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

3.48  ·  Rating details ·  563 ratings  ·  119 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, 323 pages
Published March 4th 2014 by Twelve
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Start your review of The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age
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
Apr 23, 2014 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
Mar 22, 2014 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 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 ridiculously b ...more
Nov 24, 2014 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
Apr 09, 2015 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
Fred Klein
Sep 21, 2016 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 ba
Victoria Woodhull, aka “Mrs. Satan”, and her sister Tennie Claflin were fascinating and brilliant. I’m not American, and I’ve barely started reading about feminist history, so I didn’t know about either of these women – therefore, I’m very glad to have found and read this book. I was even more interested in Tennie than in her sister – Tennie Claflin was the first and only American white woman to be elected colonel of a black regiment” . Only imagine!

They fought against hypocrisy, aga
Nov 09, 2017 marked it as didn-t-finish
Shelves: book-club
Ugh...I just could not get through this book. In fact, I think I just skimmed 75% of it, because I had to read it for a book group, but just...couldn't.

I struggled a lot with the characters here. Basically everyone struck me as a terrible person, from Victoria and Tennie to respected members of the suffrage movement, including Susan B. Anthony (petty) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (a racist). The only person I liked in this book was Frederick Douglas, and he was barely even there!
Jamie Jones Hullinger
So crazy that it is all true. These sisters were way ahead of their time. However it did lull a bit in the middle because the sisters clearly refused to learn from past mistakes. It is frustrating that they did not really stand for much of anything when one thinks about it. They were merely opportunists. Nonetheless I give them props for finding success the only way that a woman could at that time.
B.  Barron
Mar 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I loved it. I was a little disappointed in their later lives, expecially in Victoria; but overall they were a force of nature and ill behaved.
Just the way I like.
Mar 24, 2014 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
Apr 10, 2014 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 person
Mar 05, 2014 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 11, 2015 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 05, 2014 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
Nov 01, 2015 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
Betsy Brainerd
These sisters were feminists, suffragettes,spiritualists and free love advocates in the late 1800s- ahead of their time on many issues and the details of their lives are fascinating. Given their dysfunctional family and poor start in life, it is incredible what they were able to accomplish. I'd heard of Victoria Woodhull in a women's studies class, but I had no idea about her sister, Tenny Claflin, or the societal context in which they lived. It gets a bit long, but is well worth reading, even i ...more
May 25, 2015 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
Meg Marie
Nov 26, 2016 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
Apr 07, 2014 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
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.
Brigitte Dale
Jan 08, 2018 rated it liked it
This book does a great job of introducing readers to two fascinating women whose stories rival fiction and whose activism and daring deserve greater recognition. Still, it’s a book to skim at points, because the quotations can be excessive (as though MacPherson believed she read hundreds of Victorian letters so we had to, too) and sometimes it takes long tangents. Nonetheless, it’s a compelling and relevant story of amazing American women.
Jul 01, 2014 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
Ashley H.
Jul 07, 2017 rated it it was ok
Book is okay, story is engaging for a while and then becomes dull. I could have done without the propaganda chapter at the end.
Jun 02, 2017 rated it it was ok
Like many other reviewers, I found that this book just didn't provide enough insight into Woodhull and Claflin. It seemed to rely extensively (exclusively?) on published writings - newspaper articles, memoirs and biographies of dubious authenticity, etc. - which, when writing about women who were essentially the Kardashians of the nineteenth century, doesn't tell you much about them. MacPherson seems to have had some difficulty grappling with her subjects as well, at one point writing that the s ...more
Amy K.
Jul 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
Well-written, detailed, and engaging, this biography of Victoria Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, is discouraging for what it shows us of how little progress we've actually made. The same accusations leveled against these women for their ambitions and desire for autonomy (in reproduction, for example, as well as in with whom they choose to have sex) are still being used today on Twitter and in Congress. Of course we have made progress, and that's important to remember, a point that Ma ...more
Christopher Saunders
Apr 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018-reads
Myra McPherson's The Scarlet Sisters is a dual biography of Victoria Woodhull, 19th Century feminist and her equally impressive sister, Tennessee Claflin. I've struggled to find a book that did Woodhull's fascinating life story justice and this book, though a bit digressive and logy in spots, comes closest. McPherson shows that Woodhull's eccentric life meets its match with Tennie Claflin, who often comes off as the brains of the pair; a successful investor and stockbroker who had a feel for the finer ...more
Apr 23, 2019 rated it liked it
For such interesting characters this was a very dry book. A blow-by-blow account of these sisters’ lives in all their infamy and controversy, but more academic in nature than narrative. MacPherson seems more interested in detailing their scandals and parsing out what they may or may not have done than anything else. Victoria Woodhull and Tennie Claflin are definitely women to be remembered and possibly even revered in American history, and this work is a solid first introduction to them, but I w ...more
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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
“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.” 1 likes
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