The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age
As Women’s History Month draws to a close, here comes a historical tome that highlights some of the early feminists’ most prolific and polarizing icons: Victoria Woodhull and her sister, Tennesee Claflin. THE SCARLET SISTERS, Myra MacPherson’s delightful look at their myriad of endeavors and adventures, offers the type of intrigue and gossipy goodness that will please viewers of “Scandal.” The Claflin sisters were far more progressive than Olivia Pope and at least twice as powerful. Their mark on history is not negligible, and perhaps this charming telling of their tales will cement further their reputation for helping change women’s roles in polite society.
Although growing up dirt poor, the girls projected great intelligence and beauty, traits that their schemer of a father certainly put to good use. A snake oil salesman himself, he used his daughters to help him basically con money off of people, and, although more difficult to document, he may also have pimped out his girls on occasion (he had five daughters all together). Reuben Buck Claflin and his nefarious ways became a part of the sisters’ mythology --- although, according to the public testaments of Victoria and Tennie when they had to publicize one of their ventures, his nastiness was translated into pure business sense and his reputation determined to be “successful businessman.” He wasn’t really, but the sisters were quite good at making something out of nothing on a regular basis.
"As someone who reads everything that is published about American women’s history, I give THE SCARLET SISTERS my seal of approval. In fact, I think I’m going to read it again! It is that good."
There is requisite attention given here by MacPherson to the fact that Victoria Woodhull was the first female in American history to make an actual bid for the presidency. Her political work creates the basis for Woodhull’s iconic status in feminist lore, even though the Mother of All Feminism, Susan B. Anthony, had major trouble accepting Woodhull as the kind of candidate that could truly push forth womens’ rights agendas. However, she and her sister also predated Margaret Sanger by decades in trying to bring birth control and early sex education to the masses. Woodhull, in particular, was a prominent purveyor of the Spiritualist movement in the early 20th century. The sisters were also the first female stockbrokers on Wall Street, opening up their store with the help of one Cornelius Vanderbilt (who used them to annoy Boss Tweed in Tammany Hall). Everything they managed to do brought them publicity and made them the subject of gossip hounds throughout several transitional periods of American growth.
It was a particular scandal, however, that cemented the status of the sisters as rabblerousers and troublesome ladies. In the Beecher-Tilton scandal, the sisters’ attitudes about free love created a whole new level of gossip-mongering among the intelligentsia and powerful in New York and well beyond. The idea that a marriage could be less a binding contract than a changing, shape-shifting institution for all people did not go over well in Gilded Age circles.
For all the difficulties they created for their progressive stances on taboo topics, Woodhull and Claflin did make serious input into the changing culture of the U.S. and paved the way for other women to enjoy those progressive ideas in a more socially acceptable way. Soon social standing of the more contemporary sort almost dictated that the ladies raise money for suffragist causes and that the progression towards greater freedoms for women in marriage and the home, as well as in the business world, was energized by the work they did.
They were publicity hounds, yes, and did nothing that couldn’t get them featured prominently in the news media of the day. But MacPherson is committed to providing their whole story, good and bad, which makes THE SCARLET SISTERS a livelier and more entertaining look at Woodhull, her family and their exploits than ever presented before. (Woodhull is a popular biographical subject, and a famous script about her life has been in the hands of Annette Bening for decades, still trying to find the right financier for a production.) The story of these sisters is still relevant as contemporary ladies continue to bump up against glass ceilings and further qualify what women can and can’t do in society. Woodhull and Claflin rose from the low-down dirty squalor of American rural life to take cities and countries by storm with their bold ideals. We who live in these times have a lot to thank them for, even as we gasp in shock at their means of making their points.
THE SCARLET SISTERS would be an interesting conversation starter for book clubs. How did the work Woodhull and Claflin accomplished, and the scandal they created, become the basis for so many of the hard-fought rights and privileges that women now enjoy? How would they beat against the glass ceiling? How would they change the workplace to make it more effective for families’ lives? They certainly would have a lot to say about any of these topics.
As someone who reads everything that is published about American women’s history, I give THE SCARLET SISTERS my seal of approval. In fact, I think I’m going to read it again! It is that good. Thanks to “Vicki and Tennie” for making history-changing so darn interesting.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on March 28, 2014