"You cannot fix the scarlet letter on my breast!": women reading, writing, and reshaping the sexual culture of Victorian America.
In Hawthorne's hands, the scarlet A worn by Hester Prynne had two functions. It was a warning to Victorian society of the evils of hypocrisy and the destructive power of intolerance. It was also a vivid reminder to women of the consequences of sexual transgression. For in spite of her early hope that she would be the catalyst for this new emotional dispensation, Hawthorne gloomily concluded that the role of "angel and apostle of the coming revelation" would be reserved for a woman who is "lofty, pure, and beautiful," rather than one, like Prynne, who was "stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened with a life-long sorrow." (2)
While Hawthorne's prediction may have held true in the social and moral universe he portrayed in his novel, throughout the last half of the nineteenth century it was precisely the kind of woman symbolized by Hester Prynne who would emerge as a confidant to the discontented and as a prophet of a regenerated emotional life. At the forefront of nineteenth-century efforts to reconstruct the erotic and emotional dimensions of private life were women who voluntarily took on the role of moral outsiders. Unlike Hester, however, they were a different sort of outcast. Women, such as Mary Gove Nichols, Victoria Woodhull, Angela Heywood, Lois Waisbrooker, and Lillian Harman, who were part of a small but active group of nineteenth-century reformers known as "Free Lovers," refused to accept society's categories of deviance and wear the scarlet letter. Instead, they challenged the emerging code of Victorian sexual respectability by providing encouragement to those who had been cast beyond the pale of "respectable" society, such as prostitutes, unwed mothers, bastard children, and adulterous wives. Unlike purity crusaders and moral rescue workers, the Free Lovers' goal was not to reform these objects of social scorn. Rather, through the public exposure of their ideas and experiences, they sought to teach them to overcome their sense of shame and, in pursuit of sexual autonomy, to bear their condition with pride.
In the nineteenth century, the Free Lovers occupied the fringes of even the most radical efforts to transform society. As a result, in the historiography of American reform they have either been ignored or portrayed as peripheral warriors in the battles for free thought and free speech, the struggles for women's rights, or the attempts by communitarians, anarchists, socialists, and spiritualists to create the ideal society. In recent years, however, scholars who have explored the intellectual, political, and legal history of the Free Love movement as well as the lives of some of its prominent leaders have redressed this neglect. (3) This essay, however, is less concerned with the Free Lovers' struggles against censorship, their political successes or failures, or their leaders' contributions to the history of reform. Instead, it explores what is perhaps the Free Lovers' most important contribution to our understanding of the past--their preoccupation with the emotional and erotic experiences of nineteenth-century men and women, and their willingness to discuss these experiences in public venues. Specifically, it examines their role as counselors and confessors to married and unmarried women who sought to unburden their hearts and describe in detail the contours of their emotional and erotic lives.
In the articles and letters they published in newspapers such as Nichols' Monthly, the Social Revolutionist, Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, The Word, and Lucifer, the Light-Bearer during the years between 1850 and 1910, the Free Lovers provided their readers with a radical ideology that fundamentally challenged the sexual cultural of Victorian American. (4) One of the central tenets of this ideology, which historians have long noted, was their belief that women's sexual desires should be liberated from the arbitrary and unnatural limitations placed upon them by religious ideology, legal relationships, and social customs. (5) In the pages that follow, I will outline not only the dimensions of their new prescriptive ideology, but more important I will examine the impact of print culture on the "real readers" of the Free Love press. That is, by analyzing the articles and the letters to the editor written by women and published in the correspondence columns of Free Love newspapers and pamphlets, I will explore how they influenced the ways in which their readers experienced and expressed their desires and, in the process, how they worked to reshape women's sexual identities in late nineteenth-century America.
Redefining Women's Sexuality
Contrary to the views of many of their contemporaries, the Free Lovers were not promiscuous libertines who carelessly placed women in jeopardy from the consequences of pre- or extra-marital intercourse. While most of their contemporaries viewed them as libertine advocates of the irresponsible expression of male sexual desire, the Free Lovers in fact sought instead to liberate women from the invasive sexual desires of all men, to protect them from the unwanted embraces of not only rapists and seducers but from husbands as well. (6) Lois Waisbrooker argued, for example, that Free Love "does not mean more freedom for men to gratify their sensual natures as so many seem to think and believe." Nor were they concerned with increasing the frequency of sexual intercourse, or, as Rachel Campbell put it, making it "more fun." As Angela Heywood insisted, the Free Love movement was an outgrowth of "woman's growing impulse to be mistress of her own Person." These sexual reformers were urging women to defy social conventions, the church, and the state and take control of their bodies as well as the ways in which their sexual desires were experienced and expressed. (7)
This goal was clearly at odds with Victorian sexual and marital ideology, which celebrated the doctrine of separate spheres, the sentimental image of motherhood, and the cult of domesticity that envisioned the home as a "haven in a heartless world." The cornerstone of this interconnected set of beliefs was the "passionless" woman. Rejecting the long-standing belief in the insatiability of women's sexual desires, nineteenth-century ministers, moralists, and physicians argued that the sexual drives of women were much weaker than those of men. Unlike the raw sensual urges that drove male desire, they insisted that women's erotic impulses were shaped by maternal instincts and a social conscience, and were spiritual in nature. (8)
The Free Lovers had nothing but contempt for this image of women's sexuality, and they continually castigated those who adopted it and took pride in their lack of sexual desire. These women, and the men who loved them, argued Helen Nash in 1874, "mistake frigidity for virtue." Many women who "are totally deaf, dumb, blind, and utterly senseless to any sexual animation," she continued, often "take a forlorn pride in assuming [this] to be the summit of chastity and the height of virtuousness." Or as Anne Burnsby declared in an 1895 letter to Lucifer, "It is fashionable to decry 'sensuality,' to disparage the 'passions,' to talk vaguely of 'purity,' and 'higher things' than 'carnal pleasures.' Christianity has made us very familiar with that kind of talk, and it is 'good form' to pretend to be indifferent to or to loathe the sex relations." (9)
In contrast to historians in the twentieth century, who have argued that the passionlessness ideal gave women a great deal of cultural power or that it was seldom internalized and had little impact on their lives, nineteenth-century Free Lovers insisted that it was an essential prop in a system that estranged women from their true identities. Because it supported the idea that it was the duty of women to control the sexual passions of men, it forced women to deny their own longings for sexual and economic autonomy and prevented them from knowing and expressing their natural desires. As Elizabeth Johnson argued in 1897, a woman should no longer be viewed as "a 'moral regulator,' 'a spiritual illuminator,' or man's conscience." She should instead be regarded as she is, a "rational being, with impulses, desires and rights equal with man." To facilitate women's journey toward self-fulfillment and the satisfaction of her own desires, Johnson demanded that men should "stop setting woman on a pedestal." Rejecting the link between "respectability" and sexual self-denial, the Free Lovers publicly argued that sexual passion was not a gender specific trait, but could be found equally among women as well as men. "Every woman, on arriving at full physical womanhood, naturally and rightfully, desires sexual intercourse," announced an editorial in Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly in 1873. "There are times," Angela Heywood chimed in, when every woman "wants man's fingers to pass through between every two hairs on Mt. Venus." (10) In their own description of woman's sexuality, no longer was she to be defined by her maternal function alone. Nor was she expected to selflessly and submissively satisfy the unilateral sexual demands of her husband. Women, like men, were equally entitled to gratify their sexual desires in the most beneficial and pleasurable way possible. By resisting Victorian culture's emphasis on women's sexual self-denial, Free Lovers such as Lillie D. White redefined the ideal woman by replacing virtues such as "obedience, submission, [and] chastity" with newer ideals that allowed her to be self-reliant, assertive, and sexually and emotionally fulfilled. (11)
Moreover, the Free Lovers did more than merely argue for a woman's right to enjoy sex with her husband. In their celebration of women's sexual autonomy they also insisted that women, as Lois Waisbrooker put it, should "hold the deciding vote in the republic of love." (12) That is, they had the right to say yes to sex as well as no. Not only should they control the frequency of intercourse in the marriage bed, the Free Lovers also argued that women should not stay in loveless or abusive marriages and, in their defense of pre- and extra-marital relationships, argued that they should be allowed to have children by any man at any time they wished.
