Learn more about CCRLS
Reading recommendations from Novelist
Online learning resources
Cover image for The scarlet sisters : sex, suffrage, and scandal in the Gilded Age
The scarlet sisters : sex, suffrage, and scandal in the Gilded Age

First edition.
New York : Twelve, 2014.
Physical Description:
xxiv, 401 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Vicky -- Tennie -- Wall Street warriors -- The bewitching brokers -- Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly -- "Madam, you are not a citizen, you are a woman!" -- Free love, suffrage, and abolition -- All in the family: "never a wholly sane mother" -- Sex and the city, circa 1871 -- Confessions of sin and battling the Beechers -- "Yes, I am a free lover!" -- from spirit ghosts to Karl Marx -- Being Tennie -- Future presidentess -- Down and out in Manhattan -- Unmasking Beecher and a masked ball rape -- Jailbirds and the naked truth -- Life and death -- Panic and victory -- The star chamber -- Wickedness in high places -- Beecher's revenge -- The siege of London -- Lady Cook -- Love and libel -- Widows -- Moving on -- Last acts.
Describes the adventures of two sisters who tried to overcome the male-dominated social norms of the late nineteenth century and achieved a remarkable list of firsts, including the first woman-run brokerage house and the first woman to run for president.
Geographic Term:


Call Number
920.93054 MacPherson 2014
305.4209 MacPherson
305.42 MACPHERSON 2014

On Order



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.

Author Notes

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.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Booklist Review

Sensational doesn't begin to describe the over-the-top reaction that greeted every aspect of the lives of nineteenth-century America's two most controversial sisters. Flamboyant, outspoken, opportunistic Victoria Claflin Woodhull and her younger sister, Tennie, were self-aggrandizing scene-stealers who tangled with Henry Ward Beecher, swindled Cornelius Vanderbilt, and antagonized Susan B. Anthony. Yet for all their pomp and bombast, they were unrepentant champions of equal rights for women in everything from the bedroom to the boardroom, the voting booth to the battlefield. Dismissively patronized by men for being empty-headed fripperies and scathingly ostracized by women for their unladylike bravura, the sisters courageously battled such defamatory characterizations to bring their controversial views on monogamy and suffrage to packed lecture halls throughout the country. MacPherson draws a detailed portrait of the roller-coaster, rags-to-riches lives of two backwoods country girls who, seeking to better their own situation, hoped to do the same for women everywhere. Sadly, MacPherson concludes, many of their causes remain little changed 150 years after their tireless campaigns began.--Haggas, Carol Copyright 2014 Booklist

Choice Review

Journalist MacPherson presents an engaging dual biography of sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee "Tennie" Claflin. Bursting from impoverished childhood after the Civil War, they took provocative, sometimes scandalous, stances on women's issues that captured the attention of both the public and the media. Much of this study focuses on nine years, 1868 to 1877, when both women publicly challenged the social norms and mores of the Gilded Age to push for women's rights in the US. MacPherson ably presents the sisters' well-publicized endeavors with excellent use of newspaper coverage. With backing by Cornelius Vanderbilt, they became the first women to open a Wall Street brokerage firm. Woodhull was the first woman to run for president and the first woman to speak before a congressional committee. Claflin ran for Congress and was named an honorary colonel of a black regiment. The sisters also published a weekly radical newspaper, and for a time, both were popular speakers. They advocated free love to challenge Victorian marriage practices and to establish proper relations between the sexes. They moved to Great Britain, where they married rich men, lived comfortably, and continued to press for women's rights. MacPherson succeeds in depicting the situation for many women and placing the sisters in historical context. Summing Up: Recommended. All levels/libraries. --Raymond M. Hyser, James Madison University

Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.