Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Free Love for Valentine's Day

In 1878, my great-great-great grandfather, Eber Howe, wrote his autobiography, including his recollections of the War of 1812. He explained his thirteen point credo, which is similar to that of Andrew Jackson Davis. In this statement, he expresses belief in God, spiritualism, and his rejection of orthodox Christianity. Point number eleven is: “I do not believe in free love.” Who knew that free love was being discussed in the nineteenth century? I didn’t.

Free love in the nineteenth century was different than the free love movement of the 1960’s. It was part of a progressive agenda, and a controversial offshoot of women’s suffrage. The nineteenth century free love movement reflected a belief in individual sovereignty, and eschewed “external moral systems like organized religion and social convention,” according to an historian in the article “Feminism and Free Love.” Advocates of free love worked to overturn laws prohibiting divorce and contraception. Free love communities arose in New York and Ohio, the most famous being the one in Oneida, New York. When men advocated free love the emphasis was on sexual enjoyment and serial monogamy. When women advocated free love, their concerns were property rights, childbirth, and forced sexual relations within and without of marriage.

The most famous female free love proponents were Mary Nichols and Victoria Woodhull. The two were accused of advocating promiscuity, which they did not. Victoria Woodhull ran for president of the U.S. on the free love platform. Nichols and Woodhull, along with other women, sought to change divorce laws, women’s property laws, and promoted voluntary motherhood (free love proponent Margaret Sanger changed this term to “birth control”). Until 1848, divorce was virtually illegal, and married women had to turn all property over to their husbands. By 1850, men and women were marrying less, and the birth rate lowered. Free love philosophers were discussing ideas that were very much in the air at the time. Birth control was of concern for both men and women: some advocated withdrawal, sexual interruption, over condoms or sponges.

Politicians became concerned about free love, and in 1873 Congress passed the restrictive Comstock Law. This legislation limited discussion of birth control and sexual matters in print and speech, the way the later Hayes code prohibited elaboration on these topics in film. Woodhull became a victim of the Comstock Law. She accused the clergyman Henry Ward Beecher of hypocrisy for criticizing her free love beliefs as immoral, while Beecher was discovered to be carrying on an adulterous affair. Society was unkind to both Woodhull and Nichols. Both women eventually married, and renounced their earlier convictions.

Free love didn’t die. By the 1930’s, divorce laws were changed, property rights for women modified, and Margaret Sanger successfully sued to have enforcement of the Comstock Law abolished. By the mid 1990’s, twenty-five per cent of men age forty had never married. It is jokingly suggested that the only people who want to marry these days are gays and priests. My ancestor, Eber Howe, was liberal and progressive in so many areas. I wonder why he opposed free love, since the Victorian version seems a matter of common sense. Only extremists today oppose birth control, and even hard core conservatives rack up divorces. How many failed marriages do Rush and Newt have combined?

I'm personally ambivalent about marriage. For me, it's something that belongs to someone else, to people who are young, attractive, idealistic. I have never sought it. Maybe if I lived in a liberal state like Iowa marriage might interest me, but not here in conservative California. Those who want marriage should be able to marry. Friendship is an incredible thing, and it’s more than enough for me. Eber Howe’s final personal philosophy, statement thirteen, is “I do not promise to believe tomorrow exactly what I believe today.” Ditto for me.

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