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Like women's liberation, sexual freedom is a term which points the way to an immensely desirable but very vague future, for which people have fought with great passion but in extreme confusion. These two goals are obviously related but exactly how is not clear. Certainly any simple equation between the two -- women's liberation and sexual freedom -- ceased being possible about fifteen years ago, when modern feminists exposed the sexual revolution of the 1960s for what it was, a new set of imperatives on women's behavior, a compulsion to say yes that was as inhibiting as the injunction to say no. Since then, modern feminism has contributed its own premises to the politics of sexuality. The two most important of these are first, recognizing the degree to which sexuality and violence have converged in the heterosexual culture of our society; and second, asserting the possibility of sex between women and identifying and criticizing what Adrienne Rich calls "compulsory heterosexuality."(1) These feminist discoveries make it possible to return to the question of sexual freedom -what is sexual "happiness" and how do we get it -- but this time from a feminist perspective. Now we can begin to ask: What would a sexual revolution that was really good for women and not just at their expense look like?
For the most part, women's historians have addressed the question of women's liberation and sexual freedom only in the negative, by investigating how women of the past criticized and repudiated male dominated sexuality in their society. The core of this effort in American women's history has been the reinterpretation of nineteenth century women's alleged prudishness as a reasonable, even self respecting response on the part of women to their sexual subordination. As Linda Gordon has written
Sex hating women were not simply misinformed, or priggish or neurotic. They were often rationally responding to their material reality. Denied even the knowledge of sexual possibilities other than those dictated by the rhythms of male orgasm, they had only two choices; passive and usually pleasureless submission, with high risk of undesirable consequences; or rebellious refusal.(2)-
On the level of political history, this feminist sexual revisionism has meant rediscovering the social purity and moral reform movements and reinterpreting them as women's collective efforts at sexual self defense.(3) Yet I think if we stop here, we will only have part of the story. I am interested in searching for other aspects of the history of feminist sexual politics, in particular to discover if there is another tradition, running alongside moral reform and social purity, in which women tried to assert the possibilities of a different kind of sexual life for women, one that didn't involve their systematic subordination. If there is such an aspect of our history, a collective effort on the part of women to develop a language and politics of sexual pleasure as well as sexual protection, I suspect the place we will find it is in the nineteenth century free love movement.
What was free love? The nineteenth century free love movement was a distinct reform tradition, running from the utopian socialist thinkers of the 1820s and 1830s through the center of American anarchism to the anti Comstock sex radicals of the 1890s and 1900s and from there into the birth control movement of the twentieth century.(4) The decades in which free love first appeared were a time of upheaval and change in sexual conventions and the relations between men and women. In the 1820s and 1830s, numbers of women were beginning to have some life outside the family, the Lowell girl being the most famous example. Mary Ryan tells us about the dramatic increase in the population of unmarried women and men living in Utica away from their parents in the 1820s.(5) Things were changing for women within marriage as well. Above all we know that the birth rate was beginning its dramatic turn downward; the years between 1840 and 1850 saw the largest percentage drop in the birth rate, 3/4 of one percent, of any decade in American history.(6) Women were having fewer pregnancies and babies and probably what is almost the same thing, less sexual intercourse, at least on terms over which they had no control. Like the notion of women's spheres and the politics of women's rights, free love was part of a more general nineteenth century effort to respond to these changes and to reform and modernize emotional and sexual conventions between the sexes. Free love was distinguished from these other tendencies by its emphasis on personal happiness rather than social welfare, and its ability to see marriage in terms of affection and personal satisfaction and not merely biological reproduction and social order. Free love was a self-conscious reform tradition, related to but distinct from women's rights, which we have to consider if we are to examine the problem of women's liberation and sexual freedom from an historical perspective.
Most clearly, free love was a movement opposed to marriage, at least as a legal institution by which the state attempted to regulate private affections, at most as a practice which encouraged emotional possessiveness and psychological enslavement. It was also a civil libertarian movement, which defended individual rights in matters of sex and love; it was particularly committed to encouraging a democratic, public debate about sexuality, love and reproduction, and protested all efforts to relegate control of these areas to experts and professionals. Thus, late nineteenth century free lovers led resistance to the Comstock laws, which attempted to restrict the right to learn about and discuss sexual matters to a few select doctors and moralists. But for our purposes, the free love movement was most significantly about the enjoyment of sex, albeit ambiguously. Free lovers were not "pro" sex in a way that is easily recognizable to us, given the profoundly different sexual economy which shapes our perceptions of them. As much as other Victorians they energetically denied that they were advocating sexual promiscuity or license. Indeed free lovers often claimed that they were working for a relaxation of external controls in order to produce a greater sense of sexual responsibility and personal control, a utopia of permanent, harmonious, monogamous true love. There was always a strong strain in free love that advocated "continence," which could mean either abstaining from intercourse or holding back from orgasm. (7) Still sexual intercourse is not the same as sex; neither is sexual orgasm. The free love movement appreciated and encouraged sexual expression, not only for men but for women, insighting that sex had functions distinct from and equal in importance to the reproductive. Part of what is at stake in studying free love is the historically changing nature of sexuality. Reading free lovers' writings and struggling to understand their convictions, I, at least, conclude that they drew pleasure from and valued their sexual selves, even while experiencing them somewhat differently than we do. "The possession of strong sexual powers is not to be deprecated," Victoria Woodhull insisted, in the face of cultural norms to the contrary. "If superiority of any kind is desirable at all, let it be in the animal, since with this right, all others may be cultivated to its standard."(8)
Free love was simultaneously feminist and male dominated. Free lovers claimed that women's freedom and independence were crucial to the sexual reform of society, but male leaders were frequently arrogant about their right to pronounce on women's sexual experience and needs. Perhaps the most notorious example of male domination in the free love tradition was the utopian free love community in Oneida, New York, where an extremely radical and totally promiscuous sexual practice -- monogamy was prohibited and couples were broken up by community intervention -- was accompanied by an absolute structure in which all control, political and sexual, was vested in a single man, the "founder," John Humphrey Noyes. (9) The male dominated character of free love carries into most of the histories of the movement, also written by men. (10) These do not treat women free lovers as seriously as they do men (Victoria Woodhull is a prime example), and they make male concerns -- for instance ejaculation -- central, and female sexual concerns -- such as contraception or female orgasm -- peripheral.
