The Roots of Individualist Feminism in 19th-Century America

by Wendy McElroy

Excerpted from Freedom, Feminism, and the State, published by The Independent Institute.

Part Two

As suffrage increased in popularity and attracted ideologically diverse women, Stanton and other leaders began to compromise subsidiary issues. Feminism employed blatantly white supremacist arguments to further suffrage, pointing out that white women would add to the white vote since they were more likely to vote than minority women.

This argument was adapted to counter the fear of enfranchising immigrant women. Feminists suggested that millions of native American women were more likely to vote than foreigners, thus softening the impact of foreign morals exemplified by Catholicism. (1) For similar reasons, the feminists called for an elitist, limited suffrage; even the former abolitionist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, supported literacy tests as a pre-requisite for the vote. As Susan B. Anthony and Ida Husted Harper commented:

"... the worst elements have been put into the ballot-box and the best elements kept out. This fatal mistake is even now beginning to dawn upon the minds of those who have cherished an ideal of the grandeur of a republic, and they dimly see that in woman lies the highest promise of its fulfillment. Those who fear the foreign vote will learn eventually that there are more American-born women in the United States than foreign born men and women; and those who dread the ignorant vote will study the statistics and see that the percentage of illiteracy is much smaller among women than among men."(2)

Moreover, as feminism grew it became increasingly "respectable" in its attitude and goals. Eugenics and social purity reform, both popular causes, became a staple of mainstream feminism. Social purity campaigns included raising the age of consent, the reformation of prostitutes, censorship of obscenity, and the advocacy of birth control through restraint. As Linda Gordon commented in Woman's Body, Woman's Right:

"The closer we look, the harder it is to distinguish social-purity groups from feminist ones. Feminists from very disparate groups were advocates of most major social purity issues . . ."(3)

Although social purity that stemmed from the purity of the individual conscience was a goal of abolitionist feminists, the crucial difference of the post-Civil War feminists seemed to be their willingness to enforce morality through law. While the abolitionist feminists, who were largely Quaker, believed that the individual must be free to find salvation and perfect the soul, later feminists wished to take choice out of morality issues. Among the many implications of this key difference was the post-war feminist tendency to look toward the state for purity rather than toward the individual.

The relatively pacifist nature of abolitionist feminism had been so compromised by the Civil War that by the 20th century feminists supported World War I even though the movement had strong ties with woman's groups in Germany and many of the American leaders were staunch pacifists. It was feared that opposition to the war would hurt the suffrage cause. When the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified (1920), some considered it a pyrrhic victory. For one thing, by 1920, 28 of the 48 states already had full or presidential suffrage for women, and the overwhelming majority of women outside of New England and parts of the South could vote if they chose to. More importantly, the mainstream movement had abandoned its ideological framework from which it could have proceeded systematically beyond suffrage.

Although suffrage undoubtedly contributed to "purity" legislation, which most feminists approved, it is not clear that such legislation would not have been ushered in with the Progressive era apart from women's suffrage. To those women who believed that the Nineteenth Amendment would provide virtually a utopian society, the reality of their only slightly changedstatus must have been a crushing blow.

Individualist Feminism

While mainstream feminism concentrated on suffrage, more radical feminists looked elsewhere for progress. Individualist feminists became especially involved in the reform of birth control and marriage laws. Their goal was not purity but freedom.

In 1889, a woman who had just risked her life in a dangerous self-induced abortion wrote to the libertarian periodical, Lucifer the Light Bearer (1883-1907), pleading:

"I know I am dreadful wicked, but I am sure to be in the condition from which I risked my life to be free, and I cannot stand it ... Would you know of any appliance that will prevent conception? If there is anything reliable, you will save my life by telling me of it."(4)

The woman wrote to Lucifer because, in the late 1800s, it was one of the few forums openly promoting birth control. Its main ally was The Word (1872-1893), a libertarian periodical edited by Ezra Heywood. Lucifer, published and edited by Moses Harman, was a free-love paper; free love being the movement which sought to separate the state from sexual matters such as marriage, adultery, divorce, age of consent, and birth control. These issues were to be decided by the individuals involved. The libertarian Josiah Warren, to whom the origins of free love are often traced, expressed its theme:

"Everyone is at liberty to dispose of his or her person, and time, and property in any manner in which his or her feelings, or judgment may dictate, without involving the persons or interests of others."(5)

Moses Harman insisted that woman's self-ownership be fully acknowledged in marriage and other sexual arrangements. In doing so, he amended Robert Ingersoll's famous statement that women merited all the rights claimed by men, plus the additional right to be protected, by observing that women should be protected against their protectors.

