Last week, news spread that Amazon Studios is set to produce a biopic starring Brie Larson as Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to officially run for U.S. president.
But before the marketing push goes into full swing on this one, it’s worth hitting the pause button: Woodhull’s legacy is many things, but a hero for contemporary feminists should not be one of them. We cannot overlook her harmful work as an eugenics advocate just because we’re desperate for vintage female mascots.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Woodhull seemed to pop up every time Hillary Clinton hit a milestone in her campaign. Here’s an example of how Politico compared the two women shortly before Clinton’s formal launch of her campaign in 2015:
“Hillary is the soul of caution, a woman who plots her every move; Victoria was the opposite. But interestingly, given the many decades that separate their attempts to win the presidency, their issues are remarkably and, depressingly, similar. They both have pushed for universal health care, for children’s rights, for, as Hillary puts it, the belief that ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ Victoria’s belief reflected an attraction to communal living, as in, ‘I’ll care for you and you’ll care for me.’”
And in July 2016, just before the Democratic National Convention, The Guardian published an article on Woodhull that’s strikingly similar to the Politico one.
At first glance, it’s easy to see why Woodhull is ripe for a public comeback. In 1870, spiritual charlatan-turned-feminist Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, started a newspaper in New York that advocated for women’s rights in the bedroom, and Woodhull launched her 1872 presidential campaign on the platform of equality in marriage. The outspoken opportunist wrote an article pointing out the hypocrisy of a philandering preacher who just so happened to be a critic of her presidential campaign, and the subsequent libel lawsuit shattered Woodhull’s reputation. She spent election night in jail and fled to England, where she pretty much stayed until her death in 1927.
Here’s the problem: Woodhull’s ideology tipped over to the dark side, and it would be laughable to call her a “children’s rights activist” if that statement wasn’t so blasphemous.
In reality, Woodhull was an early member of the modern eugenics movement in London, and more than that, she was instrumental in defining the movement’s philosophy — and in raising awareness for eugenics policies by giving speeches and interviews to large newspapers in England and the United States. (She had special access to the press thanks to the notoriety she garnered from her presidential run.) Though it’s debatable to what degree Woodhull favored forced sterilizations, she certainly pushed for questionable policies for dealing with “undesirable children.” This is even more unpalatable when you consider that Woodhull herself was the mother of a disabled child, whose condition she blamed on the moral character of her first husband.
Here’s another quick soundbite from the Politico article that’s representative of contemporary narratives about Woodhull:
“When to Victoria’s ineligibility and lack of votes are added certain other details of her biography — her guttersnipe, vagabond parents, her three marriages, her work as a child preacher, a fortune teller, a clairvoyant and a spiritualist healer — it’s not surprising that history has reduced her to a curiosity and a footnote, and characterized her, at best, as a free-thinker and an eccentric; at worst as a scoundrel and a hustler.”
No. Woodhull has not faded from popular culture because of her tabloid-y personal life. She has faded because she was part of a dangerous and inhumane school of thought that preached some humans are genetically superior to others — an idea that eventually became a core component of the Nazi worldview.
Woodhull’s eugenics work in England lasted more than 50 years, as compared to her two active years in American politics. But few recent articles reference Woodhull’s eugenics writings at all. Instead, the Politico article called her “beautiful” not once, but twice. Woodhull has also been inducted to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and in 2012, she inspired an opera called “Mrs. President.” A documentary about her is now in progress, in addition to the Amazon movie.
Woodhull’s cult following in feminist circles makes little sense, because we’re turning her into something she never was. Yes, Woodhull was unconventional, but reifying her for the minor fact that she wore her skirts two inches shorter than everybody else while ignoring the fact that she consciously and consistently advocated for the genetic purification of the human race is just downright irresponsible.
In fact, Woodhull should serve as an illustration of the harm that can come from assigning news value to arbitrary historical firsts, like “first woman to run for president.”
Good luck on this one, Brie. You’re gonna need it.