Hillary Clinton will likely capture the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination and may well win the ’16 election. Like Obama’s victories, Clinton’s victory will mark an important social development; she will be the first female following the first mixed-race African-American as president. This will represent an important symbolic social development; but it remains to be seen whether it will signify meaningful social change.
More then three-dozen women have run for the highest office in the land since before they gained the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Most recently, Roseanne Barr (Peace and Freedom) and Jill Stein (Green) ran in 2012; in 2008, Cynthia McKinney (Green) ran. Women have also run on parties as divergent as the Communists, Socialist Workers, Workers World, People’s, New Alliance, Right to Life, Surprise and Looking Back.
Two women, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-MA) and Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY), sought the candidacy of their respective establishment parties; Smith for the Republican Party in 1964 and Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress, for the Democratic Party in 1972. Neither received their party’s nomination.
Two earlier women candidates – Francis Wright and Victoria Woodhull – ran for presidency 185 and 143 years ago, respectively. The policies they individual articulated were not simply radical for their times, but more radical then the programs articulated by any candidate, including Mrs. Clinton, running today. Clinton has much to learn from her political sisters.
Francis Wright, Working Men’s Party, 1830
Now all but forgotten, Frances Wright was the most scandalous woman in America during the pre-Civil War or antebellum era and the first woman to run for president.
Born in Scotland in 1795, she was a respected author and on a first-name basis with John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. In 1821, while in Paris, she met the Marquis de Lafayette and worked with him supporting a number of revolutionary movements. In ’22, she published A Few Days in Athens, a fictionalized work on the philosophy of Epicurus, drawing praise from Thomas Jefferson, who wrote her that it was a “treat to me of the highest order.”
Wright’s relation with Lafayette scandalized his family and society. He was openly infatuated with her, calling her fondly, “my dear Fanny” and referred to their relationship in familial terms, similar to a father-daughter relation. He was likely attracted by boldness, her refusal to adhere to the traditional male-dominated intellectual culture. She accompanied him during part of his legendary travels through America.
In the U.S., she met and regularly corresponded with Jefferson, strongly challenging him over his acceptance of slavery. She also joined Robert Owen’s utopian-socialist “cooperative village,” the New Harmony Community of Equality, in Indiana, but fiercely opposed him over slavery.
She broke with Owen over slavery and joined with his son, Robert Dale Owen, and her sister, Camilla, to found Nashoba, the Chickasaw word that means Wolf River, a radical utopian community in rural Tennessee.
With the help of Andrew Jackson, Wright purchased nearly 2,000 acres in rural western Tennessee in 1826 in order to establish the community.
Nashoba was a mixed community of women and men, married and unmarried, black and white, free and slave, adult and child. It was an historically unprecedented attempt to remake civil society, but was doomed to failure by the forces of its inherent and irreconcilable contradictions as well as by the material conditions under which it operated. From all accounts, it seemed to have been a miserable place, with only a handful of poorly constructed and furnished houses, a well for water and ill-tended gardens and a handful of domesticated animals. After Nashoba failed, Wright freed its slaves in Haiti.
Wright was a sought-after speaker, one of only a few public women in early-19th century America. She took an unequivocal stand on the equality of the sexes:
No woman can forfeit her individual rights or independent existence, and not assert over her any right or power whatsoever, beyond what she may exercise over her free and voluntary affections; nor, on the other hand, may any woman assert claims to the society or peculiar protection of any individual of the other sex, beyond what mutual inclination dictates and sanctions.
Wright was so prominent that she was invited to give Cincinnati’s 1828 July 4th keynote address, thus credited with likely being the first woman to give a major public address in America.
Together with Dale Owen, she moved to New York and, in January 1829, gave a series of six lectures at New York’s Masonic Hall drawing 2,000 people to each talk. The lectures were followed by an equally popular series at the Park Theater. Angry men repeatedly disrupted the talks, enraged by the topics she addressed, as that a woman should speak so passionately in public.
They established the Hall of Science on Broome Street and ran a printing press and opened a popular bookstore. She is credited with being the first American woman to edit a journal, initially the Harmony Gazette that, after relocating to Gotham, became The Free Enquirer. Her lectures were on controversial subjects, including women’s rights, birth control, abolition of slavery, criticism on religion and the exploitation of working people. But most controversial, she delivered them!
