‘Free Love’ in the Victorian Age

I’ve recently been reading ‘Voices of Revolution,’ by Rodger Streitmatter, a book about how dissident American journalism has impacted our national history. One chapter in particular stood out to me. I’ve learned about other topics covered in the book – such as the independent labor presses, the abolitionist newspapers, the birth control advocacy magazines – in previous classes but I had never even heard of the ‘Free Love’ Movement of the Victorian Age. Chapter 7 delves into the work of journalists well before their time and braver than I can imagine.

“For three decades, the sexual reform press sought to convince the American public that marriage was not always a sacred institution but sometimes a profane one,” writes Streitmatter (61). These journalists / activists asserted “that sexual intercourse should only occur when both partners were willing” and exposed “the hypocritical lifestyles of Victorian men” (61-62). And in doing so, they risked their lives – “being sent to prison and dying early deaths” (62).

These men and women fought incredibly important battles and faced public hatred in the face of their courage. They did not live to see any reforms, or even to see their movement come alive again a hundred years later. But, regardless, they were relentless in their passion and pursuit of these principles. I have great respect for them and for the values for which they fought.

However, there were a few parts of the chapter that made me stop and think critically about their work. One such instance was “The Beecher-Tilton Scandal Case.” The scandal exposed the infidelity of an upperclass married man – The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, “the country’s most celebrated clergyman” (70). Victoria Woodhull, the notorious free love advocate and publisher of the sexual reform newspaper Woodhull and Claflin Weekly, broke the scandal. Her intentions were to expose the hypocritical lifestyle of a prominent man who preached “morals” to society.

Caught in the crosshairs of this scandal were the women with whom Beecher was having extra-marital sex. Woodhull related “the sordid details of the affair, including divulging that Elizabeth Tilton was by no means the first married woman to share the esteemed clergyman’s bed: ‘Henry Ward Beecher preaches to at least twenty of his mistresses every Sunday’” (71).

My first question is: Without naming the women, would the article have had so much punch? Would people have believed it? What benefit is there to naming the women?

More importantly: what harm is there to naming the women? Were they also Woodhull’s target? Or were they collateral damage?

I think Streitmatter could have more critically assessed this issue in this chapter, and without that ethical analysis the chapter seems a little too rosy. These journalists, while brave, were imperfect.

Streitmatter writes that Woodhull published the incendiary article while she was “still smarting from the accusations that had been leveled at her own domestic arrangements with her former and current husbands” (71). Later, Streitmatter mentions that Woodhull even had an affair with Elizabeth Tilton’s husband. Was she not inflicting on other women the same harm the mainstream media inflicted on her?

Woodhull’s movement was all about supporting the “‘right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can, to change that love everyday if I please’” (61). So then, why does Streitmatter not criticize her victimizing women who lived by that principle? Yes, Beecher preached against free love but practiced it anyway – but the women were not public figures attempting to shape social moral code. They were living their life – and lovely freely as Woodhull had encouraged, as Woodhull herself lived her life.

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