Sex Radicals Discussion (Jan. 1996)

Sex Radicals Discussion January 1996


>From Elizabeth Hovey 26 January 1996

Dear Historians: I am struggling with a problem. I am sure that the ideas of the sex radicals--Ezra Heywood, Angela Tilton Heywood, Victoria Woodhull, Moses Harman, etc--were held by a very small portion of the population in the late nineteenth century U.S. But I don't feel I have enough evidence that most people believed sexuality was too dangerous to be publicly discussed.

Besides the histories of the radicals-Sears, Stoehr and Spurlock most prominently-and histories/records of Anthony Comstock's group, I am using state and federal legislation, Alison Parker's diss. on the WCTU, Richelle Gurstein's diss. on reticence, Lewis Erengerg's "Steppin' Out", and the fairly polemic "Mrs. Grundy"(a930).

If you have any citations that would be useful for this problem, I would be most grateful.


>From Rebecca Edwards 26 Jan 1996

I really enjoyed Janet Brodie's new book _Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth Century America_(Ithaca,NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1994) which has information about the wide popular circulation of birth control advice and sexual information in the mid-to late-nineteenth century. There is also information about the authors and publishers of some of this information, who were mostly men; their theories, and their scandalous public trials. Good attempt to gauge public knowledge of sexuality.

>From Virginia T. Bemis 26 Jan 1996

One popular writer/commentator who discussed Woodhull, was Marietta Holley, who wrote as "Josiah Allen's Wife." Her character, Samantha Allen, expressly discusses Woodhull's ideas, of which she disapproves. Holley is an example of a strongly committed feminist who believed in suffrage, civil rights, etc, but not in "free love." A good selection of her writing, including "Interview With Theodore and Victory"(Tilton & Woodhull) is in _Samantha Wrastles The Woman Question_, edited by Jane Curry, Univ. of Illinois, 1983. There are several pieces on the double standard, including "A Male Magdalene," "On Winking at Men's Sins," and "On Pantaloons."

>From Eliza Richards 26 Jan 1996

Ann Braude's _Radical Spirits_ is rich in source material that would help in a study of free love. R. Laurence Moore's _In Search of White Crows_, Howard Kerr's _Mediums, Spirit Rappers and Roaring Radicals_, and John Grier Varner's dissertation entitled "Sarah Helen Whitman: Seeress of Providence" all touch on the free love movement. I find the way that the spiritualist movement overlapped with radical sex philosophies fascinating, and I don't find intuitively convincing any certainty that this movement did not have broad-reaching consequences. While there might not have been a large number of proponents and hard core supporters, a broad range of middle-class intellectuals discussed these ideas and held views about true love that seem to be influenced by free love doctrines.

>From Ruth C Crocker 29 Jan 1996

Re: the question of reticence vs. openness about sexuality, are you familiar with William Leach _True Love and Perfect Union_? He deals with this question. Also, his endnotes are a very rich source of obscure periodical lit. on this and other allied topics. Good luck!

>From Maria Elena Raymond 29 Jan 1996

I'd like to add another radical to your list...Sharlot Hall. The bio on her: _A Passion For Freedom, The Life of Sharlot Hall_ by Margaret F. Maxwell, Univ. of Arizona Press, 1982. Hall was a Freethinker and advocate of free-love for a period of her life. She was born in 1870, dies 1943. There is a Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott, Arizona.

Now the other side of the coin...your question about people believing sexuality too dangerous to discuss. There is a book entitled _The Mirror of True Womanhood_ by Rev. Bernard O'Reilly, 1877; pub. P.F. Collier. In keeping with its "Christian" tenets the book promises hell, damnation and death, among other things, for almost anything a woman might do...chapter titles include "Woman's Duties as Wife"; "The Wife's Crowning Duty:Fidelity"; "Conjugal Fidelity"; "Rules: Reserve and Secrecy"; "Friendships That Are Baneful"(emphasis on women *not* having male friends and the dangers therein); "What Girls Should Read"; "What Girls Should Not Read"; "Objects of Art: Exceeding Care in Their Choice(including the womanly art of averting ones eyes); "Mother's Guidance With Respect to Matrimony"; "Special Care Needed in Educating Boys"; This book was intended to be a guide for the *20th* century, as well as the 19th...and the author of all these chapters(and many others) manages to never use words such as naked, unclothed, sex, sexuality, consummation, intercourse, pregnancy, menstruation, or to name body parts. While I realize this book was intended for Catholic readers, when you read the chapter on secrecy at all costs, it's quite clear why no one(of any religion ) talked much about sex, or wife-beating or child-abuse,etc.

Another observation which might be so many of the diaries/letters of women in the westward movement(post Civil War) you will find there is no mention of sexual intimacy and/or pregnancy until the baby arrives. You'll be reading a chapter and all of a sudden the next entry says:" Baked five loaves of bread. cleaned the house, fed the chickens, and delivered myself of a healthy son at 9PM." I've only read a couple of such books(out of many dozens) where women lament the lack of privacy with their husbands, and those were generally among the younger brides. The most memorable example I can think of is _Rachel Calof's Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains_(Indiana U. Press, J. Sanford Rikoon,ed, 1995). She was very young, lived with her husband in a soddie(during the winters) along w/her mother and father-in-law and some of her husband's siblings. She makes reference to their seeking privacy during walks on the prairie, but even then she doesn't mention sex. She also notes her post-partum depression...calling it "six weeks of madness." But mention of depression in these diaries is not as unusual as the mention of sexuality. Best wishes in your research.