Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
In the previous installation about the life of the Claflin sisters here, we saw the meteoric rise of Victoria and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, who shocked Gilded Age New Yorkers by becoming the first lady stock brokers in the city. The tale continues…
In Victoria’s quest for even more firsts, on January 10, 1871, she was the first woman to speak in front of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives about women’s suffrage. Tennie accompanied her as she deftly argued (Demosthenes guiding her way again) that the Constitution nowhere denies the vote for women, but instead gives the right to all citizens – a designation that should include women. Her speech was so well-received that she became a national voice for suffrage along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The politicians were not moved, however, and voted to table the discussion…until 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified.
With a taste for politics, Victoria declared that she was going to run for president of United States in 1872.
This was the beginning of Victoria’s rise in popularity as a public speaker. Her lectures routinely sold out venues like the Academy of Music as thousands crowded in to listen to her extoll the themes found within Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. There were usually equal amounts of cheering and booing, but there was no question that she could put on a show. During a lecture at Steinway Hall, she went off-script and defined her stance on Free Love:
“Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.”
Unsurprisingly, this shocked the entire audience and was all over the papers in record time. The cartoonist Thomas Nast, taking a break from destroying Tammany Hall, went as far as to call her “Mrs. Satan” in Harper’s Weekly, former beau Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt had long since distanced himself from the sisters, and what the public once thought was a novelty was turning into a threat.
At the same time, Victoria’s presidential campaign was gaining momentum. She had been endorsed by the Equal Rights Party (founded by Tennie and herself) and she had named the former slave turned politician Frederick Douglass as her vice presidential nominee. He was disinclined to respond to the nomination and instead actively campaigned for her rival, Ulysses S. Grant. But what better publicity for the Equal Rights Party to nominate a white woman and an African-American man? That said, it seems unlikely that Victoria ever thought she had a real chance at this election. Even if by some miraculous event she had gotten the votes, she wouldn’t have been eligible, because at 34 she was a year shy of the minimum 35 years required by the Constitution. But, just like opening a stock brokerage, she was again, “plant[ing] the Flag of women’s rebellion in the center of the continent.”
After the Free Love speech, other attacks to her reputation began to gain traction. So much so that the sisters’ funds were drained, political and social allies were few, and times were getting desperate in the Claflin home. So Victoria played her last card. Using very true gossip she got from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she published all the sordid details of the Beecher – Tilton Affair accusing popular Brooklyn preacher Henry Ward Beecher of not only adultery with a married woman, but being a hypocrite and practicing the same free love ideals that he preached against weekly. (For more details about this salacious affair, read Lindsay’s fantastic blog post.)
Immediately after the issue came out, the sisters were arrested on charges of obscenity, thanks to the overzealous efforts of Anthony Comstock, the self-appointed anti-smut vigilante who created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. For six months he made it his life mission to jail the Claflin sisters – he had them arrested eight times (including on election night – when Ulysses S. Grant won reelection). During this time, Victoria and Tennie still had speaking engagements. The City Museum has a poster for a speech that Victoria had to go to extra lengths to give. Or as she said: “I soon presented the appearance of an old and decrepit Quaker lady. In this costume I confidently entered the hall, passing a half-dozen or more United States marshals, who stood guarding the entrances and warning the people that there was to be no lecture there that night—so certain they were of arresting me. But I passed them all safely, one of them even essaying to assist me on through the crowd”.
Eventually cleared of all the charges from Comstock and others, the sisters were broke, friendless, and voiceless after the Weekly went under. Ironically, Vanderbilt may have once again helped the sisters, this time by dying in January 1877. The story goes that the Vanderbilt heirs wanted the sisters indisposed during the fight among Cornelius Vanderbilt’s family over the inheritance of his fortunes, so they may have helped finance the sisters’ 1877 move to England, where they both both found wealthy, titled husbands with whom to spend the rest of their days.
For a more complete look at the Claflin sisters, check out the endlessly entertaining The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age by Myra MacPherson.