Given this male arrogance, past and present and what Nancy Cott has described as "the vast potential for sexual exploitation in a society in which women's sexual nature was considered primary and their sexual autonomy was slight," what is amazing and noteworthy is the importance and prominence of women throughout the history of free love.(11) There were always women in the movement, struggling to extend free love's liberatory promises to their sex and transforming some of its basic premises in the process. We must think of these women free lovers as Meredith Tax has taught us to think of women in the nineteenth century labor movement or as Mari Jo Buhle has situated women in the socialist movement, a kind of outcropping of the feminist impulse within "mixed" reform movement, the demands and perspective of which had an impact on the mainstream women's movement(12). This paper will look in depth at the career and ideas of two of the earliest and most important of these feminist free lovers, Mary Gove Nichols and Victoria Woodhull. Primarily, I want to examine what they had to say about sexuality, especially female, a difficult task given the male dominated character of their movement and the ambiguous nature of its commitment to sexuality. I also want to suggest the impact that they had on the larger, mainstream women's rights movement of the nineteenth century; to examine the degree to which they encouraged less daring women to criticize and transform sex and marriage; and to see at what point their free love premises were rejected in favor of a more conservative approach to sexuality and women.
The first female advocate of free love in the United States was Mary Gove Nichols, a writer and self trained physician who wrote and lectured on marriage and sexuality in the 1840s and 1850s.(13) During these years, free love ideas and experiments blossomed among many, including urban intellectuals and cultural radicals, especially around New York City.(14) Mary Gove Nichols was one of the leaders of this group. Like others searching for an answer to the sexual anxieties and upheavals of the era, she initially found some solace in the strict physical regime developed by Sylvester Graham, but she soon developed in a different direction, advocating greater "amativeness" rather than stricter chastity. She saw herself in the tradition of Mary Wollstonecraft and Frances Wright, although she did not share their hostility to organized Christianity.(15)
Nichols was one of the first nineteenth century American women to criticize marriage from the female point of view. Her emphasis was on the way that marriage encouraged reluctant or involuntary sexual intercourse for women, and on the necessity of freeing women from bad, sexually abusive marriages. Her attack on marriage was rooted in her own profoundly unhappy experiences with it. Her husband was considerably her inferior in mental and emotional capacity, and she found him -'loathsome."(16) She tried for many years to accommodate herself to him, but eventually gave up the struggle and left him. Then, she faced public condemnation for having "deserted" her marriage and lost legal custody of her daughter to her ex-husband. Other middle-class women in this period also left bad marriages -- Jane Grey Swisshelm,(17) for instance; but Nichols spoke and wrote about her experience, was willing to acknowledge her act in public, and began to make a politics out of it. She stressed marriage as the "annihilation of women." detailing how law and public sentiment made it possible for tyrannical men to deprive their wives of all freedom(18). She particularly protested the way that the laws of marriage obligated women to have sexual relations with their husbands, whether or not there was mutual affection. She also condemned the birth of children into unloving unions, and believed that if all women had intercourse with their husbands only out of choice and affection rather than compulsion and fear, "nine tenths of the children that now burden the world would never be born." Many "children born in marriage are not desired by the mother, often not by the father," she wrote, from experience," although it is a great blessing that great love is born with them."(19)
Although the sufferings of women in marriage were the focus of Nichols' writing and teaching, she believed that marriage was frequently "soul killing bondage" to men as well.(20) This was the mark of her free love ideology: Attack on the institution of marriage, and not just on women's oppression within it. "Although I consider marriage mostly in its results on women and children, I by no means forget that all parties to a false institution are by necessity sufferers," she wrote. "Men are bound ... to the burden of supporting the weak and the sick; often they go weary and comfortless to the grave or drown sorrow in drunkenness. I suppose that the lot of man is really as hard and bitter as that of woman, but I know woman's life of suffering and endurance better."(21) Free lovers criticized the institution of marriage because it was coercive of the passions, exclusive of the affections and rested on male dominance; it flew in the face of both the sexual and affectionate needs of its participants, and many, men as well as women, found themselves trapped in it. Nichols listed the common "compensations" of the unhappily married, and in the process of a good deal of the social life of the nineteenth century middle class: "the men engage in business, get money, smoke, chew tobacco or drink ardent spirits and make themselves sick with gluttony because life has not been good for them; women do better than this. They love their children, they love God, their minister and their doctor."(22) Surrounding the institution of marriage was a larger system of social convention which condescended to those, especially women, who did not enter it, and penalized all sex which took place outside its boundaries.
