Before picking his VP, Biden should take a page from Victoria Woodhull’s playbook

  • 06/16/2020 4:57 pm ET Conor Powell and Gary Scott
Joe Biden speaking at an event

Flickr / Gage Skidmore

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, has announced he would pick a woman as his vice president. It’s meant to be a statement about principle — that women can lead. That they can, one day, be president.

As the names of potential candidates circulate — Will he choose the first woman of color like Stacey Abrams or Kamala Harris? A safe Midwesterner like Tammy Duckworth? A liberal stalwart like Elizabeth Warren? — we think about the women who have paved the way. And how long and ugly a road it’s been.

The female ticket

No doubt, you’ll first think about the rough-and-tumble campaigns of Hillary Clinton (“lock her up”), Geraldine Ferraro (“Fritz and Tits”), or Shirley Chisholm (“quixotic”). But one name that is often left out of the history books is perhaps the most important, Victoria Woodhull.

Woodhull ran on a platform that, in many ways, remains relevant today.

Indeed, we had no idea how modern Woodhull’s vision of equality was until we began researching her 1872 campaign for our historical podcast, Long Shots — the story of eight presidential hopefuls who lost their bid for the White House but still changed America.

Almost 150 years ago, Woodhull became the first woman to run for president. The clairvoyant-turned-businesswoman-turned-suffragette leader was the nominee of the national Equal Rights Party. She argued eloquently and passionately for the rights of women and African Americans.

Of course, Woodhull’s candidacy was doomed to fail for so many reasons.

Victoria Woodhull

In 1872, women could not vote. It wasn’t clear women could even run. Certainly, no woman could win. And Woodhull was only 34-years-old when nominated, a year shy of the legal requirement established in the U.S. Constitution to be president. But political revolutions are rarely led by rule followers.

Further hampering Woodhull, Republican President Ulysses S. Grant was a shoo-in for re-election and prominent suffragette leaders, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, turned their backs on their compatriot. Not only did they publicly support Grant, a Civil War hero, but they also held Woodhull in contempt for her multiple marriages, messy personal life, and support of “free love.” In the process, Woodhull got written out of suffrage history.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

Woodhull kept a vigorous travel schedule, speaking everywhere she was allowed.

Her campaign was not about winning the White House. She was arguing women should be allowed to vote and run for office. But her political vision did not end there. Woodhull chose as her running mate Frederick Douglas, a famed abolitionist leader and former slave.

A woman and an African American man…it was as revolutionary a presidential ticket in 1872 as it would be today. The strategy was to shock Americans and force them to see the inextricable link between African American rights and women’s rights.

Universal rights

Before the Civil War, suffragettes and abolitionists marched together, arguing for universal rights. In 1848, at the Suffrage Convention in New York, Douglas, one of the most famous orators of his time, argued passionately for the right of women to vote. Anthony and Stanton, in turn, advocated for the end of slavery and championed Black equality.

But after the ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which gave African American men the right to vote, things changed.

Suffragette leaders were furious that black men would get rights before white women. Alliances crumbled, as did the call for ‘equality for all.’ Stanton, who opposed the amendments, called the situation degrading.

‘We educated, virtuous white women are more worthy of the vote,” Stanton declared.

Anthony, was equally as coarse in her view:

“I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ask for the ballot for the Negro and not for the woman.”

Mrs. Satan

Woodhull rejected this division and advocated for the rights of all as she campaigned across the country. It might come as no surprise that she held a much broader view of rights than her compatriots. Her “free love” stance said that women should have every right that a man does to fall in love, fall out of love, or have sex in or out of wedlock.

In other words, a woman does not have to be an angel to earn the rights held by white males. Perhaps this is why she was demeaned as “Mrs. Satan” and treated for much of history as an unserious feminist. Woodhull did not win in 1872. In fact, she spent Election Day behind bars…but that’s a whole other story.

Grant was re-elected.

Back to Biden

The former VP has a real shot at winning this election. Will he hear the voice of Woodhull as he chooses his running mate?

Every four years, for decades now, the various wings of the Democratic Party — women, African Americans, Latinxs, LGBTQ, Arab Americans, Asian Americas — have been yearning to see someone represent them on the national ticket. Barack Obama united these wings by virtue of who he is and what he represents.

Biden has a chance to take a page out of Victoria Woodhull’s playbook and pick someone who will draw together all the corners of the Democratic Party.

Conor Powell is a veteran journalist and host of Inside Voices Media’s Long Shots Podcast. Gary Scott is a former investigative reporter and founder of Inside Voices Media.

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