In redefining sexual morality the Free Lovers resisted efforts to stigmatize the behavior of sexually active women that increased by the end of the nineteenth century. (13) Flying in the face of the powerful social trope, the "ruined" woman, the Free Lovers insisted that sexual purity and propriety were not defined according to the edicts of the church and the legal enactments of the state. Rather, the quality of the desire and the context of its expression were the primary criteria of value. Sexual virtue, Waisbrooker argued, could not "be made or unmade by legal ties, or the lack of them." If men and women lived "in hated relations sexually," they were living in an immoral state of prostitution. Thus, it was the existence of love itself that sanctioned any union. It was only in a state of freedom that true love, untempered by greed, lust or the concern with social status, could be realized. (14) A woman's sexual virtue, then, was a subjective condition, measured only from the perspective of the woman herself. Society's judgments were irrelevant. As Waisbrooker concluded, "... No woman is ruined unless she thinks so." (15)
By rejecting Victorian views on chastity and fidelity the Free Lovers again were not advocating mindless or promiscuous sexual activity. Rather, they were attempting to create what they considered to be "true" states of chastity and fidelity, which involved a redefinition of the terms themselves. The condition of sexual purity, they argued, could only be reached through "the exercise of our best affections," not through their denial or "repression." (16)
Private Life, Public Discourse, and Reader Participation in Nineteenth-Century Print Culture
In Free Love newspapers, descriptions of woman's sexual nature fundamentally challenged the one-dimensional image created by Victorian moralists. These papers, however, did more than disseminate a prescriptive ideology for a sexual revolution. Print also provided a public forum in which their readers, who felt themselves to be victims of Victorian sexual ideas and institutions, wrote letters to their editors and described in intimate detail the sexual problems they experienced. These were not letters to the editor in a traditional sense. That is, they were not formal comments written to an unknown or distant figure that were intended for publication. Rather, they were sent to someone the writers felt they knew. They were an intimate form of communication, very similar to face-to-face conversations. As a result, they were also a unique form of self-expression in that, as Moses Harman argued, they "were not written for the public eye and therefore [were] all the more valuable" because they reflected the candid thoughts of their authors. (17)
In many ways, this effort to bridge the gap between private experience and public discourse was not unique to the Free Love press. By the 1840s we witness the appearance of newspapers, pamphlets, and novels--a sensationalist literature--that rejected the older image of reading as a means of social control. (18) This literature, in part, was written and published by radical democrats who set out to expose the hypocrisy of social and moral elites by uncovering the secrets of their sexual lives, and by the editors of scandal mongering penny papers and the "sporting" press who provided voyeuristic titillation to the masses for fun and profit. (19) This innovation is wonderfully caricatured in a Charles Dickens novel, The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit , in which an English visitor to America is overwhelmed upon his arrival in New York by the cries of young newsboys who were hawking their bundles of information. "'Here's this morning's New York Sewer!' cried one. 'Here's this morning's New York Stabber! Here's the New York Family Spy! Here's the New York Private Listener! Here's the New York Peeper.'" (20) The titles given these papers by Dickens are not just thinly veiled references to the emergence of real New York newspapers, such as The Evening Tatler, the Scrutinizer, The Subterranean, The Telescope, or The True Flash, which, like their fictionalized counterparts, were dedicated to the sensational exposure of private life in the city. (21) They also reflect the genteel outcry against sensational journalism that could be heard throughout the nineteenth century.
Central to this critique was the argument that newspaper writers, novelists, and biographers were portraying things in public that were best left unsaid. In 1875 Henry James, Sr., for example, railed against the "detestable tendency toward the effacement of privacy in life and thought everywhere [that is] so rampant with us nowadays." A series of editorials published in the New York Times in 1874 similarly railed against "the Abolition of Privacy," and vigorously decried journalists' efforts delve into "the hidden recesses of hearts and of households, to rake the gutters and swab the sewers of private life, in order to get some of its refuse to spread out before the public." (22) In part, this was an expression of genteel resentment against the growing power of the newspaper. E. L. Godkin complained in 1890 that newspapers "have been for the last half-century, exerting more influence on the popular mind and the popular morals than either the pulpit or the book press has exerted in five hundred years." (23) More than a sign of distaste for the rise of yet one more weapon in the arsenal of mass culture, however, according to these culture critics the desire to intrude upon the private world of the individual was a symptom of moral and mental degeneration, a vulgar remnant of the savagery from which modern man had evolved. Touting the right to privacy as a symbol of "civilization" itself, they argued that this new literature not only destroyed the lives of those who were victimized by this new and more powerful form of gossip. An even more devastating consequence was the corrosion of the moral sensibility of the reader. (24)
Specifically and self-consciously addressing this criticism of the sensational press, another type of journalism emerged, written and published by reformers such as abolitionists, temperance advocates, social purity crusaders, and Free Lovers, which sought to explore the emotional depths of private life. Unlike sensationalist periodicals, which, as David Reynolds has argued, were filled with "mechanical prurience and crass titillation," the newspapers published by these reformers did not portray private experiences in public print in order to provide their readers with cheap, voyeuristic thrills. (25) In contrast, they exposed acts of cruelty and scenes of misery in order to create an understanding of the personal tragedies wrought by what they considered to be immoral institutions and behaviors. The goal of these reformers, then, was not to elicit sadistic pleasure from the pain of others. Instead, as Karen Halttunen has clearly shown, they sought "to redefine a wide range of previously accepted social practices as cruel and unacceptable." (26)
This is especially true for the editors of the Free Love press. Defending their intrusion into private life, they argued that their literature was neither salacious nor exploitive. Rather, it was written to expose the inconsistencies of the Victorian marital and sexual system and bring to light the unhappiness it produced. In an editorial published in 1900, Moses Harman, the editor of Lucifer, the Light-Bearer, specifically addressed this issue. "We are sometimes advised," he wrote, "not to publish examples or instances from real life illustrative of the working of our social institutions. It is argued that such recitals do no good, but rather harm. That the contemplation of human misery has a hardening, a callousing effect upon the beholder, etc., etc." He insisted, however, this was not the case when the cause of suffering is remediable. Rather than inure the observer to the pain of others, such scenes would elicit a more positive response in the reader: how best can we the cure the causes of pain? How best can we remedy the plight of the sufferer? (27)
The Free Lovers, then, were responding, as Angela Heywood put it, "as sympathetic human beings to the cry of misery" voiced by the victims of Victorian sexual ideas and institutions. (28) In the process, their newspapers and public tracts provided an outlet for women who, for a variety of reasons, were unhappy. Wives stuck in loveless marriages, single women pining for the erotic and emotional experiences denied them by Victorian sexual ideology, or unmarried mothers who had rejected the social codes that restrained them and indulged their desires for sexual encounters and childbirth, wrote to Free Lovers for advice. The impact of the Free Lovers' renegotiation of women's sexual identities is clearly seen in the letters written to the editors of their newspapers. These letters provide an insight not only into the nature of the sexual revolution begun in the nineteenth century; they also demonstrate the impact of Free Love ideology on "real readers"--that is the ways in which Free Love literature was read and responded to by the readers themselves. (29)
While letters to the editor can provide a valuable source for gauging the impact of newspapers on the consciousness and experiences of their readers, there are in general, however, some problems with using them as such. Letters published in newspapers can be selectively chosen, solicited, or even written by the editors themselves in order to boost circulation or to express a particular point of view. In addition, they can be edited in ways that reshape the original argument of the writer. All of this can stand in the way of the historian's search for the unmediated sensibility of the reader. (30) None of these issues, however, are relevant to the letters published in Free Love newspapers. As some of their readers complained, most of these newspapers did not possess a strong editorial direction. While this may have been perceived as a weakness, their open editorial policies allowed for free, unfiltered discussions on a variety of issues that were seldom explored in print in the nineteenth century. (31) In fact these editors frequently published the words of even their sternest critics. Ezra Heywood, the editor of The Word, for example, ran a regular column called "The Opposition," in which he proudly published negative comments on him as well as the causes he supported. As Lillian Harman, the daughter of Moses Harman and the editor of Lucifer while he was in prison, insisted, "Scarcely an issue goes to press which does not contain ideas from which we more or less seriously dissent. But we endeavor to give a hearing to as many varying views as possible, trusting the intelligence of our readers to 'hear all sides, then decide.'" Or as Moses Harman himself argued, "Lucifer's platform is the freest of the free, and that in order to get the whole of truth we must hear all sides." (32)
Moreover, Free Love newspapers were not concerned with advertisers or fearful of offending a specific subgroup of readers. As a result, they were free to publish anything they pleased, limited only by the Comstock Act, and they often overtly challenged the legal boundaries established by this law. (33) Thus, they posed few, if any, conditions on who or what could be published, and they provided women with a unique opportunity to describe their sexual experiences without first being censored by or filtered through the Victorian sensibilities of editors, social workers, or political authorities. (34) In short, Free Love newspapers provide an excellent example of the increased use of letters to the editor in nineteenth-century periodicals that reflects what one historian has described as a "movement from leaders to readers." (35) With their extensive correspondence columns, they encouraged "reader participation" from social groups that seldom saw their words in print. In this way, readers helped to shape not only the content of these papers, they also elicited allegiance to the ideas they promoted through the creation of a common community of belief and action. (36)
