March 7

For a few years in the 1870s, sisters Victoria Claflin Woodhull and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin were the most notorious women in New York, treating the social strictures of their age as no more substantial than the spirits with which they claimed to communicate. Myra MacPherson’s captivating dual biography opens on Wall Street in 1870, as Tennie, “a bodacious beauty in her early twenties,” and her charismatic elder sister descend from their open carriage amid a throng of reporters and rubberneckers. Dressed in matching dark-blue outfits, with “shockingly short” skirts grazing their boots, they declared their new brokerage firm open for business.

As social debuts went, it was extraordinary. At the time, women were barely allowed to pass through Wall Street in covered carriages, but the sisters had the backing of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, which lent their business legitimacy — even if the stories they told about their rich father and their business training were lies, and even if the rumors of Tennie’s affair with the recently widowed Commodore were true. MacPherson, a former journalist at The Washington Post, is skeptical of the more salacious gossip around the sisters, but in this case she allows that “the circumstances and the logic of the situation speak plainly.”

Wall Street was just the beginning. Before the decade was half-over, the sisters had started their own radical newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, with the profits from their brokerage; Victoria had addressed Congress and run for president (with Frederick Douglass); and Tennie had been named colonel of New York’s 85th, the state’s only African American regiment. The sisters tangled with suffragists, spiritualists, socialists and conservatives, including Karl Marx, anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock and the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (their newspaper published a report that triggered the famous preacher’s adultery trial, a landmark of Victorian hypocrisy).

MacPherson emphasizes how far ahead of their time the sisters were in their attitudes toward women’s rights, but they were also markedly prescient as publicity hounds. They knew that fame had very little to do with truth and freely advanced a self-serving mythology in their newspaper. When they addressed packed lecture halls around the country, crowds came as much to see them in the flesh as to hear their arguments.

But the sisters’ words were also attention-grabbing, making the case in print and onstage that women had the right to control their own bodies. In this they had the backing of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but they clashed with stricter suffragists, who wanted a single-minded focus on the vote and judged Woodhull a trashy distraction. Yet it was Woodhull who stood up in front of the House Judiciary Committee to argue that the 15th Amendment and other sections of the Constitution guaranteed rights to “citizens” — forcing Rep. John Bingham of Ohio to sputter out, “Madam, you are no citizen — you are a woman!”


‘The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age’ by Myra MacPherson (Twelve)

The sisters’ doctrine of “free love” earned similar horrified denials in a world that accorded women no bodily autonomy. Tennie defined herself and Victoria as “sex radicals,” drawing down upon them both all the mockery and vitriol that the press could muster. As MacPherson sums it up, “In arguing that a woman had a right to freedom regarding her own body, to choose her mate, to decide when she wanted sex, and actually to enjoy it, the sisters were so far ahead of the era that they were openly called prostitutes in print.”

Yet she also notes that as the attractive daughters of a desperate, con-artist father, the sisters, especially Tennie, might have been speaking from experience about the injustices prostitutes suffered. Certainly Victoria, married at 15 to a hopeless drunk, knew plenty about the potential horrors of marriage. Nor did riches and fame bring release, as the sisters were hounded throughout their lives by their family, the ragtag Claflins. The sisters supported and housed their parents and siblings — along with Victoria’s ex-husband, daughter and mentally disabled son — but this didn’t stop the family from threatening blackmail and dragging one another into court.

Given how much scurrilous chatter surrounded the sisters, and how far they bent the truth to suit their ends, MacPherson is often tasked with choosing between rival tall tales. However, she resists the temptation to pick the most flattering story and cast the sisters simply as progressive heroines. Both were willing to use their femininity, as well as their feminism, to get what they wanted; Victoria especially could be self-centered and obsessed with her own persecution; and both sisters became conservative in later life, publicly repudiating most of their “sex radical” beliefs.

They left New York for London in 1877, in the wake of the Beecher trial, and “decided to use draconian measures to sanitize their image.” Like many of their most outlandish ruses, it worked — within a few years, both were married to wealthy Englishmen. By the early 20th century, they were recognized as suffrage pioneers, although to improve society they now prescribed religion and eugenics rather than female emancipation.

The Claflin sisters do not emerge from this lively biography as trailblazers so much as outliers, so far ahead of their time that it becomes almost impossible to credit them with real influence. Women got the vote at the very end of their lives, but it took much longer for women to gain control over their bodies or make real inroads into Wall Street or Washington. In an epilogue containing a litany of misogynistic low points in modern politics, from “legitimate rape” to government-mandated ultrasounds, MacPherson hammers home the point that, even in 2014, powerful men treat women’s bodies as political bargaining chips. In this light, these Victorian sisters’ blast of protest against a restrictive and hypocritical status quo remains something to celebrate.

Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer and adjunct professor at New York University’s Gallatin School.

THE SCARLET SISTERS

Sex, Suffrage and Scandal
in the Gilded Age

By Myra MacPherson

Twelve. 401 pp. $28