Unfortunately, in living his principles, Harman ran counter to the Comstock laws (1873), which prohibited the mailing of obscene matter but did not define what constituted obscenity. Whatever it was, however, it specifically included contraceptives and birth control information. A veritable witchhunt ensued, with Anthony Comstock personally persecuting those who advocated sexual nonconformity. When Ann Lohman, an abortionist and dispenser of contraceptives, committed suicide to escape Comstock's incessant harassment, he proudly pointed to her as the 15th person he had driven to such an end.

Against this backdrop, Harman began his "free word" policy (1886) by which he refused to edit correspondence submitted to Lucifer that contained explicit language. Although Harman was somewhat puritanical, he maintained, "Words are not deeds, and it is not the province of civil law to take preventative measures against remote or possible consequences of words, no matter how violent or incendiary."(6) Harman looked forward to a generation which would not be overwhelmed by the word "penis" in print. He pursued an open policy of providing discussion and information concerning birth control.

On February 23, 1887, the staff of Lucifer was arrested for the publication of three letters. One, infamously known as the Markland letter, described the plight of a woman whose husband forced sex upon her even though it tore the stitches from a recent operation. It is an early analysis of rape within marriage. The letter read:

"About a year ago F------ gave birth to a baby, and was severely torn by the instruments in incompetent hands. She has gone through three operations and all failed. I brought her home and had Drs. ---- and ---- operate on her and she was getting along nicely until last night when her husband came down, forced himself into her bed,and the stitches were torn from her healing flesh, leaving her in worse condition than ever...."(7)

The letter rhetorically asked what legal redress was available for such an attack. Of course, there was none.

As a result of these letters, the federal grand jury in Topeka indicted the staff on 270 counts of obscenity. The charges were eventually dropped against all but Moses Harman, who was sentenced to five years imprisonment and a $300 fine. After serving 17 weeks, he was released on a technicality, retried without a jury on a slightly different charge, and sentenced to one year. After eight months, he was again released on a technicality. In 1895, he was sentenced to one-year imprisonment, which he served in its entirety. Until his death, Harman battled the Comstock laws.. His last imprisonment was in 1906 when he spent a year at hard labor, often breaking rocks for eight hours a day in the Illinois snow. Harman was 75 at the time."(8)

During Harman's first trial, the libertarian Ezra Heywood showed support for him by republishing the Markland letter in The Word; for this he too was arrested. Heywood had been previously arrested by Comstock for mailing his pamphlet Cupid's Yokes (which attacked the institution of marriage) and for advertising a contraceptive called the "Comstock syringe." The consequences of this became apparent in November 1877, when, in Heywood's words: "A stranger sprang upon me and, refusing to read a warrant or even to give his name, hurried me into a hack, drove swiftly through the streets on a dark, rainy night and lodged me in jail as a United States prisoner."(9) The stranger was Anthony Comstock; Heywood was sentenced to two years in prison.

When the U.S. Deputy Marshall arrived in the small town of Valley Falls, Kansas, to arrest the staff of Lucifer, the co-editor, E. C. Walker, was nowhere to be found. He was already lodged in the Oskaloosa County Jail in the cell next to Lillian Harman, Moses Harman's 16-year-old daughter. The couple had been imprisoned for their non-state, non-church marriage of September 1886.

