H-Net about    search    site map    editors    donate    contact    help
navbar
Discussion Networks Reviews Job Guide Announcements

Feminism and Free Love

This essay was written two decades ago, was subsequently circulated among a few interested historians, but was never published. In 1978, I had received a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship to study the history of feminist ideas about sexuality. The most important product of that research was the article I coauthored with Linda Gordon about the historical complexities of the feminist approach to sexuality, initially presented at the 1981 Barnard College Conference on the Scholar and the Feminist and published in Feminist Studies as ""Danger and Pleasure in Nineteenth Century Feminist Sexual Thought."(1) That article argued that while the dominant feminist historical tradition focused on the dangers women faced from sexuality, a less developed set of understandings addressed the still unrealized pleasures of sexuality for women. Our intention was to intervene in the intense "sex wars" debates going on at that time over the politics of pornography, and we did make a significant contribution by demonstrating that as early as the mid nineteenth century, some feminists had a more complex - and optimistic - vision of sexuality.

"Feminism and Free Love" reflects my research and thinking about that hesitant feminist "pro-sex" tradition. Sitting in the New York Public Library, I read extensively on the free love and sex radical movements of the nineteenth century. I concentrated on women activists, arguments that emphasized women's suffering in conventional marriage, links to the women's rights movement, and efforts to give voice to women's distinctive sexual experiences. At that point, only a few historians had written on these subjects, most of them men, and none of them as yet significantly influenced by the new women's history scholarship. Most were probably drawn to the subject of free love by their own interest in sexual freedom, their engagement with the sexological literature, and/or the sexual liberation ethos of the sixties that immediately preceded women's liberation. Starting from very different premises, I found tremendously interesting material in the writings of numerous nineteenth century women. I began with the first woman identified with free love ideas in the United States, Frances Wright, but concluded that "free love" was more a calumny directed at her than a cause she actively embraced. I moved on to the next two prominent female figures in this history, Mary Gove Nichols and Victoria Woodhull. I was intrigued by the richness and originality of their ideas, which I did not think other historians had appreciated, and the similarity of their fates: they both eventually became apostates to the cause to which their personal reputations had been sacrificed. I also read the writings of late nineteenth women sex radicals active after Woodhull, most of them associated with American anarchism. The essay I eventually wrote concentrated on Nichols and Woodhull.

At the time, my analysis of these sources was organized around the distinction between sexuality and reproduction. As Linda Gordon had already argued in her feminist history of birth control, Woman's Body, Woman's Right, this differentiation has characterized thinking about women's emancipation only since Margaret Sanger inaugurated the modern birth control movement.(2) In retrospect, I can see that in trying to counterpose ideas about sexuality and maternity I was misreading these nineteenth century women. Working from notions that were very different from my own, they were trying to conceptualize sexual pleasure for women in the context of a far more reverential attitude to motherhood, in which maternity was a social act not an individual responsibility and constituted the primary framework available to pose the possibility of female power in a male dominated world. If I were to revisit this research now, I would work harder to understand Nichols' and Woodhull's own understandings of the relationship of sexuality to motherhood, especially as these differed from contemporary notions. I also would concentrate more on their critique of the institution of marriage, which I have come to see as one of the unifying concerns of the women's rights/feminist tradition.(3)

Since I wrote "Feminism and Free Love," many women's historians have tackled the history of free love and sex radicalism from a variety of interpretive angles. I can mention only a few here. Janet Brodie investigated the hidden history of nineteenth century contraceptive commerce which formed the backdrop for much thinking on the question of sexual regulation.(4) Anne Braude revisited Nichols in Radical Spirits, her history of spiritualism and nineteenth century women's rights.(5) Victoria Woodhull has been the subject of three modern biographies, one of which made it to the best seller list,(6) and Helen Horowitz and Molly McGarry have examined Woodhull's confrontation with Anthony Comstock.(7) Lori Ginzberg has done an important service in exploring the links between the sexual and religious dimension of Frances Wright's reputation for "infidelity."(8) The only book length study of the American free love tradition from a feminist perspective has come from a French women's historian, Francoise Basch.(9) I have concluded that it would be impossible to integrate these new approaches without throwing out the essay I wrote in 1980 and replacing it with an entirely a new one. Instead, I have chosen to preserve what I wrote then as a sort of historiographical artifact.

