The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age

Overview

A fresh look at the life and times of Victoria Woodhull and Tennie Claflin, two sisters whose radical views on sex, love, politics, and business threatened the white male power structure of the nineteenth century and shocked the world. Here award-winning author Myra MacPherson deconstructs and lays bare the manners and mores of Victorian America, remarkably illuminating the struggle for equality that women are still fighting today.

Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee "Tennie" ...

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The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age

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Overview

A fresh look at the life and times of Victoria Woodhull and Tennie Claflin, two sisters whose radical views on sex, love, politics, and business threatened the white male power structure of the nineteenth century and shocked the world. Here award-winning author Myra MacPherson deconstructs and lays bare the manners and mores of Victorian America, remarkably illuminating the struggle for equality that women are still fighting today.

Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee "Tennie" Claflin-the most fascinating and scandalous sisters in American history-were unequaled for their vastly avant-garde crusade for women's fiscal, political, and sexual independence. They escaped a tawdry childhood to become rich and famous, achieving a stunning list of firsts. In 1870 they became the first women to open a brokerage firm, not to be repeated for nearly a century. Amid high gossip that he was Tennie's lover, the richest man in America, fabled tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, bankrolled the sisters. As beautiful as they were audacious, the sisters drew a crowd of more than two thousand Wall Street bankers on opening day. A half century before women could vote, Victoria used her Wall Street fame to become the first woman to run for president, choosing former slave Frederick Douglass as her running mate. She was also the first woman to address a United States congressional committee. Tennie ran for Congress and shocked the world by becoming the honorary colonel of a black regiment.

They were the first female publishers of a radical weekly, and the first to print Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto in America. As free lovers they railed against Victorian hypocrisy and exposed the alleged adultery of Henry Ward Beecher, the most famous preacher in America, igniting the "Trial of the Century" that rivaled the Civil War for media coverage. Eventually banished from the women's movement while imprisoned for allegedly sending "obscenity" through the mail, the sisters sashayed to London and married two of the richest men in England, dining with royalty while pushing for women's rights well into the twentieth century. Vividly telling their story, Myra MacPherson brings these inspiring and outrageous sisters brilliantly to life.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
12/09/2013
Beautiful and ambitious Victoria Claflin Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee (Tennie) Claflin, whirled into New York City in 1868, en route to becoming two of the most infamous women in America. After establishing themselves as spiritualists, they called on millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt, a known believer in mediums. Vanderbilt, entranced by the two—especially Tennie, who became his lover—offered his support, and in 1870 the sisters opened Woodhull, Claflin and Co., the first female-owned brokerage firm. Their boldness attracted the attention of women’s rights activists, and they soon received a visit from the venerable Susan B. Anthony at their Wall Street office. Woodhull became involved in the suffrage campaign, but on her own terms—which often put her at odds with established organizations—and cemented her radical reputation when she publicly announced she was a free lover. She then exposed the marital infidelities of influential minister Henry Ward Beecher, leading to a sensational trial that ultimately drove the sisters out of the country. Journalist MacPherson (Long Time Passing) renders the Claflin sisters’ actions as high drama, parceling their lives into five acts complete with a list of a cast of characters, but even such stylistic overkill cannot dull the eternal sharpness of this dynamic sororal duo. Illus. (Mar.)
Ellen Goodman
"If the Scarlet Sisters hadn't existed, feminism would have had to invent them. Myra MacPherson writes the story of these fearless and path-breaking nineteenth-century radicals with her trademark energy and wit. This sisterhood is indeed powerful."
Jim Lehrer
"THE SCARLET SISTERS has everything--from history and intrigue, to sex and money. Myra MacPherson has written this book with the care and professionalism of the great reporter she is but also with the wit, wisdom, and flair of the great novelist she definitely could be. A fabulous delight of a read."
Lynn Sherr
"Read the epilogue first, to understand immediately why THE SCARLET SISTERS resonates so richly in today's political world. Myra MacPherson's rich understanding of the threads connecting these colorful pioneers to our contentious twenty-first century issues is wonderfully instructive."
Carl Bernstein
"Ordinarily, one would look to the fiction of Twain or Dickens to find a nineteenth-century tale to match the real-life saga of the sisters Claflin-Woodhull. Happily, Myra MacPherson has rediscovered these proto-feminists. Their rebellion against Victorian sexual enslavement and the power of white males captivated and infuriated their contemporaries for good reason, and left a mark that resonates today."
Jane Mayer
"Myra MacPherson's THE SCARLET SISTERS vividly and entertainingly brings to life a long lost chapter of American history that will surprise anyone who thinks that feminism is a twentieth century invention. It's both a great tale, and a great read."
Ron Powers
"Myra MacPherson is a treasure among American historians. In [her] riveting, often uproarious chronicle, the Sisters' crusades against benighted convention were but the onset of a righteous firestorm that continues to arc into our times."
Kenneth D. Ackerman
"Woodhull and Claflin deserve credit for crashing the glass front doors of Wall Street, Washington, and bedrooms across the country a century and a half ago. These too long neglected amazing pioneers of the Gilded Age are brought to life in Myra MacPherson's energetic, well researched, and enthralling book."
Debby Applegate
"Victoria Woodhull is one of the great unsung characters of American history--a beauty, a radical activist, a con artist, and a true revolutionary who pushed every boundary and every button that the century offered. THE SCARLET SISTRS is a roller-coaster ride though American history that will amaze and delight readers."
From the Publisher
"THE SCARLET SISTERS has everything—from history and intrigue, to sex and money. Myra MacPherson has written this book with the care and professionalism of the great reporter she is but also with the wit, wisdom, and flair of the great novelist she definitely could be. A fabulous delight of a read."—Jim Lehrer, former host of PBS NewsHour, playwright, and author of Top Down: A Novel of the Kennedy Assassination

