The past is packed with remarkable women whose achievements deserve special recognition. Just in time for Women’s History Month, three new books provide in-depth looks at a few of the courageous, far-sighted women who served as early champions of change. Inspiring narratives about friendship, kinship and the quest for equality, these compelling books salute a group of winning women who were ahead of their time.

Sensational in every sense of the word, The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age by Myra MacPherson looks at the lives of Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, free-thinking feminist sisters who took New York City by storm in the 1860s by fearlessly addressing the taboos of the time. They were proponents of free love, suffrage, sex education and labor reform, and they stumped for their causes bravely. Originally from rural Ohio, where their father, a snake-oil salesman, used them in his act, the sisters were a canny and intelligent pair, both strikingly handsome and unfazed by public scrutiny. They never shied from a scandal. Their accusations of infidelity against minister Henry Ward Beecher nearly trumped the Civil War for press coverage.

Victoria WoodhullTennessee Claflin

Mathew Brady portraits of free-thinking sisters Victoria Woodhull (left) and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, who never shied away from challenging the conventions of their era.

 

The duo’s accomplishments are astonishing: Victoria was the first woman to make a bid for the presidency (her running mate was Frederick Douglass). With the assistance of millionaire magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, Tennie’s reputed lover, the sisters launched the first female-owned brokerage firm. Their taste for controversy and ultra-progressive attitudes (tenacious Tennie proposed that women be trained for army combat) were frowned upon by more reserved feminists, but they remained steadfast in their desire for reform. 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.

A SAVVY SISTER-IN-LAW

Carol Berkin’s Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte features a heroine whose fierce independence and indomitable will made her an early model of change for women.

Bright, well read and remarkably beautiful, Elizabeth Patterson—known as Betsy—came from a well-to-do Baltimore family. When the dashing Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoleon’s spoiled younger brother, arrived in Baltimore and made her acquaintance, he was smitten. The pair wed in 1803, and their union drew the attention of the American government while scandalizing Napoleon, who blocked Betsy’s entry at ports throughout Europe. To Jérôme, the French emperor issued an ultimatum: Give up Betsy or relinquish the Bonaparte fortune.

Jérôme, of course, caved. Betsy, who bore him a son, took a defiant stance in the wake of his betrayal, forging a life for herself that did not include the refuge of another marriage. Thanks to her beauty and intellect, she shone in European society and spent many years overseas. She also set herself up handsomely through investments and profits from Baltimore real estate. Through it all, she remained proud of the Bonaparte name.

Berkin, a historian and the acclaimed author of Revolutionary Mothers and Civil War Wives, brings a fascinating chapter of feminist history to life in a narrative that’s brisk and vivid.

FEMINIST FAMILY TIES

Diane Jacobs explores an intriguing facet of a famous family in Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters. In this artful biography, Jacobs spotlights the friendship that existed between Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams, and her sisters, Mary Cranch and Elizabeth Shaw Peabody, with whom she shared progressive ideas regarding education and gender. The sisters came of age in the mid-1700s in Weymouth, Massachusetts, raised by a minister father and a book-loving mother. They were a tightly bound bunch until marriage parted them. Avid letter writers, over the years they produced a correspondence that was polished and insightful, filled with wit and commentary on current events.

Drawing on their letters and other archival materials, Jacobs has created a well-rounded, thoroughly readable biography of the threesome. Each sister shines in her own way: Mary, the eldest sibling, served as mayor of her small hamlet, while Elizabeth, the youngest and an ambitious writer, established the second coeducational school in America with the help of her husband. Middle sister Abigail took charge of the Adams farm while her husband forged a path to the presidency. The sisters’ independence, integrity and spunk shine through Jacobs’ expertly crafted narrative, which also provides a fresh look at life in colonial-era America.

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