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The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age Hardcover – March 4, 2014

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

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

Review

"If the subject of Gilded Age women brings to mind buccaneers in gently rustling hoop skirts rather than feminist firebrands, Myra MacPherson's fascinating dual biography...may go a long way in changing that."―Vogue.com

"In this sweeping, engaging new biography, Myra MacPherson chronicles lives that intersected with nearly all of the era's great themes and famous figures."―Boston Globe

"[In] MacPherson's enchanting dual biography...the epilogue hammers home that even in 2014 men use women's bodies as political bargaining chips."―The Washington Post

"A lively account of the unlikely lives of the two most symbiotic and scandalous sisters in American History."―The New Yorker

"'MacPherson crusades' for 19th century feminists."―Vanity Fair

"MacPherson, an award-winning journalist, takes a theatrical approach to these radical proceedings. She provides a cast of characters and unfolds the sisters' story over the course of five irresistible 'acts.' This is a grand tale presented on a grand scale."―Bookpage

"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...she 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

"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

"As someone who reads everything that is published about American women's history, I give THE SCARLET SISTERS my seal of approval. In fact, I think I'm going to read it again! It is that good."―Bookreporter

"Ordinarily, one would look to the fiction of Twain or Dickens to find a nineteenth-century tale to match the real-life saga of the sisters Claflin-Woodhull. Happily, Myra MacPherson has rediscovered these proto-feminists. Their rebellion against Victorian sexual enslavement and the power of white males captivated and infuriated their contemporaries for good reason, and left a mark that resonates today."―Carl Bernstein, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author of A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton, and coauthor of All the President's Men (with Bob Woodward)

"Victoria Woodhull is one of the great unsung characters of American history--a beauty, a radical activist, a con artist, and a true revolutionary who pushed every boundary and every button that the century offered. 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

"THE SCARLET SISTERS has everything--from history and intrigue, to sex and money. Myra MacPherson has written this book with the care and professionalism of the great reporter she is but also with the wit, wisdom, and flair of the great novelist she definitely could be. A fabulous delight of a read."―Jim Lehrer, former host of PBS NewsHour, playwright, and author of Top Down: A Novel of the Kennedy Assassination

"Read the epilogue first, to understand immediately why THE SCARLET SISTERS resonates so richly in today's political world. Myra MacPherson's rich understanding of the threads connecting these colorful pioneers to our contentious twenty-first century issues is wonderfully instructive."―Lynn Sherr, author of Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words and the forthcoming Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space

"If the Scarlet Sisters hadn't existed, feminism would have had to invent them. Myra MacPherson writes the story of these fearless and path-breaking nineteenth-century radicals with her trademark energy and wit. This sisterhood is indeed powerful."―Ellen Goodman, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and coauthor of I Know Just What You Mean: The Power of Friendship in Women's Lives (with Patricia O'Brien)

"Myra MacPherson's THE SCARLET SISTERS vividly and entertainingly brings to life a long lost chapter of American history that will surprise anyone who thinks that feminism is a twentieth century invention. It's both a great tale, and a great read."―Jane Mayer, staff writer for the New Yorker and author of The Dark Side

"Myra MacPherson is a treasure among American historians. In [her] riveting, often uproarious chronicle, the Sisters' crusades against benighted convention were but the onset of a righteous firestorm that continues to arc into our times."―Ron Powers, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, novelist, and author of Mark Twain: A Life

"Woodhull and Claflin deserve credit for crashing the glass front doors of Wall Street, Washington, and bedrooms across the country a century and a half ago. These too long neglected amazing pioneers of the Gilded Age are brought to life in Myra MacPherson's energetic, well researched, and enthralling book."―Kenneth D. Ackerman, author of The Gold Ring: Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, and Black Friday, 1869
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Twelve; First Edition edition (March 4, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0446570230
  • ISBN-13: 978-0446570237
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.5 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #304,783 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Myra MacPherson is an award winning best selling author. THE SCARLET SISTERS: Sex Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age, MacPherson's fifth book, demonstrates a return to the compelling issues of women's rights addressed in her first book The Power Lovers: The Effect of Politics on Political Families. Written during the 1970's feminist rebirth, it examined the political family façade for the first time and addressed the handful of women in politics. MacPherson met her second husband, the late Florida Senator Jack D. Gordon, while covering the Equal Rights Amendment battle and he was the sponsor of the ERA in that pivotal state. The granddaughter of a coal miner, raised in a town of 800, MacPherson never stopped marveling at the egalitarian world of journalism; a few years after graduating from college, she interviewed President Kennedy, for example. She wrote about murderers and serial killers, slain Civil Rights leaders and presidential campaigns, Hollywood celebrities and international leaders Fidel Castro and Nicaraguan President Violetta Chamorro, and the aftermath of the Panama raid to capture Manuel Noriega.

