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Political Feminism: the Legacy of Victoria Woodhull

We all knew Donald Trump held a gross attitude towards women, the tape recording of him espousing those barbarian thoughts serves to solidify that fact. What happens next in the race for the White House may fall entirely to women voters. Those who follow Trump may choose to stand by their man while those who have previously disliked Hilary Clinton might fall in behind her now for the sake of feminism.

The very notion of feminism seems to be lost on many of the electorate in this election. A fascination with fantasy has not taken hold and tagged candidate Clinton as the prospective first female president of the U.S. The prospect of breaking through that glass ceiling seems not to have generated the same level of excitement that powered the Obama election as the first African American commander in chief in 2008.

In 2016 more women flocked to the Bernie Sanders camp than the Clinton camp in the early days of the race. They favored the old white guy rather than the old white gal.

When Clinton beat Sanders for the Democrat nomination she failed to win over waves of women from the Sanders campaign, especially those of a certain age.

Clinton has more support in an older age category of women, it’s the millennials she has trouble recruiting. Those born after Reagan left the White House are not interested in the momentous ‘first’. For them, the lure of Obama’s first election in ’08 was not that he would be the first African American president, it was the fresh image he portrayed and the message of change he promised. For those old enough to remember the days of the civil rights struggle, the election of Obama signaled a momentous ‘first’ in American history. There may be many older Clinton supporters who see their candidate in the same light. If Clinton wins on November 8th, she will become America’s first female President, and another chapter in American history would be created.

The first woman to run for the White House was born in September 1838 in Homer in rural Ohio. Victoria California Claflin was the 7th of 10 children born to parents who lived on the undesirable end of the social spectrum. Her mother worked in brothels while her con artist father regularly beat his children during drunken rages, of which there were many. He also used his offspring to carry out his numerous con jobs.

Victoria California Claflin would later become Victoria Woodhull and in April 1871 announced her candidacy for President of the United States through a letter to the editor in the New York Herald. A year later she was formally nominated by the Equal Rights Party in the Spring of 1872. Frederick Douglas, the much-heralded freed slave, was nominated as Woodhulls running mate even though he never accepted it and had declared his support for the eventual winner, Ulysses S. Grant!

It was a sign that although they wanted to be taken seriously, the Equal Rights Party and Victoria Woodhull failed to run a serious campaign. There was also the little problem of their female candidate not having the right to vote or indeed be of the right age. Woodhull was just shy of the minimum age barrier of 35 to take office as president of the USA.

Woodhull spoke out against a government dominated by men who had little on their mind but war, capitalism and the urge to keep women and minorities down. Woodhull was beyond her years in social thinking. She favored the legalization of prostitution and abortion and was a great advocate of free love as well as birth control. She was the type of gal who would have fitted in soundly with 1960s counter culture but instead lived in the male dominated 19th century, an era that suffocated progressive thinking women like Woodhull.

Days before polling day, candidate Woodhull was arrested along with her sister for the publication of what the law deemed an obscene newspaper: the Woodhull & Claflin weekly.

The sisters, along with a few supporters, were held in Ludlow Street Jail while the business of the presidential election was being carried out. They were released six months later.

Woodhull tried again to ruffle feathers in the world of American politics when she put her name forward for the Presidential election of 1884 and again in 1892. Both ventures ended in much the same way as her maiden one.

Victoria Woodhull died in June 1927, seven years after women won the right to vote. Now, 89 years later a woman may eventually reach the oval office in an arena still dominated by men.

In the league table of female participation in politics, Rwanda lead the field with the highest percentage of women participating in national parliament. Following close behind is the thorn in Uncle Sam’s side, Cuba! The United States lies just inside the top 100. If a woman will indeed take the top job in U.S politics she will lead a country that lies 97th in the list of countries with female participation in politics.

Now that Donald Trump has single handedly made the final days of this race about women and the treatment of them by men such as himself, it could now turn the election of Clinton into a symbol for feminism. Trump has handed Clinton the opportunity to fully portray herself as a symbol for women, but only if those same female voters, especially millennial ones, allow it to happen. Mark November 8th in your diary, it’s sure to be an interesting day for American and global politics!

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Pauline Murphy is a freelance writer from Ireland. 

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