Free Love

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Free love became a polarizing political issue around the time of the presidential election of 1872. Before then it was just one of many utopian ideas in the air, although arguably the most radical. The utopian impulse was very strong in the nineteenth century. The majority who dreamed of a perfect society saw economic reform as the key. Free lovers, on the other hand, focused their desire for change on the personal matters of love and sex.

The prime tenet of free love held that love was sacred, and as such it must not be regulated by law. Since marriage was the institution that imposed rules upon the divine bond between a man and a woman, free lovers took aim against it, proposing that a woman and man were free to share love without either one expecting marriage to be the outcome. Free love relationships were called "elective affinities," a phrase implying that the partners were equals who freely chose to pursue a strong mutual attraction to see if love could be at its root. Although love could grow into a marriage in the spiritual sense, it was under no pressure to become marriage in the conventional sense, which was viewed as exploitative or even as a form of enslavement or prostitution. Indeed, neither party was obligated to stay in a relationship that no longer proved fulfilling.

In addition to their rejection of marriage, free lovers scoffed at certain attitudes toward sexuality held dear by the nineteenth-century middle class. Women of this era were idealized as pure and passionless, meaning that they were believed to have no sexual desire. Free lovers, however, celebrated the erotic side of human experience. They acknowledged that women, like men, were sexual by nature. Further, they maintained that the goal of sexual intercourse was mutual gratification. This idea clashed with the belief that sex was a duty that married couples undertook for the purpose of procreation. This is what the church taught, and what most middle-class couples practiced.

Although dismissed harshly by its critics as a justification for promiscuity, free love was at heart an issue of civil liberty that questioned the state's authority to regulate the individual. The first writings on the subject are usually credited to the Frenchmen Charles Fourier in the 1840s. Men such as John Humphrey Noyes, John Murray Spear, and Stephen Pearl Andrews were instrumental in introducing free love to America. Putting theory into practice, several utopian communities were formed where free love was encouraged. The so-called Perfectionists of Oneida in upstate New York considered each member of one sex to be married to all members of the other sex. In 1869 Noyes, the founder of Oneida, wrote, "Sexual intercourse should be no more restrained by law than eating and drinking" (Goldsmith, p. 53). Clearly this was a view too radical for the American mainstream.


Only for a brief moment in the history of the United States did the theories of free love filter into that mainstream. Without embracing free love ideas on sexuality, leaders of the woman's rights movement, namely Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, agreed with many things that the free lovers believed, particularly the argument for equality between the sexes. The idea of a relationship as an equal partnership was a far cry from the reality of most marriages at the time. Indeed, the advantages granted to men in marriage were considerable. Through the laws of property rights, a husband in effect owned his wife. Further, she swore in her marriage vows to obey him. So completely did she subsume her identity to him that she became, for example, "Mrs. Henry Parker." She was expected to follow the teachings of the church and the norms of society by being sexually submissive, complying with her husband's requests for intercourse. She had little recourse if her husband should commit adultery or become abusive. Divorce laws differed from state to state, but they invariably favored the husband. Moreover, few unhappy couples chose to pursue divorce because of the scandal it would cause.

Evidence that marriage was not all bliss can be found in popular nineteenth-century fiction aimed at women readers, where bad marriages were a staple. In September of 1871, in a review of an anonymous novel called Won—Not Wooed, a writer in Harper's New Monthly Magazine complained that he was bored "by the most approved pattern of the modern novel, which pretty invariably marries the heroine to the wrong lover, by way of pleasant preparation for marriage to the right one" (p. 623). Another novel reviewed in the same column remains faithful to "the approved pattern," featuring a "true and loving wife" who suffers miseries "at the hands of a husband who intends to be neither unjust nor cruel, but is simply insufferably vain." The husband's death "leaves the wife to marry the one who truly loved her, and whom she truly loved" (p. 623). Fiction of this ilk continued to appear through to the end of the century, novels with titles such as Wedded Unwooed (by Julia Howard Gatewood, 1892), Married the Wrong Man (Benoni Mendenhall, 1890), and Wed to a Lunatic (Frank W. Hastings, 1896). The lesson these novels taught was that if a wife were patient and toughed it out, she would be rewarded. Her husband would eventually change his behavior—or he might conveniently die.

