Myra MacPherson


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

The Scarlet Sisters is a many facetted book; it tells the story of the two most flamboyant , radical and scandalous sisters in American history--Victorian Gilded age avante garde sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin--who championed Free Love and women’s sexual, economic and political freedom at a time when women had no power.


It depicts their amazing seven-decade life and times. Bankrolled by Tennessee’s supposed lover, Cornelius Vanderbilt--the richest man in America- they became the first women stockbrokers in the world in 1870 (not to be repeated for 100 years). The beautiful sisters cavorted with capitalists and communists (Karl Marx), published a radical muckraking weekly that exposed high crimes on Wall Street, were radical suffragists and shocked the world as Free Lovers. Woodhull ran for President in 1872 with famed orator and former slave, Frederick Douglass, chosen as her running made on a third party ticket. Tennessee became honorary colonel of Manhattan’s only black post-Civil War regiment. When they exposed the most famous preacher in America, Henry Ward Beecher, for alleged adultery they were imprisoned by vice Czar Anthony Comstock, who singlehandedly wrecked first amendment and free press rights for decades following the celebrity press style coverage of the sisters’ battles.


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, never detailed before in books solely on her sister, hobnobbing with Kings, Queens and Presidents.


The sisters lived on to see the vote, as grand dames in the 1920's flapper era.


Now, 140 years after their initial fight for women’s sexual, economic and political freedoms, many of their ideas have finally been accepted by society, while today’s feminists are still fighting for some of them. Nothing equals their astounding life in American history.


Above all, this is also a timely book; in the current political War on Women, 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


Early praise for the Scarlet Sisters:


"Sensational doesn’t begin to describe the over-the-top reaction that greeted every aspect of the lives of nineteenth-century America’s two most controversial sisters. Flamboyant, outspoken, opportunistic Victoria Claflin Woodhull and her younger sister, Tennie, were self-aggrandizing scene-stealers who tangled with Henry Ward Beecher, swindled Cornelius Vanderbilt, and antagonized Susan B. Anthony. Yet for all their pomp and bombast, they were unrepentant champions of equal rights for women in everything from the bedroom to the boardroom, the voting booth to the battlefield. Dismissively patronized by men for being empty-headed fripperies and scathingly ostracized by women for their unladylike bravura, the sisters courageously battled such defamatory characterizations to bring their controversial views on monogamy and suffrage to packed lecture halls throughout the country. MacPherson draws a detailed portrait of the roller-coaster, rags-to-riches lives of two backwoods country girls who, seeking to better their own situation, hoped to do the same for women everywhere. Sadly, MacPherson concludes, many of their causes remain little changed 150 years after their tireless campaigns began. " — Carol Haggas



THE SCARLET SISTERS has everything‹from history and intrigue, to sex and money… A fabulous delight of a read." Jim Lehrer, former PBS Newshour Host and author.


"Sensational...MacPherson gives a detailed portrait of the roller-coaster, rags-to-riches lives of two backwoods country girls, who, seeking to better their own situation, hoped to do the same for women everywhere… " Booklist.


"Ordinarily, one would look to the fiction of Twain or Dickens to find a 19th century tale to match the real-life saga of the sisters Claflin-Woodhull. Happily, Myra MacPherson has rediscovered these proto-feminists."  Carl Bernstein Pulitzer Prize-winning Journalist, author of A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton.


"…A riveting, often uproarious chronicle…" Ron Powers, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author of Mark Twain: A Life


"…Both a great tale, and a great read!" Jane Mayer, staff writer for The New Yorker and author of The Dark Side


"THE SCARLET SISTERS is a roller-coaster ride though American history that will amaze and delight readers." Debby Applegate, Pulitzer Prize winner for The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher


"MacPherson writes the story of these fearless and path-breaking 19th century radicals with her trademark energy and wit." Ellen Goodman Pulitzer prizewinning journalist


"Woodhull and Claflin deserve credit for crashing the glass front doors of Wall Street, Washington, and bedrooms across the country 140 years ago. These amazing pioneers are brought to life in MacPherson's enthralling book." —Kenneth D. Ackerman, author of The Gold Ring: Jim Fisk, Jay Gould and Black Friday, 1869.


"Myra MacPherson crusades for the Scarlet Sisters, two scandalous suffragettes", Vanity Fair


"MacPherson aims her wit and very sharp pen at a side of the suffrage movement rarely seen in history books, epitomized by these two real sisters…MacPherson…takes us on a raucous romp through secret trysts, their self-published weekly advocating free speech and free love, sensational trials, fortune-telling, Spiritualism and brushes with the most powerful capitalists and revolutionaries of the time. Along the way the sisters set the suffrage movement on fire -- albeit briefly -- with their modern ideas, fiery rhetoric and passion for women's rights." Los Angeles Daily Journal; Elaine Elinson, Gold Medal winner, 2010 California Book Awards.

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