Perhaps the free lovers' most subtle criticism of marriage was of the emotional possessiveness they claimed it fostered. Thomas S. Nichols, the free lover who eventually became Mary's second husband, called marriage "the act by which two human beings steal each other."(23) The Oneida community went so far as to forbid exclusive sexual coupling because of its antisocial effects. Mary Nichols linked "the feeling of personal and arbitrary property in husband or wife or lover" to chattel slavery, and thought it was based on just as false a premise; for "all who attempt to hold property in a lover or husband or wife will find blasting and death come to their possessions."(24) Against the evils of institutional marriage, free lovers contrasted the possibilities of "true" marriage, which they defined, not only as sexual relations unregulated by the state, but as those based on mutual attraction and affection, or "affinity." Here they ran up against the limitations of their approach to marriage, for they both believed in the truth and order of free affection and sexual attraction, and recognized its inescapably irrational and extremely individual character. Would true marriage be permanent? Would true marriage be exclusive? Here the free love movement did not speak with a united voice.(25)
Instead of marriage based on external moral systems like organized religion and social convention, free lovers preached "fidelity to one's self," or individual sovereignty.(26) Individual sovereignty, literally self ownership, was the central doctrine of early nineteenth century American anarchism. The extreme ideology of individual rights which this represented was used as an economic theory and a political doctrine, but for free lovers, it also functioned as a theory of individual psychology, which had implications for sexual conduct. As an alternative to social codes and moral systems, free lovers argued for the importance of each individual's coming to understand his or her own personal "laws," and recognized that these might vary from person to person. "No two spears of grass, no two leaves are exactly similar," Mary Nichols wrote. "I have wants of taste, of appetite, of being that are not yours. If I am true to the spirit, the informing life, I shall live very differently from you and your idea, your right."(27) For women, considered by the world to be men's property in marriage, the idea of sexual self ownership and self definition was very radical. Mary Nichols used the concept of individual sovereignty in an explicitly sexual way, to mean women's right to be sexually self determining, but she used it primarily in the negative -- the right to reject the sexual demands of men, including their husbands, unless the women themselves wanted to have sex. Nichols linked her free love ideas to the emerging women's rights movement of the 1850s; she was particularly impressed with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose ideas she thought were much like her own. (28) Yet she grasped that her emphasis on sex distinguished her from them. "The idea of self ownership has come to few women in different ages, to more in this than in any previous age," she wrote, "still the number is very limited at present who recognize no authority but their own."(29)
A handful of other pre-civil war women tried to take on the sexual abuse women suffered in marriage, but with much less success. These included Catherine Beecher, Sarah Grimke, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, and even Margaret Fuller. Nichols's ability to talk and write about sexuality, her descriptions of how women suffered in the sexual relations of marriage, were far superior to those of her contemporaries. For instance, Catherine Beecher, trying to write in the same period about the same subject in Letters to the People on Health and Happiness, was so profoundly circumlocutious that it is literally impossible to figure out what she was saying.(30) Sarah Grimke got a bit further in her efforts to write about the disappointments of marital sex for women, but she hid her essay "Marriage" away in her private papers, where it has only recently been found because she was unwilling to publish it. (31) Margaret Fuller commented, but almost in passing, on the sexual and marital grievances of women in The Great Lawsuit.(32) Nichols alone wrote clearly, boldly, and at length on the subject. In contrast to the others, you could tell what she was talking about: Women were having sexual intercourse with their husbands because they felt they had to, not out of sexual desire. That she made this as clear as she did in an age of paralyzing sexual euphemism was no small feat.
Nor was Nichols' clarityt simply a matter of other women's greater prudery and her relative lack of it. The development of a language, a set of terms, for talking about sexuality from a point of view which includes women's experiences has been a long, slow process in which we are still engaged. In the 1840s and 1850s, this process was at its beginning; there was no prior tradition, and any woman who wanted to speak or write or even think clearly about sex had to name things for herself. How she did so would have implications for the women who came after her. For instance, how was one to refer to coitus? Beecher did not even get specific enough to know she needed to name any thing; Grimke called it "deciding to become a mother."(33) Nichols began the crucial move away from this focus on reproduction by "material union" a term which captured both the physicality of the act and the notion of deep interpersonal engagement(34). By the end of the nineteenth century, the clarity with which she wrote about female sexuality would be common among feminists, but in the 1840s and 150s, she was one of the first to name women's sexual dilemmas and grievances, to establish a feminist sexual discourse clearly enough for dialogue to begin.
