Victoria Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee (“Tennie”) Claflin are the Scarlet Sisters in a new biography by Myra MacPherson. Today they are a footnote in America’s culture wars but in late 19th century America they were famous for shocking people with their lifestyle and their causes.
Tennie argued that society was hypocritical for ostracizing women who became prostitutes while their male clients faced no social stigma. She believed this double standard contributed to the spread of venereal diseases by discouraging women from seeking medical treatment for fear of being accused of prostitution. Victoria advocated “free love” by which she meant no-fault divorces and a fairer division of marital property. They both favored voting rights for women but were disowned by the women’s suffrage movement for repeatedly going off-message to talk about other social issues. The suffragists feared (correctly) that talking about other social inequities would stiffen resistance to voting rights.
The sisters were also booted out of the Communist Party on the orders of Karl Marx for advocating an end to child labor, an 8-hour workday, a minimum wage and equal pay for women and blacks. Marx wanted a proletariat revolution, not decent working conditions with racial and gender equality.
Their lifestyle was as scandalous as their social views. Victoria shared her house with her first and second husbands, until the former died of alcoholism. Their extended family included an arsonist father, a sister who was a prostitute and a drug addict, and several blackmailers, including their mother. Since the family liked to sue each other, the tabloids had a steady supply of sordid details to report. Reality TV seems tame by comparison.
Most of the causes advocated by the Scarlet Sisters are now socially acceptable and a matter of labor law, but arguably, nothing would have changed without radicals such as these women to challenge the status quo. That is the main reason for remembering them today.
We need the radicals who drag us out of our comfort zone and force us to confront established ideas of fairness. Somewhere between the radicals’ extremism and the proponents of the status quo, there is a middle ground to compromise and make life fairer for all.
Norma started her company, Compliance Risk Advisor, to help employers create human resources policies for their employees and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to have structure without bureaucracy.
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