Print Culture and the Transformation of Desire and Behavior
Circulation figures for Free Love newspapers varied greatly, ranging from 400 to more than 200,000 copies per issue. They were sold at newsstands in large cities in the North, such as New York and Chicago, as well as through subscriptions--at about $1.00 per year--distributed by the U.S. mail service. (37) But subscription and distribution figures alone do not truly indicate how widely they were read. Often they were passed on to others to read. As R. M. Stanton from Chadron, Nebraska noted, "My papers go through the mails two to three times after I read them, and are read yet more times." (38) Some readers created clubs of subscribers, which consisted of groups of men and women who commonly received a variety of reform publications and shared them with one another. One subscriber to Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly wrote to Victoria Woodhull and complained that a copy of one of their issues had been "loaned out and read until worn out." (39) Or as one supporter from Worcester, Massachusetts, argued, "I received a copy of the S[ocial] R[evolutionist] from a friend, the first I ever saw, in the early part of its first volume, and I doubt not that it was read by hundreds, for it passed from hand to hand, and from town to town, till it was pretty well read, and it has been the same with each number." (40)
The social backgrounds of the editors, contributors, and readers of these newspapers were somewhat varied. They earned their livings as teachers, doctors, writers, spiritual mediums, lecturers, farmers, store and office clerks, domestic servants, and factory and mill workers. Often, like Victorian Woodhull, they described themselves as "poor, uneducated and obscure people, without position or prospects in the world." (41) Lois Waisbrooker, for example, wrote that she came from the "lower strata" of society. As a result, she had few opportunities for a formal education. Early in her life she began a routine of hard and constant toil as a domestic servant, and eventually became a teacher, instructing Black and white children in small country schools before the Civil War. By the late 1860s she took to the lecture circuit, speaking on radical and unpopular topics, ranging from feminism to Free Love. (42) A hard and difficult life was also the fate of Rachel Campbell. Born into meager economic circumstances--her father was an invalid and her mother was charged with all of the responsibilities of raising a family and running a farm--Rachel worked hard throughout her life, laboring for years in a cotton mill in Manchester, New Hampshire. "I sometimes get very tired and [feel] almost worked to death," she wrote in 1895. "I begin work at half-past four in the morning, getting ready to start for the mill at six, and I don't get home until about ten minutes past seven at night." In spite of their hardships, however, women such as these found time to spend with their Free Love newspapers. As Essa B. Taylor, a cashier living in Los Angeles, wrote in a letter to Moses Harman, even though she worked nearly a 12-hour day she was always able to find "time to read Lucifer." (43)
Reflecting the class backgrounds of many of their readers as well as the important role these newspapers played in their lives, women often wrote of the economic hardships they endured in order to pay the $1.00 a year subscription rate. The experience of one woman, writing from Cleveland, Ohio, to Moses Harman in 1894 is typical.
... Money is so scarce at present, myself and most of my family being among the unfortunate army of the 'unemployed,' and the three necessaries of life--coal, flour and rent--must be provided for at least. I have saved this dollar up by laying away ten cents and five cents at a time...."
This, however, was a small sacrifice because, she claimed, "... I would not be without Lucifer if I had to go on one meal a day to secure it. It is rightly named the Light-Bearer, especially to woman, for I am happy to say that it has thrown a great deal of light on my path in life since I began to read it and sincerely wish I could have had it thirty years ago." (44)
In addition to economic hardship, the views of unsympathetic husbands, families, and friends were also faced and faced down by the readers of Free Love literature. One woman, for example, complained to the editor of Lucifer that although her husband was "bitterly opposed" to her subscribing to the newspaper, she insisted on receiving it anyway. "I cannot do without Lucifer," she wrote. "I will risk a separation before giving [it] up.... Its contents are as vital as life itself. I am lonely and do not get much to read." Another woman, writing from Georgia, presented a similar experience. After canceling her subscription to Lucifer at her husband's insistence, she renewed it behind his back. "You do not know how my mind has suffered during the past few years," she confessed, "because I have been prevented from enjoying the light and warmth your blessed Lucifer brings." (45) Women who read these newspapers were also subjected to the scrutiny of their neighbors. One woman, who only identified herself as Mrs. T. J., begged the editor of Lucifer to wrap the literature he sent her "so securely that no part of it may become exposed during transit here. I live in a very orthodox community, mostly Catholic," she revealed, "and I hope in time to get a position here in the schools; therefore I have to be very careful." And those who openly read Free Love literature and espoused the principles they encountered were vilified by their communities. As Martha Hursen, writing from Grand Rapids, Michigan, complained in a letter to Victoria Woodhull in 1874, "I have been a constant reader of your paper for the last year and am one of your earnest advocates, and in consequence have had the finger of scorn pointed at me, and all the vile epithets hurled at me." (46)
Why were these newspapers so valuable to these women? To begin with, they were a source of knowledge on topics that were seldom discussed in nineteenth-century America. Young girls searching for advice on sexual matters, for example, turned to the pages of Free Love newspapers. One woman, on the eve of her marriage, wrote to Moses Harman and asked him to send her several pamphlets that would provide her with what she needed to know before the advent of her wedding night. "... I am young," she wrote, "and have never had training in regard to such ideas. My mother has never talked of such things to her girls, because she thinks it vulgar." Even those with enlightened parents who felt free to discuss these issues wrote to Lucifer because their mother and father were perceived as old-fashioned and out of touch. "I am only a young girl but I have experienced a good deal more than most girls of my age," wrote one woman from Colorado. "My dear mother is very broad minded and liberal, but she was quite old when I was born and has not kept up with the times. She does not understand the young people of today." Newspapers such as Lucifer also provided parents themselves with new ideas on how to educate their children. Mrs. F. A. de Crane proclaimed in 1906 that she had been a loyal reader of the newspaper for 18 years and "through its influence," she proudly announced, "I taught my daughter the right to own herself." (47)
The editors of these newspapers also acted as counselors and confidants to women who wrote in and described in detail their experiences of sexual frustration or emotional unhappiness. "You have seen much of the world; may I come to you with the story of my sad life?" asked a reader of Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly. "Will you listen to me, give me your best thought and counsel, and see if you can point me to a 'way of salvation' from some of my ills?" (48) Women who found themselves in loveless marriages, for example, opened their hearts in hopes of receiving advice that would ameliorate their discontent. In a letter published in Lucifer in 1902, one woman confessed that she no longer loved her husband.
For the children's sake I have remained with him but my affection isn't any more than a sisterly feeling and now I love another. I told him so and told him that I didn't think I ought to live with him any more and I wanted him to let me go, but he says he can't give me up; he loves me too well. He says he will win my love back and I will outgrow the other love. I dread the future. Sometimes I think I will try and forget self and live for him and the children. Then I'll just wait and see what the fates have in store for me. It makes a woman feel degraded to live with a man she doesn't love. I would like to receive advice. (49)
The responses to such questions never varied. The message repeatedly conveyed in Free Love newspapers was that a woman, single or married, should "reassume control of her own person." As an editorial in Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly succinctly announced: "We teach that all conjugal relations, not based on genuine and reciprocal love, are base and vile, and no law, human or divine, can sanctify that which God condemns and honest souls abhor. We teach that the production of children from such conditions is a sin against our souls, our bodies, the children, and a curse to society. We teach that sustaining conjugal relations without the ingredient of natural love, is simply legalized prostitution." (50)
Often this advice was taken to heart. Readers frequently commented on how they had intensely "read and re-read" Lucifer or some other Free Love newspaper or pamphlet and described the ways it had influenced their decisions to break free from community opinion or family pressures and openly defy legal and religious conventions. (51) One woman, writing from Denver, Colorado, claimed that when she fell in love with someone new, she renounced her marriage and left her husband. "As I was a firm believer in the principles I professed," she insisted, "I gave up my home and am now 'a wanderer on the face of the earth.'" Another woman wrote to Victoria Woodhull and confided that, as a result of the ideas she encountered in Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, she had taken the "first step toward a truer and better life" and walked out on her husband. "The light and truth that I have gained through the Weekly for the past three years," she wrote, "have done much to inspire me with courage to move on in the path discerned by my interior vision and sense of truth, in spite of external obstacles...." (52) Or as one woman who wrote to Moses Harman put it, "[Lucifer] came to me at a time in my progress ... when I stood in need of the help it rendered. I was needing the courage to take a step toward freedom that its bugle call for liberty helped greatly to supply. So I shall always think of Lucifer as a friend who, at an opportune moment came with a proffered hand." (53)
In addition to showing women the way out of bad marriages, these newspapers also provided the rationale for the right of unmarried women to indulge their sexual desires and to bear children out of wedlock. And readers by the droves wrote letters that provided examples of those who attempted to do this. One young woman, a schoolteacher who identified herself only by the initials W. M., boldly described her struggle for this ultimate form of sexual autonomy. By freeing herself from "silly superstitious ideas of sex and marriage," she wrote,
I know in the eyes of society I have committed the unpardonable sin, but I can bear the sneers and jeers of the narrow minded conventional people and prove to them I am still honest and true. I will be true to my soul's desires and guidings and endure bravely whatever comes. Fear does not belong to my vocabulary.
