The Coming Woman, by Karen J. Hicks, is a novel based on the life of feminist Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for U.S. President. Victoria Woodhull had the courage to enter the political arena before women had won the battle to vote. This is a timely, relevant, and compelling look at one of the women who paved the way for women like Hillary Clinton to claim their place on the national stage and in our history books.
Running for President wasn’t Victoria’s only first as a woman. She was also the first to own a successful Wall Street firm, the first to publish a successful national newspaper, and the first to head the two-million-member Spiritualist Association.
She was the first woman to enter the Senate Judiciary Committee chambers to petition for woman's suffrage, her argument changing the entire focus of the suffragist movement by pointing out that the 14th and 15th Amendments already gave women the vote.
In her campaign for the Presidency, Victoria Woodhull boldly addressed many of the issues we still face today: equal pay for equal work; freedom in love; corporate greed and political corruption fueled by powerful lobbyists; and the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor, to name only a few. Her outspoken and common-sense ideas may shed a new perspective on the parallel conundrums of today’s world.
This bold, beautiful, and sexually progressive woman dared to take on society and religion. To make an example of the hypocrisy in what Mark Twain dubbed The Gilded Age, she exposed the extramarital affairs of the most popular religious figure of the day (Henry Ward Beecher). This led to her persecution and imprisonment and the longest, most infamous trial of the 19th century. But it did not stop her fight for equality.
Victoria’s epic story, set in the late 1800s, comes to life in a modern, fictional style, while staying true to the actual words and views of the many well-known characters.
Read an excerpt:
The early spring drizzle on Great Jones Street doesn’t deter newsboys from hawking the April 2, 1870 headlines up and down the thoroughfare between the beer gardens and dance halls of the Bowery and the opulent emporiums of Broadway.
“Petticoat Politician Victoria C. Woodhull to run for President!”
“Indian raids in Wyoming!”
“Sergeant Patrick Gass of Lewis and Clark expedition dies at ninety-eight!”
The heavy, mahogany front door at No. 17 flies open. Victoria Woodhull, lithe and fair at thirty, skips lightly down the steps of the elegant four-story brownstone. Her bobbed and curled brown hair bounces gently against her high forehead. A diamond ring glitters on her right thumb.
“Queen of Finance takes on Government!” yells a newsboy.
Victoria smiles as she hails him. He hands her a New York Herald.
“So Mrs. Woodhull is to run for President, is she?” she asks. “What do you think of that?”
“No offense or nuthin’ to you as a woman, Ma’am, but it’s plum crazy.” The boy looks down and shuffles his feet.
Another newsboy waves and calls out, “Mornin’, Mrs. Woodhull! You’re stirrin’ things up for sure today!” He runs on yelling: “Bewitching Broker in dash to the White House!”
The mortified boy on the steps turns as red as the fresh rose pinned to the black velvet band at Victoria’s throat. She pats his cheek; her laughter is soft and melodic.
“Don’t be embarrassed, son. I’m sure you won’t be the only one of your opinion. And I shouldn’t have tricked you. Here’s an extra penny to apologize.”
“Thank you, Ma’am!” The boy scoots away, calling out: “Asa Brainard pitches fifteenth straight win for Cincinnati Red Stockings! New York Knickerbockers can’t stop ‘em!”
Victoria skips back up the steps, flipping through the newspaper. Glancing up as she opens the door, she spies tall, scarecrow-looking Stephen Pearl Andrews skirting puddles, hurrying toward her. His bony nose, bushy gray hair, and grizzled beard glisten with droplets of rain. His calf-length black coat flaps wildly in the breeze. Victoria grins and goes to meet him, blue eyes sparkling like sunlit waves. She takes his arm and Andrews’ wildness softens at her touch. He pats her hand.
“So did the Herald print your announcement?” he asks.
“The entire thing! And Ashley Cole wrote the perfect headline and introduction!”
“You are on your way to your destiny, la mia stella.”
Inside the house, Victoria walks past tall vases of fragrant flowers and a staircase that curls upward to the second floor. She stops at a marble statue of the famous Greek orator Demosthenes—classic tunic, laced sandals, laurel wreath on his head.
“Demosthenes’ promise to me as a child—that I would live in a mansion in a city surrounded by ships and rule my people—It’s all coming true! How do you say thank you in Greek, Pearl?”
“Efharisto, Demosthenes! I will fight for freedom for our people as you did for the Greeks.” She pecks Andrews on the cheek. “Demosthenes’ prophecy has driven my entire life, Pearl, but you are his corporeal representation and have given me the courage to act on it. So thank you, too.”
