A Historic Nomination…with a Precedent

You may have noticed a somewhat curious wording about Hillary Clinton’s historic nomination yesterday. Most media outlets are reporting that she is the first woman to win the nomination of a major political party, not the first woman to win a nomination. 

So who was the first woman nominated for President?

Victoria Woodhull, circa 1860
Victoria Woodhull, circa 1860

Her name was Victoria Clafin Woodhull and she was something to behold. A noted suffragette and the first woman to open a brokerage firm on Wall Street (along with her sister, Tennie Clafin), she was a champion of equal rights – and equal pay! – for women. She ran for president in 1872 as the nominee of the Equal Rights Party. (Her VP pick? Frederick Douglass.)

Her nomination was symbolic but not realistic. In terms of eligibility, Woodhull would not have been 35 by inauguration, making her ineligible to assume the presidency. Socially speaking, the Equal Rights Party was by no means a major political party and did not have the money to fund her campaign. Her 1872 campaign ended with no electoral votes. In the popular vote, she only got a few write-ins because her name was not even put on the ballot, in part because (male) politicians and reporters did not take her seriously. To make matters worse, shortly before the election, she was arrested for obscenity and libel after accusing Henry Ward Beecher, a well-known and influential minister, of adultery in the radical weekly paper she ran with her sister (sex scandals – an American pastime!). She spent the month of the election in jail, alongside her sister, and the legal battle dragged on for more than two years.

This brief summary does not do her life – and the controversies surrounding it – justice. I recommend reading The Scarlet Sisters by Myra MacPherson, a biography focused on Woodhull and her sister that details the many different ways the sisters challenged the patriarchal status quo of the era.

And, 144 years later, congratulations are in order for Hillary Clinton, whose nomination speaks to the continuing crusade for equal political, social, and economic rights for women.




MacPherson, Myra. 2014. The Scarlet Sisters: Sex Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age. New York, NY: Hatchett Book Group.

A list of all women who have run for president since Woodhull can be found here.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons


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