Unconcerned with the opinions of others, she defiantly proclaimed her right to avoid the "unbearable life of the conventional married woman" and live the life of love in freedom. "I do not intend to barter myself for a home nor be deprived of the rights of a human being," she concluded. "I will have them at any cost." (54)
In another letter, this one written to Lillian Harman in 1899, who at the age of 16 entered into an "autonomistic" marriage with Edwin C. Walker, we can clearly discern the impact that Free Love literature, with its portrayal of women who were willing to have "children in freedom," had on individual decisions to defy social conventions.
My Dear Friend And Sister Lillian: I have long wanted to write you. Your experiences and trials and triumphs have inspired me with admiration for your courage in the cause of sex liberty and equality, and your love and sympathy for your sister women have won my heart-felt gratitude. I have been a very interested reader of Lucifer for ten years. I have enjoyed reading your articles so much. I remember the first time I ever heard of you I fell in love with your name, and shortly thereafter a little sister was born and I wanted so much to call her Lillian that Mamma told me I could. She is now twelve years old and reads Lucifer every week.
Bolstered by the examples of free women found in the pages of Lucifer, this young woman acted on her desire to have children even though she was not married. "I have loved babies all my life and I wanted one of my own, and believing I had as much right to have one as any other woman, I got one." (55)
The lessons women learned from these newspapers were unmistakable. Sexual autonomy was their birthright. They did not have to ask society's permission to express their natural desires, or to skulk ashamedly when they did so outside of marriage. As one of the readers of Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly boldly announced in a letter to Victoria Woodhull, "I do not argue my right to sexual freedom; I know it, I proclaim it, I take it in the face of all the world! Stretch me on social racks, roast me on social gridirons, apply your social thumb-screws till every nerve quivers.... Do your worst, you cannot fix the scarlet letter on my breast!" (56)
What is clear from an examination of these letters to the editor is that Free Love literature had a transformative impact on the thought and behavior of its readers. It provided women with the courage to challenge Victorian sexual morality, to decide for themselves how they would live their lives. As one woman put it, writing to Moses Harman from Long Beach, California in 1896,
I have derived much pleasure and profit from reading a bundle of your papers loaned me by a friend. They have done much to help free my mind from old prejudices and have helped me to more clearly define my own opinions and have given me more courage to speak out what I think and feel to be true and right in regard to the sex question. (57)
Rather than merely convey information to passive, invisible readers Free Love literature provided a context for conversation, agitation, and emulation. By portraying women who were able to redefine their identities and expand the emotional and erotic opportunities available to them, the editors of Free Love newspapers helped their readers to consciously explore ideas that had only existed, as one reader wrote, in their "mind's secret chambers." (58) They allowed them to identify and express "forbidden" emotions, put a name to their discontent, and provide an avenue of escape, or at least the hope of it. Referring to the first copy of Lucifer that came her way, one wife argued that "it was as bread to the hungry or water to the thirsty; like Oliver Twist I cried for 'more.'" This newspaper, she insisted, gave "expression to thoughts that had haunted me for years, but which I had previously been unable to define." (59) Contact with Free Lover literature crystallized vague sentiments and disappointments and transformed them into a specific ideology and plan of action. Belle C. Shull, of Findlay, Ohio, expressed this well in an 1890 letter to Ezra Heywood. "I have read every word of The Word, during the past year, & like it better than ever," she wrote. "The Word has given me help & courage, in my determination to cross the boundary lines, [to] see & know for myself. (60)
Although it is impossible to make a convincing argument as to the numbers of women who were influenced by Free Love efforts to reshape images of women's sexuality, we can draw a clear connection between these efforts and the ways in which their newspapers both reflected and shaped the attitudes, emotions, and actions of their readers. By creating a community of like-minded women, they provided their readers with the knowledge that, as one of them put it, other "hearts pulsate" to the same ideas and convictions. (61) Moreover, like Hester Prynne, Free Love editors acted as confidants and confessors to those, as described by one of them, "who, by bitter experience know the desolateness of a loveless marriage" as well as "to those who have suffered by misplaced affection and unhallowed passions." (62)
The confession has been vilified by Michel Foucault as "a ritual of discourse" that placed the confessor in a position to "judge, punish, [and] forgive." In the hands of the Free Lovers, however, the confession and the forms of discourse it engendered were not used to strengthen the power of the listener and police the thoughts, desires, and experiences of the speaker. (63) The editors of the Free Love press did not publish the intimate details of their readers' confessions in order to absolve them of their sexual sins by granting forgiveness. Instead, they sought to enable their readers to self-consciously transcend the identity of the shame-faced penitent. As one woman revealed in a letter to the editor of Lucifer,
There is nothing that so brings out and develops the mind and soul, as a free interchange of thoughts and feelings; and this opportunity I never saw given in any paper but yours. I have in the past two years, taken eleven reform papers, but none of them please me in this respect like yours. Just the idea that I may speak of my deepest and most unendurable woes, to any one, aside from my persecutors without bringing condemnation on my defenseless head was a revelation to me of the 'comforter,' bringing hope, light, and, life for which I had ceased to pray. (64)
While all forms of confession lead to redemption, the purification and salvation offered by the Free Lovers was based on the expression rather than the renunciation of desire, which, they argued, would lead to liberation rather than domination, individual agency rather than supplication and powerlessness.
The liberation offered by Free Love literature allowed women to transcend the boundaries placed not just on behavior but also on the public acknowledgment of desire. Referring to the dangers posed by maternity homes for unwed mothers, a Boston social worker argued in 1890 that there is "nothing worse for people who have been guilty of [sexual] misconduct than to find that plenty of other people have done the same thing." (65) The connection between shame and secrecy was not lost on the Free Lovers. By providing a public forum in which women could express their discontent and desires, Free Love newspapers let their readers, who often felt themselves to be "condemned to think and feel in silence and alone," know that their problems were far from unique. (66) As Thomas and Mary Nichols put it, their goal of publishing the "heart-gushing" letters from readers was to provide encouragement to "the timid in our life-cause, to let them know that others think and feel as they do." (67) And this sense of experiences shared provided women with the courage to pursue their feelings and desires. Encountering new thoughts and stirred to action, readers often claimed that they had been transformed by their contact with Free Love newspapers. "All I am I owe to Lucifer and its teachings," argued Lena Selde in 1905, "and I think there are others." Mrs. J. Schmidt of Lowell, Washington, expressed similar sentiments when she claimed that she was "not the same woman" since she began reading Lucifer. "It has thoroughly aroused me," she continued, to the importance of the struggle for "the freedom that every woman should try to attain." (68)
The transition from thought to behavior that openly challenged social norms was a difficult one to make. Many readers wrote expressing sympathy for the Free Love cause but complained that they were too afraid to act on their convictions. Those who did, however, provided the most dangerous challenge to Victorian sexual ideology. In her description of the creation of community in antebellum New England, the sociologist Karen Hansen comments on the ways in which the boundaries of acceptable sexual behavior were maintained. Women who broke the rules and engaged in premarital or extramarital sex were shunned. Those women whose sexual reputations had been tarnished by the corrosive power of local gossip had few avenues of escape. They could give in, accept their shame, and bear the ostracism of the community. They could move on in hopes of recreating a more "respectable" sense of self. Or they could reject the community's judgment of their behavior. This last option was the most dangerous to the social order because it challenged the extralegal power of public opinion and social respect. (69) And this was the option provided by the Free Love press. These newspapers encouraged and enabled their readers to endure the wagging tongues of the village scold and the social ostracism that inevitably followed, and take the steps necessary to free themselves from the restrictions of the Victorian moral code.
