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

  • Myra MacPherson
  • Twelve
  • 432 pp.

Too radical for their time, these women even confused Karl Marx.

A woman has a serious chance of becoming president of the United States in a couple of years. But before we congratulate ourselves on how quickly we’ve reached this milestone of gender equality, we would do well to remember that Victoria Woodhull, whose roller coaster of a life is detailed in Myra MacPherson’s new biography, announced her presidential candidacy in 1870.

Not that Woodhull had a chance of being elected, 50 years before women even got the vote. And it’s not clear that her chosen running mate, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, even knew he was on the ticket. But the mere fact that she ran illustrates both her audacity and her talent for publicity.

MacPherson’s dual biography, The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age,  focuses both on Woodhull and her lesser-known younger sister, Tennessee Claflin, known as Tennie. (The origin of the name is unknown, but may have had something to do with the family’s wanderings. Another sister was named Utica.)

As MacPherson recounts in lively prose, the sisters had an inauspicious start in life. Their father was almost literally a snake-oil salesman, touting a “cancer cure” so disastrous it resulted in murder charges in one town. He may also have prostituted at least one of his beauteous daughters. Their not-ready-for-prime time family would continue to haunt the sisters as they made their way onto the national stage.

Victoria and Tennie made their first splash by opening a brokerage firm on Wall Street shortly after the Civil War, possibly bankrolled by Tennie’s reputed lover, Cornelius Vanderbilt. From there they became feminists, advocates of “free love” (a term susceptible to varied interpretations), champions of the rights of blacks, and would-be Marxists. Their weekly magazine was the first American publication to print The Communist Manifesto.

Karl Marx, however, found them a little too radical for his tastes – and confusing, given their Wall Street background. The man who termed religion “the opium of the people” was also put off by their lifelong involvement with spiritualism, which had its roots in their father’s money-making schemes.

The women’s movement was divided when it came to the sisters. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony couldn’t help but be impressed when, in 1871, Victoria appeared out of nowhere with a novel argument for giving women the vote: since the 15th Amendment guaranteeing the right to vote used the word “citizens,” without the qualifying adjective “male,” women already had the legal right to vote, she said.

But suffragist Lucy Stone wanted nothing to do with Victoria and Tennie, perhaps partly because of her own aversion to sex. Stone also feared that “the Free Love incubus” had caused “incalculable harm to the cause of woman Suffrage,” just as some later feminists worried that including radical lesbians in the movement would damage its respectability.

Tennie stayed largely in Victoria’s shadow during the early years of the sisters’ joint career, although MacPherson includes enough references to her extreme vivacity to make the reader wonder if she might have been clinically manic. In later years, though, as Victoria became preoccupied with more personal concerns, Tennie stepped into the spotlight as a revered elder stateswoman who traveled the globe speaking on women’s rights.

The final chapter in the sisters’ lives is perhaps the most surprising: these radical flamethrowers who had risen more or less from the gutter ended up marrying into the ranks of the wealthy British aristocracy, with Tennie becoming “Lady Cook.”

MacPherson is generally a creditable guide to the many twists and turns of the sisters’ lives, although at times she veers off on tangents. We get a detailed account, for example, of the scandalous trial of Henry Ward Beecher – a prominent preacher and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe – for alienating the affections of another man’s wife. True, the sisters had helped spark the lawsuit by publicizing allegations about Beecher’s womanizing, but they played virtually no role in the trial.

More fundamentally, Victoria and Tennie don’t quite come to life in this biography until near the end, when MacPherson finally quotes from letters they wrote to one another. For the most part, we hear their voices only in speeches or published articles, which they may or may not have written themselves, or see them solely through the eyes of others. Perhaps no earlier letters from the sisters have survived, but the book suffers from a lack of insight into their inner lives and motivations.

While the sisters were in many ways ahead of their time, they, like many “progressive” historical figures, also harbored opinions that are anathema to most readers today. Yes, they championed “free love,” but they also denounced homosexuality and masturbation and advocated the kind of eugenics later embraced by the Nazis.

MacPherson doesn’t try to paper over these facts, but an unfortunate epilogue goes to great lengths to demonstrate how forward-thinking the sisters were, referencing a cast of characters ranging from Wendy Davis and Pat Schroeder to Mark Sanford and Bob Filner to argue that the injustices they fought against still persist.

It’s a point worth making, briefly, but it does an injustice to the sisters themselves to elevate them into icons of progressivism rather than allowing them to be the complex, and time-bound, human beings they actually were.

Natalie Wexler is author of a forthcoming historical novel, The Observer, based on the life of Eliza Anderson Godefroy, the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States. She is also the editor of Greater Greater Education, a blog focusing on public education in Washington, DC.

comments powered by Disqus