Free to Love: Celebrating Women’s History Month

By Lori Beth Way, Professor, Criminal Justice

The 2008 Presidential election drew a lot of attention to the topic of women and the presidency. Hillary Clinton ran in the Democratic Primary for President and Sarah Palin ran for Vice President on Senator John McCain’s ticket. A total of thirteen women have run for U.S. President. Six women have been Vice Presidential candidates. It was not until Shirley Chisholm in 1972 that a woman ran throughout the country for a major party’s nomination (Center for American Women and Politics). Surely, then Clinton and Palin are members of a tiny group over a more than 200 year history.

The first woman to run for President was Victoria Claflin Woodhull in 1872 as a candidate for the Equal Rights party.  She is very unique in women’s history for more reasons than her candidacy. She was born poor, but relying on her brilliant intellect, she became the first woman Wall Street broker and made a great fortune (Underhill 1995). Woodhull was a woman before her time.

Woodhull was a very strong advocate for women’s suffrage (i.e. women’s right to vote) and women’s rights more generally. She was a well-known speaker on the topic of “free love.” Essentially, she argued that freedom entitled women to be divorced when love was no longer present in a marriage. She lectured “Yes, I am a free lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with the right neither you nor any law can frame have any right to interfere.” Not only did she lecture on this topic, she also practiced her views with a series of relationships of which the society of that day did not approve (Underhill 1995).

Overall, Woodhull was viewed as extremely radical. She was a professional woman in a time that such a role was very rare. Not only was she a stock broker, but she also later started her own newspaper. Because of whom she was and the negative attention she received, the suffragists basically erased her from the history of suffrage (Underhill 1995). Women who fought for the vote were much more diverse than the typical textbook tells you. Poor women, women of color, working and unionized women, and men were all involved in ultimately granting women the right to vote (Ford 2010). Women’s history month is a time to learn about the radicals, the outsiders, the ones who didn’t fit into the mold of the white rich woman activist. Who would you recommend we learn about?

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