As a youth, Walt Whitman attended Wright’s lectures and fondly recalled her, “I never felt so glowingly toward any other woman. … She possessed herself of me body and soul.”
In 1830, she ran for president as a candidate for the Working Men’s Party, which became known as “the Fanny Wright ticket.” She opposed capital punishment, challenged religious intolerance, was a feminist before feminism and called for equal education, birth control, legal rights for married women and liberal divorce laws.
Victoria Woodhull, Equal Rights Party, 1872
Victoria Woodhull was the nation’s leading advocate for ending traditional, patriarchal relations during the post-Civil War era. Thomas Nast, a leading 19th century illustrator, dubbed her “Mrs. Satan.”
In 1868, Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee (“Tennie”) Claflin, moved to New York from Ohio and became spiritual advisors to railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. In turn, in ’70, Vanderbilt underwrote the sisters’ venture, Woodhull, Claflin & Company, making them the first women stockbrokers on Wall Street.
Also in ’70, the sisters founded the Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly that generated a national stir with its frank discussions of forbidden topics like women’s suffrage, prostitution, sex education and short skirts. They published the first U.S. English version of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.
During this period, she advocated for what she called “Free Love” which was based on female equality, that women should marrying for love and argued for fairer divorce laws. As she declared:
Sexual freedom means the abolition of prostitution both in and out of marriage, means the emancipation of woman and her coming into control of her own body, means the end of her pecuniary dependence upon man … [it] means the abrogation of forced pregnancy, of anti-natal murder of undesired children and the birth of love children only.
In public lectures, she urged women to refuse the then-dominant notion that demand female sexual desire was immoral. “What! Vulgar!” she proclaimed. “The instinct that creates immortal souls vulgar … be honest … it is not the possession of strong powers that is to be deprecated. They are that necessary part of human character.”
In 1872 Woodhull ran for president on behalf of the Equal Rights Party; the party drafted the absent Frederick Douglass for vice president. The cornerstone of Woodhull’s platform was wealth inequality:
It is not great wealth in a few individuals that proves a country is prosperous, but great general wealth evenly distributed among the people. … It is the struggling masses who are the foundation [of this country]; and if the foundation be rotten or insecure, the rest of the structure must eventually crumble.
On the night of the election, Woodhill and her sister were in a New York jail having been arrested by Anthony Comstock, the country’s leading moral crusader, for obscenity. They were busted for publishing an exposé of an out-of-wedlock affair involving the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was one of America’s leading theologians and bishop of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Congregational Church. At their trial, the sisters were acquitted when the judge noted that the original Comstock law did not cover newspapers.
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The U.S. has come a very long way since the days of Francis Wright and Victoria Woodhull. The inspirational lives and candidacies of these two remarkable women suggest how radical, utopian candidates can articulate visions that anticipate the nation’s future.
Hillary Clinton, like most of the other establishment politicians, whether Democratic or Republican, comes off as a bureaucratic fixer, ever-so pragmatic and sadly careful. A lifetime of working the levers of power makes the presidency the next step in her career path. She offers no original vision, but invokes cautiously crafted statements that are intended to assure Democratic voters that she can keep the ship of state afloat.
How often can we continue to hear candidates call for a return to the good-old-days of the American Dream? Those days are over and an increasingly number of Americans knows it. Unfortunately, most of the candidates, including Clinton, refuse to acknowledge it.
The blustering Socialist turned Democrat, Bernie Sanders, knows that he has little to no chance of dethroning the super-funded Clinton machine and gain the Democratic nomination. This has freed him to promote an uncompromising critique of inequality, of the economic and social failures of a stagnating U.S. capitalism.
Mrs. Clinton may well embrace elements of Sanders’ critique in her appeal to more progressive primary votes; in this way, she will mirror the pull to the right championed by nearly all the Republican candidates. If nominated, she will likely drift to the ever-safe moderate center, like Obama and so many others before her. And if elected, one can only hope – recalling candidate Obama’s campaign slogan – that some of the progressive concerns she articulates during the campaign will become policy.
Sadly, Hillary Clinton has probably never heard of nor studied the lives and works of sister presidential candidates, Wright and Woodhull. Their legacies might well inspire her to imagine a new vision of the nation’s future. Surely, this is what’s most missing in the 2016 electoral onslaught.