Mike Huckabee's worst nightmare: Meet the radical sisters who revolutionized 19th century America

Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity wouldn't have known what to do with Victoria Woodhull and Tenny Claflin!


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Myra MacPherson
March 9, 2014 7:00PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age"

Underneath the Victorian cloak of unctuous morality, sex was everywhere—except in the marriage bed, Victoria Woodhull argued. “Marriage,” she said, “is a license to cohabit sexually... [yet] the enforcement of this method eventually defeats the original object... it is the common experience among the married who have lived together strictly according to the marriage covenant, for from five to ten years, that they are sexually estranged... I know there are exceptions to this rule but they are the exceptions... Sexual estrangement in from five to ten years!”

On stages across the country, in 150 performances, Victoria delivered this strong brew, addressing the crowd directly: “Marriage,” she shouted, “is a fraud upon human happiness!... Think of it, men and women, whom nature has blessed with such possibilities for happiness as are conferred on no other order of creation! Your God-ordained capacity blasted, prostituted to death, by enforced sexual relations where there is neither attraction or sexual adaptation; and by ignorance of sexual science!... from the moment that the sexual instinct is dead in any person, male or female... a person begins actually to die. It is the fountain from which life proceeds. Dry up the fountain and the stream will disappear.”

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Woodhull confronted the gossip about her head-on: “I have been generally denounced by the press as an advocate of promiscuousness,” but she asserted that she was the opposite, a true romantic, and cited what comprised “proper” sexual relations. This was her clearest definition of free love: “First love of each by each of the parties; second, a desire for the commerce on the part of each, arising from the previous love; and third, mutual and reciprocal benefit.” She pointedly added for the religious in her audiences who viewed sex as a sin except when for propagation, “Let your religious faith be what it may, if it does not include the sexual act it is impotent.” Nothing could be holier than an act that begets children, she said, but she made it clear that sex should be enjoyed for its own sake as long as both parties agreed—a main tenet of her free love  position. Her definition of “improper sexual commerce” included that “which is claimed by legal right, as in marriage, second, where the female, to please the male, accords it” as a duty and without love.

Both sisters decried the economic dependency of women that kept them trapped in repugnant marriages. A century and a half before the terms date rape and domestic rape were coined, Victoria and Tennie shouted to packed houses about domestic abuse. “Night after night there are thousands of rapes committed under cover of this accursed license; and millions—yes, I say it boldly, knowing whereof I speak—millions of poor, heart-broken, suffering wives are compelled to minister to the lechery of insatiable husbands,” said Victoria. Nothing “except marriage... invests men with the right to debauch women, sexually, against their wills. Yet marriage is held to be synonymous with morality!” Her voice penetrating to the farthest row, she received boos and cheers as she shouted, “I say, eternal damnation, sink such morality!” She urged men to worship women, “rather than to command or appropriate... Remember that it is a pretension and a fraud to think of ownership in, or control over, the person of a woman.”

She chastised the “virtuous women” who abhor prostitutes while condoning their clients. She wove a tale of women reformers who “resolved to visit ‘the houses’ and learn who it was that supported them, and then afterward to ostracize them.” After a week, those in this Women’s Crusade “suddenly stopped” their inquiry. The women had “pressed their investigations until they pressed themselves into the faces of the best men of the city, some of them their husbands and brothers,” she said archly. “When they found their best men—their husbands and brothers—were supporting these women... they should have taken [the women] home and seated them at their tables beside their companion, and said: ‘if you are good enough for our husbands to consort with, you are good enough to sit at our tables with them.’ ” If enough women organized such homey visits of professional prostitutes, “prostitution, so called, would be abolished at once. It is the women who stand in the way. They, knowing that their husbands visit these women, continue to live on, doing their best to damn the women, but saying nothing about the men.”

Tennie defined sex radicals, a term that applied to the sisters: “We are engaged in introducing new social views which look to radical and sweeping changes in the present system.” This concept included freedom for women to choose their partners, to marry or not, to divorce and be able to retain their children, and to control their own bodies regarding when or even if to have children. “We now stand on the very brink of a social earthquake,” she told audiences in her booming voice: “What this earthquake may destroy, who may be swallowed up in its yawning chasm, or whether we ourselves may be swallowed up we do not know. But that great good to the human family will come of it we feel assured.” In Tennie’s speeches, which were given to audiences around the country and published as a pamphlet by the Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly Company, her central theme was sexual equality. Her compassion for prostitutes led detractors to say this was a pursuit she knew all too well. Why were prostitutes arrested while their clients went free? she asked, and threatened to expose clients who were the “best” men in town. Why should an unmarried woman who became pregnant deserve disgrace while the man who impregnated her was never asked to account for anything? she cried.

