I have a special interest in women’s issues, so I couldn’t help but read Rodger Streitmatter’s Voices of Revolution chapter on ‘Free Love.’ Most people (myself included) would associate the ‘free love’ movement with the ‘hippie’ era of the late 1900s; in reality, it started almost a century earlier with the independent press of the Victorian age.
In the 1860s, The Revolution, the feminist publication by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, began to question the sanctity of the marital vows that permanently tied a woman to her husband. In 1871, Victoria Woodhull began her crusade for sexual reform through Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly–a paper she published from New York City with her sister, Tenesee Claflin. The paper advocated “Progress! Free Thought! Untrammeled Lives!” (its slogan) and insisted that bad marriages were the root of many social problems. The Word, another sexual reform journal run by couple Angela Heywood and her husband, Ezra, featured pieces with explicit language and uncensored proclamations of sexuality as “divine,” and not a marital duty. Moses Harman launched a bi-weekly newspaper called Lucifer, the Light-Bearer to voice his provocative opinions and arguments that were too radical for the Victorian press.
These publications faced relentless attack and censorship (namely from Anthony Comstock), financial barriers, and social rejection similar to other dissident press, but were unable overcome them and make a tangible change in the marriage system. Though these publications admittedly didn’t directly impact American society in the way other dissident journals did (take for example The Liberator or Mechanic’s Free Press), their risqué coverage still encouraged the discussion about marriage, female sexuality, and both public and private gender roles. They pushed the envelope and opened people’s eyes to the things unsaid–including important women’s rights topics beyond sexual freedom, like domestic abuse and abortion.
Now, think of how comfortable we are with explicit material in the media–especially in the digital sphere. Miley Cyrus (with your overuse of phallic symbols) as well as Cosmopolitan (for your refreshingly honest but blush-worthy sex, love and health stories), I’m looking at you. The press censorship of discussion on abortion, relationships, sex and health is certainly at a low, yet the idea of truly challenging marriage isn’t active in the media today. While divorces are now commonplace and acceptable, the idea of rejecting marriage altogether is still foreign to our culture. The Woodhull, Heywood and Harman publications certainly helped introduce the radical topics of sexual reform to the American public, which are alive and flourishing in discussion today, but we’re still clinging to the world of life-long monogamous relationships. One can only guess if and when this will be challenged enough by independent media to truly change the constructs of society, not only in America, but worldwide.