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Ideas of feminism and free love

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 5506 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Since time immemorial women have been viewed as the weaker sex, and so, over the centuries they have had to fight for each and every right they deserved as humans to lead a happy and content life. Men have always viewed themselves as superior to women and claim that even nature intended it to be that way as they are naturally physically more powerful. But they forget that it is a woman who gives birth to a man and that is how nature intended it to be for eternity. Men have tried and have been able to not only make women but also their desires slaves over the centuries. Woman was seen as a commodity and to the horror of the civil society still is in many parts of the world. She still has no complete right over her body, mind or soul.

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This paper intends to talk about the right of a woman over both her body and mind through the Free Love Movement. Sexuality has been a taboo topic in most of the societies around the world and it is viewed as shameful to even bring up the thought that women can have their own desires related to sexuality. In many orthodox societies, women even today are synonymous with the word honor and the talk of rights for them is seen as foolery. But over the centuries women all around the world and many men also, have realized that this patriarchal world would never hand over rights to women and so these feminists have to take up the fight for their rights whether social, economic or political. In this debate over rights comes the right of a woman over her body and how and what she wants to do with it which finally gets attached to the bigger subject of feminism. This fight of the feminists is very much entwined with the Free Love Movement and has played a huge role in giving momentum to the movement over the years and around the world.


Charles Fourier in this famous essay originally published in the 1800s talks about women and their degraded status: “Is there a shadow of justice to be seen in the fate that has befallen women? Is not a young woman a mere piece of merchandise displayed for sale to the highest bidder as exclusive property? Is not the consent she gives to the conjugal bond derisory and forced on her by the tyranny of the prejudices that obsess her from childhood on? People try to persuade her that her chains are woven only of flowers; but can she really have any doubt about her degradation, even in those regions that are bloated by philosophy such as England, where a man has the right to take his wife to market with a rope around her neck, and sell her like a beast of burden to anyone who will pay his asking price?” [1] 

He further goes on to talk about the double standards of different nations towards women though these nations are seen as highly moralistic but in reality even they have treated their women as slaves according to him. He states that even the English legislation which is highly respected and is seen as highly moralistic is also prejudiced against women. It had given rights to men but had degraded the women. Even the French are no less different from their British counterparts and treat their women in the same biased way. Eventually, the slavery is the same for the women, no matter which country she belongs to. Hence, there is no justice for women anywhere.

Likewise, he points out that there was not much difference regarding the status and rights of women in both the civilized and the savage (as the oriental and African countries were referred to by this term) countries. He elaborates by mentioning the different countries like Japan and china. He was of the view that all the nations which give their women the highest level of freedom are the best in the world. Japanese according to him were the most industrious and bravest but in contrast to other nations were also highly indulgent towards their women. Their women enjoyed a respectful place and even the Chinese went to Japan to enjoy the love that was forbidden in their own country due to their hypocritical customs.

He further elaborates by giving examples of nations both civilized and savage which supported the fact that a nation can only develop if it respects its women. He argues that both the Tahitians and the French are placed really well off and are also highly developed due to the respect attached to women. Likewise, he also believed that the nations which subjugated their women turned out to be the most corrupt. Maybe, they faced a deficiency in their moralistic standards as a nation which cannot respect its women is never able to gain any respect anywhere.

Ultimately, he reached the conclusion which came out “as a general thesis: Social progress and historic changes occur by virtue of the progress of women toward liberty, and decadence of the social order occurs as the result of a decrease in the liberty of women. Other events influence these political changes, but there is no cause that produces social progress or decline as rapidly as change in the condition of women.” [2] 


The concept of feminism is an amalgamation of movements with the primary aim of defining, establishing and defending equal political, economic and social rights to women and ultimately resulting in equal opportunities for women. Though the main focus of feminism is on women but many feminists are of the view that as it aims at gender equality so, even men are a party to it, as many times due to sexism and due to fixed gender roles they also suffer. Feminism aims to free both the genders away and out of the cast of their traditional roles. Persons who practice feminism are known as feminists and can belong to either sex.

