running mate was the celebrated abolitionist Frederick Douglass, though the nomination took place without his knowledge, and he supported the incumbent, Republican President Ulysses Grant. Nominated by the Equal Rights Party, which she had earlier founded as the People’s Party, Woodhull’s campaign assumed principled libertarian positions on issues such as the freedom of the press and even free and open trade; in Woodhull’s time, it was still quite possible to be a left wing radical in good standing and an enthusiast of market economics as an anti-monopolistic pathway to liberation for the working class. The year before her run at the White House, in December 1871, Woodhull, a curious peruser of radical ideas in general, became the first American publisher to print Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto in English. Woodhull had also taken a special interest in the peculiar socialism of Charles Fourier, often credited with coining the term “feminism” and an early champion of complete freedom in sexual and romantic matters. Fourier had articulated an idea about “the role of the passions” and “the noble expression of free love” that, in theory at least, placed carefully planned orgies of various kinds at the center of social and public life.1 The freethinking, inquisitive Woodhull eagerly absorbed these free love aspects of Fourier’s thought, joining them with uniquely American radical stances of her time, from labor rights to women’s suffrage. Her life was a constant confrontation with the political and social dogmas of her age. In an address on the latter subject, Woodhull stated, “Agitation of thought is the beginning of wisdom. Hence I like it.” Discussing the platform of her Equal Rights Party in an 1872 number of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly (on which more below), Woodhull explained its statement that the Constitution was outmoded, its underlying theories “in many instances far behind our present civilization.” True to her libertarian convictions, however, Woodhull argued that the Constitution’s hamartia was its inconsistency with the Declaration of Independence, that the U.S. government had been a mere instrument “to enforce the edicts of one class of the community upon its other classes,” unfaithful to the high principles of the Declaration.

Woodhull’s curious and eccentric list of occupations and experiences owes in large part to her unconventional upbringing, much of which was spent under the tutelage of an unscrupulous father constantly engaged various confidence schemes and other trifling criminalities. The young Claflin sisters, Victoria and Tennessee, had turns as faith healers and clairvoyants, mediums and psychics, the family traveling from place to place, often one step ahead of the law. The story of Woodhull’s life is thus both heartbreakingly tragic and triumphant. Woodhull’s biographer and one-time paramour, Theodore Tilton, wrote that “[f]rom the endurable cruelty of her parents, she fled to the unendurable cruelty of her husband,” married at just fifteen years old. Woodhull had been a successful Wall Street stockbroker prior to her roles as a publisher and a political candidate; indeed, she, together with her sister, was the first woman to open a brokerage firm, a feat accomplished with the backing of one of Tennessee’s lovers, the wealthy industrial Cornelius Vanderbilt. Accounting for her time in the fast-paced world of high finance, Woodhull later explained that her intention never was to become a permanent Wall Street fixture, but rather to introduce herself to the world, to attract attention and even court controversy. She said, “There could have been nothing else in a legitimate business line that could have attracted the public notice or called forth the comments of the Press more fully than the establishment of a banking house by two women among the ‘bulls’ and ‘bears’ of Wall Street.” Woodhull furthermore wanted the financial freedom to start her own newspaper and to thereby “conduct the active public campaign that was marked for us to prosecute.”2

The sisters thus launched their own periodical, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, in 1870, making it the earliest free love journal, and drawing the attention of other women’s rights pioneers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who praised it as “the ablest women’s journal we have had yet.” The Claflin sisters filled its pages with unafraid defenses of women as independent moral agents, capable of making their own decisions in business, sexual relations, and the voting booth. But even the free love movement had its debates and divisions, and Woodhull became the leading spokesperson of the “varietist” (as opposed to monogamist) contingent, those contending that the individual ought to take as many lovers as she saw fit, promiscuity being perfectly acceptable and even praiseworthy as an exercise of freedom and self-expression. In her periodical, Woodhull stated that her proposition was to “advocate sexual freedom for all people — freedom for the monogamist to practice monogamy, for the varietist to be a varietist still.” So while Woodhull did not necessarily prescribe the lifestyle of the varietist for all, she nevertheless differed from free lovers like the Heywoods, whose work often recommended chastity and even abstinence.