Two important novels of the realist period in American literature, William Dean Howells's A Modern Instance (1882) and Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady (1881) offered no such neat endings for marriages in crisis. In the former Marcia Hubbard suffers the irony of being sued for divorce by a self-centered husband who abandoned her, while in the latter Isabel Osmond returns home to her disastrous marriage after her cousin Ralph's funeral. As early as 1848 James's father, Henry Sr., had ostensibly advocated free love in his essay "Love and Marriage" (which he would later renounce), but the younger James was no radical. Isabel refuses to comply with her husband's chauvinistic code of obedience, yet she does not walk out on her marriage.

Controversy over free love divided members of the nineteenth-century woman's movement. The abhorrence with which some women regarded free love was explicit in this resolution passed at the American Equal Rights Convention in 1869.

While we recognize the disabilities which the legal marriage imposes upon woman as wife and mother, and while we pledge ourselves to seek their removal by putting her on equal terms with man, we abhorrently repudiate Free Loveism as horrible and mischievous to society, and disown any sympathy with it.

Goldsmith, Other Powers, p. 185.

With women on the short end of so many marriages, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton believed that it was within their role as leaders for social reform to raise questions about marriage and to welcome anyone into their National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) who wished to do the same. But not everyone who cared about improving the status of women agreed. Members of the Boston-based American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) were frequently at odds with their New York counterparts over what direction the women's movement should take. The more conservative AWSA felt that the struggle should not get sidetracked but should stay focused on the main issue of gaining the right to vote. It did allow for advocating on behalf of working-class women, who were grossly underpaid, but it refused to play host to the disparate group of suffragists, anarchists, and Marxists who were welcomed into the ranks of the NWSA. To the AWSA, the NWSA's interest in reforming the laws of marriage and divorce smacked of "Free Loveism," and a resolution denouncing free love was passed at the American Equal Rights Association convention in 1869.

The controversy moved beyond the immediate circle of the women's movement, providing fodder for columns that began to appear in middle-class magazines. For example, in the October 1873 issue of Scribner's Magazine, Lulu Gray Noble applauds "the many superior and excellent women who are advocating woman's right to the ballot . . . unmixed with loose social theories." Noble notes with regret that these "loose social theories" are gaining currency "with the movement of our day known as the woman movement." In "respectable journals" no less, one finds essays voicing "their denunciation of legal marriage, and endorsement of the whole new theory of what is called marriage" (p. 658). Although Noble does not explicitly mention free love, the title of her article, "Free Marriage," leaves little doubt as to the cause of her anxiety. Thus the predicament that the progressive wing of the women's movement faced was clear: however enlightening a public debate on marriage might prove to be, anyone who pressed the issue ran the immediate risk of being branded a proponent of free love. And such people simply had no place in respectable society.

It must be made clear that the women's movement at no time included free love notions of sexual freedom in its official platform. Yet it remained the perception of many Americans that the movement "stood for" free love. Intensifying this perception was the fact that a bold woman had become a prominent lecturer for the movement. Her name was Victoria Woodhull.


Susan B. Anthony's and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's places in history are secure. Controversial in their own time, if not often widely denounced, they are now considered American heroes who devoted their lives to battling inequality and injustice. The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution granting women the right to vote—passed in 1920, fourteen years after Anthony's death—was even named after her. For a short time in the 1870s Victoria Woodhull (1838–1927) was arguably as famous as Stanton and Anthony, although she has now been reduced to a curious footnote in American history. In 1871 she was invited to speak to Congress on the topic of woman's rights. Anthony and Stanton, who had been involved in the struggle for many years, had never been granted this access to political power. In fact, Woodhull was the first woman ever to address a joint session of Congress, that is, the House of Representatives and the Senate (Goldsmith, pp. 5, 248).

