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Don’t be surprised if some time soon you see the name Victoria Woodhull linked with Demi Moore (or Sharon Stone or Madonna) in a Hollywood gossip column. The first woman to run for president (in 1872, on the same ticket as Frederick Douglass), the first woman to address Congress, the first woman to head a Wall Street brokerage firm, and the first woman to speak openly about the joys of free love, Woodhull would make a perfect big-screen subject for any of today’s narcissistic leading ladies.
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With luck, when it comes time to pen the screenplay, the job will go to Mary Gabriel, whose new biography, Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored, is an entertaining, cinematic look at one of the first significant voices in the American women’s movement. The 42-year-old Gabriel, an editor at Reuters News Service here in D.C., spent the past several years researching Woodhull and her unbelievable life, digging up a wealth of never-before-published personal information. (As if Woodhull’s aforementioned résumé weren’t colorful enough, she also spent time as a traveling clairvoyant in a medicine show, was married at 15 to an alcoholiceventually bearing his retarded sonand, in her later years, shared one apartment with a husband, an ex-husband, and a lover.)
Although Gabriel saw the 19th-century heroine as a kindred spirit, during the course of writing Notorious she developed some misgivings about Woodhull and her escapades. “I loved the idea of her,” says Gabriel, who earned a master’s degree in journalism from American University and currently lives in Baltimore. “But [there were times] while writing this when she really pissed me off, and I didn’t like her at all. There were times when I felt she was trying to control the book, and I had to keep myself from liking her too much.”
Woodhull was born in Homer, Ohio, in 1838, attaining the pinnacle of her prominence in New York City between 1868 and 1872, when she reached most of her female supporters through a self-published newsletter, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. But after chafing the comparatively conservative sensibilities of fellow feminists Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Beecher Stowe with her brash talk and open sexuality, Woodhull was, in essence, banished from history by her former followers.
“Victoria is a really accessible character for someone who doesn’t read a lot of nonfiction,” says Gabriel, unconcerned about her subject’s lack of contemporary celebrity. “She’s a great soap opera. The book has it all: laughs, tears, passion….It’s a romantic story. If she was on Oprah, the show would get amazing ratings. Extramarital affairs, out-of-wedlock childrenVictoria would still be controversial today.”Sean Daly