"Read the epilogue first, to understand immediately why THE SCARLET SISTERS resonates so richly in today's political world. Myra MacPherson's rich understanding of the threads connecting these colorful pioneers to our contentious twenty-first century issues is wonderfully instructive."—Lynn Sherr, author of Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words and the forthcoming Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space

"Ordinarily, one would look to the fiction of Twain or Dickens to find a nineteenth-century tale to match the real-life saga of the sisters Claflin-Woodhull. Happily, Myra MacPherson has rediscovered these proto-feminists. Their rebellion against Victorian sexual enslavement and the power of white males captivated and infuriated their contemporaries for good reason, and left a mark that resonates today."—Carl Bernstein, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author of A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton, and coauthor of All the President's Men (with Bob Woodward)

"If the Scarlet Sisters hadn't existed, feminism would have had to invent them. Myra MacPherson writes the story of these fearless and path-breaking nineteenth-century radicals with her trademark energy and wit. This sisterhood is indeed powerful."—Ellen Goodman, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and coauthor of I Know Just What You Mean: The Power of Friendship in Women's Lives (with Patricia O'Brien)

"Myra MacPherson's THE SCARLET SISTERS vividly and entertainingly brings to life a long lost chapter of American history that will surprise anyone who thinks that feminism is a twentieth century invention. It's both a great tale, and a great read."—Jane Mayer, staff writer for the New Yorker and author of The Dark Side

"Myra MacPherson is a treasure among American historians. In [her] riveting, often uproarious chronicle, the Sisters' crusades against benighted convention were but the onset of a righteous firestorm that continues to arc into our times."—Ron Powers, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, novelist, and author of Mark Twain: A Life

"Woodhull and Claflin deserve credit for crashing the glass front doors of Wall Street, Washington, and bedrooms across the country a century and a half ago. These too long neglected amazing pioneers of the Gilded Age are brought to life in Myra MacPherson's energetic, well researched, and enthralling book."—Kenneth D. Ackerman, author of The Gold Ring: Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, and Black Friday, 1869

"Victoria Woodhull is one of the great unsung characters of American history—a beauty, a radical activist, a con artist, and a true revolutionary who pushed every boundary and every button that the century offered. THE SCARLET SISTRS is a roller-coaster ride though American history that will amaze and delight readers."—Debby Applegate, Pulitzer Prize winner for The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher

Library Journal
01/01/2014
Such issues as a woman's right to make free sexual choices and her decision to run for president provoke spirited discussions these days; they were explosive topics in the 19th century. While there have been numerous studies of Victoria Claflin Woodhull (1838–1927), this is the first book to treat her sister Tennessee "Tennie" Claflin (1844–1923) thoroughly as well. Born in poverty, with little education, the sisters first gained notice as healers and spiritualists. Come 1870, they opened a brokerage firm in New York, to great success. It enabled them to start their own newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, advocating for the rights of women and for personal freedoms as they did likewise on the lecture circuit. The sisters famously exposed an adulterous affair between noted pastor Henry Ward Beecher and a parishioner. They courted controversy, both challenging and charming contemporaries. Victoria ran for president in 1872. MacPherson (Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation) guides readers through the lives of these two women and their relationships with fellow activists such as Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. VERDICT This engaging and very accessible study, based on considerable primary and secondary research, is recommended to all readers looking to study Victoria Woodhull in the context of her partnerships with her sister and their broader lives together and apart.—Theresa McDevitt, Indiana Univ. Lib., PA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780446570237
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • Publication date: 3/4/2014
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 80,513
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Myra MacPherson is the award-winning and bestselling author of four previous books, including The Power Lovers, the Vietnam War classic Long Time Passing, and All Governments Lie. She was an acclaimed journalist at the Washington Post, and has also written for the New York Times, numerous magazines, and websites. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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