Nor was this the only difference between Nichols and other prewar feminists who considered the problems of marriage and sexuality. They disagreed over "chastity." Beecher, Grimke, Antoinette Brown, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, even Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony all believed that sex between men and women must be an exclusive, permanent relationship, which one entered chaste. Given this belief and what they knew about the sexual abuses in marriage, the only advice they could offer women was to exercise terrific care and deliberation in choosing a mate. Recall Angelina Grimke's and Theodore Weld's long, passionate, torturous correspondence in which they struggled to determine whether their feelings for each other were strong enough to risk marriage.(35) Lucy Stone was so impressed with the dangers of marriage that she basically resolved never to enter it. Once married, it was for life, and if things got too terrible, separation, but not remarriage, was the only way out. "Where two persons have established a false marriage relation, they are abound to abide by the consequences of the mistake they have made . . .," was Sarah Grimke's harsh pronouncement. "Let them abide the consequences of their own perversion of marriage in exchanging personal chastity for the pride of life."(36)
Nichols believed differently. In her own life, she not only remarried, but had several other intimate if not sexual relationships with men; for these she was severely criticized, lost jobs and was ultimately forced to leave her home town. She internalized the idea that such behavior was immoral, but she fought against it. ' "I yet half believed the world's life. I had protested against an unloving union. My intellectual sight was clear enough, but in my feelings I was still in bonds to a false morality. I had broken internal bonds, but the iron had entered my spirit."(37) Intellectually and emotionally, she solved her dilemma by redefining purity for herself as avoiding sexual relationships which you didn't desire, not avoiding sex altogether. Programmatically, this led her to advocate greater freedom of divorce. The 1850s were in fact a time of change and upheaval in divorce law and in some states, such as Indiana, divorce was actually easier to get than it would become later.(38) Nichols's concern was less with laws than with social attitudes toward divorce, especially when initiated by women. She insisted that would could never be free until marriage was truly dissoluble, that is, when divorce simply for incompatibility, was legally possible, remarriage was socially acceptable and women could live freely and fully outside of marriage.(39)
As you might guess, these differences over divorce and remarriage had their deeper roots in differences over female sexuality. Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Mary Nichols's critique of marriage was that she coupled her attack on the sexual behavior of men within marriage with a conviction about the existence -- and healthiness -- of sexual passion in women. In other words, she dissented from what Nancy Cott has called "the doctrine of passionlessness," the notion that "normal" women had little or no sexual impulse(40). Most others -- the few women who spoke out on the matter in the 1850s as well as male physicians and moralists -- insisted that sexual desire in women was an abnormality, but Nichols argued that the absence of sexual feeling in women was the problem. "A healthy and loving woman is impelled to material union as surely, often as strongly as man," she wrote in one of her strongest statements on the subject. "The truth is that healthy nerves give pleasure in the ultimates of love with no respect to sex."(41) Many, perhaps most, women, at least in the middle classes, did not experience marital sex in this way, at least this is what Nichols and others reported. But where others took women's distaste for intercourse to be an indication of their natural condition, Nichols deprecated such a state of affairs, repudiating it, in the language of the day, as an "illness," a "disease," a condition which might eventually be "cured." She cited inheritance, masturbation, too many children, but above all the nature of marriage to explain the erosion of "the amative impulse" in women.(42)
Nichols's career as a spokesperson for women's sexual emancipation did not last very long. Preaching against marriage was one thing, but living outside of it, especially if you were a woman who wanted to have intimate relations with men, was another. Within a few years of her remarriage, to Thomas Nichols, she and her husband had repudiated their free love ideas and their reform affiliations in general, declared themselves enthusiasts for marriage and advocated intercourse only for reproductive purposes. In one final (though very different sort of) act repudiating dominant Protestant norms, they became ardent Catholics. (43) Nichols's ultimate reversal was prefigured even in her most radical free love ideas by a persistent confusion between women's sexual and maternal "rights." When she wrote of a woman as an independent sexual being, she did not demand her right to select an object for her sexual desire but rather to choose "the father of her babe."(44) As Linda Gordon has pointed out, in nineteenth century women's efforts to understand their own sexuality, reproduction constantly overwhelmed passion as the central concern, and this was even true for Nichols.(45) Perhaps, especially within the confines of an unexamined heterosexual imperative, it was too difficult to imagine sex itself as a source of power for women -- even Nichols speaks of women "bestowing themselves" to men -- whereas the whole thrust of nineteenth century thought taught women to see motherhood as empowering. (46) In addition, we can only guess how difficult it was to be a women who insisted that women had sexual feelings and rights, in a society where everything and everyone argued the opposite. It is little wonder that most of these female sexual rebels gave up the effort, tried to correct their earlier heresies, and longed to earn their way back into the world of respectable women. This is how I see Nichols' subsequent repudiation of her earlier free love ideas, and the similar, if even more dramatic reversal, made by her successor, Victoria Woodhull.
Mary Nichols's efforts to establish an approach to sexual emancipation for women did however form the basis for the contributions of the next generation's premier free love feminist, Victoria Woodhull. Historians have written a lot about Woodhull, but almost no one, as far as I can see, have treated her seriously as a political and social thinker. Like most of her contemporaries, historians have judged her extremely harshly, largely on the basis of her sexual activity. Even those who have liked her have assumed that because she was a sexual woman, she was neither a serious nor a thinking one. Much of what is written on Woodhull insists -on the basis of very little evidence -- that all her speeches and articles were entirely the work of the men around her.(47)