“Yes, yes. Let’s look at this announcement now.”
Victoria opens the Herald to page eight, and Andrews reads the headline aloud.
“’The Coming Woman, Victoria C. Woodhull, to race for the White House: What she will and what she won't do . . . New ideas on government.’” He beams proudly. “Victoria, a Golden Age is upon us, and you are going to lead it!”
“Come, Pearl, we must tell the family!” She takes Andrews’ arm and hurries down the hallway, a spring in her step. Andrews reluctantly allows himself to be dragged along. The cacophony of voices increases as they near the kitchen, and Andrews slows his stride even more. Victoria chuckles. “Come now, you’re not going to the gallows.”
“I think I would rather,” Andrews mutters.
They enter the kitchen, where Victoria’s mother Roxanna Claflin, a short, stern woman with tightly curled gray hair, sits at the foot of the table, carping with a heavy German accent. She glares at Andrews through round, wire-rimmed glasses. Victoria’s quarrelsome father Buck, whose sharp features are made more ominous by a black patch over his left eye, is at the table’s head. The long, wooden benches along each side hold over a dozen sisters, husbands, and children.
Victoria’s youngest sister Tennessee looks up excitedly. Tennie is twenty-five, shorter than Victoria, and fashionably plump. Her dark hair is an unruly mop of short, tousled curls, and her eyes resemble deep wells of melted chocolate.
“Did they print it?” she asks.
“Every word!” Victoria says.
Colonel James Blood, Victoria’s dark and dashing Civil War hero husband, walks over and kisses his wife. She kisses him back, and then hugs her daughter Zulu Maud. The girl’s eyes light up with adoration, looking like a sunny, summer sky. Victoria tries to hug her son Byron as well, but he jerks away, spilling his milk. Byron is physically large for his fifteen years, but mentally he is still a five-year-old. He grins a toothless grin as Zulu Maud sops up the milk. The family begins to bicker.
“My god, people!” Tennie yells, clapping for attention. “Shut up for five minutes and let Victoria read the paper! History is being made here.”
“Well, whoop-dee-do and hullabaloo. Who gives a hoot.” Victoria’s sister Utica stands. Wobbles. She’s only twenty-nine years old, but alcohol and drugs have stolen her beauty and zest. She staggers out.
Roxanna pushes back from the table, her face blotched with anger. She glares at the Colonel. “It’s you, Mr. Hellbound Blood!” She turns her fury on Andrews next. “And you and your passel of Free-lovers! You’ve led my baby onto this path that will destroy her and all of us along with her!”
“Oh for heaven’s sakes,” sister Polly snaps. “Victoria is not going to the White House. What party will support her? We’re just poor people from Ohio.”
“Mr. Lincoln was a poor boy from Illinois,” Pearl counters. “And look what a fine president he turned out to be.”
“Yeah, he was so fine someone shot him,” Polly says.
“That’s what I mean! You want someone to shoot you, Victoria?” Roxanna rushes out, wailing hysterically in German.
“My god, Sis, you better read before somebody else has a hissy fit.”
“I can’t. Not with Mama so upset.”
She hands the paper to Tennie, who skims the page.
“My god, look at the end! ’Victory for Victoria in 1872!’ Whatta brick ol’ Ashley is!”
“Miss Claflin, it’s unladylike to use such slang,” Pearl scolds. “But a fine prediction nonetheless. You must tell your friend I applaud him. I couldn’t have written a better introduction to Victoria’s announcement.”
“At least not in so few words,” Tennie teases. She hands the paper to Colonel Blood.
“Ashley probably should have left out this part about Victoria winning if women are allowed to vote. The male zeitgeist will bury a suffrage amendment for sure now,” Blood says.
“I agree,” Andrews says. “I’m sure he meant it as a vote of confidence, but politicos are threatened by anyone with an intelligent thought and the courage to voice it. Especially if that person is a woman.”
“Well, they’re just going to have to get used to it,” Victoria says. “I’m going to pursue this to the end and with the Spirits’ blessing I will win.”
The same morning, inside the redbrick mansion at 10 Washington Street, one of the few remaining homes of wealth in this once fashionable neighborhood near Wall Street, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt breakfasts with his dutiful son William. Each has his head buried in a section of the Herald. The shipping and railroad tycoon is the richest, most powerful man in America, and his appearance reflects it. At seventy-eight, he is six-foot-one and still slender and handsome. His receding white hair is carefully groomed, and sideburns feather down his jaw line. His black suit is elegantly tailored, and the white ascot at his throat sets off piercing black eyes.