Feminists over the centuries have fought around the world and campaigned for women’s rights such as in contract, property and voting while also promoting a woman’s right to bodily integrity, autonomy and reproductive rights. They have taken a very strong stand against sexual harassment, domestic violence and sexual assault. For example, feminists groups in India have been for long raising their voice for change in the laws related to rape under the Indian Penal Code. Feminists have also advocated for equal rights for women in the economic sphere also as they demand equal pay and opportunities for careers and to start businesses which some constitutions like the Indian constitution have made a part of their fundamental rights. Feminism over the time period has been divided into three waves by the feminists and scholars:

First Wave: It primarily refers to the movements fought all around the world for the right of suffrage in the 19th and early 20th centuries which were basically concerned with women’s right to vote.

Second Wave: This phase started in the 1960s and lasted upto the 1980s. It was basically concerned with the movement for legal and social equality for women as campaigned by the feminists in the women liberation movement.

Third Wave: It is a continuation of and a reaction to the so called perceived failures of the second wave feminism and began in the 1990s.


Wendy McElroy in her article on free love very clearly has defined the aim of the movement. According to her the free love movement of the 19th century basically aimed at separating the state from matters related to sexuality like marriage, birth control and adultery. The individuals involved were the ones who should have a say on these matters and not the state as it concerns their personal lives and the state has no right as to dictate to people how to live. Many of the free love advocates were of the view that sexual laws were basically meant to discriminate against women and their freedom specially the marriage and birth control laws. They viewed sexual freedom specially the supporters of Josiah Warren and experimental communities as a “clear, direct expression of an individual’s self ownership.” [3] 

On the other hand Taylor Stohr and other revolutionary writers talk about the movement in respect to America: “What was free love? The nineteenth century free love movement was a distinct reform tradition, running from the utopian socialist thinkers of the 1820s and 1830s through the center of American anarchism to the anti Comstock sex radicals of the 1890s and 1900s and from there into the birth control movement of the twentieth century.” [4] The times of the emergence of this movement were full of upheaval and change in the centuries old sexual conventions. The sexual relations between men and women were undergoing huge changes. The number of women living away from their families and having their own individual lives had increased dramatically. “Things were changing for women within marriage as well” [5] and they were now exerting their will to have their own individual lives as well.

The changing scenario regarding the change in attitude of women towards their sexuality in America and to top it all there was observed an assertion of sexual freedom by women. The change in the pattern of sexual activity told the story very clearly during those times. Women in America had started having fewer pregnancies and child birth and that showed a control over their sexual activities. The free love movement was there to support these changes and bring about a reform and modernize these ages old emotional and sexual conventions which had made stiff rules of behaviour for both the sexes. Free love was more of an individualistic based movement. It emphasized on the happiness of the individual and not on social welfare. It viewed marriage as a union of love and appreciation between two individuals and not as an institution for reproduction. It was a reform which was bringing about self consciousness and it was both related to and still different from women right movements.

Over the centuries, this movement has been only viewed by many as an anti-marriage movement. But on further study one realizes that the movement covered a much wider aspect. It was basically in opposition to marriage as a legal institute which made the advocates of this movement see the legalization of marriage as an attempt by the state to regulate the private affairs of individuals. The nature of the movement can also be defined as that of civil libertarian as it aimed to defend individuals’ rights in matters of sex and love. The movement aimed at encouraging healthy democratic public debates about sexuality, love and reproduction. It protested against any type of control over any of these matters by the state through experts. That is the reason why all the supporters of the free love movement stood together against the Constock laws which restricted the individuals from learning and talking about sexual matters to some select experts only.

Our perceptions regarding the advocates of the free love movement may view them as pro sex but in reality it was not the case. The advocates of this movement totally denied that they were encouraging or supporting any kind of sexual promiscuity or a license to indulge. “Indeed free lovers often claimed that they were working for a relaxation of external controls in order to produce a greater sense of sexual responsibility and personal control, a utopia of permanent, harmonious, monogamous true love.” [6] 

Still sex according to the proponents of this movement did not fall in the same category as sexual intercourse and it is neither on the same plane as sexual orgasm. Appreciation and encouragement of sexual expression not only for the men but also for the women was the basic aim of the free love movement to the surprise of many people. The movement supporters were of the view that sex not only had an important role in procreation but it could be viewed differently also. “The possession of strong sexual powers is not to be deprecated, Victoria Woodhull insisted, in the face of cultural norms to the contrary. If superiority of any kind is desirable at all, let it be in the animal, since with this right, all others may be cultivated to its standard.” [7] 