Through this widely publicized marriage, the couple had hoped to gain government tolerance of their union and so deal a severe blow to the institution of marriage. In their ceremony, E. C. Walker pledged, "Lillian is and will continue to be as free to repulse any and all advances of mine as she had been heretofore. In joining with me in this love and labor union, she has not alienated a single natural right." Lillian pledged, "I make no promises that it may become impossible or immoral for me to fulfill, but retain the right to act always as my conscience and best judgment shall dictate." The ceremony concluded with Moses Harman declaring, "I do not 'give away the bride', as I wish her to be always the owner of her own person . . ."(10)

News of the marriage had brought threats of mob violence to Valley Falls, and the officials-seeking to soothe the situation-arrested the couple on the morning after their wedding night. The charge was unlawfully and feloniously living together as man and wife without being married according to statute. Walker was sentenced to 75 days imprisonment; Lillian Harman to 45 days. When asked if there was any reason why sentence should not be passed, Lillian answered: "Nothing except that we have committed no crime. But we are in your bpower, and you can, of course, do as you please."(11)

In March 1887, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld this decision. In a contradictory ruling, the court held that the common-law marriage was legal but nevertheless punishable for violation of the marriage license statute. In other words, the couple had violated regulations designed to secure a record of their marriage. As Chief Justice Horton said, disregarding the issue of the validity of their marriage: "The question, in my opinion, . . . is not whether Edwin Walker and Lillian Harman are married, but whether, in marrying, or rather living together as man and wife, they have observed the statutory requirements."(12)

Although the couple served their term, they refused to pay the court costs; they remained in jail for six months until the costs were paid.

Lillian Harman gave her reason for breaking the law:

"I consider uniformity in mode of sexual relations as undesirable and impractical as enforced uniformity in anything else. For myself, I want the right to profit by my mistakes ... and why should I be unwilling for others to enjoy the same liberty? If I should be able to bring the entire world to live exactly as I live at present, what would that avail me in ten years, when as I hope, I shall have a broader knowledge of life, and my life therefore probably changed?"(13)

The Comstock laws were a litmus test for individualist feminism. The more respectable feminists often supported the statutes that banned birth control information from the mail on the grounds that it was obscene. One of the pledges of the women candidates in the Kansas election of 1889 was that they would shut down Lucifer the Light Bearer. Hal Sears observed:

"Conventional feminists bowed before the statute. The sex radicals, on libertarian principles, broke this law in order to raise the questions of government censorship and individual self- ownership."(14)

Although Harman and Walker were one of the first couples in America imprisoned for violating marriage statutes, and Moses Harman was an early champion of birth control, they have been ignored by feminists and feminist histories. While minor socialist figures have been examined in depth, the Lucifer staff has barely received a mention. This marked tendency to exclude individualists from feminist history indicates its bias.

(1) As with most suffrage policies this evolved; later suffragists appealed to immigrant women for support. For an excellent presentation of the movement's xenophobia, see Alan P. Grimes, The Puritan Ethic and Woman Suffrage (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967).

(2) Grimes, The Puritan Ethic and Woman Suffrage, p. 94.

(3) Linda Gordon, Woman's Body, Woman's Right (New York: Penguin Books, Inc., 1976), p. 117-118.

(4) Hal D. Sears, The Sex Radicals: Free Love in High Victorian America (Lawrence, Kans.: Regents Press, 1977), p. 129.

(5) Josiah Warren, Practical Details (New York: 1852), P. 13. (This quotation is an early instance of using both "his" and "her" to explicitly include women within a statement of rights.)

(6) Sears, The Sex Radicals, p. 79. For information regarding the overlap between feminists and social reformers, both of whom called for censorship, see Gordon, Woman's Body, Woman's Right, chap. 6.

(7) Ibid., p. 75.

(8) Lucifer the Light Bearer, May 24, 1906, provides an excel- lent account of Harman's last imprisonment. Lucifer ran appeals for support throughout Harman's incarceration, emphasizing his age. In the May 24th issue he was reported to be "75 years, 7 months and 12 days old."

(9) Sears, Sex Radicals, p. 165.

(10) Ibid., p. 85.

(11) Ibid., p. 92.

(12) Ibid., p. 93.

(13) Ibid., p. 258.

(14) Ibid., p. 24. Alice Blackwell was something of an excep- tion. She denounced censorship attempts aimed at the reprint of an editorial from her periodical, Wt)tnaii's journal. The So- cialist Party's woman's journal, The Socialist Woman, did not begin to discuss the birth control issue before 1914. Socialist women had to publish articles on this subject elsewhere.

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