A Short Quiz on the Scandalously Progressive ‘Scarlet Sisters’

Scarlet Sisters in the Gilded Age
Victoria Woodhull | Caricature of American suffragist Victoria Woodhull © Library of Congress | Tennessee Celeste Claflin

1. Answer: D) All of the above.

The sisters were passionate about gender equality in all areas of life at a time when, as MacPherson puts it, men “made the social and legal rules.” They wrote in newspapers and spoke in lectures of the necessity for birth control before Margaret Sanger and the importance of women being allowed to make and manage their own funds. In 1872, Teneessee was named colonel of a regiment of soldiers––African-American ones, at that.

2. Answer: E) A and B only.

Though they did not come from money, the sisters managed to become acquainted with Cornelius Vanderbilt, an original one-percenter who was immediately smitten with Tennie. Whether or not they consummated their relationship, Vanderbilt gave Claflin the money to open a brokerage firm, and the women became the first female bankers in New York. And even before women won the right to vote, both sisters ran for office; Woodhull, in fact, was the first woman to run for president.  Read the book to find out why she and her running mate were decried as “The Highly Colored Human Ticket.”

3. Answer: B) Henry James.

Though James dodged the question with a rote answer about fiction being… well, fake, the New York World called it an “open secret” that the unconventional divorcee in his novel The Siege of London was based on Woodhull. He also allegedly modeled a character, a spiritualist named Verena Tarrant, in The Bostonians on her. Victoria and then-husband Blood Martin were deeply distressed by this, and James, knowing that the couple was wont to sue, assured them the papers were mistaken.