Woodhull, a self-taught woman from the wrong side of the tracks, began to break into New York City reform circles in 1870; in 1871, she made her mark by proposing a promising new strategy for the woman suffrage movement based on the theory that women were already enfranchised by the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S Constitution. A leader of both the free love and woman suffrage movements, she not only indicted marriage for ruining women's lives, but proposed radical new ways to provide for motherhood and childrearing once the private family had been abolished. Woodhull is best known for her role in exposing the Beecher/Tilton sex scandal, which she did in 1872 in retaliation for all the public attacks she suffered for her own less well concealed sexual adventuring.(48) One of the issues, both of her life and her work, was whether a woman charged with sexual misconduct could automatically be dismissed from the public eye. By the 1870s, many reformers were ready to insist that men be as good as women to hold the public trust, but almost none were yet willing to allow women to be as bad as men and still be taken seriously. Only a handful of feminists stood by Woodhull; among these was Elizabeth Stanton, whose own life-long admiration of Woodhull encouraged me to reexamine her life and career.(49) "Victoria Woodhull has done a work for women that none of us could have done," Stanton wrote. "She has faced and dared men to call her names that make women shudder, while she chucked principle, like medicine, down their throats.... In the annals of emancipation, [her] name will have its own high place."(50)
For her role in exposing Beecher's sexual hypocrisy, Woodhull became the first American citizen arrested under the Comstock law, a new law which helped to make nonconformity a liability for radicals and privilege for the powerful.(51) Beecher emerged relatively unscathed from the episode, but Woodhull's hopes for political prominence were ruined. Ironically, this allowed her to speak more strongly about her real beliefs about sex and marriage, rather than to say what she thought would be acceptable to other reformers and feminists. Thus, her most radical and extreme statements came after 1872, but before 1876, when she, like Nichols, had enough of running interference for women's sexual freedom and recanted free love.(52)
"I am conducting a campaign against marriage," Woodhull declared in 1873. "I enter the fight meaning to do the institution all possible harm ... to stab it to the heart so that its decaying carcas may be buried and clear the way for a higher and better institution."(53) As this quote suggests, Woodhull's attack on marriage was more single-minded and fanatic, less subtle and complex, than Nichols's. Her nearly exclusive concern was how husbands forced their wives to have sexual intercourse, regardless of the women's sexual or reproductive wishes, and why women believed that submission to such demands was their wifely duty. Playing on the contemporary feminist campaign against government regulation of prostitution, she claimed that it was the laws of marriage, not prostitution, which regulated and licensed the sexual exploitation of women by men.(54) She charged marriage with just the evils -- promiscuity, lust, and sexual license -- that others blamed on prostitution. At times, it seemed as though she understood things better from the despised perspective of the prostitute than from the legitimated one of the wife. Perhaps this disdain for marriage explains some of her rhetorical excesses. Such as, "Of all the brutalities of the age, I know of none so horrid as those that are sanctioned and defended by marriage. Night after night there are thousands of rapes committed .... millions of poor, heart broken suffering wives compelled to minister to the lechery of insatiable husbands, when every instinct of body and sentiment of soul revolts in loathing and disgust."(55) At other times she was capable of a more measured assessment of the failure of marriage as a sexual institution, but even then she thought it almost always led to the decline and disappearance of true sexual attraction.
Woodhull's hatred of marriage was extended to other aspects of the private family, which she thought must also be overthrown. "They say I have come to break up the family," she declared. "I say amen to that with all my heart. I hope I may break up every family in the world that exists by virtue of sexual slavery."(56) Like other feminists of the period, she was an advocate of the general principle of paid work and economic independence for women, but unlike them she tried to extend this principle to pregnant women and to mothers. (57) Like Ellen Key several decades later, she proposed that pregnant women be paid a social wage in recognition of what was essentially social labor(58). She also contended that once born, the child, "the fruit of [woman's] labor of right belongs to society." "To say that children do not belong to their parents," Woodhull observed, "is to attack a supposed right that has existed from time immemorial."(59) This anti-motherhood aspect of her writings on women and marriage tends to be obscured, because she was so lavish in her praise of women's maternal capacities, but what she idealized was women's role in the creation of new life, not their total absorption in the raising of their own children. "The present theory makes a teacher and a nurse of every mother for life," she declared, "and prevents her from acquiring or following any other occupation for which she may be fitted."(60) Freed of its responsibilities for children, and no longer the only legitimate arena for sexual expression or women's energies, marriage and the family would disappear -- or so Woodhull believed. "Relationships in the future will be based upon kindredness of spirit, rather than upon ties of blood," she predicted, "while family clanship, like all similar cliqueisms ... will be forever banished from the earth."(61)
As for female sexuality per se, Woodhull's writings evidences similar ambiguities as Nichols's, in heightened form. On the one hand, she believed in the existence, desirability and healthfulness of sexual passion, in women as well as men. She wholeheartedly refuted the doctrine of passionlessness which she called "that unnatural lie," by this time an idea that challenged male sexuality as well as female. "Some may assert that failure in sexual strength is intellectual and spiritual gain. . . . They seem to glory over the fact that they never had any sexual desire and to think that this desire is vulgar," she observed. "What vulgar! . . . No sexual passion say you? Say rather a sexual idiot and confess that your life is a failure, your body an abortion. Call such stuff purity. Bah! be honest, rather and say it is depravity."(62) This quote is classic Woodhullism, the same heightened sense of the consequences of sexual error as other high Victorians, but with the opposite message: that danger lay in the denial of sexual feeling not in its indulgence. While others were speaking of continence for men, she was talking about orgasm for women, insisting that to be "pure," sex not only had to be loving and desired, but had to result in "mutual and reciprocal benefit," or "consumation." (63)
Here by the way was a second historic problem of sexual terminology, what to call orgasm and how to describe the absence of it. Having asserted that women were capable of the same sexual pleasure as men, Woodhull was obligated to explain why so many did not experience it. Nichols had labeled women's "lack of amativeness" a disease, but Woodhull added a social (and hopeful) understanding, interpreting this disease as the consequence of women's growing revolt against the idea that they were their husbands' sexual property. "So long as women entertain the idea that their natural destiny is to be owned and cared for by some man, whom they are to repay by the surrender of their person, they are good legal wives," she wrote, "but from the moment the notion that they have an individual right to themselves -- to the control of their bodies and maternal functions -- has birth in their soul, they rebel, in their souls if not in words and deeds. . . The mind in rebellion has such an effect upon the sexual act that it becomes impossible to respond or reciprocate, and the organs suffer the natural penalty."(64) Without romanticizing women's anorgasmia or underestimating its negative consequences, she still saw it as unconscious sexual rebellion and self-assertion, a hopeful sign for the future.