In the nineteenth century, the cultural, social, and economic changes unleashed by the "market revolution" undermined traditional means for the dissemination of sexual knowledge. Rather than consulting with parents and local elites, social and geographical mobility encouraged men and women to look elsewhere for advice on how to regulate and express their erotic and emotional drives. (70) Moreover, increased reticence inhibited parental discussions of sexual issues with their children, leaving urban youth to their own devices in their pursuit of sexual education. Victorian moralists, physicians, and clergymen created a powerful print culture of novels, newspapers, and advice manuals that attempted to fill the void. The Free Love press also emerged out of this vacuum and created an alternative to Victorian prescriptive literature.
The social and geographical mobility that accompanied the market revolution also recast the emotional lives of Americans. Cut loose from the ties and traditions of the small communities they left behind, they pursued alternative social relations, both real and imagined. The result was the creation of new communities of readers who drew on novels, letters, and newspapers in an effort to reconstruct the intimate social worlds they had lost. (71) But more than a substitute for the emotional ties they had abandoned, these newspapers created a new public sphere that sought to bridge the gap between private behavior and public discourse. That is, they provided readers with a frame of reference that went beyond the realm of everyday experience, and gave them a new context for understanding sexual and emotional experiences that were seldom discussed in private conversations, letters, or in public print. (72)
The print culture of Free Love newspapers, like that of many other reform presses in the nineteenth century, created a sense of community among readers that was based not on geographical proximity but instead on common experiences and desires. (73) In this way it united women from a variety of social backgrounds, urban and rural, young and old, wealthy and impoverished, who, by participating in this new form of public space, were able to transcend the traditional forms of social control that shaped women's sexual identities and experiences. (74) This was more than a therapeutic balm to individual discomfort, however. The Free Lovers knew that writing is a political act, but they also argued that reading is as well. Linking consciousness to behavior, they believed that the erotic imagination and the forms of action it inspired could be controlled if the words used to describe sexuality and the emotions associated with it were carefully chosen. Words not only communicated ideas, they also communicated emotions, or rather shaped the ways in which emotions were understood, experienced, and expressed, transforming thought into deed. (75)
By creating an arena in which women could openly explore their discontent, express their desires, and face, as one reader put it, the "social death" that awaited those who publicly told "the truth about [their] feelings," the Free Love press fundamentally challenged the restrictive emotional culture created by Victorian moralists. (76) Moreover, in telling the truth about their feelings the Free Lovers were, as one reader argued, encouraging women to "be natural and human, to live as we feel to live." That is, not only was the Free Love press instrumental in restructuring the relationship between public and private life that redefined the geography of intimate conversations, it also gave voice to efforts to desacralize the moral ethic that guided sexual behavior. The erosion of a sense of sexual shame through the publication of the intimate details of private life, and the formulation of a secular basis for sexual morality that would eventually privatize the pursuit of desire by undermining the power of the church, state and society to control its expression, fundamentally subverted the authority of the Victorian cultural synthesis and formed the basis of the new culture of self-expression that would replace it in the twentieth century. (77)
Rejecting the "old, old story," central to nineteenth-century melodramatic formulas that were recycled in both sensationalist and reform literatures, which portrayed "fallen" women as the naive, passive, blameless victims of male lust and treachery, the Free Lovers created in the minds of their readers a new narrative strategy that encouraged women who sought to engage in pre- and extra-marital sexual relations to see themselves as agents in control of their erotic and emotional lives. (78) In response to W. M.'s declaration of independence mentioned above, in which she proclaimed her right to have sex and children out of wedlock, one woman declared in a letter to Lucifer in 1904, "Three cheers for you ... 'W. M!'" "I have but one fault to find with you, and that is you did not sign your full name. Sing it out, sister! You have nothing to be ashamed of." (79) By bringing this message to their readers, the Free Love press legitimized alternative ideas and forms of behavior, emboldened those who felt shamed, silenced, and alone, and sowed the seeds of sexual rebellion in late nineteenth-century America. (80)
An earlier version of this article was written for the "Women in Print Conference," sponsored by the Center for the History of Print Culture in Modern America, University of Wisconsin, Madison (2001). The author would like to thank Peter Stearns and the Journal of Social History's anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and criticisms. Research for this article was supported by a California State University, Fullerton Foundation Faculty Research Grant.
1. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, A Romance, John Stephen Martin, ed. (Orchard Park, NY, 1995), 305-309.
2. Ibid., 309.
3. See, for example, Hal D. Sears, The Sex Radicals: Free Love in High Victorian America (Lawrence, KS, 1977); Linda Gordon, Woman's Body, Woman's Right: Birth Control in America (New York, 1983); John C. Spurlock, Free Love: Marriage and Middle-Class Radicalism in America, 1825-1860 (New York, 1988); Martin Blatt, Free Love and Anarchism: The Biography of Ezra Heywood (Urbana, IL, 1989); Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (Boston, 1989); Lois Beachy Underhill, The Woman Who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull (Bridgehampton, NY, 1995); Mary Gabriel, Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull Uncensored (Chapel Hill, NC, 1998); Barbara Goldsmith, Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull (New York, 1998).
4. Nichols' Monthly: A Magazine of Social Science and Progressive Literature, was published in Cincinnati, Ohio (1855-1857). The Social Revolutionist was published in Cincinnati and Greenville, Ohio (1856-1857). The Word (Princeton, Massachusetts) was published from 1872 until 1893. Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly (May 14, 1870 to June 10, 1876) was published in New York by Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin. Lucifer (Valley Falls, Topeka, and Chicago), which succeeded the Valley Falls Liberal (1880-1881) and the Kansas Liberal (1881-1883), was published from 1883 until 1907, when it was renamed the American Journal of Eugenics (Chicago and Los Angeles, 1907-1910).
5. As Linda Gordon has argued, their celebration of the "existence, legitimacy, and worthiness of [the] female sexual drive was one of the free lovers' most important contributions to sexual reform." See Women's Body, Women's Right, 98.
6. Braude, Radical Spirits, 128-136; Jesse F. Battan, "'In the Marriage Bed Woman's Sex Has Been Enslaved and Abused': Defining and Exposing Marital Rape in Late Nineteenth-Century America," in Merril D. Smith, ed., Sex Without Consent: Rape and Sexual Coercion in America (New York, 2002), 204-229.
7. Lois Waisbrooker, "Free Love," Lucifer, April 3, 1891, 2; Mary Florence Johnson, "Pioneer Chips: From the Private Correspondence of Rachel Campbell," Our New Humanity, December 1895, 37; Angela T. Heywood, "The Woman's View of It--No. 1," The Word, January 1883, 2. See also Lewis Perry, "'Progress not Pleasure is our Aim': The Sexual Advice of an Antebellum Radical," Journal of Social History, 12(1979): 358.
8. Peter T. Cominos, "Innocent Femina Sensualis in Unconscious Conflict," in Martha Vicinus, ed., Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age (Bloomington, 1972), 156, 159-60; G. J. Barker-Benfield, The Horrors of the Half-Known Life: Male Attitudes Toward Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, 1976), 76, 114, 122; Nancy F. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780-1835 (New Haven, 1977), 153; idem., "Passionlessness: An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology, 1790-1850," Signs 4(Winter 1978)2: 219-236; Cynthia Eagle Russett, Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood (Cambridge, 1989), 19, 44; Carol Zisowitz Stearns and Peter N. Stearns, "Victorian Sexuality: Can Historians Do It Better?" Journal of Social History, 18(Summer 1985)4: 627; Barbara Welter, "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860," American Quarterly 28(Summer 1966)2, pt.1:155-157; William G. Shade, "'A Mental Passion': Female Sexuality in Victorian America," International Journal of Women's Studies 1(January/February 1978) 1:18; Carol Groneman, "Nymphomania: The Historical Construction of Female Sexuality." Signs 19(Winter 1994)2: 342. On Victorian images of male sexuality, see Janet Oppenheim, "Shattered Nerves": Doctors, Patients, and Depression in Victorian England (New York, 1991), 158-165, 174-178.
9. Helen Nash, "Class in Natural History Stand Up!" Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, January 10, 1874, 5; idem., "Dear Weekly," Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, February 13, 1875, 2; idem., "Socialistic," Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, March 21, 1874, 3; Anne S. Burnsby, "An Unequal Discussion," Lucifer, August 16, 1895, 1.
10. Elizabeth Johnson, "Various Voices," Lucifer, October 20, 1897, 335; Editorial, "The Causes of Physical Degeneracy," Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, March 29, 1873, 9; Angela T. Heywood, "The Ethics of Touch--Sex-Unity," The Word, June 1889, 3.
