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Milwaukee Opera Theatre Honors First Woman to Run for President in 'Victory for Victoria'

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton often get much of the credit for the women’s suffragist movement in this country in the 19th Century. And while they are due all the credit they get, there’s a name that is not as well-known and whose efforts have been minimized, often intentionally.

Credit Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum / Wikimedia

Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for President of the United States, in 1872, decades before women could vote in this country. She also started numerous successful business and was involved in some of the biggest scandals of the day. 

So naturally, she makes the perfect subject for Milwaukee Opera Theatre. Victory for Victoria: The Musicalpremieres this weekend at, appropriately, the Wauwatosa Woman’s Club. It’s a homegrown production, from its creators to its actors.

Local actor Allie Babich stars, Alissa Rhode wrote the musical, Peggy Peterson-Ryan wrote the lyrics, and her sister Susan Peterson-Holmes wrote the Book. Jill-Anna Ponasik is the artistic director for Milwaukee Opera Theatre. All five women were astonished they hadn't heard of Woodhull until recently, because of her astonishing achievements.

Not only was she the first woman to run for president, she was also the first woman to address Congress. She was the first woman to operate a brokerage firm on Wall Street, and one of the first women to found a newspaper in the United States. 

"Once I did start to learn about her I thought, 'Why don't I know about her? Why don't we know about her,' and that seems to be a common experience when I talk with other people who are first learning about the project. It's often the first [time] they're learning this name, Victoria Woodhall," says Babich. 

"Once I did start to learn about her I thought, 'Why don't I know about her? Why don't we know about her?'"

Woodhull was a controversial figure, not only because her life defied cultural norms at the time. She was a proponent of "free love," a term that had a lot of different meanings. The creators of the show believe that Woodhull thought women should have the right to leave or stay with a relationship, that they should have the choice to be with whomever they want. 

"Because free love was associated with a lot of other negative things, it resulted in her name being pretty much erased from the history of Woman's Suffrage. So we weren't dealing, really, with a woman who was lost history as much as deliberately eliminated from history," says Peterson-Holmes. 

Victory for Victoria: The Musical, runs October 27-30 at the Wauwatosa Woman's Club. 

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.
Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.