Portly William Vanderbilt scratches his bushy, mutton-chop sideburns as he reads. He frowns when his father gooses the pretty, young Irish maid who pours tea.
“Father, act your age!”
“I’ll act any way I mad-dog want to, Billy Boy.”
At forty-nine, William is a shrewd businessman who runs Vanderbilt’s railroads, but he wilts under his father’s gaze and goes back to reading. Suddenly he whistles.
“Well, well, did you know about this, Father?”
“What's that, Billy Boy?”
“Your little friend's sister— Listen to this: ‘I therefore claim the right to speak for the un-enfranchised women of the country, and believing that the prejudices that still exist against women in public life will soon disappear, I announce myself candidate for the Presidency.'”
The Commodore laughs uproariously.
“I wouldn't laugh too hard. She wants to redistribute the country's wealth by nationalizing the railroads. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.”
“It's mighty fortunate you made the wise decision to marry me last year instead of that tramp sister of hers, Cornele,” Mrs. Frank Vanderbilt says, walking over. She is a tall woman and looks more feminine than her name implies. "You'd be right in the middle of the ridicule.”
“For once we agree, Mrs. Vanderbilt,” William says. “It's bad enough he sponsors their banking firm.”
“Billy, yer a goddamn blatherskite!”
“I don't want them coming here anymore!” Frank straightens into a queenly pose and faces her husband with bravado. “Talking to spirits is evil. Let the dead rest.”
“Confound it all, Mrs. Woodhull brought money into this house consulting those Spirits! We might have become paupers last September if she and Tennessee hadn't warned me that Fisk, Gould, and the President were plotting to corner the gold.”
“Mr. Grant wasn't involved—”
“Don't be a blockhead, Billy! You think his own brother-in-law would act without the General's knowledge for god’s sake?”
“I'm not going to argue with you, Father, but how long are those hussies going to make you pay for that fluke of advice?”
“Them gals don't make me do nuthin’! I gave ‘em a start, but they’ve made their own way. Got more sense than all my sons put together!” He yanks the napkin from his collar, throws it on the table, and strides out.
~ ~ ~
The pandemonium of trading—mostly of Erie, Harlem, and Northern Pacific railroad stocks—stops when Cornelius Vanderbilt strides into the New York Stock Exchange. A flick of his hand resumes the frenzy. Since the day is gloomy, the wide front doors are propped open to let in light and fresh air. Square columns rise to arches above the mezzanine, where full-length, domed windows provide additional light. The elegant fleurs-de-lis décor seems at odds with the raucous business being conducted by some six hundred traders who mill about the vast open floor. Vanderbilt maneuvers his way through the frenzy, stopping to shake Blood’s hand.
“Tell Victoria she pumped my blood up good this morning,” he tells Blood. “The reaction of my wife and son to her announcement added considerable spice to my breakfast.”
“I’ll let her know. She’s serious about this, you know, and as Cole said in his article, she has the merits of novelty, enterprise, courage, and determination.”
“That she does. And I’m sure she’ll tackle this competition with the same gusto she brought to Wall Street. I’m right proud to know the three of you.”
“Thank you, Sir. Are you coming to the reception?”
“Nah, can’t make it. Got me a race in the park and game of whist. But tell the gals I’ll be cheerin’ ‘em on.”
“I’ll do that, Sir. Your support means a lot to them.”
The Commodore pats Blood’s shoulder and continues toward the ticker station that clacks noisily at the end of the room. Jim Fisk, partner in Erie Railroad and at thirty-five already one of Wall Street’s power players, maneuvers toward him. Fisk’s roly-poly physique matches his jolly personality. His short, wavy red hair and walrus mustache accent his ruddy complexion. As Vanderbilt stops at the ticker station, Fisk slaps him on the back.
“Capital day for the market, Commodore!”
“Thanks for the review, Jimbo.” Vanderbilt shrugs the pudgy hand off his shoulder and studies the ticker. “You hain’t been paintin’ the tape, have you?”
“Nah, they did great by themselves today.” Fisk says, not the least offended by the insinuation that he has manipulated stock. He laughs heartily and fires up a cigar.
“You gonna smoke that mad-dog thing in here, Jimbo, pay up.” Vanderbilt points a thumb toward a large box labeled fines.
Fisk’s crystal blue eyes sparkle with impish exuberance as he drops five dollars in the fine box.
The clock strikes noon. Trading stops. With a final wave to his "subjects," Vanderbilt is gone.
