Lessons from the Downfall of a Feminist Leader

Victoria Claflin Woodhull became the first woman to run for president of the United States in 1872, more than a century before Shirley Chisholm and Hillary Clinton. She gave speeches at several suffragist conventions, befriended Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and advocated for women’s rights as a leader of first-wave feminism.

Yet few people have heard of Victoria Woodhull. Those who have don’t often realize that Woodhull was also a serial entrepreneur who notched many “firsts.” She was the first woman to set up a brokerage firm on Wall Street. She published the Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, the first feminist newspaper of its kind in the United States. It gained national notoriety, advocating for a woman’s right to control her own sexuality and calling out the societal hypocrisy of tolerating married men having mistresses. It was also the first American publication to print The Communist Manifesto.

Yet, after achieving all those firsts, Woodhull was tossed in jail, her reputation was shredded, and she lost the fortune she made. Her feminist beliefs came at a high cost. But there are many lessons feminists can take from the spectacular rise and downfall of this 19th century feminist entrepreneur.