There has been a huge debate regarding the movement being dominated by men or women. The movement seems to be a culmination of both. It was simultaneously male as well as feminist dominated. Many of the male leaders of the movement were unsuccessful in understanding the sexual needs and wants of the women though the free lovers claimed that women’s stand regarding sexuality and their freedom was essential to bring about a sexual revolution in the society. The most notorious example of male arrogance in respect of sexual matters in the free love tradition was the utopian free love community in Oneida, New York, where an extremely radical, revolutionary and a promiscuous sexual practice had originated — monogamy was absolutely prohibited and couples were broken up by the community itself- and all control was vested with the founder, John Humphrey Noyes. The male domination carries on in the history of this movement too as well cause most of the histories of the movement were written by men and the irony is that these histories have not treated the women writers with equal respect and seriousness as the men writers such as Victoria Woodhull, and they made male concerns – central to their writings and female sexual concerns such as contraception were put at the periphery.

“Instead of marriage based on external moral systems like organized religion and social convention, free lovers preached fidelity to one’s self, or individual sovereignty.” [8] “Individual sovereignty, literally self ownership, was the central doctrine of early nineteenth century American anarchism. The extreme ideology of individual rights which this represented was used as an economic theory and a political doctrine, but for free lovers, it also functioned as a theory of individual psychology, which had implications for sexual conduct. As an alternative to social codes and moral systems, free lovers argued for the importance of each individual’s coming to understand his or her own personal laws, and recognized that these might vary from person to person. ‘No two spears of grass, no two leaves are exactly similar, Mary Nichols wrote. I have wants of taste, of appetite, of being that are not yours. If I am true to the spirit, the informing life, I shall live very differently from you and your idea, your right’.” [9] 

Since centuries women had been considered men’s property and so the ideas of sexual self ownership and self definition were revolutionary in nature. Mary Nichols used the “concept of individual sovereignty in an explicitly sexual way, to mean women’s right to be sexually self determining, but she used it primarily in the negative — the right to reject the sexual demands of men, including their husbands, unless the women themselves wanted to have sex. Nichols linked her free love ideas to the emerging women’s rights movement of the 1850s; she was particularly impressed with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.” [10] “Yet she grasped that her emphasis on sex distinguished her from them. The idea of self ownership has come to few women in different ages, to more in this than in any previous age,” she wrote, still the number is very limited at present who recognize no authority but their own.” [11] 


After going through what does feminism and free love stand for one comes to acknowledge that both these movements are intermingled and to talk of one without mentioning the other would amount to blasphemy. Both the terms women liberation and sexual freedom carry with themselves huge connotations but it has been felt that though both project the way to a highly desirable way of life for women there has been much confusion regarding the interconnection between the two.” Certainly any simple equation between the two — women’s liberation and sexual freedom — ceased being possible some years ago, when modern feminists exposed the sexual revolution of the 1960s for what it was, a new set of imperatives on women’s behavior, a compulsion to say yes that was as inhibiting as the injunction to say no. Since then, modern feminism has contributed its own premises to the politics of sexuality. The two most important of these are first, recognizing the degree to which sexuality and violence have converged in the heterosexual culture of our society; and second, asserting the possibility of sex between women and identifying” [12] and criticizing what Adrienne Rich calls ‘compulsory heterosexuality’.” [13] 

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The debates regarding sexual freedom and sexual happiness though have asked the questions and tried to find answers as to what sexual happiness is and how it can be achieved but always from a male point of view. It is high time that these questions were looked into from the point of view of women. As Linda Gordon has written “Sex hating women were not simply misinformed, or priggish or neurotic. They were often rationally responding to their material reality. Denied even the knowledge of sexual possibilities other than those dictated by the rhythms of male orgasm, they had only two choices; passive and usually pleasure less submission, with high risk of undesirable consequences; or rebellious refusal.” [14] With the passage of time women realized that it is very much normal to have different desires from their male partners and their desires should also be respected in the same manner.