~ ~ ~
Morning showers explode into an afternoon downpour as brokers, bankers, businessmen, and reporters flock to the offices of Woodhull, Claflin and Company at 44 Broad in the Wall Street district. A black marble countertop separates the reception area from several wood-and-glass cubicles where business is conducted. A sign on the counter reads: all gentlemen will state their business and then retire at once. The scent from urns filled with red roses removes any trace of mustiness the rain has brought. Exquisite crystal chandeliers dispel the day’s damp gloom.
In her private office at the rear, Victoria replaces the wilted red rose at her throat with a fresh one from a vase. Smiling, she strolls to the luxurious reception area where men lounge on dark leather sofas and gold-and-green upholstered chairs set on plush forest-green velvet carpet. A portrait of Cornelius Vanderbilt hangs over the mantle, along with a framed needlepoint tapestry that reads: "Simply To Thy Cross I Cling." The other walls hold original oil paintings, including Frederick Church's ethereal Aurora Borealis. Silver buckets are set up around the room, each holding an iced bottle of champagne.
Stephen Pearl Andrews circulates, clearly in his element as he works the crowd. Colonel Blood talks with a group of bankers. Jolly Jim Fisk has his showgirl mistress draped on his arm. His partner at Erie, Jay Gould, stands nearby, funereal-looking even in a stylish gray suit. In sharp contrast to his friend, Gould is rail-thin and reserved. He consults his gold pocket watch as Fisk joins several reporters—including Ashley Cole of the Herald, Jim McDermott of the Sunday Press, and Johnnie Green, City Editor of the Sun—who congregate around Tennie. Luther Challis, a handsome banker with unruly black hair, rubs Tennie’s leg suggestively with his black silk umbrella.
“Mr. Challis, you are wetting my ankles!” Tennie scolds. She lifts her tailored navy skirt to show the wet top of her short boot. The men’s surprise at her immodesty gives way to admiring whistles. Grinning, Tennie drops the skirt, adjusts the bright red ascot at her throat, and holds out a cigar for the flustered Challis to light.
“Lemme ask you gentlemen somethin’,” she says. “Why is a free man a noble being but a free woman a contemptible one? And why do females fawn upon their male masters, when they might instead lead them by the nose wherever they please?”
“You can lead me anywhere, Miss Claflin,” Johnnie Green flirts. He is a smoothly shaven Portuguese man, just turned thirty. Tennie returns his ogle, but Victoria’s appearance interrupts the banter. Tennie jumps to her feet, sweeps an arm toward her sister.
“Gentlemen, the next President of the United States, my sister and partner, Victoria Claflin Woodhull!”
The room erupts in cheers, applause, and one or two whistles and catcalls. Reporters scribble their impressions.
“Mrs. Woodhull,” Jim Fisk calls out. “Some people think you must be a homely, man-eating spinster because only that type of woman would make such a spectacle of herself.”
“That's funny,” Luther Challis counters. “I heard she must be a beautiful courtesan because only that type of woman would welcome such attention.”
“And yet here I am, gentlemen, just a hard-working businesswoman.”
“Do you really think you can win the White House, Mrs. Woodhull?” Tribune reporter Whitelaw Reid asks.
Victoria glances at the slender man who looks much older than his thirty years. His hair flips up at the top of his ears and on his nape, and his walrus mustache droops below the corners of his thin mouth. Although some consider Whitelaw handsome, his long, pointed nose, sharp-edged jaw, and narrow eyes are disconcerting to Victoria.
“Of course I do, Mr. Reid. Why else would I run? As the physical and spiritual worlds become one, it is time for political action guided by Higher Powers. With Ralph Waldo Emerson’s eminence, I say our country is ready for a transcendentalist at its head.”
“So you will lead us with Spirits?” Reid probes.
“Mr. Lincoln did, so why shouldn’t I? But I also have an agile mind and have studied all the philosophies of government so that I might mold my own doctrine from those portions that make sense to me. In politics, like with religion, it behooves us to be aware of credos but not follow them in toto. We must create our own truth as we apprehend it. I assure you that I will spend my fortune advocating my views on equal and just government.” She smiles mysteriously. “And I may soon have a surprise—”
The reporters immediately shout over each other for details. Victoria's eyes twinkle, but she refuses to comment. The newsmen turn to Tennie . . . Blood . . . Andrews. But they are as much in the dark as the rest of them. Victoria gestures toward a table filled with fruit, cheeses, and pastries.
