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Sister act

Pioneering dynamic duo broke down barriers for women in America

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/3/2014 (1259 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Buckle up and celebrate International Women's Day with Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927) and Tennessee Claflin (1845-1923).

Myra MacPherson has penned a polished, well-researched biography of the sisters, claiming "no American women in history surpass their raging, life-devouring and life-enhancing journey from pre-Civil War days, through their Victorian battles, down to their final years as two Roaring '20s grande dames having secured their place in history."


Executive members of the Political Equality League of Manitoba in a photo taken shortly after the passage of suffrage bill in January 1916.


Executive members of the Political Equality League of Manitoba in a photo taken shortly after the passage of suffrage bill in January 1916.

Never heard of them? Only recently had MacPherson -- a Washington Post journalist and award-winning, bestselling author -- as she recounts in the opening of this reads-like-fiction history.

"In 2008 everyone was talking about a momentous historic possibility: the Democratic Party nominating a woman, Hillary Clinton, for president, and an African-American man, Barack Obama, for vice-president. At the time, I read a squib in a newspaper saying it had already been done, back in 1872. An obscure third party had nominated a woman, Victoria Woodhull, with the famed former slave Frederick Douglass as her running mate. I started to read more about Woodhull and discovered her younger, sassy sister Tennessee Claflin, and I was hooked."

Hooked, but never reeled in -- for as much she admires the sisters, MacPherson the biographer maintains balance and perspective.

This is MacPherson's fifth non-fiction volume, including the acclaimed Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation (1984) and All Governments Lie!: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone (2006).

The sisters began their Horatio Alger rise as child clairvoyants, faith healers and cash cows for their large, seedy family. Parents and siblings surfaced, plaguing them throughout their adult lives, but the sisters had street smarts, people skills and resilience.

"As cunning as they are stunning," MacPherson notes, they amassed a number of firsts for women. They became stockbrokers with their Cornelius Vanderbilt-financed brokerage house in 1870 and published a long-running radical weekly (1870-1876). They distributed America's first English-language version of Karl Marx's The Communist Manifesto.

Woodhull was the first woman to address a congressional committee in 1871, petitioning, unsuccessfully, that the Fifteenth Amendment to the American Constitution -- the right of the "citizen" to vote -- also pertained to women. The issue was foisted to individual states and not fully resolved for some 50 years.

With Claflin at her side and behind the scenes, Woodhull became a popular public speaker for a time with suffragists and on topics such as prostitution, contraception and "free love" -- what MacPherson describes as "a maligned term that could mean anything from fighting for divorce reform to choosing a lover whenever one felt like it." Woodhull preferred the broader definition.

Claflin was the second woman (after suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton) to run unsuccessfully for Congress in 1871. She was also appointed honorary colonel of New York's Eighty-Fifth Regiment, a black unit.

Railing against sexual hypocrisy and double standards, the sisters accused the country's most charismatic preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, of adultery, and Wall Street banker Luther Challis of rape. Lurid, protracted trials for libel and obscenity ensued, captivating the nation. The sisters were "vindicated," but their allegations contributed to their ruin, prompting a lifelong exile to England in 1877.

MacPherson dubs them "scarlet" for "their ability to thoroughly shock Victorians and garner infamy." In their misogynistic times, so richly documented by MacPherson, the contemporary press and public label them tramps and prostitutes -- Woodhull deemed a "Jezebel" and "Mrs. Satan." According to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the preacher's sister and author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Woodhull was "a snake (who) should be given a good clip with a shovel."

Woodhull has already been the subject of 10 biographies, and Claflin shares consideration in another. MacPherson provides Claflin equal treatment to the showier Woodhull, offering new information on Claflin's life in Europe (including, at age 64, her hall-packing speeches on women's rights). Queen Victoria made her second husband a baron, making Claflin a lady at last. Woodhull, too, inherits a fortune from husband No. 3.

MacPherson's epilogue crackles with indignation. She considers the current status, in America, of issues championed by the sisters, including reproductive choice, sex education in schools, equal pay for equal work and laws against sexual violence.

She concludes, "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. Only then can women change not only attitudes but the laws that matter."

Those fascinated with the women's movement and social history of latter 19th-century America, as well as those who simply like a good story, will appreciate Scarlet Sisters.

It's a story that may inspire those questioning our own reality -- where women hold only 77 of 308 Member of Parliament positions, make up just 15 of 57 Manitoba MLAs and, according to a 2013 TD economics report, just 11 per cent of board members of large, publicly traded Canadian companies.

Gail Perry is a Winnipeg woman and writer.

Read more reviewed by Gail Perry.


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Updated on Saturday, March 8, 2014 at 8:42 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

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