“On the level of political history, this feminist sexual revisionism has meant rediscovering the social purity and moral reform movements and reinterpreting them as women’s collective efforts at sexual self defense.” [15] “There is a need for searching for other aspects of the history of feminist sexual politics, in particular to discover if there is another tradition, running alongside moral reform and social purity, in which women tried to assert the possibilities of a different kind of sexual life for women, one that didn’t involve their systematic subordination.” [16] The free love movement presents itself as the right movement to be studied in order to understand these aspects.

Feminism itself was a collection of many things as pointed out by Ann Corthoys. She says that “Twentieth-century feminism was many things: a set of ideas, a political and social movement, a cultural renaissance. It was a force for change and a guide for living. Feminism was the site of the reinvention of the category woman in the 1970s, and then of its deconstruction in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, at the turn of the century, after many years of involvement in feminism in all these aspects, one ponders at the meaning and future of the feminism that has helped shape our lives. In feminism’s much-noticed episodic history, giving rise to the metaphor of waves, we seem to be at an ebb-tide. Something, the feminism of the last thirty years, has ended, and something else seems about to take its place. We live in an obscurely apocalyptic moment.” [17] 

There has been a notion in the olden times and specially when the church played a very important part in the lives of the common man that woman’s primary responsibility was not to her husband or to her children, but to God, as all souls were ultimately equal before God, though for their own benefit men have altered this notion totally. While it was true that St. Paul had said that wives should be subject to their husbands in this life, he had also said that there is neither male nor female in the Lord. “And so, a new kind of woman emerges from the restless anonymity of the crowds, aloof from the sullen aimless excitement of the thousands that drift along the pavements and surge through the squares, a figure whose mystery and danger is that she is alone.” [18] 

“Feminist theory emphasizes its critique insofar as it focuses on the subordination, weakness, and invisibility of women as part of a gender-based society. Feminism argues that a critique of gender socialization must begin from the perspective of women because general analyses of the human condition have tended to overlook women’s conditions.” [19] 

The free love movement had a huge impact in America and though it was very much present in Europe also the American movement was much more aggressive and highly supported “Marriage assumed a central place in the social vision of this new middle class. Writers and lecturers like William Alcott and Sylvester Graham offered a comprehensive view of sexuality and marriage, stressing personal purity and the quality of relations both during courtship and in matrimony. By the 1840s an ideal of true marriage had been formed that viewed the voluntary decision to enter marriage as the most basic of all social relations. The guarantee that a marriage was sound, and therefore a sure foundation for society, was both the character of those entering it and their love for one another. True love never varied, but bound two people together exclusively and for life. Spiritualists, who appeared at the end even gave love credit for binding people together eternally.” [20] 

“As middle- class men and women came to view marriage as the root of all social relations, they also began to fear that its subversion potentially destroyed all of society. If something was wrong with marriage, as many Jacksonians believed, then all of society was at risk. By tracing the shift in perception during the late 1840s that led some members of the middle class to repudiate marriage we can gain a clearer insight into the social vision of early middle-class reformers and radicals. Those who doubted the legitimacy of marriage shared many of the assumptions of middle-class reformers of the period. Assumptions that derived from widely held middle-class ideals. These men and women looked upon individuality as an irreducible condition and feared institutions that limited individual autonomy, whether churches or governments. As we reconstruct the free love network that was formed to promote these beliefs we will see the connections between free love and other ante-bellum reforms, as well as free love’s dependence on middle-class assumptions and values.” [21] 

The Free love movement had a positive influence and brought about reforms related to other aspects of life too. Many feminists and free lovers compared African slavery to slavery by marriage and raised their voice for abolition of both. They were of the view point that a woman can only gain equal status to a man after she is treated as an equal partner in marriage. Free lovers also supported vegetarianism and teetotalism. “Free lovers believed that sexual intercourse would be less frequent within a free relationship because both partners would be free of the lusts engendered by the artificiality of marriage.” [22] 

The American movement ultimately did agree to the thoughts of Woodhull and other free lovers before her. Thus, her thought did turn victorious. “From the mid-1870s on, the women’s movement began to unite in opposition to the sexual ownership of women by men in marriage, and in defense of the principle of individual sovereignty, women’s right to say no to sexual intercourse that they didn’t want.” [23] 

