Women Who Rocked Finance — Victoria Woodhull

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The finance world was largely male-dominated to date. That’s no secret. But many women also made their mark on the industry and not only in recent years.

Yes, there have been feisty females throughout the ages who have pushed for change. And as Contentworks is a financial services marketing agency spearheaded by female CEOs with a passion for equality, we’ve been delving deeper into the lives of these game-changers for #WomensHistoryMonth

In this article we’ll be looking at rule-breaker and financial revolutionary Victoria Woodhull.

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Tainted beginnings

Victoria Woodhull was born in 1838 to an illiterate mother and a petty criminal father who entwined both Victoria and younger sister Tennessee in his money-making schemes. Promoting them as child mediums who could communicate with the dead and heal life-threatening diseases such as cancer, the family travelled from town-to-town with the young girls becoming the main breadwinners. More than once they were forced to flee their latest settlement, chased out by local residents.

Living a nomadic lifestyle and with very little education, Woodhull’s future perhaps looked bleak. And fate took a dramatic turn for the worse aged 15 when she married an alcoholic doctor, giving birth to a handicapped son not long after. She eventually had two children. Despite the challenges she faced on a daily basis, however, Woodhull is rumoured to have made a small fortune as a clairvoyant and was determined to achieve bigger and better things!

‘Hello Cornelius Vanderbilt’

Life choices led the sisters to Manhattan where they began working as clairvoyants for railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt who built the New York Railroad. Known as The Commodore, Cornelius had a deep mistrust of doctors and therefore appreciated the supposed talents of the two sisters. It’s even thought he had a soft spot for Tennessee following the death of his wife. While he called her “my little sparrow,” she called him “the old goat,” in an exchange which appears somewhat one-sided in terms of affection. The duo’s connection with Cornelius and stock tips gleaned from the relationship came in useful during the 1869 gold panic, a time which the sisters reportedly netted around $700,000. It’s thought that Woodhull herself gave Cornelius ideas of how to play the market based on her skills as a medium.

Vanderbilt’s financial backing also made it possible for the girls to take their next big step.

First Female Brokers on Wall Street

Victoria and Tennessee made history in 1870 when they opened the first all-female brokerage firm on Wall Street. The Woodhull, Claflin and Co brokerage house attracted society’s finest including wealthy housewives, teachers and widows of astute businessmen.

It’s also believed the brokerage was used by high-priced prostitutes. Intrigue and interest surrounded the business attracting an abundance of media attention, with The New York Sun commenting how the sisters were: “Petticoats Among the Bovine and Ursine Animals.” The sisters were also labelled as “Queens of Finance” and “Bewitching Brokers” due to their spiritualist past.

The raucous scene below spoofing the opening of Woodhull, Claflin and Co appearing in The Harpers Weekly and followed the lead of the dailies who constantly played on their reputation as mediums.

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The brokerage started off at the Hoffman House, an upmarket hotel on Manhattan’s Madison Square and was described by a reporter for the New York Herald as having the look and feel of a “ladies’ drawing room.” The business soon became so successful that it quickly moved to 44 Broad Street, a larger space in the heart of the financial district.

Woodhull for President

As the brokerage grew from strength-to-strength, Victoria and Tennessee used money earnt to branch out into publishing and politics. Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly began promoting the suffrage movement with the first episode dated May 14th, 1870, supporting the idea that Woodhull should run for President.

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Woodhull went on to receive the presidential nomination of the newly created Equal Rights Party in 1972. Having been arrested for attacking a preacher in her publication, she was in jail at the time of the election but lost to President Ulysses S. Grant with many saying write-in votes for Victoria Woodhull were not properly counted.

Suffering women’s rights combined with Victoria’s controversial lifestyle did not help the cause. Despite being remarried, she was also living with her first husband in a move that was considered highly abnormal at the time. Her admiration for “free love” which was often considered as shunning marriage in favour of promiscuity also gave her a reputation for being too liberal for many to stomach.

Shifting Fortunes

Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly was the first in the United States to publish The Communist Manifesto, written in 1848 by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Communist leader Marx, however, did not reciprocate Woodhull’s admiration calling her a “banker’s woman, free-lover and general humbug.”

Such strong political views and activities drew attention away from the brokerage which started to underperform and lose clientele. Vanderbilt distance himself from the firm although his reasons are unclear. It’s likely that his second, straight-laced wife did not want him to have anything to do with Tennessee or Tennie as she came to be known, or the wild and liberal Claflin clan.

The brokerage went under in 1893 during a time of financial insecurity. The two sisters moved to England and married wealthy men. Victoria married three times in total dying in 1927. Her obituary read: “As a young woman, she engaged in the banking business for a short time in New York.” What she actually achieved, of course, was far more important and significant for the finance sector!

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