In 1871, Woodhull, Claflin & Co. published its own kind of manifesto, The Origin, Tendencies and Principles of Government, in which Woodhull argued that the “common course of events…will continue in the direction of general freedom,” and that, tested against freedom, equality, and justice, “not a single line of policy which is now being pursued by the Government will stand.” Distrustful of legislative reforms and contumelious toward a government she saw as corrupt and venal, Woodhull desired “the reign of principles.” Like many other radical thinkers of the period—Benjamin Tucker, for one—Woodhull believed that the prevailing system of finance was at the root of the economic and labor problems. Proposing “complete revolution” in finance and banking, Woodhull argued for a political and economic system of “perfect equality”—not equality of material condition, but equality of rights and unhindered access to natural opportunities. Woodhull attacked those corporations that use “ingenious devices of law formed and administered in their interests” to disrupt the laws of supply and demand, underscoring tariffs as an example of such privilege.

Like Angela and Ezra Heywood and Moses Harman, Woodhull’s adventures in radical publishing led her to clash with the priggish moral crusader Anthony Comstock and his repressive obscenity regime. Dedicated to an extreme idea of Victorian moral purity, Comstock used his position as Postal Inspector to enforce a rigid set of rules for what kinds of materials one could legally pass through the mail. Perhaps needless to say, the columns contained in Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly violated Comstock’s censorship rules, one column in particular containing an account of an extramarital affair between two prominent figures in New York society, Elizabeth Tilton (wife of Woodhull’s biographer, mentioned above) and Henry Ward Beecher, a famous man of the cloth. Woodhull’s article initiated a string of events that led not only to her arrest for mailing obscene materials, but to the infamous trial of Beecher for adultery, which became something of a national sensation. As the sociologist Nicola Kay Beisel observes, Comstock’s arrests of Woodhull and Claflin were “his first highly publicized activities,” and “marked the beginning of his long crusade to suppress the free love movement.”

Loud criticisms of Woodhull, however, did not only issue from political conservatives like Comstock. Perhaps presaging the wholesale dismissal of the more libertarian elements in international labor organizations in the years that followed, the ever-autocratic Marx himself excommunicated Woodhull, along with Stephen Pearl Andrews, from the First International. As was his wont, Marx dismissed Woodhull’s section of the International as “bourgeois philanthropists,” middle class reformers insufficiently acquainted, in Marx’s opinion, with genuine working class ideals.3 Though Woodhull was never an anarchist, her associations and ideas on several issues most closely aligned her with American individualist anarchists such as Ezra Heywood and Andrews, the latter of whom was an editor and regular contributor at Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. Still, Woodhull never consistently opposed either the state itself or its many interventions into affairs that the anarchists thought best left to the voluntary and cooperative undertakings of free individuals. Her politics even led Ezra Heywood to complain that in Woodhull’s thought, “everything except love is to come under the nose of conventional supervision.” An inconsistent and self-contradictory thinker, Woodhull’s chief contribution to libertarianism is her early and courageous activism for women’s rights generally, and for the unconditional right of the individual to make her own decisions about love, sex, and reproduction without governmental intervention. Many of Woodhull’s most radical arguments—for instance, her endorsement of legalized prostitution—have since been taken up by the modern libertarian movement. Woodhull articulated clear libertarian arguments for leaving private affairs to private decision makers long before society at large was ready for such an idea. Woodhull’s very life was an act of rebellion against orthodox views on the roles of women in society; instead of waiting for permission to cross gender barriers, she simply shattered them through the boldness of her actions and the strength of her personality.


  1. Historian Jonathan Beecher writes that in Fourier’s system “the orgy was to become an integral part of the system of passional matching practiced by the confessors. Fourier insisted, however, that before the orgy could assume its proper place in the new amorous world, it would first be necessary to rid the globe of venereal disease.” See Beecher’s Charles Fourier: The Visionary and His World.
  2. Mary Gabriel, Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored (Algonquin Books 1998), p. 41.
  3. David DeLeon, The American as Anarchist: Reflections on Indigenous Radicalism (The Johns Hopkins University Press 1978), p. 73.

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