It was not until 20 November 1872 that Victoria Woodhull openly declared that she was a practicing free lover. Yet even before then, she was enlivening her lectures with remarks that could have been taken from the pages of a free love manifesto.

On female sexuality: "Some women seem to glory over the fact that they never had any sexual desire and to think that desire is vulgar. What! Vulgar! The instinct that creates immortal souls vulgar? Who dares stand up amid Nature, all prolific and beautiful, where pulses are ever bounding with creative desire, and utter such sacrilege."

On marriage: "There may be prostitution in marriage and proper commerce in the bawdy house. It depends upon the specific conditions attending [sexual intercourse] itself and not where or how it is obtained."

On law and love: "People may be married by law . . . and they may also be married by love and lack all sanction of law. . . . Law cannot compel two to love. . . . Where there is no love as a basis of marriage there should be no marriage!"

Goldsmith, Other Powers, pp. 149, 152, 301.

The biography of the beautiful, charismatic upstart who spoke so passionately that day (11 January 1871) is certainly one of the most extraordinary of her era. Born in Ohio as Victoria Claflin, Woodhull was a clairvoyant whose powers would bring her great wealth after she moved to New York in 1868. There, she and her sister, Tennessee, befriended the famous capitalist Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, with Victoria becoming his financial adviser. Woodhull received her directions on how Vanderbilt should manage his stocks from the spirits. Following her advice, Vanderbilt scored a profit of $1.3 million on "Black Friday," 24 September 1869, an infamous day in Wall Street history that ruined many other investors. Vanderbilt gave half his profit to Woodhull, who, with Tennessee, opened a brokerage firm, thus becoming the first women in America to do so. The Claflin sisters were rich enough to start a journal: Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly, which they envisioned as a forum for progressive thought, especially in regard to issues affecting the sexes. Stephen Pearl Andrews, the founder of the free love community Modern Times, was a frequent contributor. A month before the first issue appeared on 14 May 1870, Woodhull had placed notice in the New York Herald that she was running for president of the United States.

Although Woodhull associated with free lovers, her address to Congress, the so-called Woodhull Memorial, revealed no links to those people. As her popularity as a lecturer grew, however, her words became bolder. Her rhetoric was that of a free lover, as in this attack on marriage from her keynote speech to the NWSA convention, 11 May 1871: "Why do I war upon marriage. . . . because it is, I verily believe, the most terrible curse from which humanity now suffers, entailing more misery, sickness, and premature death than all other causes combined. . . . Sanctioned and defended by marriage, night after night there are thousands of rapes committed, under cover of this accursed license" (Goldsmith, p. 274).

Neither major candidate for president in 1872, Ulysses S. Grant or Horace Greeley, made women's rights a part of his campaign. Although Woodhull's candidacy was quixotic at best, her electrifying presence on the lecture circuit brought attention to the issues that progressive women considered important. The fact that she was chosen as the NWSA keynote speaker underscores her quick rise to a position of honor within the women's movement. But even many members of the NWSA were uncomfortable with her views and the out-spoken way in which she asserted them. By Election Day 1872 she had fallen completely from favor.


On 20 November 1871, before a crowd of three thousand people, Woodhull was angered in the middle of a lecture by a heckler demanding to know if she were a free lover. "Yes, I am a Free Lover!" Woodhull recklessly declared. Rumors about her personal life had been rampant, and now she was standing in public and proclaiming: "I have an inalienable, constitutional, and natural right to love whom I may, to love for as long or as short a period as I can, to change that love every day if I please! And with that right neither you nor any law have any right to interfere" (Goldsmith, p. 303).

