Sunday, February 08, 2009

Tenessee Claflin

Quite the character:

Cornelius Vanderbilt's onetime mistress. Born in a traveling medicine show. She and her sister Victoria Woodhull ran a spiritualist and magnetic healing operation in the Vanderbilt mansion, and were later set up as the first women to own a stock brokerage on the New York exchange. Later, both sisters were part of the sufferage movement and candidates for national office.

Tennessee Claflin was a newspaper favorite, a reliable source of ribald jokes and outrageous quotes. Born in a traveling medicine show, and having sold her body from the Midwest to Vanderbilt's mansion, Claflin was shockingly unapologetic. She was also pretty, smart, and nigh on a force of nature. She refused to be ashamed of her past, and refused to back down when confronted. Her frankness captured the imagination of New York. Over the space of several years, Tennessee Claflin became a vocal advocate for women's rights. She spoke out passionately for the equality of the sexes in all things, including service in the military. She ran for Congress on the "Free Love" ticket, rejecting the subordinate position that American law assigned to married women and arguing that all forms of sex and love should be free from the regulation of either the state or the church.

If all that makes "Tennie C" sound fairly radical for the Reconstruction era, she was, but her older sister matched her note for note. Forced into a marriage with an older man at 14, Victoria soon married again without bothering to discard the first husband. In her private broadsheet Victoria wrote praises to sex for sex' sake, with no intention to conceive children, that drew condemnation (and interest) from across the country. In 1871, Victoria appeared before Congress to demand the vote for women. She even one-up'ed Tennie's Congress run by announcing herself as a candidate for president in 1872, and engineered a kind of instantaneous convention in an attempt to get Susan B. Anthony to support her bid.

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