Tennie, her assurance on the subject a contrast to her youthful face—as “fair as an infants [sic]”—related the story of a young beauty who demanded thousands of dollars before she would marry a rich old man. “Now, I say that the poor prostitute, suffering for bread and naked for clothes, who sells herself to some man for a few hours to obtain the few dollars with which to procure them, and thus sustain her life; or the young maiden involuntarily yielding herself up to him to whom her young heart goes out in purity, is an angel compared to this woman who sold herself... to the man she detested, for one hundred thousand dollars.... But such is the force of public opinion” that while the prostitute “would be kicked from the doorstep” and the unmarried girl who engaged in sex with a man she loved would be “turned from her father’s home,” the designing young married woman is “a worshipped belle of New York—a virtuous woman.”

* * *

Victoria could certainly be challenged for her assumption that “those who are called prostitutes... are free women, sexually, when compared to married women.” Refusal was seldom an option for prostitutes. An estimated twenty thousand prostitutes worked in New York City in 1868, which prompted a Methodist minister to exclaim that Manhattan housed more prostitutes than parishioners. Transplanted impoverished southern belles were forced to choose between starving and whoring along with Yankee girls and mulattos who had once been their slaves.

One male chronicler of the period repeated exactly what the sisters were saying. George Ellington (a pseudonym) estimated that “two out of three men of wealth and fashion and leisure devote time and money to some fair one,” and their “female relatives are profoundly in the dark” or look the other way. The “proportion of really happy marriages are exceedingly few, so few,” he wrote, that it was a wonder anyone married, and wives of the leisure class routinely had lovers themselves. In a time when a good laborer’s wage was $500 a year, the tiny percentage of the very rich, their wealth gained by any means, could enjoy a king’s life, including the fairest of those called “Women of Pleasure.” Young beauties often were part of the collection of rich men’s toys, which included horses, stylish carriages, servants, cruises to Europe, brandy, champagne, the best cigars, and the most elegant garments. These women paraded on Broadway, rode in the finest carriages in Central Park, enjoyed tables at Delmonico’s and fine theater boxes, and frequented private supper clubs with discreet back entrances.

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Which brings us to The Gentleman’s Companion, a well-thumbed vest pocket guide to New York brothels published anonymously in 1870. It begins puckishly: “We don’t intend to tell the reader where the Central Park is, the Croton Aqueduct... Cooper Institute, or Knox the hatter... we propose” to give the reader “a knowledge of which he could not procure elsewhere.”

Pretty maids, tired of earning a pittance in domestic service while being chased around a bedroom by the master, “were the most likely to engage in the sex trade.” More than sixty percent of women workers in 1870 were domestics; live-in help worked from dawn until late at night for meager pay. The sisters saw that economics rather than inclination precipitated the exodus from such work into prostitution. Pleasure was often faked; prostitutes were major users of the prevalent opium-based laudanum. Yet they were touted as jolly companions.

The fifty-five-page palm-size brothel guide, its pages decorated with filigreed trim suitable for love poems, detailed the good, the bad, and the just awful dens of iniquity. At $1.50 apiece, the  guide was not cheap. It stressed class distinctions and snob appeal. At one end were the “lowest class of courtezans [sic]” and “gentlemen who wear their shirts inside out when the other side is dirty.” The guide featured far more “first class” brothels among the 125 surveyed, those establishments that catered to the well-heeled men whom the sisters called hypocrites. Madam Jennie Creagh, “a dashing brunette, has splendidly furnished her place... with it’s [sic] French mirrors, English and Brussels carpets, rosewood furniture, superb bedding.” It featured “ten lady boarders, finely dressed and very accomplished and prepossessing.” Madam Kate Woods ran a house “better known among the aristocracy as Hotel de Wood.” (The sisters knew a wealthy madam named Annie Woods; this may have been her with a different first name.) The three-story brownstone featured a “gallery of oil paintings” that cost $10,000, immense mirrors, and $70,000 worth of furnishings, where “three young ladies of rare personal attractions” were available for “distinguished gentlemen from foreign countries.” Other “first class” houses were “visited by some of our first citizens.”