Yet if sex in the negative was bound up with marriage and women's desire to escape from it, sex in the positive was mixed up with motherhood, the power to shape future generations and through them the whole fate of society. Like Nichols, Woodhull's defense of female sexuality shaded off into a romantic preoccupation with women's potentially infinite maternal powers. She imagined a future in which women, not men, dictated the terms of sexual intercourse, motivated by their appreciation of "the awful responsibilities conferred on them by their maternal functions." (65) Like most of her contemporaries, Woodhull believed that children inherited, not just the basic genetic character of their parents but their preoccupations, experiences, even their passing fancies, especially at the moment of conception. This eugenic theory offered women like Woodhull wonderful arguments for their insistence that the quality of the sexual relation between men and women affected the entire society, through the character of the children conceived. In Woodhull's case, the abstract attraction of the eugenic argument was reinforced by her own experiences: Her son was born mentally defective, because of the drunken, syphilitic man by who was his father.(66) Her vision of maternal power, of women's ability to shape the character of future generations, represented the reversal of this terrible experience. Instead of her addled son, of whom she said little, she predicted the birth of generations of beautiful, well-born children resulting from the spread of truly free and loving unions. As for the idea of coercive, government-run programs to dictate conceptions and shape heredity -- what we call eugenics -- she was totally opposed and duly horrified(67). In general, her most impassioned, emotional images of the free women of the future had to do, not with sexuality, but with maternal power.
For all her feminist ideas, Woodhull was not well-received by the mainstream women's movement. A few individuals were very much affected by her ideas and her personality, notably Stanton, the pioneer moral reformer Paulina Wright Davis, and Catherine Beecher's little sister, Isabella Beecher Hooker. (68) However, a far larger faction of the movement would have nothing to do with her and felt that her prominence, and the ideas she advocated, greatly weakened women's cause. (69)
In his influential interpretation of the historical impact of Victoria Woodhull and her role in the Beecher/Tilton scandal, William O'Neill emphasized how, in reaction to Woodhull, mainstream feminists set their faces against any challenge to women's subordination in marriage and the family, and began their long retreat into ideological conservatism.(70) Certainly, Woodhull herself was personally defeated, one might even say devastated, by her efforts to preach sexual freedom for women and attack marriage in the name of women's rights.
Eventually, she was forced to leave the U.S. and resettle in England, where she literally went out of her mind for several years. She eventually remarried banker John Martin, a loving and solicitous man, and in the 1880s reemerged into the public eye. Like Nichols, she wanted desperately to reject her unconventional past and so she repudiated her former free love ideas. She did this so thoroughly that her daughter came to believe that it was a slander against her mother to say that she had ever criticized marriage or advocated intercourse for purposes other than reproduction. Woodhull's eugenic ideas and her idealization of motherhood provided her with an avenue of retreat, and for the rest of her life -- she lived until 1927 -she claimed that she had never advocated anything except that women should come to understand and abide by the laws of heredity and the science of reproduction.(71)
But while it is true that the mainstream women's movement rejected Woodhull herself, much of what she and free lovers before her, including Nichols, stood for did make its way into the movement. Thus, many of Woodhull's ideas were victorious, even if she wasn't. From the mid-1870s on, the women's movement began to unite in opposition to the sexual ownership of women by men in marriage, and in defense of the principle of individual sovereignty, women's right to say no to sexual intercourse that they didn't want.(72) Even the idea that sexual passion was indigenous in women as well as in men found its way into their arguments. By 1894, the conservative Christian moralist Elizabeth Blackwell, sounding a good deal like Mary Nichols forty years before, could say, "In healthy, loving women, uninjured by the too frequent lesions which result from childbirth, increasing physical satisfaction attaches to the ultimate physical expression of love.... The prevalent fallacy that sexual passion is the almost exclusive attribute of men, and attached exclusively to the act of coition ... arises from ignorance of the distinctive character of human sex, viz. its powerful mental element." (73) What respectable feminists could not absorb into their arguments was Woodhull's repudiation of marriage and free love's willingness to entertain the separation of sex from reproduction for women. Mainstream feminists insisted on the necessity of women's choice and consent to intercourse, but they were equally committed to the confinement of sex within marriage.(74) Closely-related to this was a reverence for motherhood and the power it could bestow on women, a belief which we have seen even Nichols and Woodhull shared. Many more conservative feminists hoped that once men ceased to destroy marriage with their excessive sexual demands, women should once again welcome intercourse with them, not for the sheer sexual pleasure of it, but as the fulfillment of their higher maternal duties. Few, even among feminists, could see that the equation between female sexuality and reproduction was a historically specific achievement, and that the "liberation" of women's sexuality was a process that would not be reversed.
As for the free love movement after 1875, a great deal of historical research remains to be done, especially on the women. After 1875, the numbers of women prominent in free love circles grew, although so too did their differences. Their names are not as familiar to us as Nichols's and Woodhull's: Angela Heywood, Lois Waisbrooker, Lucinda Chandler, Ida Craddock, Lillie D. White, Dora Foster, Dr. Alice Stockham, and Lillian Harman.(75) The one thing common to all nineteenth century free love thought and agitation was opposition to the newest form of government interference in sexual matters, the Comstock laws, which effectively made public speech and writing about sexuality a crime.(76) Beyond anti-Comstockism, however, late-nineteenth century free lovers did not agree on much. The rise of a discourse on female sexuality in the mainstream women's movement and the growing numbers and confidence of women free lovers made for much controversy and many productive disagreements as to exactly what sexual arrangements would emancipate women from their age old subordination to men. After 1875, free lovers began a series of debates on sexual restraint versus indulgence, monogamy versus varietism, sex versus reproduction, and the ethics of birth control and abortion, at which women's historians would do well to look. In them, we will undoubtedly find the origins of modern sex radicalism, and the first expression of the sexual dilemmas which modern women experience, dilemmas out of which a new kind of feminism, our feminism, would eventually emerge.