But I would not have looked for a way to circulate this essay more broadly if I did not think that it still has something to offer. None of the new biographies of Victoria Woodhull gives sufficient attention to her ideas about female sexuality. This is consistent with what I see as a general failure in women's history scholarship to consider the history of American feminism seriously enough on the intellectual level. We have resurrected our heroines, gained courage from their lives, and insisted on their contributions to history. But we haven't really looked in depth at what they thought and wrote about the causes and cures of women's subordination. "Feminist theory," that much touted contemporary scholarly endeavor, has little historical depth, and predecessors like Wollstonecraft or Stanton or Gilman draw attention more for the flaws and inadequacies of their thought than for the profundity or originality of their insight. But is it really true that everything these intellectual foremothers have to offer contemporary feminism has already been absorbed into modern understandings of the structures of gender inequality ? I think they still may have something to teach us.

Feminist thinkers of the past faced enormous obstacles in doing their work. Most of them lacked formal education and the leisure to concentrate on their writing, were activists as well as theorists, and were marginalized by thoroughly masculinist assumptions about who got to be an intellectual and what was worth thinking about. More often than not, they seemed to be starting from scratch as they tried to think about what it meant to be a woman in a male dominated society and how that might change. With respect to no other issue was this more the case than sexuality, that most challenging and difficult dimension for understanding the structures of gender. To our minds at least, Woodhull's and Nichols' ideas about female sexuality are full of contradictions and inconsistencies. As theorists they are extremely disorderly. And yet for just this reason, because they way they thought about female sexuality is so foreign to modern sensibilities, they may help us to think ourselves outside of our own assumptions and constraints. For it is hardly the case that contemporary feminism has a solid or systematic basis on which to explain how sexuality helps to construct women's subordination. Serious attention to the ideas of these women may reveal theoretical paths once begun and prematurely abandoned. I offer this essay in the hope of encouraging more scholarship and analysis in this direction.



1. Ellen Carol DuBois and Linda Gordon, "Danger and Pleasure in Nineteenth Century Feminist Sexual Thought," Feminist Studies, 9 (1983).

2. Linda Gordon, Woman's Body Woman's Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America (New York: Viking, 1976), p. 98.

3. "A Vindication of Women's Rights," in Woman Suffrage, Women's Rights ed. Ellen DuBois (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 283-300. Also see Nancy Cott's new book, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

4. Janet Brodie, Contraception and abortion in nineteenth-century America ( Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1994).

5. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989).

6. Barbara Goldsmith, Other powers : the age of suffrage, spiritualism, and the scandalous Victoria Woodhull (New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1998). Lois Beachy Underhill. The woman who ran for president : the many lives of Victoria Woodhull (Bridgehampton, N.Y. : Bridge Works Pub., 1995). Mary Gabriel. Notorious Victoria: the life of Victoria Woodhull (Chapel Hill, N.C. : Algonquin Books, 1998).

7. Helen Horowitz, "Victoria Woodhull, Anthony Comstock, and Conflict over Sex in the United States in the 1879s," Journal of American History, vol. 87, n. 2 (September 2000); Molly McGarry, "Spectral Sexualities: Nineteenth Century Spiritualism, Moral Panics and the Making of U.S. Obscenity Law," Journal of Women's History, vol. 12 n. 2 (Summer 2000).

8. Ginzberg, "`The Hearts of Your Readers Will Shudder': Fanny Wright, Infidelity and American Freethought," American Quarterly v. 46 n. 2 (June 1994).

9. Françoise Basch, Rebelles américaines au XIXe siècle : mariage, amour libre et politique (Paris : Méridiens Klincksieck, 1990).

H-Net
Humanities & Social Sciences OnLine
Humanities &
Social Sciences Online
in cooperation with MSU Department of History
Contact Us
Copyright © 1995-2007