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A Woman for President!?!

New book about first female candidate inspires political activism in youth
A woman for President of the United States? The notion gets more believable every year. According to a April, 2004 poll of 1,024 Americans conducted for The White House Project by RoperASW, a large majority of Americans are “personally comfortable” with a woman president (76%) and with a woman as vice president (82%). 68% of respondents also believe that their neighbors are ready for a woman as vice president and 50% believe they are ready for a woman president.

Well, it’s about time, because according to a new children’s book, A Woman For President: The Story of Victoria Woodhull (Walker Books for Young Readers, 2004), a woman first ran for president over 130 years ago! Ardent suffragist and social reformer Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for the U.S. presidency in 1872 (and again in 1892). Since then, at least 37 other women have been presidential candidates. In the 20th Century, women run for president in each decade since the 1960s, including ten -- most recently Elizabeth Dole -- who ran as Republicans.

Woodhull, who described herself as “too many years ahead of this age,” ran under the Equal Rights Party banner, even before women were given the right to vote -- that occurred in 1920! During a national speaking tour, she took her suffragist message all the way to the United States Congress, where she was the first woman in history to speak to what was then an all-male institution. Victoria would no doubt scorn what few inroads have been made for women in politics today, and one can imagine her reaction to the so-called “security moms” who support the current president due to their fear of further terrorist attacks.

In this first book about Victoria Woodhull for young readers, noted young-adult biographer Kathleen Krull and award-winning illustrator Jane Dyer team up to bring one of the most fascinating personalities in U.S. history to life. They celebrate and applaud Woodhull’s efforts as part of a long, uphill battle. “It is time — when the odds against a woman for President are still so high that few have tried — to bring her story to young readers,” says Krull.

“I was compelled to write the book when, doing research about President Ulysses S. Grant, I learned that he ran against a woman in 1872,” recalls Krull. “Women didn’t have the right to vote or many other rights in this country, and still Victoria Woodhull ran for president. I wanted to know more: What motivated her? How did she get so far?”

Born in Homer, Ohio in 1838 to a poor and eccentric family, the seventh of ten children, Victoria helped support her family by the age of eight as a child preacher. She married, divorced, and found her way to New York City, where she made a fortune by offering Cornelius Vanderbilt “financial advice from the spirit world.” She founded a newspaper which was the first to print the Communist Manifesto in English, and was also the first female stockbroker on Wall Street.

Her eventual candidacy attracted an unusual coalition of people -- not only did the Equal Rights Party nominate the first female presidential candidate, they also chose for a running mate the first black man to run for Vice President, Frederick Douglass. Here is their 1872 campaign song:

“Victory for Victoria”

If you nominate a woman
In the month of May,
Dare you face what Mrs. Grundy
And her set will say?
How they'll jeer and frown and slander
Chattering night and day;
Oh, did you dream of Mrs. Grundy
In the month of May?

  If you nominate a negro,
In the month of May
Dare you face what Mr. Grundy
And his chums will say?
How they’ll swear and drink and bluster,
Raging night and day;
Oh, did you dream of Mr. Grundy
In the month of May?

Yes! Victoria we've selected
For our chosen head.
With Fred Douglass on the ticket
We will raise the dead.
Then around them let us rally
Without fear or dread
And next March, we'll put the Grundys
In their little bed. Not surprisingly, Woodhull soon became the target of vicious personal attacks from her political opponents, labeling her a witch, a prostitute, and accusing her of having affairs with married men. To add a twist of publishing gossip to the story, Victoria believed that Harriet Beecher Stowe -– still wildly popular for writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 -- and her family were responsible for the nasty rumors. When Victoria wrote to Rev. Henry Ward Beecher about the slander she received a cold shoulder. 

In retaliation, Woodhull published the story of Rev. Beecher's affair with a married woman, hoping that his family would stop the personal attacks. Instead, they enlisted the help of United States marshals, and Victoria was arrested for sending "obscene" literature through the mail. The first female presidential candidate spent election day in jail!

The scandal led to more trials for obscenity and libel, culminating to the infamous Beecher-Tilton trial of 1875, when the spurned husband in the alleged affair, Theodore Tilton, took Reverend Beecher to court for alienation of his wife's affection. It was the biggest news since the Lincoln assassination, and received more coverage than the impeachment of President Johnson. It was the O.J. Simpson trial of its day. Woodhull’s bid for the presidency was lost in the proverbial shuffle.

How much has presidential politics really changed since then? As another Woodhull biographer states, it's been nearly 128 years, and still no woman has made it to the White House, and no person of color has made it to the Vice Presidency. Money is still a major obstacle for independent party candidates, and the private lives of candidates are still hugely important to voters. It seems little has changed in politics in the past century. And the result: many people still feel that the political candidates they have to choose from don't truly represent their interests!

Author Kathy Krull finds this a compelling reason to tell kids about Victoria Woodhull, and hopes her story will inspire them to get involved in politics and voting at a young age. ”When visiting schools, I ask kids, ‘How many of you think there will be a woman president in your lifetime?’ and there is unanimous agreement affirming that this will happen. Women now have equal rights in so many ways, and Victoria’s story reminds us that by being informed and active in our community and government, we can each make a lasting impact, and even end up in the White House.”

“At a young age, Victoria observed women doing harsh work, living in downtrodden impoverished conditions, and lacking adequate medical care,” says Krull. “She transformed her outrage into working for social change. She used her bid for the presidency to show gender equality. Remember, this happened 130 years ago! Today, Victoria would probably urge kids to be active in issues that matter to them, and say, ‘Get involved!’”

Krull hopes her book can play a part in advancing student awareness of the political process. In her classroom activity guide for the book, she asks, “Should kids have the right to vote?” and points out that many U.S. states, including Maine, Texas, California, Minnesota, Florida, North Dakota and Hawaii are currently considering lowering the voting age to 17.

She informs kids that before 1971, the voting age was 21. The Vietnam War stirred public opinion to agree that if 18 to 20 year-olds could fight for their country, they deserved a political voice. She suggests that students consider these reasons for youth voting rights (adapted from the National Youth Rights Association, www.youthrights.org):

  • Youth have adult responsibilities but not rights.
  • Youth pay taxes.
  • Politicians only listen to people who can vote.
  • Only youth can offer a true youthful perspective.
  • Sixteen-year-olds study about government and social issues.
  • This would increase voter turn-out.
  • Voting at an early age would begin a lifelong practice of voting.
  • Character development comes with new responsibility.
  • Especially after all the buzz about the youth vote in the 2004 election, these issues

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    A Woman For President: The Story of Victoria Woodhull
    By Kathleen Krull
    Illustrated by Jane Dyer
    ISBN: 0-8027-8908-9; 32 pages; 9 x 12; $16.95
    August 2004

    About Walker Books for Young Readers: Soon after the Walker Books company was founded, Beth Walker started a children's division, which has been a central part of the company for some 40 years. Walker has published many luminaries of children's publishing, among them Barbara Cooney, Tomie de Paola, Michael McCurdy, and Pat and Fred McKissack, whose Long Hard Journey won the Coretta Scott King Award. Visit www.walkeryoungreaders.com for more information.


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