1. Adrienne Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," Signs, vol. 5 n. 4 (Summer 1980), 631-60.
2. Linda Gordon, Woman's Body, Woman's Right: A Social History of Birth Control n America, New York: Grossman, 1974, p. 106. Also Nancy Cott, "Passionlessness: An Interpretation of an Ideology, 1790-1850," in A Heritage of Her Own, eds. Cott and Elizabeth Pleck (), pp. 162-75.
3. Carroll Smith Rosenberg, "Beauty, the Beast and the Militant Woman: A Case Study in Sex Roles and Social Stress in Jacksonian America," American Quarterly 23 (1971), 562-84. Mary P. Ryan, "The Power of Women's Networks: A Case Study of Female Moral Reform in America," Feminist Studies 5 (1979), 66-86. For a more critical analysis of social purity politics, see Barbara Epstein, The Politics of Domesticity: Women, Evangelism, and Temperance in Nineteenth Century America (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1981).
4. Taylor Stoehr, ed., Free Love in America: A Documentary History (New York: AMS Press, 1977). Hal D. Sears, The Sex Radicals: Free Love in High Victorian America (Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 19977).
5. Mary P. Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida City, New York, 1790-1865 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 62.
6. Gordon, p. 48.
7. "Continence" was a particularly important part of the sexual ideology and practice that John Humphrey Noyes led in the Oneida Community.
8. Victoria Woodhull, "Tried as by Fire, or, The True and the False Socially," 1974, as reprinted in Free Love in America, ed. Stoehr, p. 266.
9. On Oneida, see Louis J. Kern, An Ordered Love: Sex Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Utopias (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981).
10. One important exception is Madeline Stern, who edited Woodhull's writings in 1974 (The Victoria Woodhull Reader [Weston Mass.: M & S Publishers) and who also wrote a biography of Woodhull's free love mentor, Steven Pearl Andrews (The Pantarch [Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968).
11. Cott, "Passionlessness," p. 165.
12. Meredith Tax, The Rising of the Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880-1917 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1980). Mari Jo Buhle, Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981).
13. Bertha Monica Stearns "Two Forgotten New England Reformers," New England Quarterly, 6 (1933), 58-84; Philip Gleason, "From Free Love to Catholicism: Dr. And Mrs. Thomas L. Nichols," Ohio Historical Quarterly 70 (1961), 283-307.
14. Stoehr, Free Love in America, p. 314. Jennie June Croly, later chronicler of the women's club movement, participated in one such group, which she later described defensively in a letter to the New York Herald (undated clipping, probably c. 1881), Victoria Claflin Woodhull Papers, Southern Illinois University, Box 2.
15. Mary Lyndon, p. 166.
16. Nichols fictionalized her life and marriage in Mary Lyndon: Revelations of a Life (New York: Stringer and Townsend, 1855); quotation is from p. 162.
17. Jane Grey Swisshelm, Half a Century (Chicago: Jansen, McClurg and Company, 1880).
18. Mary Lyndon, p. 166.
19. From T. L. Nichols, M.D. and Mrs. Mary S. Gove Nichols, Marriage: Its History, Character and Results; its Sanctities and Its Profanities: Its Science and Its Facts (New York: T. L. Nichols, 1854), p. 201. Thomas wrote the first half of the book; Mary the second.
20. Mary Lyndon, p. 315.
21. Gove Nichols, Marriage, p. 199.
22. Ibid., p. 241.
23. Nichols, Marriage, p. 99-100.
24. Nichols, Mary Lyndon, pp. 268-69/
25. Thomas Nichols, for instance, advocated "varietism," while his wife did not (Marriage, p. 128).
26. Gove Nichols, Marriage, p. 197.
27. Mary Lyndon, p. 206.
28. Nichols to Stanton, August 21, 1852, in Elizabeth Cady Stanton as Revealed in Her letters, Diary and Reminiscences, eds. Theodore Stanton and Harriot Stanton Blatch (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1922), p. 44.
29. Gove Nichols, Marriage, p. 218.
30. Catharine Beecher, "On Female Health in America," excerpted in Cott, Root of Bitterness, 2nd edition, pp. 293-97.
31. Manuscript essay, "Marriage," discovered by Gerda Lerner and published in The Feminist Thought of Sarah Grimke, ed. Lerne (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 107-115.
32. Fuller, "The Great Lawsuit," in The Feminist Papers from Adams to de Beauvoir, ed. Alice S. Rossi (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1973), pp. 171-75.
33. Grimke, "Marriage," in Feminist Thought of . . ., p. 109.
34. Gove Nichols, Marriage, p. 202
35. Gilbert Barnes and Dwight Dumond, eds., Letters of Theodore Weld, Angelina Grimke Weld, and Sarah Grimke (New York: D. Appleton-Century, Co., 1934).
36. Grimke, "Marriage," pp. 110-111.
37. Mary Lyndon, p. 214.
38. Nelson Blake, Road to Reno: A History of Divorce in the U.S. (New York: MacMillan, 1962).
39. Gove Nichols, Marriage, p. 208.
40. Cott, "Passionlessness."
41. Gove Nichols, Marriage, 202.
42. Ibid, p. 229.
43. John Blake, "Mary Sargent Neal Give Nichols," Notable American Women, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1971), p. 628. Philip Gleason, "From Free Love to Catholicism: Dr. and Mrs. Thomas L. Nichols at Yellow Springs," Ohio Historical Quarterly, v. 70, October 1961, pp. 283-307.
