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

3.48  ·  Rating Details ·  389 Ratings  ·  89 Reviews
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 th ...more
Hardcover, 432 pages
Published March 4th 2014 by Twelve
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It is hard to imagine these sisters and their incredible lives. You follow them from a childhood that is painfully hard to read about (how did they ever live through it?) to their celebrity and later in life (perhaps) successful marriages. They advocated causes that were far from the norms of the day. They had what today we call “baggage” and lots of it.

If you bemoan the recent Supreme Court decision on birth control, you can take comfort that things were worse in the Gilded Age when, despite th
Mar 22, 2014 LillyBooks rated it liked it
I really liked the subject matter of this book, the story of two sisters who crusaded for women's rights in the 1860s/1870s. As I had never heard of the two women, I found almost almost all of the information new and enlightening. But I wasn't wowed by the writing style, which seemed more like a list of facts dates and facts than a compelling story. This resulted in some parts of their lives seeming to drag on too long. But, on the whole, I would recommend the book as an important and interestin ...more
Joe Drape
Mar 06, 2014 Joe Drape rated it really liked it
In the gilded agae, sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin were a cross between the Kardashians and Hillary Clinton. They opened a brokerage firm,conquered Wall Street and - 100 years before women could vote - Victoria became the first woman to run for president. She chose former slave Frederick Douglass as her running mate. The sisters were smart, beautiful and free living. This lost episode of history unfurls as a page turner.

I found The Scarlet Sisters to be a highly interesting read. I do not recall ever having heard of the Claflin sisters prior to encountering this book, which I feel is rather a shame considering the ideas these two had. Victoria and Tennie were truly well ahead of their time, more than 150 years ahead easily. Many ideas they put forth about women's rights in particular are still being fought for today. This puts their forward thinking and courage in the spotlight but also highlights how ridiculou ...more
Jun 15, 2014 Megan rated it it was ok
Fascinating subject matter -- I really wanted this to be great! It got rave reviews from some pretty impressive people, including Jim Lehrer and Carl Bernstein. The story definitely grabbed my attention -- the lives and times of two sisters who challenged the beliefs of the world and paved the way for some major social and political changes, refusing to let the hypocrites of their day continue on with business as usual. But with so many characters, events, and years to cover, this story needed a ...more
Jan 15, 2015 Yasmin rated it it was amazing
Another excellent read! The Scarlet Sisters are a fascinating pair who were very much advanced in their environment and if they had been able to have continued would have further advanced the causes of suffrage, feminism and equality among the classes. Having come from a poor background where they were forced by their father into being con artists and for at least Tennie prostitution they managed to rise up from these ashes and fight for the advancement of women. In a short space of time they we ...more
Richard Gartee
Jun 30, 2015 Richard Gartee rated it really liked it
A non-fiction book to blow the contemporary ideas of women leaders. Two sisters, whom prior to reading this I was unaware of, broke too many glass ceilings to count. Victoria Woodhull and Tennie Claflin came from poverty, rose to power, went broke, got rich, all the while promoting a variety of liberal and women's causes. Will Hillary Clinton be the first woman to run for President? No, Victoria Woodhull did it in 1872. The first woman to testify before congress, the first women to open and oper ...more
Mar 24, 2014 Jeff rated it really liked it
In May of 1872, the world watched in utter incredulity as a woman took to a stage in New York City and announced her candidacy to run for the President of the United States in the 1872 election, the first woman to ever do so. She named Frederick Douglass, the famous runaway slave turned abolitionist, as her running mate for VP. The contender: Victoria Woodhull – a woman long forgotten today, but so infamously known in the Gilded Age that William Randolph Hurst probably made thousands on newspape ...more
Mary Rose
Apr 10, 2014 Mary Rose rated it really liked it
Before I heard of this book, Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennie Claflin weren't known to me. But reading about their lives and struggles, and their prescient cries for progressive social justice was thrilling.