To earn high marks, madams had to be fun-loving and friendly, real-life versions of Gone with the Wind’s Belle Watling. There was Madam Emma March, with her “inexhaustible stock of good humor,” and Madam Ida Thompson and her “lively young ladies... full of fun, love, and fond of amusement.” On the other hand, Laura Howard’s “power house” got a negative review because “some of its visitors have asserted that it’s [sic] inmates are of a snobbish disposition.” Another house was dismissed with one sentence: the madam and the girls “are as sour as her wine.” One house provided a “regular physician.” The strangest entry: “There is a report of a bear being kept in the cellar, but for what reason may be inferred.” The anonymous author, whose strong suit was not spelling or grammar, was probably paid by madams to promote certain houses; after all, it was routine for madams to pay off the police. The sisters revealed the details of a prostitute’s hard life in their 1871 Weekly. A first-class prostitute paid her madam $40 a week to use a room and 20 percent of her profits. Towels cost extra. The police made $100 a week in protection money from the madam, and the prostitutes paid patrolmen $3 to $10 a week, plus provided sex on the house. Police captains and sergeants had their pick of girls, gratis. “The amount of degradation and bodily injury” to pay off such rackets “can only be imagined,” stated the Weekly.

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The Gentleman’s Companion was very free with establishment addresses and names—most, no doubt, fake—but most madams were spared. Census takers generally recorded them as women who “keep house” or as “domestic servants”—unless they missed their payola payments. Occasionally, police conducted sham arrests, releasing prostitutes after a few hours, once they had paid a fee. The fancier houses produced elaborate calling cards of fine vellum, with name, address, and discreet mention of the number of “lady boarders” in elegant script. Older and drug-addicted prostitutes were reduced to infamous Greene Street. The Gentleman’s Companion warned its users to avoid Greene Street like the pox, which, the guide inferred, could easily be acquired there: “In the short space of six squares, included between Canal and Bleecker streets there are 41 houses containing barrooms, 8 houses of assignation, 22 houses in which furnished rooms are let to girls and 11 segar [sic] stores... the filth and turmoil would lead a stranger to suppose that... old Sodom and Gomorrah had risen from their ashes.”

Despite their charms, streetwalkers on fashionable Broadway—“smart, good-looking, well educated, prepossessing”—were also poison. Young “comely females, ages 15 to 25” took their  Broadway customers to rented furnished rooms. These “Badgers,” or “panel thieves,” said the guide with male indignation, “have robbed many an unsuspecting stranger of his all.” A married man or well-known public figure was a target; “the presumption is that fear of exposure will prevent him from making a complaint... They are in our public streets what sharks are on [sic] the ocean.” Public houses where “gentlemen” could meet women included the huge Broadway Garden, extending from Broadway to Mercer Street. A red lamp at 25 East Houston Street marked the establishment of Harry Hill, a “genial and indefatigable landlord.”

If a married gent wanted to wander back home, ads in the guide featured Dr. Groves’s marriage pamphlets for fifty cents, “with six new illustrations, 310 pages of usable information” containing “all those wonderful, marvelous and mysterious” sex secrets from “the various professions, arts and sciences.”

* * *

In the nineteenth century it was easy to be called a slut or prostitute. Lucy Stone’s father, like many men, called women who engaged in public speaking sluts, including his daughter, remarking that “when the sluts are out, the dogs will bark.” When working girls attempted to strike, they were jeered as prostitutes, and foremen threatened to send them to the Tombs, the jail in Lower Manhattan, to await sentencing. Mediums and actresses were considered demimondes. An unmarried society woman who went out at night without an escort could ruin her reputation.

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The sensational act of conducting business on Wall Street was enough to cast suspicion on the sisters. Now, as sex radicals, their call for women’s sexual emancipation was proof to their enemies. In arguing that a woman had a right to freedom regarding her own body, to choose her mate, to decide when she wanted sex, and actually to enjoy it, the sisters were so far ahead of the era that they were openly called prostitutes in print.