11. Lillie D. White, "The Old and the New," Lucifer, March 10, 1900, 70.
12. Lois Waisbrooker, "Can't You Understand?" Lucifer, December 11, 1891, 4.
13. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, "'Ruined' Girls: Changing Community Responses to Illegitimacy in Upstate New York, 1890-1920," Journal of Social History, 18(Winter 1984)2:247-272; Maris Vinovskis, "An Epidemic of Adolescent Pregnancy? Some Historical Considerations," Journal of Family History, 6(1981)2:205-230. On pre-nineteenth century reactions to illegitimacy, see Ellen Fitzpatrick, "Childbirth and an Unwed Mother in Seventeenth-Century New England," Signs, 8 (Summer 1983):744-49, and Barbara M. Hobson, Uneasy Virtue: The Politics of Prostitution and the American Reform Tradition (New York, 1987), 59.
14. Lois Waisbrooker, "What is Purity, Holiness?" Lucifer, December 18, 1891, 1. See also Moses Harman, "Virtue and Hygiene in Sex Relations," Lucifer, November 7, 1890, 2, and Thomas L. and Mary S. Gove Nichols, Marriage: Its History, Character, and Results (Cincinnati, OH, 1854), 399.
15. Lena Belfort, "A Woman Protests," Lucifer, October 27, 1904, 189; Lois Waisbrooker, Helen Harlow's Vow (Boston, 1870), 21.
16. Robert Dale Owen, "Of Chastity," New Harmony Gazette, May 28, 1828, 246-247.
17. Moses Harman, "Lucifer and Socialism," Lucifer, June 9, 1904, 109.
18. A good example of this image is found in the novel Oldtown Folks (1869), where Harriet Beecher Stowe argued that the function of newspaper reading is "to instruct the servants and put them on their guard" and to place "one's self lowly and reverently [in relationship] to one's betters." Quoted in Thomas C. Leonard, "News at the Hearth: A Drama of Reading in Nineteenth-Century America," Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 102(1993)2: 382.
19. David S. Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (Cambridge, MA, 1988), 223, 184; Alexander Saxton, "Problems of Class and Race in the Origins of the Mass Circulation Press," American Quarterly, 36(Summer 1984)2:216, 223; and Isabelle Lehuu, Carnival on the Page: Popular Print Media in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill, 2000), 49-53. Lehuu notes the "the strikingly private character of the news" in antebellum America, and explores the sensational depiction of sexual scandals and the invasion of private life by the daily penny papers .
20. Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (Oxford, 1982), 1844 ed., 255.
21. Newspapers such as these first appeared in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s. For an overview of this form of sensational journalism, see Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance, chapter 6.
22. Henry James, Sr., "Nordhoff's Communistic Societies," The Nation, January 14, 1875, 28; "The Abolition of Privacy," New York Times, August 4, 1874, 4 and "The Diffusion of Calumny," New York Times, August 13, 1874, 4. For a fascinating exploration of this late nineteenth-century critique of the erosion of the private sphere see Glenn Wallach, "'A Depraved Taste for Publicity': The Press and Private Life in the Gilded Age," American Studies, 39(Spring 1998)1: 31-57. See also E. L. Godkin, "The Rights of the Citizen," Scribner's Magazine, July 1890, 65.
23. E. L. Godkin, "Newspapers Here and Abroad," North American Review (February 1890), 202.
24. Godkin, "The Rights of the Citizen," 65-66. Twentieth-century historians have warned of this as well. See Karen Halttunen, "Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain in Anglo-American Culture," American Historical Review, 100, (April 1995), 2, who argues that sensational literature could elicit a sadistic thrill in the reader (312-313, 318, 325). William A. Cohen, Sex Scandal: The Private Parts of Victorian Fiction (Durham, NC, 1996), also contends that scandal elicits "horror, pleasure, shame, and enthrallment in its audience (16)." See also Richard Wightman Fox, "Intimacy on Trial: Cultural Meanings of the Beecher-Tilton Affair," in The Power of Culture: Critical Essays in American History, Richard Wightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears, eds. (Chicago, 1993), 103-132, and Rochelle Gurstein, The Repeal of Reticence: America's Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art (New York, 1996), 49-55.
25. Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance, 212. See also Lehuu, Carnival on the Page, 53, 56.
26. Halttunen, "Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain," 330.
27. Editorial, "One More Unfortunate," Lucifer, May 19, 1900, 147.
28. Angela T. Heywood, "The Grace and Use of Sex Life," The Word, June 1890, 3.
29. In order to uncover the meanings that readers derive from a text, recent reader/response criticism has drawn on an array of complicated theoretical methodologies that construct an image of the "implied reader" that is extracted from the text itself. Another approach examines the actual first-hand experiences of readers--i.e., "real readers"--that were expressed in historical documents such as autobiographies, diaries, and letters. For discussions on the approaches used in the search for the real reader, see Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray, "'Have You Read ...?': Real Readers and Their Responses in Antebellum Boston and Its Region," Nineteenth-Century Literature, 52(September 1997)2:139-170; Barbara Sicherman, "Sense and Sensibility: A Case Study of Women's Reading in Late-Victorian America," in Cathy N. Davidson, ed., Reading in America: Literature & Social History (Baltimore, MD, 1989), 201-225; Carl F. Kaestle, "The History of Readers," in Carl F. Kaestle, et. al. eds., Literacy in the United States (New Haven, CT, 1991), 44-45; Lynne Warren, "'Women in Conference': Reading the Correspondence Columns in Woman, 1890-1910," in Nineteenth-Century Media and the Construction of Identities, Laurel Brake, Bill Bell, and David Finkelstein, eds. (New York, 2000), 122; and Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven, CT, 2001), 4.
30. For valuable discussions on the problems of using such letters as historical sources, see Edith Blicksilver, "The Bintl Briv Woman Writer: Torn Between European Traditions and the American Life Style," Conference on Modern Jewish Studies Annual (Flushing, NY, 1977), 38-39; John M. Robson, Marriage or Celibacy? The Daily Telegraph on a Victorian Dilemma (Toronto, 1995), 6; Judith Knelman, "She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not: Trends in the Victorian Marriage Market," Journal of Communication Inquiry, 18(Winter 1994)1:80-94; and Warren, "'Women in Conference,'" 132. See also David Paul Nord's essay "Reading the Newspaper," in his Communities of Journalism: A History of American Newspapers and Their Readers (Urbana, IL, 2001), 246-277, for a sophisticated treatment of the uses of letters to the editor.
31. Several historians of the Free Lovers have commented on the ways in which their radical newspapers provided an open forum in which their readers could express their thoughts and describe their intimate experiences. Hal Sears, for example, argued that as a result of Moses Harman's lack of direction and limited ideology, Lucifer, the Light-Bearer drifted on "the uneven seas of its readers' whims and prejudices." See The Sex Radicals, 268.
32. Lillian Harman, editorial response to W. T. B., "Various Voices," Lucifer, June 12, 1902, 173; Moses Harman, "Chats With Correspondents," Lucifer, May 11, 1900, 140.
33. See Jesse F. Battan, "'The Word Made Flesh': Language, Authority, and Sexual Desire in Late Nineteenth-Century America," in John C. Fout and Maura Shaw Tantillo, eds., American Sexual Politics: Sex, Gender, and Race since the Civil War (Chicago, 1993), 101-121. The Postal Act of 1873, also known as the Comstock Act, prohibited, among other things, the mailing of "obscene" pictures, newspapers or letters.
34. As Ann Fabian has noted, in the nineteenth century it was difficult "for those without power or property to tell their stories when, where, and how they wanted." I would argue that this was especially true when they tried to tell stories about their sexual lives. See The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narratives in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley, CA, 2000), 78.
35. Robson, "Marriage or Celibacy?" 6, 33-39. See also Knelman, "She Love Me, She Loves Me Not," 92-93. This form of "participatory journalism" was pioneered by William Lloyd Garrison (The Liberator) and Abner Kneeland (Boston Investigator), who published the lengthy letters of their supporters. See David Paul Nord, "Tocqueville, Garrison and the Perfection of Journalism," Journalism History, 13(Summer 1986)2:56, 60, and Roderick S. French, "Liberation from Man and God in Boson: Abner Kneeland's Free-Thought Campaign, 1830-1839," American Quarterly, 32(Summer 1980)2:215.