MacPherson doesn't lack for subject matter, these two women were firecrackers. And I appreciated her focus on truth and mentioning other sources that used conjectures and hearsay as fact. When MacPherson conjectures about motive, or an incident that can't be cited in personal notes or
Mar 16, 2014 Bruce rated it it was amazing
This book is both enlightening and disheartening. Enlightening in its treatment of two women who were reviled by many of the men of the Gilded Age because of their beliefs and actions. Disheartening because it shows we have not come all that far in the treatment of women. Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennie Claflin were used by their parents in various criminal schemes and their family continued to be a thorn in their sides for the rest of their lives. Be that as it may, the sisters made a n ...more
Jul 31, 2015 Peggy rated it really liked it
Fascinating account of infamous sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, their lives in Victorian times, and their place in history. The author's well-researched attention to a puritanical era in which corruption, misogyny and hypocriscy thrived reveals striking parallels to modern socio-political events, and creates the contextual backdrop for these original drama queens, whose lives and spirits give substance to the saying that "well behaved women rarely make history." The sisters' sav ...more
Apr 19, 2014 Tania rated it really liked it
What a fascinating book. I had never read any books about this time period! I found the history & lives of Victoria Woodhull and Tennie Claflin to be incredibly interesting. I had learned a little about Woodhull in my Women's Studies classes in college, but how amazing to get a more in-depth view of her childhood, complexity of her political views, and how those views shifted over time. It's terribly easy to forget that history didn't have to turn out the way it did and that these people wer ...more
Katie Wilson
May 12, 2016 Katie Wilson rated it really liked it
Shelves: fall-2015
Throughout my years studying American history Victoria Woodhull and Tennie Claflin were names that appeared in the literature but often only in connection to the men they were associated with. In fact it’s often only Victoria who is mentioned due to criticism of the minister Henry Ward Beecher and his affair with Elizabeth Tilton. Victoria and Tennie are also mentioned in passing discussions surrounding the suffragist movement but because the two sister led such scandalous lives, often times the ...more
Jul 20, 2015 Paul rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
So, I knew one thing about Victoria Woohull, that she was the first woman to run for President of the United States on a platform of votes for women and free love. I only know this because at one point in the early 1970's, Carol Channing was working on a musical about her (it was never finished). Well, this book is just chock full of all sorts of fascinating information - these women were 150 years ahead of their time. Really enjoyable read, very well researched, and bringing Victoria's younger ...more
Jun 18, 2014 Socraticgadfly rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
A good overview of the lives of the famous, or infamous, Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, free love advocates and among the first suffragists to not come from somewhat upper-level backgrounds.

That much I knew. As I did the basics of their Spiritualism. Where that came from, and just how dire, both economically and morally, their childhood background was, I did not know.

Nor did I know that, after the Beecher scandal and run-ins with bluenose Anthony Comstock, both married into British mon
Meg Marie
Nov 26, 2016 Meg Marie rated it liked it
Two sisters emerged from abject poverty to be completely ahead of their time, advocating for women's suffrage, free love (aka a woman's right to not endure spousal rape, or lose her children should she want to divorce because she no longer loved her husband) and equality between the sexes. Elder sister Victoria attempted to run for President, and Tennie was named leader of an African American regiment after the Civil War. And yet, they're forgotten to time, and sadly, life for women is still shi ...more
David Schwan
An interesting book in that it gives a view of America's suffrage movement from the perspective of two sisters Victoria and Tennie Clafin who were a very daring pair of ladies. They ran the first female owned brokerage on Wall Street, ran for US President, advocated free love and where quite connected with the then nascent progressive movement. The only negative is that the story is very detailed with regard to a scandal involving a famous preacher, almost too detailed.
Jul 05, 2014 Jen rated it it was amazing
Shelves: feminist, biographies
"Put a woman on trial for anything--it is considered as a legitimate part of the defense to make a most searching inquiry into her sexual morality, and the decision generally turns upon the proof advanced in this regard." Tennie Claflin, 1871 #waronwomen
Jun 14, 2015 Sally rated it liked it
I had no idea . . .
Jan 20, 2017 Alex rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: to-read-women
In 1872, with the help of her even more-progressive sister, a white woman fighting for the rights of women, African Americans, Native Americans, laborers, sex workers, and the generally disenfranchised ran for president of the United States, with Frederick Douglass as her nominal running mate. She did not win. After years of working towards social justice and exposure of conservative hypocrisy through their progressive newspaper, political lobbying, and exhaustive lecture tours, these sisters we ...more
Dorothy Hall
Dec 31, 2016 Dorothy Hall rated it really liked it
Amazing piece of women's history that is generally below the radar. Victoria Woodhull ran for President in 1872 and asked Frederick Douglas to be her vice-president. She and her sister, started the first brokerage house owned by women on Wall Street that same year. This book shows well-known figures in new light including, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Harriett Beecher Stowe.