Equally advanced was their shocking notion that “Physiology and hygiene should not stop short of all the uses of the sexual organs. And all this should be taught in every school to both sexes conjointly, so that in early youth children shall not be drawn into the terrible mistake that these organs are indecent, obscene or vulgar,” they wrote in the Weekly. “At the ages of twelve, thirteen and fourteen years, youth of both sexes begin to experience the sexual desire... it is simply folly; aye it is madness, to pretend to think that a desire so utterly beyond the soul of reason... will be controlled to best results by those who have been kept in the most profound ignorance of its nature and uses.... But what has been done to guard or guide this tremendous impulse? Nothing! Absolutely nothing. Neither teachers, parents or priests have opened their lips either to instruct or to warn.”

Woodhull’s advice included warning children about the evils of masturbation. For all her forward thinking, she shared the Victorian condemnation of the act, saying, “I need not tell you that four-fifths of the children practice self-abuse before they are old enough, of their own wisdom, to know better.” Like many in the Victorian hygienic movement, Woodhull viewed this “morbid vice” as sapping one’s energy and, for men, wasting precious bodily fluids. When she differentiated “free love” from “free lust,” she explained, “Lust is the perverted action of the desire for sexual love.” She lumped masturbation in with “free lust” practices such as “sodomy” and “purchased intercourse as in prostitution.” She alluded to disgust for homosexuality: “were I  to tell you the extent to which Sodomy in man and its antitype in woman have attained, I should shock you beyond measure.” Her simplistic and incoherent solution to end free lust evil was free love, with everyone being able to pick and choose his or her true love, providing they did not exhibit what she termed vile behavior.

There were “prostitutes” whom the sisters did despise, but not those mentioned in The Gentleman’s Companion: they were scathing about the underlying hypocrisy of high-society women who sold themselves for profitable marriages. “What a commentary upon the divinity of marriage are the watering places during the summer seasons!” scoffed Victoria. “The mercenary ‘mammas’ trot out their daughters on exhibition, as though they were so many stud of horses, to be hawked to the highest bidder. It’s the man who can pay the most money who is sought; it makes no difference how he got it, nor what are his antecedents... To him who bids highest... the article is knocked down... this is the ruling spirit, not at watering places only but in so-called best society everywhere. Marriages of love become rarer year after year, while those of convenience are proportionately on the increase... and we prate of the holy marriage covenant!”

Every era breeds some rebellion with the past, and Queen Victoria was crowned in 1838 amid a backlash against an “age of debauchery,” when upper-class males routinely kept mistresses. In the Victorian era, the image of the happy family, chaste couples amid the “respectability” of polite society, was acclaimed. And by 1870, reformers were once again fighting crime, obscenity, debauchery, and prostitution as the post–Civil War period mocked much of the Victorian myth. Yet hypocrisy hadn’t faded. Despite fashion that paraded plumped-up breasts, women were supposed to be horrified at naked statues in art museums, legs were never to be seen, and the lower half of the body was called the “nether regions.”

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Only women such as the sisters and a few of the earlier feminists even dared to wear radical dress. Two decades before the sisters cut their hair and wore shorter skirts, Amelia Bloomer, Stone, Anthony, and Stanton wore voluminous harem trousers to the ankles, covered by tunic-length skirts. These “bloomers”—named for Amelia Bloomer—revealed absolutely nothing but made it easier for their wearers to walk. Anthony resisted until she tired of ripping the hems of unwieldy skirts getting on and off stagecoaches and dragging them in the mud.

Stanton added humor as she made her point: “Take a man and pin three or four large tablecloths about him, fastened back with elastic and looped up with ribbons; drag all his own hair to the middle of his head and tie it tight, and hair pin on about five pounds of other hair with a bow of ribbon... pinch his waist into a corset and give him gloves a size too small and shoes ditto, and a hat that will not stay on without a torturing elastic and frill to tickle his chin and little lace veil to bend his eyes whenever he goes out to walk and he will know what woman’s dress is.”

The ability to walk and breathe freely was no match for the heavy ridicule in newspapers, the hoots and whistles of men, or the rocks thrown by young boys. Stanton told Anthony that “the cup of ridicule is more than you can bear,” advising her not to waste her energies fighting it. But Stanton herself held out, even as she embarrassed her husband while he campaigned for reelection to the New York State Senate in 1852. (He was widely depicted as a henpecked man whose wife “wears the britches.”)