44. Gove Nichols, Marriage, p. 191/
45. Gordon, Woman's Body, chap. 5.
46. Gove Nichols, Marriage, p. 191.
47. Johanna Johnston, Mrs. Satan (New York: Popular Library, 1967), p. 57, 73, 91. Even Taylor Stoehr, who praises her contribution to the free love movement, characterizes Woodhull as "an adventuress and a fraud" (p. 353). Woodhull's papers are at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. The path they took to get there begins with Woodhull's devoted, never married daughter, who left 5000 pounds in her will to anyone who wrote a biography vindicating her mother from what Zula believed was the slander that she had been a free lover. Zula was particularly concerned to refute the Emanie Sachs biography. The British barristers who adjudicated the will in 1953 turned to C. K. Ogden, founder of the Orthinological Society, who determined that inasmuch as Woodhull had in truth been a free lover, the Sachs' biography would remain authoritative and the terms of the will could never be met. The money went to distant relatives, but the manuscripts that Zula had saved for her mother's eventual biographer/savior went to Ogden, and from him to Harley Croessman, a bibliophile who lived in Duquoesyne, Illinois. Croessman was a friend of Ralph McCoy, dean of the libraries at the Carbondale normal college that would become Southern Illinois University. McCoy was a champion of free speech and apparently knew of Woodhull. He convinced Croessman to deposit the papers at the college for safe-keeping, and there they have remained. The provenance file has been lost but I have been able to reconstruct this story from the materials in the papers and with the help and knowledge of the librarians at SIU.
48. Paxton Hibben, Henry Ward Beecher: An American Portrait (New York: George H. Doran, Co., 1927).
49. Stanton was still corresponding with - and visiting(in London) - Woodhull in the 1890s. This is documented in the Southern Illinois University collection.
50. Elizabeth Stanton on Woodhull, New York Times, July 1875, quoted by Belle Squire, "Lady Cook and Victoria Woodhull," Chicago Daily Socialist, March 21, 1911, n.p. (thanks to Mari Jo Buhle for this quote).
51. About her role in the scandal, she proudly wrote, "I cast the thunderbolt at the very center of the socio-religion-moralistic camp" ("Tried as if by Fire," in Stoehr, ed., Free Love in America, p. 353).
52. Sachs, Terrible Siren. Geoffrey Blodgett, "Victoria Claflin Woodhull," Notable American Women, vol. 3, pp 654-55. This recanting is amply documented in the Woodhull collection at Southern Illinois University.
53. Woodhull, "Tried as if by Fire," p. 5 republished in The Victoria Woodhull Reader, ed. Madeline Stern (Weston, Mass.: M & S Press, 1974).
54. David Pivar, Purity Crusade: Sexual Morality and Social Control, 1868-1900 (Westport: Greenwood, 1973), p. 51.
55. "Tried as if by Fire," p. 8, reprinted in The Victoria Woodhull Reader, ed. Stern.
56. Woodhull, "The Scarecrows of Sexual Slavery: An Oration," (1873) (New York: Woodhull and Claflin Publications, 1874), p. 21.
57. Ibid, p. 12.
58. Ellen Key, Love and Marriage (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons).
60. Ibid, p. 14.
61. Ibid, p. 15.
62. "Tried as if by Fire," p. 24-25 reprinted in The Victoria Woodhull Reader, ed. Madeline Stern.
63. Ibid., p. 15.
64. Ibid, p. 42.
65. Ibid., p. 26.
66. This is clear from the passport picture of Byron Woodhull in the SIU collection. Zula, his sister, described him as "mentally arrested." Victoria herself wrote, "My boy . . . who should have been my pride and my joy, has never been blessed by the dawn of reasoning. I was married at fourteen, ignorant of every thing that related to my maternal functions. For my ignorance, and because I knew no better than to surrender my maternal functions to a drunken man, I am cursed by this living death" ("Tried as if by Fire," p. 27, in Woodhull Reader).
67. "Principles of Sexual Freedom," p. 37, where she asserts that stirpiculture, may be well applied to animals but not to human beings. Later in life, in England, Victoria Woodhull (now) Martin became an advocate of eugenics.
68. Isabella Beecher Hooker to Anna Dickenson, April 22 , box 9, Dickenson Papers, Library of Congress. Paulina Wright Davis to Woodhull, May 29, 1871, Woodhull Papers, Southern Illinois University.
69. For instance, Lucy Stone to J. K. Wildman, November 7, 1871, Blackwell Family Papers, Library of Congress; also Katherine Devereux Blake and Margaret Louise Wallace, Champion of Women: The Life of Lillie Devereux Blake (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1943), p. 90.
70. William O'Neill, Everyone Was Brave: The Rise and Fall of Feminism in America (New York: Quadrangle, 1969), p. 29.
71. See her eugenics speeches as republished in The Victoria Woodhull Reader, ed. Stern.
72. William Leach elaborately documents this shift in mainstream feminist discourse in the 1870s, focusing in particular on the rise of moral education societies and the leadership of Lucinda Chandler (True Love and Perfect Union: The Feminist Reform of Sex and Society (New York: Basic Books, 1980] especially chapter 4).
73. Elizabeth Blackwell, The Human Element in Sex, reprinted in Root of Bitterness: Documents in the Social History of American Women, ed. Nancy F. Cott (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986), p. 302.
74. Harriot Blatch, "Voluntary Motherhood," Up From the Pedestal: Selected Writings in the History of American Feminism, ed. Aileen Kraditor (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1968), pp. 167-75.
75. Lois Waisbrooker, A sex revolution Topeka, Kan., Independent Pub. Co., 1894); Alice Stockham, Karezza. Ethics of marriage (New York, R.F. Fenno and Co. [c1903]) .
76. For on example, see Lucinda Chandler, "UnAmerican Institutions," in Women's Tribune, January 14, 1888.