First impressions count. In 1870, the first brokerage firm owned and run by women, for women, opened its doors in New York. It was conveniently located two blocks from the Stock Exchange. The sisters Tennessee Claflin and Victoria Woodhull had posted a sign above the door: “Gentlemen will state their business and then retire at once.”
The sisters had originally come from a somewhat disreputable background, being born into a family of a travelling medicine show, and as the girls grew up they were marketed as spiritualist mediums and faith healers by their parents. It appears the sisters were keen to leave the family business behind. Victoria married a Doctor Canning Woodhull when she was 15, divorcing him when she was 26. She and her younger sister, Tennessee, moved to New York City. While making their living as spiritualists, the pair made the acquaintance of the widower Cornelius Vanderbilt, a self-made millionaire. Vanderbilt often consulted with spiritualists.
This is when their lives were turned on their heads, as Victoria became Vanderbilt’s clairvoyant and Tennessee became his mistress (reputedly). Following Victoria’s financial advice, Vanderbilt made US$1.3 million on the gold market. In return, he set the sisters up in Woodhull, Claflin & Co., established for the sole use of female investors, such as society wives and widows, teachers, female small-business owners, actresses, and high-priced prostitutes and their madams. Though it was considered something of a novelty by Wall Street, and the premises were often overrun with more sightseers than clients, the business was a success.
The sisters used the business as a platform to venture into other projects. The sisters started a newspaper: Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, which began publication in 1870. Feminist concerns were the Weekly’s primary topic for articles, such as free love (Victoria was a great supporter of the concept of Free Love), licensed prostitution (Tennessee was a advocate), women’s suffrage, sex education, dress reform, and – of course – spiritualism. It was also used to create support for Victoria’s campaign to run for President of the United States; she was the first female American to ever run for President. Unfortunately, it was the content of the paper that also destroyed her reputation and any chance at a success in politics … Free Love was too unconventional and scandalous for the era.
Both the sisters came under attack by the media and leading advocates of morality, with allegations of prostitution raining down on Tennessee’s head. Tennessee had always been unconventional, as a spiritualist, as a suffragette, as a feminist, tending to dress in mannish clothes and smoke, while flirting with both men and women. She held the controversial belief that women could serve in the military. She ran for Congress in New York. Neither her or her sister, Victoria, fitted into the restrictive society of the Victorian era.
In the end, both sisters moved to England and ended up marrying while in England, Victoria for the third time to a banker, John Biddulph Martin, and Tennessee to an English Baronet, Francis Cook.
These two women have been depicted by historians as prostitutes and con artists, as suffragettes, and as eccentrics. They were painted very black in the American media, as lady brokers and as suffragettes and as politicians. I think they were complex individuals who made a success of their lives in spite of all the opposition they faced. They certainly made it easier for the women coming after them to enter business and politics. I’ve read some opinion pieces that state they were terrible role models for feminists … always by male writers, I might add. I think they were absolutely the best sort of feminists; unafraid, rebellious, and not content to let their less than desirable origins stand in the way of their ambitions.