Twenty years later nothing had changed for the better, and Victoria and Tennie vociferously mocked fashion. “A blind and foolish custom has decreed that women must wear skirts to hide their legs, while they may... expose their arms and breasts,” wrote Tennie. She ridiculed coy women who blush “when subjects are spoken of which are of the greatest interest to humanity generally” but “appear at balls and receptions and at the opera virtually naked to the waist.” On the contrary, since the “portion of woman’s clothing which is supported from the waist” was up to fifteen pounds, Tennie asked, “Are weak backs a wonder? Put on suspenders, girls.” Fashionable clothes were “absurd... ridiculous” and “from the health point of view they are suicidal.” Tennie spoke contemptuously about a useless upper class: “While women remain mere dolls... it does not matter very much how they dress; but when any of them shake off the shackles of dependence, and become their own support,” they should “accommodate their dress to their new modes of life.”

However, the sisters themselves ran ads that mocked everything they stood for. BEAUTIFUL WOMEN, beckoned one: “All women know that it is beauty, rather than genius, which all generations of men have worshipped in the sex.” A drawing of a woman, with flowing hair, breasts pushed up, touching a potion bottle accompanied the text for the lotion, with the caption “When most men speak of the intelligent women, they speak critically, tamely, coolly.” When speaking of beautiful women, “their language and their eyes kindle with an enthusiasm... The world has yet allowed no higher mission to woman than to be beautiful.” This lotion promised to smooth out “all indentations, furrows, scars, removing tan, freckles and discolorations... giving the appearance of youth and beauty.”

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Down through the ages, it was, and remains, an exercise in futility to persuade a large number of women to trade what is deemed fashionable, no matter how torturous, for comfort. The sisters traditionally wore high-necked dresses and little jewelry or makeup, which did nothing to stop male reporters from noticing their beauty and arresting figures. Fashionable women, on the other hand, went to “enameling studios,” where the face and bust were coated with dangerous enamel, a semi-paste composed of arsenic or white lead. For $10 to $15, a woman could get a coating that lasted a few days. A shellacking that lasted six months cost between $400 and $600—more than most laborers’ annual salary—to retain the dangerous ethereal whiteness. It was not explained how, or if, they’d wash their face after application.

If Mother Nature had not been kind, dentists filled out cheeks from inside with hard composite pads, placed high up inside the mouth. These were not the only “plumpers” in the female sexual armament. If cotton and horsehair padding didn’t produce the “very important” bust, “patent heavers” were in vogue. Two rubber bags, miniature life preservers, costing five to ten dollars, were blown up to achieve high-level perkiness. If women seemed loath to perform a tight embrace, it was not Victorian prudery so much as the fear that, under such pressure, one side of the patent heaver would shrink drastically, accompanied by the sound of a deflating balloon. Plumpness was so admired that slim women sewed padding into dress sleeves and added padding to ankles under their hose.

If women were supposed to be chaste, instead of chased, what were all the pushed-up breasts and beautifiers for? Catching a husband and then resisting sex as much as possible was the Victorian  ideal. “Ladies” were not expected to enjoy a happy sexual life, but to remain frail and delicate flowers. (In the insanity of the times, some fashionable women were so ashamed of any lust they felt that they even resorted to the extreme measure of removing the clitoris, to be discussed later in this chapter.)

* * *

At times, Victoria praised reciprocal monogamous love as the desired “higher order,” but she invariably added that it was not possible in most marriages and that “miseries” were “concealed beneath its deceptive exterior.” From their radical sex position, the sisters saw marriage as outmoded: “There are two classes only who have anything more than an imaginary interest in maintaining the marriage system: the hypocritical priests who get their fees for forging the chain and the blackguard lawyers who get bigger ones for breaking the fetters” (that is, charging more because divorces were much fewer). Acid dripped as Woodhull said, “Of course ‘virtue’ must have a legal standard.”

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Victoria stumbled in her praise of the Oneida Community, a free love commune, saluting it for not permitting “monogamic [sic] attachments. If they are found springing up, the parties are compelled to separate.” Oneida, however, was not a rosy haven for women, and is viewed by female historians as the “most notorious example of male domination in the free love tradition.” It was, in fact, harshly and absolutely controlled by its founder, John Humphrey Noyes.

* * *

While other misogynists could well compete for the honor, the Victorian gynecologist was the woman’s worst friend. When suffragists pushed for higher education for women, male “experts” in medicine argued that too much education was unhealthy both physically and mentally. The most invidious medical treatment of women revolved around their sexual organs. Freud would have had a field day probing the psychological makeup of the male pioneers in gynecology; they were sexist, misogynist, and anti-contraception. They castrated women who showed signs of neurosis or insanity, husbands being the judges of such conditions, with gynecologists concurring that hysterectomies would do the trick.