I really enjoyed it.
Jan 16, 2017 Rebecca marked it as gave-up-on
After 200 pages, I quit. Poor organization made this biography a slog. The author jumps back and forth in time and switches topics every chapter without ever developing any unifying themes or motivations. As a result, the subjects' contributions to feminism, which I wanted to learn about, get lost in a seemingly random muddle of publicity stunts, fiery speeches and petty personal feuds. On top of that, the book is stuffed with too many minor characters and too much extraneous background informat ...more
It’s really astonishing how certain figures are left out of our history. Prior to reading this biography, I had no idea that Victoria Claflin Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, existed. Yet when one speak about pioneers in areas of women’s rights, the two of them deserve to be remembered just as much as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Myra MacPherson’s work here in highlighting the public lives of these women is tremendously important, and if The Scarlet Sisters was slightl ...more
Jan 04, 2017 Brooke rated it liked it
I thought I knew about Victoria Woodhull but realized there was more to the story than I was aware of. I knew little about her sister Tennie Claflin so found that more interesting. I learned most about their childhood and their later years. It is amazing - and somewhat sad - how little things have changed in some parts of society from the Victorian era. I had always assumed that Frederick Douglass was involved in campaigning for vice president with Victoria so was very surprised to learn they ha ...more
Sep 21, 2016 Kinksrock rated it really liked it
I picked up this book after I saw the author on tv, talking about how one of the two "scarlet sisters", Victoria Woodhull, was actually the first woman to run for president. That's a dubious distinction. Woodhull's argument was that, even though she could not vote, she was a citizen and could run for president. However, she was not even the legal age to run for president yet, so the whole thing was kind of a farce.

Nonetheless, these women are fascinating characters who came from a background of
Sep 27, 2016 Sarah rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really enjoyed!
Sep 20, 2016 Jamie rated it liked it
Shelves: lady
I give this book 3.75 stars. Though I thoroughly enjoyed this close look at the dynamic Claflin sisters, I found that the writing style at times obfuscated the timeline and details of the events being discussed.

The book is nonetheless pleasant to read—clearly well researched, it does a good job of re-animating these once-lively women.
Jul 14, 2015 Janta rated it really liked it
(In the hardcover copy of this book that I read, the text goes to p. 323; the remainder is bibliography, notes, and so on.)

I picked this up on a whim at my library; I'd never heard of Victoria Woodhull or Tennie Claflin before. Victorian/Gilded Age history isn't usually my thing, but these women were incredibly intriguing. They came from humble, even disreputable origins as the children of a quack medicine seller, and were pressed into that con-artist lifestyle themselves, being billed as medium
Jul 24, 2014 Alisa rated it liked it
Although I was not impressed with MacPherson's writing style, I was fascinated with this tidbit of the history of women's rights. Sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennie Claflin were two women I'd never heard of--the history books ignore them in favor of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton--but these ladies were well-known in post-Civil War America. In fact, Woodhull even tried to run for president, 120 years before Hillary Clinton! MacPherson pieces together their astounding story, beginni ...more
Aug 28, 2015 Jessica rated it it was amazing
Every now and then I stumble upon a remarkable woman from history who leaves me flabbergasted by her accomplishments and simultaneous disappearance from generally known American history. But now here are two more to add to my list!

Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin were each so remarkable in their own right. Out of a childhood of Dickensosian poverty -- the children of an actual snake oil salesman -- they eventually climbed their way to the top, befriending Vanderbilts, founding the first
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Fifth book to be published March 4. The Scarlet Sisters: Six Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age.The reads-like-fiction true story of VIctoria Woodhull and Tennie Claflin, Free Lovers who shocked the world and upset the white male power structure fighting for women's equality everywhere--from the board room to the bedroom--in the 1870's.

I was a long time reporter for the Washington Post and wr
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“Marriage is the grave of love.” 1 likes
“When facing one indignant male colleague after another who demanded how she could be both a member of Congress and a mother, she said, “Because I have a brain and a uterus and both work.” 0 likes
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