In the Mad Men era, she was banned from sports boxes because she was a woman, while covering the Indianapolis 500 and the Miracle Mets World Series victory in 1969. Ben Bradlee hired her for the revolutionary Style section of the Washington Post--which changed journalism on a nation-wide scale with its daily magazine approach to politics and art--while her in-depth profiles included the Watergate criminals. A Post series on Vietnam Veterans led to her groundbreaking classic and finalist in the Los Angeles Times Book Awards, Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation, the first trade book to examine Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. More than a decade after its publication in 1985, Arnold R. Isaacs, noted authority on Vietnam, wrote: "Any approach to the subject of Vietnam's aftermath must begin with Myra MacPherson's ground breaking book. Her book, among the first to break the long national silence on the war, remains one of the most moving and important works on the Vietnam bookshelf." Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22 wrote: "MacPherson's book belongs with the best of the works on Vietnam, and there has been no better body of war literature that I know of."

Her 2006 award winning All Governments Lie: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I. F. Stone remains a timely study of politics and the media. It won the 2007 Sperber Award for Biography, was a finalist in the 2008 Pen-USA Literary Award and was named a Best Book of 2006 by the Boston Globe, Rocky Mountain News, and Book List.

MacPherson is on the board of the Hospice Foundation of America and her fourth book, She Came to Live Out Loud: An Inspiring Family Journey Through Illness Loss and Grief was hailed by caregivers. The former first lady Rosalynn Carter, coauthor of Helping Yourself Help Others: A Book for Caregivers said: "Through this very personal story about one woman's battle with breast cancer, Myra MacPherson weaves practical and inspiring lessons into an intimate portrayal of Anna and her family and friends. Those who have an illness and those who care for someone with an illness will benefit from Anna's energy and courage...Myra MacPherson's book is a powerful educational tool for a very difficult subject."

MacPherson is a Senior Fellow at the Baker Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Juniata College, a member of Veterans for Peace and involved with Project ReNew Vietnam, which assists victims of Agent Orange and Land Mine Victims. Along with other journalists, MacPherson seeks to further excellence in reporters through her participation on the advisory board of the National Molly Award in honor of Molly Ivins and the Harvard Nieman Journalism Foundation I.F.Stone award for Journalistic Independence. Along with other writers MacPherson seeks to further excellence in young journalists through her participation on the advisory board of the National Molly Award in honor of Molly Ivins and the Harvard Nieman I. f. Stone Award for a Journalistic Independence.

Her son, Michael Siegel, is a political strategist in Washington, DC. Her daughter, Leah Siegel, an award-winning producer for ESPN, died of breast cancer in 2010.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By susan Horgan on March 7, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
This book resonates on so many levels. It illuminates the history of two trailblazing women who laid the foundation for the modern feminist movement, revealing their struggles some of which women still face today. It's also a page turner, reading like fiction, gripping you from start to finish. And it provides a broad depiction of the Victorian Era which is still fascinating to learn more about. I highly recommend it.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By pat f. on March 7, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Thiis book is a perfect combination of author and subject. Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin were swashbuckling figures in the years during and after the Civil War, preaching free love, seducing rich and famous men, raising their particular brand of hell, and all the time campaigning for women's suffrage and civil rights. Myra MacLaughlin, in her books and in her earlier brilliant newspaper career, has microscopically dissected both villains and heroes, and this time out she does it with great enthusiasm. On every page, it's clear that she loves her work, bringing to bubbly life two of the most outrageously fascinating women in American history. All biographies should be this infectious and readable.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Sondra McClendon on March 7, 2014
Format: Hardcover
This is a terrific history of some remarkable suffragists! I treasure how one reviewer coined "The Scarlet Sisters" Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin as the Hilary Clinton-Kardashians of the Gilded Age! They are that sort of enigma. This book is a total page-turner that follows them from Wall Street to the White House - I completely recommend it!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Loves the View VINE VOICE on July 8, 2014
Format: Hardcover
It is hard to imagine these sisters and their incredible lives. You follow them from a childhood that is painfully hard to read about (how did they ever live through it?) to their celebrity and later in life (perhaps) successful marriages. They advocated causes that were far from the norms of the day. They had what today we call "baggage" and lots of it.