An opposite, if impermanent, solution for the purported female disease of “hysteria” called for doctors and midwives to massage the female genitalia manually, arousing a woman to “paroxysm.” (Merriam-Webster’s synonyms are convulsion and spasm. Victorians did not use orgasm.) When Joseph Mortimer Granville patented the first electromechanical vibrator in the 1880s, the stern Englishman proposed using it for muscular aches and opposed its use for female sexual gratification, but his invention and refined vibrators to come were soon bringing smiles to the faces of many a Victorian woman. And doctors and midwives found it a relief from manual stimulation. Not until 1952 did the American Psychiatric Association drop the term hysteria as a disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

By the 1870s, gynecologists had also begun “to practice surgical treatment of the psychological disorders of women,” including “the excision of the clitoris (clitoridectomy) and female castration (removal of the ovaries) to cure ‘insanity.’ ” By far the most common of the two was the removal of ovaries, a surgical procedure that began in 1872.

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An esteemed gynecologist, J. Marion Sims, was one of the elite brigade who performed both. For generations, male historians lauded Sims for his work in sterility, for the invention of the speculum, and for surgery that repaired tears in the vagina (vesicovaginal fistulas) often brought about by torturous childbirth or violent sex. Sims was called the “father” of gynecology, and a statue was erected to honor this founder of the Woman’s Hospital in New York. Later, female (and a few male) historians exposed the horror of his 1840s experiments. Although anesthesia had been invented, Sims operated on black slave women without it, performing as many as thirty failed operations on one woman over the course of four years. The slaves endured horrific pain, but Sims argued, “I kept all these negroes at my own expense all the time.... this was an enormous tax on a young doctor.” When he tried operating on a white woman, the “pain was so terrific that Mrs. H. couldn’t stand it and I was foiled completely.” This Victorian Mengele bought some slaves expressly for his experiments. He termed them “adequate material.” In New York his guinea pigs were uneducated poor women. Only when he had perfected his surgical treatment for vesicovaginal fistula did he operate on wealthy white women. Sims’s success spurred the tendency “toward general, frequent and drastic use of the knife in American gynecology.” His motto was “look upon the knife not as the last weapon but as the first.”

The director of the American Medical Association and other leaders in the field approved and performed such surgeries as well as Sims, believing that “women’s entire psychology was governed by her sex organs.” Another excuse for surgery was to cure “oversexed” women, which meant women who had confessed to masturbation. Renowned gynecologists Robert Battey (the originator of hysterectomies for nonmedical conditions) and E. W. Cushing reported that a woman castrated for nonmedical reasons improved dramatically. She had “previously shrunk into a state of profound melancholia on account of her belief that her masturbation eternally damned her.” Husbands and fathers unable to enforce what they considered their control over women handed over disorderly women to the gynecologists for hysterectomies. A crusading doctor against the practice, Eli Van de Warker, primarily faulted the medical profession for performing clitoridectomies and removing ovaries; he also described the “collaboration of careless, passive and wealthy women,” who found it “fashionable” even to the extent of proudly viewing their scars “as pretty as the dimple in the cheek of sweet sixteen.” Twenty years after the sisters’ era, in 1893, a hysterectomy proponent still claimed that a woman “becomes tractable, orderly, industrious and cleanly” after having her female organs removed.

When the sisters first arrived in New York, a vigorous battle was under way between clerical-led  moralists who fought contraception and those who supported it for overburdened mothers and to stem rampaging venereal disease. Noted gynecologists were often on the side of the anti-contraception clergy. Gynecologist Augustus K. Gardner dedicated his popular book Conjugal Sins to the U.S. clergy who were the “great moral lever-power” who “can make this vice [contraception] disgraceful... They can prevent it being the common boast of women that ‘they know too much to have babies.’ ” Class snobbery came into play among doctors such as Dr. William Goodell, professor of clinical and didactic gynecology at the University of Pennsylvania, who feared immigrants would take over the country because they bore so many children. He lectured to WASP cadres that the “unwillingness of our women to become mothers” was one of the “dangers of the hour.” Critics blamed as selfish women who, through industrial progress, were now freed from many domestic chores that had kept them from their duty—the “reproduction of the race.”

