Victoria Woodhull: Wall Street’s First Female Broker
The history of investing is largely male—and largely white. In the stock market’s 200-year-old history, opportunities for women and people of color have been relatively few and far between. With our In the Shadow of Wall Street series, we celebrate the often forgotten folks, the people who (sometimes quietly) broke investing barriers and helped create a path for those who came after them.
The story of Victoria Woodhull (neé Claflin) is one for the ages. It has everything you could want in a biography: a rags-to-riches narrative, clever (and not so clever) cons, women defying the societal norms of their time, scandal, the opening of the first woman-owned brokerage in the U.S., and even a presidential run.
Yet, despite being wrapped in intrigue, Victoria’s story goes largely untold. And when it is told, it’s filled with so much rumor and conjecture, it’s hard to tell the difference between fact and fiction. We’re here to tell Victoria’s complicated story as directly as we can.
To explain how Victoria and her sister Tennessee opened Wall Street’s first woman-owned brokerage in 1870, we have to start a little farther back, in 1852. That was the year their father, Buck, hung a sign advertising Victoria, 14, and Tennessee, 7, as mediums who could communicate with the dead—$1 per visit—thus establishing what would be a longtime career for both of them. Believe it or not, it was this career path that brought them to Wall Street.
In 1868, when Victoria was 30 and Tennessee was 22, they were introduced to Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt. One of the richest Americans in history, Vanderbilt was considered Wall Street royalty. He was also incredibly superstitious. After a difficult year, in which he both lost his wife and had a very-public career setback, he was seeking a little transcendental direction. He was apparently so taken with Victoria and Tennessee he became their primary client.
This is where things get a little murky. Some histories suggest that Victoria had another well-connected friend, and—under the guise of performing a séance—fed Vanderbilt investing advice. According to this version of the story, Vanderbilt followed her advice and made a neat $1.3 million. Others mention Victoria giving Vanderbilt “business tips” but don’t say anything about well-connected friends, nor do they talk about whether the advice was any good.
Either way, what happened next is clear. Vanderbilt helped Victoria and Tennessee with their next step, providing the finances needed for them to open Woodhull, Claflin, & Co., the first for-women-by-women brokerage firm in the U.S.
On February 5, 1870, Victoria and Tennessee, then 31 and 24, officially opened the doors of Woodhull, Claflin, & Co. for business. Despite a sign stating, “Gentlemen will state their business and then retire at once,” most of the estimated four thousand visitors on that first day were men, presumably shocked by the women now working in their midst, according to Mary Gabriel’s Notorious Victoria.
The press also wasn’t sure what to make of the two women. The New York Times ran the headline “Wall Street Aroused” and the New York Sun: “Petticoats Among the Bovine and Ursine Animals.”
With the press came the nicknames. Victoria and Tennessee were called “the Queens of Finance” by some. A Harper’s Weekly cartoon dubbed them “the Bewitching Brokers,” despite their news department’s belief that there wasn’t enough of a market for the brokerage to be successful. What with few employment opportunities for women, it just seemed unlikely.
It appears, however, that Victoria and Tennessee knew something they didn’t. Women in all sorts of situations—including teachers, small-business owners, society wives and widows, and even some high-priced sex workers and madams—had money to invest and wanted the help to do it. Woodhull, Claflin, & Co. was a huge success. According to some versions of the story, Victoria and Tennessee supposedly made $700,000 in the first six weeks (that’s more than $13 million today).
Opening a successful brokerage wasn’t the whole plan. As Victoria later said, “We went unto Wall Street, not particularly because I wanted to be a broker… but because I wanted to plant the Flag of women’s rebellion in the center of the continent.”
And in some ways, that’s exactly what she did. On May 14, 1870, Victoria and Tennessee used the profits from the brokerage to launch Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, one of the country’s first publications published by women.
In 1871, Victoria became the first woman to address a congressional House committee. She argued that women ought already to have the right to vote based on the 14th and 15th Amendments. Congress, as we know, didn’t go for it. Women didn’t get the vote until the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920.
Undeterred, Victoria ran for President of the United States anyway. In 1872, she was officially nominated by the Equal Rights Party, with Frederick Douglass, the civil rights activist and abolitionist, as her VP.
She, of course, didn’t win. Not only did Victoria spend election day in jail after publishing a controversial story in Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, but voting America wasn’t her biggest fan. Her views of free love, that women should have the right to choose who they want to marry and if they want a divorce, earned her the nickname “Mrs. Satan”—a far cry from “Queen of Finance”—after Harper’s Weekly published a cartoon literally depicting her as the devil.
Paving the way
Despite the scandal surrounding her—and also despite her still somehow being relatively unknown—there’s no doubt Victoria played a pivotal role in carving a place for women in investing. She and her sister gave women an opportunity to take control and manage their finances in a time when that was largely unheard of—and she showed firsthand the power that comes with that financial opportunity, even if it was controversial.