Free Love and Women's History

Free Love in the 19th Century and Later

Caricature of American suffragist Victoria Woodhull by Thomas Nast
Victoria Woodhull depicted as Mrs. Satan by cartoonist Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly, February 17, 1872.

Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 

The name "free love" has been given to a variety of movements in history, with different meanings. In the 1960s and 1970s, free love came to imply a sexually active lifestyle with many casual sex partners and little or no commitment. In the 19th century, including the Victorian era, it usually meant the ability to freely choose a monogamous sexual partner and to freely choose to end a marriage or relationship when love ended. The phrase was used by those who wanted to remove the state from decisions about marriage, birth control, sexual partners and marital fidelity.

Victoria Woodhull and the Free Love Platform

When Victoria Woodhull ran for President of the United States on the Free Love platform, she was assumed to be promoting promiscuity. But that was not her intent, for she and other 19th century women and men who agreed with these ideas believed they were promoting a different and better sexual morality: one that was based on a freely chosen commitment and love, instead of legal and economic bonds. The idea of free love also came to include "voluntary motherhood"—freely chosen maternity as well as a freely chosen partner. Both were about a different kind of commitment: commitment based on personal choice and love, not on economic and legal restraints.

Victoria Woodhull promoted a variety of causes including free love. In a famous scandal of the 19th century, she exposed an affair by the preacher Henry Ward Beecher, believing him to be a hypocrite for denouncing her free love philosophy as immoral, while actually practicing adultery, which in her eyes was more immoral.

"Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love 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 you can frame have any right to interfere." —Victoria Woodhull
"My judges preach against free love openly, practice it secretly." — Victoria Woodhull

Ideas About Marriage

Many thinkers in the 19th century looked at the reality of marriage and especially its effects on women, and concluded that marriage was not much different from enslavement or prostitution. Marriage meant, for women in the early half of the century and only somewhat less in the latter half, economic enslavement: until 1848 in America, and about that time or later in other countries, married women had few rights to property. Women had few rights to custody of their children if they divorced a husband, and divorce was difficult in any case.

Many passages in the New Testament could be read as antagonistic to marriage or sexual activity, and church history, notably in Augustine, has usually been antagonistic to sex outside of sanctioned marriage, with notable exceptions, including some Popes who fathered children. Through history, occasionally Christian religious groups have developed explicit theories antagonistic to marriage, some teaching sexual celibacy, including the Shakers in America, and some teaching sexual activity outside of legal or religious permanent marriage, including the Brethren of the Free Spirit in the 12th century in Europe.

Free Love in the Oneida Community

Fanny Wright, inspired by the communitarianism of Robert Owen and Robert Dale Owen, purchased the land on which she and others who were Owenites established the community of Nashoba. Owen had adapted ideas from John Humphrey Noyes, who promoted in the Oneida Community a kind of Free Love, opposing marriage and instead using "spiritual affinity" as the bond of union. Noyes, in turn, adapted his ideas from Josiah Warren and Dr. and Mrs. Thomas L. Nichols. Noyes later repudiated the term 'Free Love'.

Wright encouraged free sexual relationships—free love—within the community and opposed marriage. After the community failed, she advocated a variety of causes, including changes to marriage and divorce laws. Wright and Owen promoted sexual fulfillment and sexual knowledge. Owen promoted a kind of coitus interruptus instead of sponges or condoms for birth control. They both taught that sex could be a positive experience and was not just for procreation but for individual fulfillment and the natural fulfillment of the love of partners for each other.

When Wright died in 1852, she was engaged in a legal battle with her husband whom she'd married in 1831, and who later used the laws of the time to seize control of all her property and earnings. Thus Fanny Wright became, as it were, an example of the problems of marriage that she had worked to end.

"There is but one honest limit to the rights of a sentient being; it is where they touch the rights of another sentient being." — Frances Wright

Voluntary Motherhood

By the late 19th century, many reformers advocated "voluntary motherhood"—the choice of motherhood as well as marriage.

In 1873, the United States Congress, acting to stop the growing availability of contraceptives and information about sexuality, passed what was known as the Comstock Law.

Some advocates of wider access to and information about contraceptives also advocated eugenics as a way to control the reproduction of those who, eugenics advocates assumed, would pass on undesirable characteristics.

Emma Goldman became an advocate of birth control and a critic of marriage—whether she was a full-blown eugenics advocate is a matter of current controversy. She opposed the institution of marriage as detrimental, especially, to women, and advocated birth control as a means of women's emancipation.

"Free love? As if love is anything but free! Man has bought brains, but all the millions in the world have failed to buy love. Man has subdued bodies, but all the power on earth has been unable to subdue love. Man has conquered whole nations, but all his armies could not conquer love. Man has chained and fettered the spirit, but he has been utterly helpless before love. High on a throne, with all the splendor and pomp his gold can command, man is yet poor and desolate, if love passes him by. And if it stays, the poorest hovel is radiant with warmth, with life and color. Thus love has the magic power to make of a beggar a king. Yes, love is free; it can dwell in no other atmosphere." — Emma Goldman

Margaret Sanger also promoted birth control—and popularized that term instead of "voluntary motherhood"— emphasizing the individual woman's physical and mental health and freedom. She was accused of promoting "free love" and even jailed for her dissemination of information on contraceptives—and in 1938 a case involving Sanger ended the prosecution under the Comstock Law.

The Comstock Law was an attempt to legislate against the kinds of relationships promoted by those who supported free love.

Free Love in the 20th Century

In the 1960s and 1970s, those who preached sexual liberation and sexual freedom adopted the term "free love," and those who opposed a casual sex lifestyle also used the term as prima facie evidence of the immorality of the practice.

As sexually transmitted diseases, and especially AIDS/HIV, became more widespread, the "free love" of the late 20th century became less attractive. As one writer in Salon wrote in 2002,

"Oh yeah, and we are really sick of you talking about free love. You don't think we want to have healthy, enjoyable, more casual sex lives? You did it, you enjoyed it and you lived. For us, one wrong move, one bad night, or one random condom with a pinprick and we die.... We've been trained to fear sex since grade school. Most of us learned how to wrap a banana in a condom by the age of 8, just in case."
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Free Love and Women's History." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, July 31). Free Love and Women's History. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Free Love and Women's History." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).