Women were having sex, whether they liked it or not, and many of them resisted male opprobrium in religious and medical hierarchies. They resorted to contraception and abortion, dramatically reducing the birth rate in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The sisters informed women of vaginal sponges but never mentioned their own private habits, although it seems likely that both practiced contraception. Tennie was briefly married in her teens and had at least one “sweetheart” in New York. Whatever relationship she had had with Vanderbilt did not produce children, and gossip about her freewheeling early days was never proven. Whatever liaisons Tennie had, she had no children. After the stressful births of Victoria’s two children with Woodhull, she had no more, despite her passionate free love days with Colonel Blood.

Contraceptive devices were called “French Shields for Women” and “Wife’s Protector.” By midcentury, contraceptive vaginal sponges were increasingly available commercially, with differing views on their efficacy. Critics argued that “quacks” charged five dollars for contraceptive sponges with silk threads attached when all women needed to do was buy a sponge about the size of a walnut, twist together silk threads to make a string, wet it in a weak solution of sulphate of iron, and insert the sponge. After intercourse, the string was used to withdraw the sponge. Douches were common, and the “womb veil,” a rubber shield, was the forerunner to the diaphragm of the twentieth century. Lydia E. Pinkham, famous for her “Vegetable Compound and Uterine Tonic,” disdained gynecologists and urged women customers to write her, promising complete anonymity, for any help needed and to “let the doctors alone.” Her tonic promised to cure everything from menstrual cramps to infertility to prolapsus uteri. Happy matrons had no idea they were downing a hefty slug of booze; the tonic was 20 percent alcohol.

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The sisters saw abortion as the inevitable result of a social system that kept women in terrible marriages, forever dealing with unwanted pregnancies. As Tennie wrote in the Weekly, “Abortion is only a symptom of a more deep-seated disorder of the social state.” Childbearing was a beautiful thing, she said, “but to our faded-out, sickly, exhausted type of women... abortion is the choice of evils.” Folk remedies for abortion “survived essentially unchanged over many centuries,” but after 1840, abortion became a commercial business. Laws were fairly lenient until 1873, provided that abortions were performed in the first trimester. Mainstream newspapers advertised “female” doctors, and drug firms offered pills touted to induce miscarriage, among them “The Samaritan’s Gift for Females.” Abortions were slyly mentioned: “ladies cured at one interview with or without medicine $5.” Pills with a promise of producing abortion were touted as “Regulating Pills, $5; sure and safe.”

Women resorted to spoons, uterine probes, and abortion instruments that were readily available through the mail and at retail establishments. In 1870 the Days’ Doings scandal sheet carried ads for seven medicines that left no doubt they were for abortions. Poor women were often the victims of amateur abortions, which produced a death rate 15 percent higher than the maternal death rate.

On the other hand, high-society women could afford famed Manhattan abortionist Madame Restell, who advertised in Manhattan’s major papers and lived in a four-story marble-and-gold mansion on Fifth Avenue, a monument built on the money of rich male clientele who brought  their mistresses and wives secretly to her private quarters. Tennie referred contemptuously to the hypocrisy of Madame Restell’s carriage trade.

Anthony Comstock, a one-man vice squad, dressed in disguise as a destitute man one January night in 1878, entered Restell’s basement office and asked for some abortion powder for a woman in distress. As soon as Restell agreed to help, he arrested her. Restell made a decision. She had been in jail before, including in the infamous Blackwell’s Island prison, and could not bear it again. Upon her release after posting bail, she went home and, on April 1, 1878, drew a warm bath in her ornate marble bathtub, climbed in, and slit her throat with a pearl-handle knife. She was found the next morning in the cold crimson water, her throat so severely cut that she had severed her carotid artery and both jugular veins. Comstock famously wrote on the police blotter, “A bloody ending to a bloody life.” His sentiments were echoed in the New York Times, which called Restell an “evil murderer.” Restell’s success points to a swift business among the rich; upon her death she was said to be worth $1.5 million, the equivalent of several million today.

Excerpted from "The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age." Copyright (c) 2014 by Myra MacPherson. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved. 


Myra MacPherson

Myra MacPherson, former Washington Post reporter, is the author of five books, including the Vietnam War classic “Long Time Passing” and her recent “The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age.”

MORE FROM Myra MacPherson

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