36. Nord, "Tocqueville, Garrison and the Perfection of Journalism," 60.
37. The decline in the price of newsprint in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the creation of second-class postal rates for weekly newspapers and magazines encouraged the development of small, self-published radical newspapers throughout the United States. See Elliott Shore, Talkin' Socialism: J. A. Wayland and the Role of the Press in American Radicalism, 1890-1912 (Lawrence, KS, 1988), 96. See also Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 (New York, 1991), 370. It is difficult to accurately calculate circulation figures for Free Love publications. Often the number of subscribers claimed by a periodical was self-reported. Thomas Low and Mary Gove Nichols claimed in 1853 that they had nearly 30,000 subscribers signed-up for the second volume of Nichol's Journal, which began its run in January 1854. See editorial comment, Nichols' Journal, August 1853, 37. In contrast, the Social Revolutionist listed only 400 to 450 subscribers in the mid-1850s. See Kenneth M. Price, "Walt Whitman, Free Love, and the Social Revolutionist," American Periodicals, 1(Fall 1991)1:71, Spurlock, Free Love, 149, and Taylor Stoehr, Free Love in America: A Documentary History (New York, 1979), 6. By the end of 1870, the editors of Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly laid claim to a circulation of 40,000 to 50,000. The issue of Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly that broke the Beecher-Tilton scandal (11/2/1872) sold well over 100,000 copies. See "Our Pet," Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, December 17, 1870, 8; "Woodhull & Claflin," Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, January 1, 1876, p. 5; and Underhill, The Woman Who Ran for President, 228. See also Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, 1865-1885 (Cambridge, MA, 1938), vol. 3, 450. Finally, Moses Harman's daughter, Lillian Harman, wrote of the necessity for continued calls for donations to the paper "because its subscribers were so few in number." See Lillian Harman to Joseph Labadie, Chicago, IL (September 26, 1907), Labadie Collection, University of Michigan. Hal Sears argues that Lucifer had between 1500 and 2000 subscribers at the end of the 19th century. See The Sex Radicals, 99.
38. R. M. Stanton, "Various Voices," Lucifer, December 22, 1893, 3.
39. Mrs. H. A. Monroe, "A Voice from Kansas," Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, March 25, 1871, 12. Nineteenth-century newspaper publishers encouraged this. By sending many newspapers to one address, they were able to cut their mailing costs. See Thomas C. Leonard, News for All: America's Coming-of-Age with the Press (New York, 1995), 51-52, and Shore, Talkin' Socialism, 105.
40. O. D. H., "To the Publishers of the Social Revolutionist," Social Revolutionist, March 1857, p. 89.
41. "The Culmination of Events," Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, April 17, 1875, 4. See also Emanie Sachs, "Terrible Siren:" Victoria Woodhull, 1838-1927 (New York, 1928), 1-5, 9-11, and Johanna Johnston, Mrs. Satan: The Incredible Saga of Victoria C. Woodhull (New York, 1967), 16-20, 23-24. As Moses Harman insisted, "Most of our subscribers are of the working classes--wage-working classes." M[oses] H[arman], editorial response to F. Rudick, "Various Voices," Lucifer, January 4, 1901, 407. For a more detailed description of the social backgrounds of the Free Lovers, see Jesse F. Battan, "The Politics of Eros: Sexual Radicalism and Social Reform in Nineteenth-Century America," Ph.D. diss., UCLA, 1988, 156-183.
42. Sears, Sex Radicals, 231-232; Lois Waisbrooker, "Mayweed Blossoms," Foundation Principles, October 15, 1894, 6, and November 15, 1894, 6; idem., "Call it 'Cat'," Demonstrator, October 26, 1904, 3; Ann D. Braude, "Lois Waisbrooker," in John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, vol. 22 (New York, 1999), 453-455.
43. Johnson, "Pioneer Chips: From the Private Correspondence of Rachel Campbell," 26-28, 30; Essa B. Taylor, "Various Voices," Lucifer, January 19, 1898, 439.
44. Mrs. M. S., "Various Voices," Lucifer, January 12, 1894, 4.
45. Mrs. "M.," "Various Voices," Lucifer, April 12, 1906, 499; Mrs. L., "Various Voices," Lucifer, February 5, 1903, 30.
46. Mrs. T. J., "Various Voices," Lucifer, April 7, 1897, 111; Mrs. Martha E. Hursen, "More Testimony," Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, October 17, 1874, 6.
47. Moses Harman, "On the Picket Line," Lucifer, May 14, 1903, 141; L. R., "Various Voices," Lucifer, January 27, 1900, 23; Mrs. F. A. de Crane, "Various Voices," Lucifer, December 20, 1906, 643. See also Ella Slater, "Various Voices," Lucifer, April 7, 1897, 111. On the sexual ignorance of nineteenth-century women, see Mary Roberts Coolidge, Why Women are So (New York, 1912), 14-15, 122; Clelia Duel Mosher, The Mosher Survey: Sexual Attitudes of 45 Victorian Women, James MaHood and Kristine Wenburg, eds. (New York, 1980); David M. Kennedy, Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger (New Haven, CT, 1971), 54; Rosalind Rosenberg, Beyond Separate Spheres: Intellectual Roots of Modern Feminism (New Haven, CT, 1982), 183; Diane Price Herndl, Invalid Women: Figuring Feminine Illness in American Fiction and Culture, 1840-1940 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1993), 27; Nancy Grey Osterud, Bonds of Community: The Lives of Farm Women in Nineteenth-Century New York (Ithaca, NY, 1991), 114; Linda W. Rosenzweig, The Anchor of My Life: Middle-Class American Mothers and Daughters, 1880-1920 (New York, 1993), 78-80.
48. Elizabeth ______, "Correspondence," Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, July 22, 1871, 11.
49. M., "What One Woman Did," Lucifer, May 29, 1902, 154.
50. Editorial, "The Alternatives," Woodhull & Clafin's Weekly, June 19, 1875, 5; Editorial, "The Woman's Journal and Free Love," Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, June 10, 1871, 10.
51. Mrs. T. J., "Various Voices," Lucifer, April 7, 1897, 111; Eliza D. Harman, "Various Voices," Lucifer, October 17, 1890, 3; A Mother, "Various Voices," Lucifer, October 12, 1905, 395.
52. Mattie C., "Various Voices," Lucifer, July 10, 1902, 205; Marana C. Hyde, "Dear Sister Victoria," Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, July 10, 1875, 6.
53. Carrie, "Things by Their Right Name," Lucifer, January 26, 1901, 11.
54. Mrs. W. M., "A Woman's Declaration of Independence," Lucifer, November 10, 1904, 195.
55. Lillian Harman, "A Child of Liberty," Lucifer, May 13, 1899, 141.
56. Helen Nash, "Dear Weekly," Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, November 14, 1874, 13.
57. Mrs. F. E. Ingram, "Various Voices," Lucifer, May 29, 1896, 4.
58. "Dr. and Mrs. Nichols," Nichols' Journal, August 5, 1854, 2.
59. "The Letter Box," Nichols' Journal, May 27, 1854, 2;____ __, Calif., "Various Voices," Lucifer, April 10, 1896, 4.
60. Belle C. Shull, "Correspondence," The Word, January 1890, 3.
61. Nichols' Monthly, August 5, 1854, 2.
62. Hannah F. M. Brown, "Rev. H. R. Nye and the Marriage Question," The Agitator, February 15, 1859, 76.
63. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, An Introduction, Robert Hurley trans. (New York, 1978), 61. For Foucault, the confession is never a liberating experience. The "obligation to confess" is so much a part of modern consciousness, he argued, "that we no longer perceive it as the effect of a power that constrains us...." (60) For a fascinating examination of the emergence of various forms of confession--religious, psychoanalytic, criminal and legal--and the rise of the modern sense of self, see Peter Brooks, Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law & Literature (Chicago, 2000).
64. Mrs. M. J. Milhollin, "Free Expression," Lucifer, October 25, 1895, 3.
65. Kunzel, Fallen Women, 81.
66. Milhollin, "Free Expression," 3. Regina Kunzel provides a good example of this in her examination of letters written by unmarried pregnant women to the United States Children's Bureau in response to an article published in True Confessions magazine in 1949. She notes that by the 1950s the popular press--in this case "true romance" magazines--was more powerful in shaping the experience of single motherhood than the forces that commonly shaped the individual's identity in nineteenth-century America, such as the family, the church, and medical authorities. Their exposure to such public descriptions of a plight that was once shrouded in shame and secrecy provided unwed mothers with a sense that they "were far from alone." This, according to early twentieth-century social workers, was a dangerous sensibility. Making a connection between shame and secrecy, for example, they began to express their concern that maternity homes subverted the power of a moral ideology that viewed such behavior as immoral, or at least socially unacceptable. Most of the women who came to these homes, observed social worker Helen Welsh in 1919, arrived with the belief that they were unique in their transgression. After spending time with others who shared their fate, Welsh wrote, "they suddenly realize that there are many girls who have done what they should not, conventionally at least. They begin to think that after all their deed was not so wrong." As a result, Welsh concluded, they were not as plagued by guilt and remorse as they should have been. See Regina Kunzel, "Pulp Fictions and Problem Girls: Reading and Rewriting Single Pregnancy in the Postwar United States," American Historical Review, 100(December 1995) 5: 1479-1480.
