The Scarlet Sisters

The Scarlet Sisters is the real-life saga of the two most flamboyant, radical and scandalous sisters in American history. Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin rose from a sordid childhood to champion Free Love and women’s sexual, economic and political freedom at a time when women had no power. They became the first women stockbrokers in the world in 1870 (not to be repeated for 100 years) bankrolled by Tennessee’s lover, Cornelius Vanderbilt–the richest man in America. Some 2,000 gaping, shouting stockbrokers crowded the street just to see them open their offices. The beautiful sisters cavorted with capitalists and communists (Karl Marx), published a radical muckraking weekly that exposed high crimes on Wall Street. To crowds of six thousand they shouted down charges of “prostitutes” and “tramps” to crusade for divorce reform, sexual freedom, defend prostitutes and mock Victorian religious hypocrisy. Woodhull became the first woman to run for President– in 1872 with famed orator and former slave, Frederick Douglass, chosen as her running mate on a third-party ticket. Tennessee became honorary colonel of Manhattan’s only black post-Civil War regiment. Victoria was the first woman to address Congress, arguing that women were “citizens” as so defined in the Constitution and thus able to vote without an amendment. To which a congressman sputtered “You are not a citizen! You are a woman!” When they exposed the adultery of the most famous preacher in America, Henry Ward Beecher, they were repeated jailed by Beecher forces on trumped up charges.

After being drummed out of the suffrage movement as too scandalous, the sisters–who grew up in rags as fortune telling con artists–fled to London, where they married two of the richest men in England. Tennessee became Lady Cook and continued a globetrotting suffragist lecturing career, while hobnobbing with Kings, Queens and Presidents.

The sisters lived on to see the vote, as grand dames in the 1920’s flapper era. Yet their crusade for equal pay for equal work 150 years ago still has not come to pass. Above all, this is a timely book; the sexual freedoms and rights the sisters battled for are being threatened once again. The “then” and “now” remarkable comparisons are addressed in detail in the Epilogue