“Delmonico’s fabulous Chef Ranhofer has prepared a most bountiful spread for us, so everyone please enjoy.”
~ ~ ~
The rain has left New York City by dusk, although the streets still glisten as Victoria’s white horses pull her white closed carriage majestically around ruts and puddles. They stop at the rain-slicked corner of Beaver and William Streets, where the brick building at No. 56 is home to the elegant Delmonico’s restaurant. Delmonico’s, the first U.S. restaurant to offer an ala carté menu, is famous for its succulent steak. It is also the favorite of the Wall Street crowd due to its convenient location and its installation of a stock market ticker tape.
Victoria and Tennie alight from the carriage and climb the few steps between columns imported from the ruins of Pompeii. They inhale the mouth-watering aromas that waft onto the street and peer briefly through the front doors’ etched-glass windows before entering. The well-heeled diners frown and whisper as the sisters make themselves comfortable at a prominent table. Mr. Delmonico hurries over.
“Mrs. Woodhull, Miss Claflin, how nice to see you.”
“Hi, Mr. D,” Tennie says. “We’ll have two tomato soups, please.”
“It’s after six, Mrs. Woodhull,” Mr. Delmonico says to Victoria.
“Yes, thanks to your delectable catering, our party ran later than expected.”
“Sis was too busy jawin’ to eat any of your fine spread, and I thought a little soup would be the perfect topper for all them rich delights,” Tennie says.
Victoria cringes at her sister’s grammar but doesn’t correct her, knowing from experience it is futile.
“I, uh—” Mr. Delmonico looks uncomfortable and crooks his arm toward the women. “Here, let me escort you out. We can pretend you just stopped to have a word with me.”
“We take our lunch here every day!" Victoria says, stunned. "We engage in business with these men regularly.” She glances scornfully around, turns back to the restaurateur. “I have just paid you several hundred dollars for our event, and we would like some soup. Are you saying that because we are not accompanied by a puppet in pants you won’t serve us?”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Woodhull. It’s not me, you understand. The law says no unescorted women after six.”
Victoria’s cheeks spot red; her eyes flash. Tennie, however, hops to her feet and sashays out. Victoria and Mr. Delmonico watch curiously as she hails their coachman. Everyone stares as the tiny African-American man in scarlet velvet suit and gleaming knee-high patent leather boots nervously follows Tennie to the table. She motions him into a vacant chair and smiles sweetly at Delmonico.
“Tomato soup for three, please.”
“I’ll have that brought out right away, Miss Claflin,” the restaurateur says, biting back a laugh. “And it’s on the house so no one can say I sold you food.”
The coachman looks around at the sea of gaping and glaring white faces; his forehead glistens with sweat. Tennie pats his hand and winks at a snobbish couple at a nearby table, causing them to sputter with rage.
“Why must a woman have an escort to be reputable?" Victoria fumes. "What a comment upon the utter falsity and double standard of the social conditions under which we live! We should have just left and never come back!”
“My god, Sis, lighten up. Like he said, it ain’t his fault. When you’re President it’s the first law you can change.”
Praise for The Coming Woman:
"If you have a heart, if you have a soul, Karen Hicks' The Coming Woman will make you fall in love with Victoria Woodhull." - Kinky Friedman, author & Governor of the Heart of Texas
"What kind of confidence would it take for a woman to buck the old boy's club of politics in 1872? More than 140 years pre-Hillary, there was Victoria Woodhull. This book takes you back with a breathtaking, present-tense bird's eye view into a time when women's liberation was primarily confined to one woman's very capable, independent mind. I couldn't put it down." - Ruth Buzzi, Golden Globe Award winner and Television Hall of Fame inductee
"The Coming Woman is a great read and a long overdue biography written beautifully by Ms. Hicks. Victoria Woodhull comes alive in each and every paragraph; a vital strength and spirit in Woodhull propels her to run for president of the United States when women weren’t even allowed to vote! What a woman, what a book! An inspiring must read for every woman and any adventurous men! Thank you, Ms. Hicks for finally telling her colorful story." - Jennifer Lee Pryor, author of Tarnished Angel: A Memoir and President, Indigo, Inc.
Karen J. Hicks is retired and lives in Henderson, Nevada. She recently published her second novel, The Coming Woman, based on the life of the infamous feminist Victoria C. Woodhull, who was the first woman to run for U.S. President. Her first book was a self-help book titled The Tao of a Uncluttered Life. Karen served as in-house editor for author Steve Allen and has written several screenplays, as well as poetry, short stories, and essays. To learn more, go to http://www.karenjhicks.com/