67. "The Letter Box," Nichols' Journal, May 27, 1854, 2.
68. Lena Selde to Moses Harman, quoted in Moses Harman, "How to Help Lucifer to Win," Lucifer, March 30, 1905, 278; Mrs. J. Schmidt, "Various Voices," Lucifer, February 24, 1899, 63.
69. Karen V. Hansen, A Very Social Time: Crafting Community in Antebellum New England (Berkeley, CA, 1994), 72-73, 78, 115, 117-119, 127.
70. Sylvia D. Hoffert, Private Matters: American Attitudes toward Childbearing and Infant Nurture in the Urban North, 1800-1860 (Urbana, IL, 1989), 3; Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education: The National Experience, 1783-1876 (New York, 1980), 492-493; and Janet Fartell Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America (Ithaca, NY, 1994), chapter 4. On newspapers as sources of personal advice on love, sexuality, courtship, marriage, and child-rearing, see Blicksilver, "The Bintl Briv Woman Writer," 36-49; Maxine S. Seller, "Defining Socialist Womanhood: The Women's Page of the Jewish Daily Forward in 1919," American Jewish History, 76(June 1987)4:429, 431, 438; and Angus McLaren, "'Keep Your Seats and Face Facts': Western Canadian Women's Discussion of Birth Control in the 1920s," Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, 8(1991)2:189-201.
71. Clearly the Free Lovers were instrumental in creating an important example of what Ronald Zboray has described as a "new 'community' of the word" that developed in nineteenth-century America. See Ronald J. Zboray, A Fictive People: Antebellum Economic Development and the American Reading Public (New York, 1993), 78-82. For the community building functions of newspapers, see also Nord, "Tocqueville, Garrison and the Perfection of Journalism," 59; Linda Steiner, "Finding Community in Nineteenth Century Suffrage Periodicals," American Journalism, 1(Summer 1983) 1:3-4, 7, 9; Jean Folkerts, "Functions of the Reform Press," Journalism History, 12(Spring 1985) 1:22-25; Carl F. Kaestle, "Literacy and Diversity: Themes from a Social History of the American Reading Public," History of Education Quarterly, 28(Winter 1988)4: 526; Warren, "'Women in Conference'," 128-129; Lehuu, Carnival on the Page, 26, 48-49, 51.
72. The use of media to create a national consciousness in the United States was not unique to the twentieth century, but this consciousness differed from the homogenized awareness created by mass culture in the twentieth century. Rather, it was based on thinly sliced alignments structured by common beliefs and allegiances to a wide range of political, religious, economic, and social causes that were shared by small groups of readers. This allegiance to what Elizabeth Eisenstein has described as an "invisible public from afar" created fluid, non-local communities of thought, feelings, and behavior that enabled solitary readers to overcome "a sense of isolation, the force of local community sanctions, [and] the habit of respectful submission to traditional authority." Eisenstein makes this case for early modern Europe. See her "Some Conjectures about the Impact of Printing on Western Society and Thought: A Preliminary Report," Journal of Modern History, 40(March 1968)1:41-42, 53-54.
73. See for example Eisenstein, "Some Conjectures about the Impact of Printing," 1-56; Steiner, "Finding Community in Nineteenth Century Suffrage Periodicals," 1-15; David P. Nord, "The Children of Isaiah Thomas: Notes on the Historiography of Journalism and of the Book in America," Occasional Papers in the History of the Book in American Culture, #1(1987), 11, 20; idem., "Tocqueville, Garrison and the Perfection of Journalism," 45, 59-60; Jean Folkerts, "Functions of the Reform Press," 22-23; John Spurlock, "The Free Love Network in America, 1850 to 1860," Journal of Social History, 21(Summer 1988)4:770-771, 772; Braude, Radical Spirits, 26; idem., "News from the Spirit World: A Checklist of American Spiritualist Periodicals, 1847-1900," Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, part 2, 99(1990):405; Zboray, A Fictive People, 78-82; Lehuu, Carnival on the Page, 26, 48-49, 51; Christine Pawley, Reading on the Middle Border: The Culture of Print in Late-Nineteenth-Century Osage, Iowa (Amherst, MA, 2001), chapter 6; and Jeremy D. Popkin, Press, Revolution, and Social Identities in France, 1830-1835 (University Park, PA, 2002), 14-16.
74. Reading was a powerful force in the creation of attitudes and patterns of behavior that challenged Victorian social and sexual orthodoxy. As Katherine Tinsley and Carl F. Kaestle have argued, "Time and again women who pursued careers in radical movements credited written material with either the initial inspiration or the clinching argument that precipitated their commitment [to radical causes]." See their "Autobiographies and the History of Reading: The Meaning of Literacy in Individual Lives," in Kaestle, et al. eds., Literacy in the United States, 236-237. For a good example of the ways in which women's reading helped to shape their sexual self-consciousness and behavior, see Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, "'Nous Autres': Reading, Passion, and the Creation of M. Carey Thomas," Journal of American History, 79(June 1992)1:68-95.
75. Battan, "'The Word Made Flesh,'" 101-121.
76. On the emergence of popular literature--especially the newspaper--and its role in unleashing emotional forces that would undermine the restrictiveness of Victorian life see Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance; David M. Henkin, City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York (New York, 1998), esp. chapter 5; Fox, "Intimacy on Trial," 103-132; Karen Halttunen, "Early American Murder Narratives: The Birth of Horror," in Power of Culture, Fox and Lears, eds., 67-101; idem., "Human-itarianism and the Pornography of Pain," 303-334; Cohen, Sex Scandal, 16; and Lehuu, Carnival on the Page, 53, 56-57.
77. The timing and the causes of the revolution that would eventually challenge and undermine Victorian sexual culture, as well as the role played by the Free Love press in encouraging this shift in sensibility and behavior, are still unsettled issues. Rodger Streitmatter, for example, has argued that while the Free Lovers may have been instrumental in inaugurating many of the debates over the sexual and marital issues that flourished in the twentieth century, they were in fact ahead of their time or out of touch with those around them. See his Voices of Revolution: The Dissident Press in America (New York, 2001), 77-79. Beth Bailey's observations regarding the social changes that spawned the sexual revolution of the 1960s, however, are also appropriate to its precursor in the late nineteenth century. The effort to portray sexual revolutions as the work of a small band of outsiders who are fundamentally out of touch with the world around them "is a political act." Moreover, it is bad history in that, as she argues, "such portrayals obscure the true sources of social change and often work to marginalize and discredit these past challenges to the sexual status quo." See her Sex in the Heartland (Cambridge, MA, 1999), 5-6.
78. Regina G. Kunzel, Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work, 1890-1945 (New Haven, CT, 1993), 19-25. Ruth Alexander adds that moral reformers also identified poverty, the demands of factory work, and the decline of parental guidance of women's lives in the new industrial, urban communities as factors that contributed to sexual promiscuity and illegitimacy. See Ruth M. Alexander, The "Girl Problem": Female Sexual Delinquency in New York, 1900-1930 (Ithaca, NY, 1995), 35. By the 1830s moral reformers began to view female prostitutes as victims who were lured into the life through seduction and deceit. See also Marilynn Wood Hill, Their Sisters' Keepers: Prostitution in New York City, 1830-1870 (Berkeley, CA, 1993), 66-67.
79. Lydia R. Todd, "Another Woman's Declaration," Lucifer, December 8, 1904, 213.
80. In many respects, these newspapers were the first in a series of popular efforts to portray private, "shameful" experiences in public venues in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From true confession and real romance magazines in the 1920s, to the advice to the lovelorn newspaper columns of Dorothy Dix and Dear Abby, to the television talk shows hosted by Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey, the line between private experience and public expression has continually been redrawn, blurring the distinction between "normal" and "abnormal" behavior. Those who have been ignored and rendered invisible, or when visible paraded as objects of scorn, are able to portray themselves in ways that challenge established moral ideals and gender conventions. Joshua Gamson imaginatively explores this in Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity (Chicago, 1998).
By Jesse F. Battan
California State University, Fullerton
Department of American Studies
Fullerton, CA 92834-6868
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|Author:||Battan, Jesse F.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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