In 1872, a woman ran for President of the United States with an escaped slave as her running mate.
Victoria Clafin suffered abuse at the hands of her father as a child. He was a con man who pulled his daughter out of school when she was 11, and he was run out of town shortly after when he burned down his own home and tried to collect the insurance money.
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery in his grandmother’s shack. Though he never knew his father, it was believed that his owner had fathered him biologically, but because of his black skin, Frederick would be property rather than an heir. As a child, he witnessed slaves being whipped, interrogated, worked to death, sold, and murdered.
At age 14, Victoria met and soon married Canning Woodhull, a doctor twice her age, and she had two children, a son and a daughter, Byron and Zula Maude. Canning liked alcohol and women a bit too much, and Victoria divorced him. Though she later took a second husband, she later advocated for free love, the idea of having sex as the heart dictates, not strictly confined to marriage or commitment. She kept Canning’s late name, Woodhull. She saw a society where women either belonged to a man in marriage, or were ostracized for being divorced, and she loudly proclaimed that women should be given the right to own their own bodies and choices. She was jailed for speaking too loudly.
Frederick was sold to a new master, and the man’s kind wife taught him to read, but when his master found out, the lessons stopped, as it was believed that an educated slave was a dangerous one. Frederick taught himself to read after that, through guile and dedication, and he fell in love with the New Testament. He began teaching other slaves to read in Sunday School. At 16, he was given to another new master, who beat and whipped him regularly, promising to break him.
Victoria and her sister, Tennessee, opened their own stockbroking firm in 1870, and were hailed as “the Queens of Finance” as they coached their clients toward riches. Victoria used her money to start her own newspaper, which she ran for six years. Its primary purpose was spreading the message of feminism, and it advocated for legalization of prostitution, sex education, women’s suffrage, women’s right to choice, and spirituality, and it even printed Karl Marx’s Communism Manifesto. Victoria used her influence to expose a church leader’s marital affairs, a man who had advocated for monogamy and marriage over the pulpit.
In 1837, Frederick met a free black woman, Anna Murray, and fell in love. It took several months, but he ran away, risking his life, and escaped into the north to be free. He took Anna as his wife and they remained married for 44 years, and had five children. Frederick became a preacher, an abolitionist, and an author. His first book, about his time in slavery, became an international bestseller, and Frederick began traveling the world to speak about his experiences; he was still subjected to violence and hatred at times. He spoke loudly against the hypocrisy of Christianity in the South, Bible-reading men who prayed and paid tithes and then beat and raped and sold and killed their slaves under the protections of religion. He started a newspaper and began giving speeches, like one called “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” He also advocated for women’s rights, and stayed very politically active through the Civil War.
Deciding to run for president, Victoria stood before Congress and argued eloquently that since all citizens were equal, women already had the right to vote. She ran on the ticket of the newly formed Equal Rights Party, and Frederick Douglass, through no initiative of his own, was voted as her running mate for Vice President. Ulysses S. Grant was elected president in 1872. Women would receive the right to vote approximately 50 years later, and the Civil Rights Movement would take place closer to 100 years later.
After the death of his wife Anna, Frederick took a second wife, Helen Pitts, a white feminist nearly 20 years younger than him, a union which caused much public scandal. He died in his late 70s, fighting for equal rights for others until his last breath. Before his death, he made peace with his original owner, the man believed to be his father.
Victoria lived into her 80s and lived overseas for a time, taking a third husband in England. She remained much quieter in her later years.
A black man, Barack Obama, was first elected president in 2008, and a woman, Hillary Clinton, was first put on a presidential ticket in 2016. Gender and race equality remain ever-present issues in today’s politics. But it was 1872 when a black man and a woman first teamed up, unwittingly, to run the country. We are long overdue.