By 1894, the conservative Christian moralist Elizabeth Blackwell, took the same stand as that of Mary Nichols forty years before, said, “In healthy, loving women, uninjured by the too frequent lesions which result from childbirth, increasing physical satisfaction attaches to the ultimate physical expression of love…. The prevalent fallacy that sexual passion is the almost exclusive attribute of men, and attached exclusively to the act of coition … arises from ignorance of the distinctive character of human sex, viz. its powerful mental element.” [24] 

Though Victoria Woodhull was one of the biggest supporters of the free love movement but most of the respectable feminists were dead against her stand regarding the uselessness of marriage. The feminists also were unable to understand the willingness of the free lovers in viewing sex and reproduction separately pertaining to women. Though they agreed to and thought it necessary for women to have a say in “choice and consent to intercourse, but they were equally committed to the confinement of sex within marriage.” [25] “Closely-related to this was a reverence for motherhood and the power it could bestow on women, a belief which we have seen even Nichols and Woodhull shared. Many more conservative feminists hoped that once men ceased to destroy marriage with their excessive sexual demands, women should once again welcome intercourse with them, not for the sheer sexual pleasure of it, but as the fulfillment of their higher maternal duties. Few, even among feminists, could see that the equation between female sexuality and reproduction was a historically specific achievement, and that the liberation of women’s sexuality was a process that would not be reversed.” [26] 

Hence, we can see that the histories of both free love and feminism are entwined. From the late 18th century, leading feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft have challenged the so called sacred institute of marriage and some of them have even gone further by demanding its abolition. The proponents of free love never viewed sex as a means of reproduction and so access to birth control was considered as a means to women’s independence. The free love movement was even embraced by leading birth control activist like Margaret Sanger.

“Many of the leaders of first-wave feminism attacked free love. To them, women’s suffering could be traced to the moral degradation of men, and by contrast, women were portrayed as virtuous and in control of their passions, and they should serve as a model for men’s behavior.” [27] The free love ethics of the 1960s and 1970s can today maybe seen as a manipulative strategy against a woman’s right to say no to sex. Issues regarding contraception, marital emotional and physical sexual abuse and sexual education are the areas very much emphasized upon by the sex radicals and the right of the women to control her body. The radicals were of the viewpoint that talking about female sexuality would ultimately help in empowering women around the world.


Ultimately, one has to agree to the fact that even as women all around the world are fighting for their rights in order to live a dignified and happy life one cannot disagree to the fact that there is huge cultural differentiation around the world. What may seem degrading to an American for a woman may be totally normal for a woman of that part of the world. Though these movements fight for a just cause but lack of global homogeneity is one of the important factors because of which women have not been able to gain as much out of these movements as they could have.

But one cannot disagree to the fact that these movements have brought about opportunities for women all around the world which were unseen and unheard in the past. Women over the past have been seen as depositories of cultural homogeneity and it is high time that this notion was done away with. It is sad in the very first place that women have to fight for their rights though I am sure god intended both men and women to be equal and live a peaceful life together but in reality the picture is far away from this utopian idea.

But though this movement has brought about changes in the thinking of the individuals around the world, the concentration is more in the United States of America and the United Kingdom. Other nations of the world have lacked behind and even today the matters related to female sexuality and freedom are taboo in conservative societies like that of India. Though the educated class has still benefited from these revolutions and are quite free in matters related to head, heart or body but most of the other women still suffer from inequality in most of the spheres of their lives.

It is ultimately the combination of feminism with free love that has brought about a positive change in both men as to respecting the wishes of women and in women as to voicing their needs and finally having the guts and confidence to walk out of the shackles and say no as and when they want to. But still, a lot of work needs to be done globally and it should be seen that knowledge about such movements should be made available around the world through the revolutionary writings of the supporters of free love. So women around the world can bring about a change in their own societies in order for a women to live a dignified life and the men to respect her as they respect themselves.


After 1875, a lot of research still remains to be done on the participation and role of women in the free love movement. A large number of women had come forward and supported the movement during and after 1875. But as the number of women supporters increased so did the differences among them. Nichols and Woodhull were two of the biggest names of the movement. There were many more women who were equally passionate and supporters of the movement


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