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Amanda Frisken Interview

Why did you write a book on Victoria Woodhull? What made her
unique?
When I began my graduate studies, and was working as a TA for a
womens history class, the professor mentioned Woodhull as the first
woman who ran for president, but also showed a highly-negative
depiction of Woodhull from the 1870s. I am interested in the history of
visual culture, and was intrigued about representations of powerful
women in popular culture. I was also amazed that Id never heard of
Woodhull before.
How did Victorias early life affect her future?
She grew up in poverty and in a rather chaotic household. Her father
had a reputation as an unsavory character, and her mother was a kind
of visionary. It was a close-knit family, and Victoria was in some ways
the leader of her siblings (and to some extent her parents). She carried
on that role throughout her life. I guess you could say that early life
made her unafraid of public scorn, and willing to fight things out in public
in ways that respectable women simply could not attempt.
What are some of the topics she wrote about in Woodhull and Claflins
Weekly?
The paper focused on social freedom (freedom to divorce, to end
relationships, etc), on the rights of women and workers, and a wide
variety of other subjects. Woodhull was the editor, and did not write her
own articles (though she was sometimes interviewed extensively in the
paper). There is some question of whether she could read and write:
certainly many of her speeches were written by her male supporters,
Col. Blood (her husband) and Stephen Pearl Andrews (her mentor),
among others.
What was peoples original reaction to the newspaper?
Thats a very difficult thing to determineone of the hardest questions
historians tackle. Until rather recently, people generally didnt record
their impressions when they read something, so we have to make some
assumptions. There was some scathing commentary in mainstream

papers, but most ignored her newspaper. Reform journals, however


(and there were many), liked the paper, not least because it was a place
to publish unorthodox ideas at a time when there were not many venues
for disputing conventional views.
What impact did Canning Woodhull have on her? Colonel James H
Blood?
She was married at a very young age to Woodhull, and he was an
alcoholic and possibly physically abusive to her. However, she was very
loyal to him. One of the things that people found shocking about her
was that after her divorce and marriage to Col. Blood, she took in
Woodhull and took care of him when his health was failing. (She tended
to look after the many people in her life, even when they were not good
to her). Col. Blood was more of a soul mate, as far as can be
determined from extant sources, and they collaborated effectively on the
speeches she gave, and the newspaper. This marriage also ended
before she left the US for England.
What was the reaction to her stock brokerage firm? Do you think this
opened a door for women to get involved in the stock world?
Thats an interesting question. She certainly shocked society by opening
a firm on Wall Stit was considered completely inappropriate for
women to be there at the time, and she did seem like something of a
pioneer. However, the firm never really took hold, partly because it was
more of a publicity stunt than a real firm, partly because her unorthodox
speeches led to legal troubles that caused her landlord to evict her, and
these hardships shut the firm down. But she also moved on to other
interests, and made an excellent living as a public lecturer for a few
years after this happened.
What made her want to run for president? Did she have much support?
She was interested in womans suffrage (the right to vote), and also
liked the limelight. It was in her nature to be daring and flamboyant, and
to use those traits to attract attention to things she thought were
important, particularly womens lack of power in the public sphere. She
had a large organization behind her (the American Association of
Spiritualists), as well as many reformers of varying stripes, but I would
not say her support was large. In a two-party system, outside parties

generally do not garner much attention.


How did her speech Principles of Social Freedom change things for
her?
From what historians can tell from newspaper sources, etc, she
changed instantly in the public mind from a kind of pioneer in womens
rights to something of a pariah, championing a cause that was
considered immoral and dangerous. This led her further down the road
of challenging public opinion, somewhat recklessly: she began exposing
the behavior of others she considered to be hypocrites, which ultimately
led to her arrest in late 1872.
What adversity did Victoria have to overcome?
I would say her early experiences were not uncommon in 19th century
America: economic hardship and instability in childhood, early marriage
to an unstable man, eccentric parents and a large group of sometimes
acrimonious siblings. Yet she led something of a charmed life. Given
her unconventional positions, in some ways its surprising she reached
the levels of public acceptance that she did achieve.
What is the overall legacy of Victoria Woodhull?
She was the first woman to run for president, and someone had to
break the ice. Apart from this, her legacy is complicated. She was
revered by a few, hated by many. You could say that she made it easier
in some ways for other women to live life in the public spotlight, and
thats true in the longer term. But in the short term, that was less true;
some womens rights activists, for example, blamed Woodhull for
making suffrage look controversial, for linking it to ideas of social
freedom that were not widely accepted. Its certainly true that womens
suffrage as a movement faced an enormous backlash in 1872, partly
because of Woodhull; it was relegated to the back burner for twenty
years, until it resurfaced in the early 1890s.
How did she demonstrate leadership throughout her life?
Another interesting question. Maybe her most important contribution
was her willingness to be first, particularly as a woman running for
president. Even today, in the United States, there are surprisingly few

women in public office. Its difficult for women, even now, to express a
desire to take on leadership for its own sake; usually they couch it in
terms of helping others. Being ambitious is even now considered
unfeminine. So it can be helpful to be able to point to an ambitious
women in the midst of the Victorian period, when women were taught to
be the Angel of the Hearth, guardians of the private sphere (ie., the
home), rather than to venture into public life. Opening the brokerage
firm, editing a major reform paper, lecturing in public on controversial
subjects, running for presidentall of these activities required courage
as well as conviction, and she possessed both.