“Free Love” in the Victorian Age

Even today, the issue of free love is a tough one. We teeter between the ideas of commitment to one person and the right to fall in love (or out of love) with whomever we please. As early as the 1870s, people struggled with this topic. While the majority of society supported marriage to one person for the entirety of one’s life, others, like the progressive-minded Victoria Woodhull, believed that we should never be legally bound by government to remain in a relationship that simply doesn’t work.

In 1871, Woodhull announced “I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or short a period as I can, to change that love every day if I please. And with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.”

This thought was not discussed in mainstream media, or in the public at all. Many people seemed to be uncomfortable with the idea of falling out of love and never even spoke of it in private. The reformists of this age, however, were able to start a discussion about this controversial issue and encouraged people to question love and marriage as it existed in society.

Reformists Ezra and Angela Heywood brought up the issues of marriage in the public eye. Ezra gave lectures “to convince his guests that the institution of marriage had to be abolished, insisting that lovers should not be bound by a legal contract or church vows but should have the right ‘to make and dissolve their own contracts’ as they think best,” (Voices of Revolution; 66). People have always been so influenced by society and tradition that they have failed to question why things are the way they are. We are raised to believe that marriage will bring absolute bliss and fulfillment. “I supposed to marry was to be transported to a heaven not only of happiness but of purity and perfection,” Woodhull wrote in the late 19th century. Even now, little girls daydream about their future husbands and men propose at a certain point in a relationship simply because that’s just how it’s done. Do we ever take the time to question why we need to involve the government in our personal affairs? Of course not. That’s just how it’s done.

In the late 1800s, when the sexual reform began, marriage was, if anything, harmful to existing relationships. A major issue was that many women did not want to be married in the first place. They would be forced into the union by social necessity, facing harsh criticism if they did not find a man who would determine a woman’s whole life– her status, her wealth, her possessions, everything. She was nothing more than property. It is because of this that most women decided to stay in unhappy unions, afraid to lose everything simply because she did not want to remain with her husband. Furthermore, since women could not make enough money to live off of (as they had limited options for work and were often paid considerably less than men were), marriage was often used as an escape. Reformist Victoria Claflin married a doctor twice her age simply to escape the poverty and hardship that her family had faced. Her husband then turned out to be a fake doctor with an alcohol problem and the inability to support even himself, let alone a wife and two children. Many marriages turned out to be this way, dissolving the rosy illusion the institution once had.

This brings about another point: more often than not, husbands would cheat on their wives, abuse them or sexually assault them– and there was nothing a woman could do about it. She was eternally bound to her husband, till death do they part. The idea that men could even rape their wives was completely unheard of. It was completely legal for husbands to have sex with their wives– their property— whenever they pleased. The revolutionary new idea that a woman could have a choice in the matter sparked a lot of controversy. Free lovers “did not believe a woman should be required to submit to her husband’s every demand,” (Voices of Revolution; 68). “They argued that sexual relations in a marriage should occur because of mutual attraction, not forced obligation. They envisioned an equal partnership in which neither participant would rule or be ruled.” It’s astounding that rape was legal in a marriage, but sex out of love rather than obligation was simply unheard of.

Of course, no one talked about this in the mainstream, because while the “sanctity” of marriage was terribly romanticized, sex was labeled as a sin. Even the use of sexual vocabulary was looked down upon at the time, condemning words like rape, genitals, penis, semen, intercourse, and even the euphemism private organ. Angela Heywood often and casually included sexual vocabulary in her work, and even praised certain words as “musical,” acknowledging the beauty of sex rather than avoiding it. She wrote, “In literature, we have cocks as weathervanes, cocks as fowls, cockel hats, cockel rifles … Cock is a fowl but not a foul word,” (Voices of Revolution; 72). Of course, the press found it necessary to censor such words, sparking an attack on free love and sexual language, often marked as pornographic. Anthony Comstock, referred to as St. Anthony by the free lovers whom he attacked in his crusades, wrote that his friend had become “diseased by reading a filthy book.” He began a censoring operation and lobbied for anti-obscenity bills. Because of his efforts, the Comstock Acts passed  to ensure that “anyone found guilty of mailing or receiving ‘obscene, lewd, or lascivious’ material … would be sentenced to ten years in prison,” (Voices of Revolution; 73).

Why is it that these words were seen as damaging? It’s baffling that sex was a part of nearly everyone’s adult life but was so terribly discouraged in speech, public or private. Society has taught us to be ashamed of our bodies and of sharing love with another through intercourse, and we have simply accepted it. Even now, we gossip about how others spend their private lives. Why? That’s just how it’s done.

“It is simply nobody’s business what anybody eats, drinks, or wears,” Woodhull wrote, “and just as little who anybody loves, or how he loves, if the two parties to it are satisfied.” This is an idea that should be just as prevalent in discussion now as it was then. We are born free of judgement, willing to accept anything, but society conditions us to judge what is undoubtedly none of our business. Women were forced to stay unhappy, rather than to seek out true love, simply because of what society mandated. It is absolutely crucial in any era, at any age, and in every culture to question status quo one to make our own decisions. This is what so many free love reformists encouraged American people to do. They risked their health, financial stability, and even their lives to fight for this (many were sent to prison for their actions, which was sure to shorten their lifespans).

Though the free love advocates did not spark a terribly overwhelming revolution or reform movement, they certainly opened up discussion on the matter– an impressive feat given that discussion using certain words alone was so controversial. There was a definite gap in the mainstream, shying away from difficult subjects such as this, but the dissident press of the era tackled the topic head-on. Discussions like these are as necessary now as they were then; if we avoid problems that are prevalent in everyday life, they will never be solved. It is only through discussion that we will ever accomplish anything; repression never helped anyone. I hope with all my soul that no one will ever be afraid to speak about whatever they please, and that the major figures in dissident press will encourage us all to question why things are they way they are. Never should we accept the answer: well, that’s just how it’s done.

(See chapter 4 of Voices of Revolution by Rodger Streitmatter for more information on Free Love in the Victorian Age).

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