Are these sisters the most scandalous feminists of all time?

The Scarlet Sisters
Myra Macpherson’s new book, “The Scarlet Sisters,” is about two sisters in the 1800s. But it couldn’t be more timely.
Credit: Provided

Myra Macpherson’s new book may be about two sisters in the late 1800s, but it couldn’t relate more to feminism today. “The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age” will surprise you in how shocking Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin acted, in the name of feminism, before feminism was even a term. These women were truly ahead of their time.

Since they weren’t as squeaky clean as Susan B. Anthony or Eleanor Roosevelt, the Scarlet sisters aren’t a pair you learn about in school. But Macpherson made sure this duo went down in the books. “They were considered tramps and outsiders, and they were just written out of the women’s movement,” she says. “But they were fearless. They went head to head with the most famous man in America and were put in jail. The sisters were speaking out about violence and rape in marriages and the treatment of women.”

Before the Scarlet sisters spoke out, marital rape was something that was not talked about. But through her research, Macpherson found solid evidence that it was happening. At the time, the law allowed husbands to have sex with their wives whenever they wanted, even if she didn’t want to. Victoria and Tennie weren’t afraid to talk about sex, marriage or even abortion.

Macpherson has been reporting on feminism and the women’s movement since the ’70s and says she thinks that while there are women today acting fearlessly as Victoria and Tennie did, we might not be paying enough attention. “I think there are some very strong women today who are speaking out. My main concern is that the younger women just don’t understand that it might all be taken away, because they take it for granted,” she says.

She says one of the perks of modern day feminism is that you can light a flame with one tweet or blog post. “The real question is, how do you galvanize women to do this?” she asks. “We just have to get women excited about it, and I think maybe then there will be some sort of revolution.”

Though much has changed since the days of the Scarlet sisters, Macpherson still has strong ideas about what the women’s movement still needs to accomplish. “Number one with absolute clarity is equal pay for equal work. This continues to happen and if women can’t have economic growth, they can’t be independent. There’s been way too much emphasis on the ‘mommy wars’ and how women can have it all. Many women have to work, they don’t have the luxury of choice,” she says. “We need more women leaders and in politics. Given the fact that we are over 50 percent of the population, half the Senate should be comprised of women. And when that happens, there is going to be an enormous change.”

Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmLaurence


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