The price that Woodhull paid for this public assertion of her sexual freedom was enormous. Already demonized in the media (the famous cartoonist Thomas Nast depicted Woodhull as Satan, and Harriet Beecher Stowe caricatured her as Audacia Dangereyes in her 1871 novel My Wife and I ), Woodhull suddenly found her very livelihood threatened. Her attempts to rent halls for her lectures were denied. The landlord who owned the building that housed the operations for Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly raised the rent, thus forcing Woodhull to leave. Individuals and organizations with public images to uphold dissociated themselves from her. In a desperate attempt to explain herself to an outraged public, Woodhull garnered the resources to publish another issue of the Weekly, dated 2 November 1872. In it, she revealed that Henry Ward Beecher, a New York preacher of celebrity status (and Harriet Beecher Stowe's brother), had initiated a number of extramarital affairs with women of his parish. Rather than condemn Beecher for committing adultery, Woodhull meant to point out that the only difference between him and her was that she was forthright about her desire to love freely while he was secretive. Soon after the Weekly hit the streets, Woodhull and Tennessee were arrested and charged with distributing obscene material through the mail. They would spend Election Day in jail.

Victims of a fanatical campaign by Anthony Comstock, head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, to rid the country of obscenity, the sisters would be jailed on two other occasions. Meanwhile Beecher was exonerated by a church committee more intent upon clearing his name than asking hard questions about his private life; a lawsuit brought against him in 1874 by one of his parishioners, Theodore Tilden, husband of one of his purported lovers and former editor of the New York Independent, a weekly Congregationalist paper, ended with a hung jury. Woodhull eventually moved to England where she rebuilt her life, becoming the wife of a titled British gentleman.

Whether the woman's movement would have sputtered even without the free love scandal to compromise it is a question for historians to debate. The fact is that the movement found itself in disarray after the 1872 election. A writer in the March 1875 issue of Scribner's Magazine pointed to the defeat of the Woman Suffrage Amendment in Michigan and gloated: "That that movement is waning in power must be painfully evident to its friends; and we trust the time may come when they will rejoice in the fact as heartily as we do" (p. 628).

The example of Victoria Woodhull serves to show the lengths to which nineteenth-century American society went to punish a woman who was openly and shamelessly sexual. The country's most vocal proponent of free love was silenced and cast out. Curiously enough, her persecution did not stop others from publishing their frank views on sexual matters. Ezra Heywood, author of the tract Cupid's Yokes (1876), and Moses Harmon, who published the radical journal Lucifer from 1883 to 1907, were other advocates of free love worth noting. Like Woodhull, both were imprisoned by Comstock, who was incessant in his crusade to silence sexual radicals until his death in 1915.

See alsoFeminism; Prostitution; Reform; Sex Education


Primary Works

Andrews, Stephen Pearl, Henry James Sr., and Horace Greeley. Love, Marriage, and Divorce, and the Sovereignty of the Individual. 1853. Boston: Tucker, 1889.

James, Henry, Sr. "Is Marriage Holy?" Atlantic Monthly, March 1870, pp. 360–368.

James, Henry, Sr. "Love and Marriage." Harbinger, 23 October 1848, pp. 202–203.

Noble, Lulu Gray. "Free Marriage." Scribner's Magazine, October 1873, pp. 658–664.

Noyes, John Humphrey. Dixon and His Copyists: A Criticism of the Accounts of the Oneida Community in "New America," "Spiritual Wives," and Kindred Publications. Wallingford, Conn.: Oneida Community, 1871.

Secondary Works

Blatt, Martin Henry. Free Love and Anarchism: The Biography of Ezra Heywood. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

D'Emilio, John, and Estelle B. Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Gabriel, Mary. Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin, 1998.

Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. New York: Knopf, 1998.

Habegger, Alfred. Henry James and the "Woman Business." New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Johnston, Johanna. Mrs. Satan: The Incredible Saga of Victoria C. Woodhull. New York: Putnam, 1967.

Meade, Marion. Free Woman: The Life and Times of Victoria Woodhull. New York: Knopf, 1976.

Sachs, Emanie. The Terrible Siren: Victoria Woodhull, 1838–1927. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1928.

Stoehr, Taylor. Free Love in America: A Documentary History. New York: AMS Press, 1979.

Paul Hadella