If you bemoan the recent Supreme Court decision on birth control, you can take comfort that things were worse in the Gilded Age, when despite the mortality rate for newborns and their mothers, most people would have agreed with the court. Men laughed at women having the right to vote and most women did not want it. Suffragettes were faced ridicule and abuse. The undeterred Chaflin sisters took their stand.

The story is remarkable; and while the book is good, it should have been remarkable too. While the author recounts the events of these two long lives and records what they said and wrote in speeches, interviews and letters, there is almost nothing personal about them.

There is more on their clothes than their personalities and character. As close as it gets is about how nervous they could be and how they were hurt by slander. There are no clues as their actual relationship since what survives is Victorian era prose. Victoria did not answer Tennie's pleas for a visit when she was ill (or perhaps abused by her wealthy husband). Was their motivation commitment to the cause or were they they narcissists who just loved headlines? Maybe they were just plain quarrelsome or rigid. Were they so naive as to think there were no consequences to speaking out for "free love" (when they really mean the right to divorce)? Were they Beverly Hillbillies? Nouveau riche? Pseudo-intellectuals? Did they enjoy martyrdom?
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Kate Alcott, author of 'The Dressmaker ' on April 1, 2014
Format: Hardcover
'The Scarlet Sisters" combines the rigors of historical biography with the sweep and color of a novel, telling the story of two amazing sisters with humor and vibrancy.. Myra McPherson is a disciplined, thorough reporter who takes her material one huge step forward - what you get here is history pulsating with life. A treat to read.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Simershein on March 30, 2014
Format: Hardcover
If not for Myra MacPherson these incredibly daring and unique women might have been lost to history. Her book is a romp through the days of Victorian Era hypocrisy in America... when intrigue, infidelity, and infamy garnered the headlines. Thank you Ms MacPherson, for a window into a nearly forgotten past - the original feminists!
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Format: Hardcover
As Women’s History Month draws to a close, here comes a historical tome that highlights some of the early feminists’ most prolific and polarizing icons: Victoria Woodhull and her sister, Tennesee Claflin. THE SCARLET SISTERS, Myra MacPherson’s delightful look at their myriad of endeavors and adventures, offers the type of intrigue and gossipy goodness that will please viewers of “Scandal.” The Claflin sisters were far more progressive than Olivia Pope and at least twice as powerful. Their mark on history is not negligible, and perhaps this charming telling of their tales will cement further their reputation for helping change women’s roles in polite society.

Although growing up dirt poor, the girls projected great intelligence and beauty, traits that their schemer of a father certainly put to good use. A snake oil salesman himself, he used his daughters to help him basically con money off of people, and, although more difficult to document, he may also have pimped out his girls on occasion (he had five daughters all together). Reuben Buck Claflin and his nefarious ways became a part of the sisters’ mythology --- although, according to the public testaments of Victoria and Tennie when they had to publicize one of their ventures, his nastiness was translated into pure business sense and his reputation determined to be “successful businessman.” He wasn’t really, but the sisters were quite good at making something out of nothing on a regular basis.

There is requisite attention given here by MacPherson to the fact that Victoria Woodhull was the first female in American history to make an actual bid for the presidency. Her political work creates the basis for Woodhull’s iconic status in feminist lore, even though the Mother of All Feminism, Susan B.
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