Myra MacPherson – The Scarlet Sisters (2014)

18170162Throughout 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 their role is downplayed. In this account, Myra MacPherson gives the sisters the full attention they deserve.

For starters I had no idea that Victoria and Tennie were the first women to operate a brokerage firm on Wall Street and were quite successful at it. In addition to being outspoken supporters of the suffragist movement, both sisters were also advocates of free love and legalizing prostitution, both of which were not popular views to be held by women at the time. For all their progressive thought however, both sisters were still opposed to abortion and in favour of eugenics falling in line with mainstream opinions on both those social issues.

MacPherson in her account traces the sisters’ lives from childhood and their involvement with the spiritualism movement, through their ventures as stock brokers, their work towards women’s rights and Victoria’s Presidential campaign, to both of their deaths and legacy. The book was entertaining and informative but it’s true strength lies in the epilogue where MacPherson ties what Tennie and Victoria were attempting to accomplish to the current “War on Women.” I will end with this quote from the author:

“In the end, we come full circle, back to 1870 when the sisters argued that the vote alone was not enough; women need to be elected and in positions of power.” With the United States coming up to an election year, it will be interesting to see what happens. 

Recommended Listening

Two podcast episodes about Victoria Woodhull’s Campaign for President. One from Radio Diaries and one from Stuff You Missed in History Class

1 thought on “Myra MacPherson – The Scarlet Sisters (2014)

  1. N A

    Legalizing prostitution but opposing abortion, odd that they held such a strange and conflicting position on women’s rights, I wonder how they would have rationalized it.The book looks like an interesting view on some lesser known social pioneers, thanks for the review.


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