Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Victoria Woodhull. How about Tennessee (Tennie) Claflin? Not so many hands in the air I’d wager.
I’d not heard of these astounding sisters either; at least not before I found ‘The Scarlet Sisters – Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age’ at my wonderful local library. But found them I did, and immediately thought how deserving they are to be featured as women of history.
Women's Rights and 'Free Love'
These two were 150 years ahead of their time. Championing not just women’s voting rights in the staid Victorian era, but worker’s rights, women’s reproductive rights, pay equality, and what they called ‘free love’.
Born to a shiftless family definitely on the wrong side of right, much of their chutzpah undoubtedly stemmed from their formative years as hucksters. They were taught at an early age what it meant to be women earning their way. Victoria was the older sister, married at age 15 to an alcoholic, philandering husband. Her ideas about ‘free love’, essentially a woman’s right to choose to be with a partner, likely stemmed from this disastrous, loveless first marriage. Tennessee, younger by seven years, remained with the family ‘enterprise’ longer, and is believed to have had a short-lived marriage, but little is known about it. She went by Mrs. Claflin until she married again late in her life.
Both women followed spiritualism, popular at the time, and claimed to be able to commune with the dead. This, and working with their snake oil salesman father, was how they developed their outstanding oratorical skills. They began to develop their radical ideas on women’s rights as the suffrage movement got underway, but gradually broadened their campaign to include many aspects of the women’s movement still at issue today.
Wall Street Warriors
Undeterred by social mores of the time, the sisters opened the first female brokerage firm on Wall Street in 1870. This enterprise may have been backed by Cornelius Vanderbilt, but I suspect it is more likely they used their often outrageous skills in manipulating the press to make it seem like they had his support. Their purpose? Mostly to prove that women could do it.
Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History
Victoria and Tennie published a paper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, which they used to gain support for their ideas and business operations. There is some dispute as to who actually wrote the articles for this publication, but there is no doubt that Victoria was often found making great speeches outlining her ideas on women’s rights and free love as a means to earn money. Initially supported by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Victoria and Tennie’s escapades eventually caused a rift between them and the various suffrage groups operating at the time. Victoria and Tennie’s ideas (and behavior) were simply too much for what were essentially intellectual matrons.
Campaigning for President
In 1872 Victoria Woodhull put herself forward as a candidate for the United States presidency, and was nominated by the NWSA (National Women’s Suffrage Association) convention even though she herself knew she would never win. Consider that fact: women in most states weren’t even able to own property at the time, let alone seek the highest public office in the land. As representative John Bingham of Ohio told her, “Madam, you are no citizen, you are a woman!” Cue all 21st century eyebrows lifting in incredulity, proof that at least some of the things they campaigned for have come to pass.
The Fight's Not Over
Victoria and Tennie were light years ahead of their time. What’s astounding, and more than a little disheartening, is how many of the issues they championed are still unresolved today. Even with all the inspiring women in history that have campaigned for women’s rights, fought for reproductive control, protested the gender pay gap and run for public office, women still aren’t on equal footing by many measures. What’s even more frightening is that even now the double standard for men and women is a hard line in the sand; as Myra Macpherson, author of The Scarlet Sisters comments, “Both sisters were regarded as viciously ambitious, and therefore abnormal, tough, mannish, “strong-minded,” unsexed – but conversely, viewed as prostitutes.’ Sound familiar? Adjusted to accommodate 150 years of feminism, this line still rings true today.
And thank you Myra MacPherson, for writing such an interesting tale of these two historical women.