Until Death Do Us Part
By the 1860s, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other feminists had begun to question the sanctity of marriage. It was not until the 1870s, however, that reformers focused their attention on improving the union between husband and wife by proposing they should not be bound to an unhappy marriage. These free lovers believed that an individual should be free to move in and out of marriage based on love, or lack thereof.
“Yes I am a free lover, I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or short a period as I can, to change that love everyday if I please. And with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.” -Victoria Woodhull
Victoria Woodhull, a leading voice in the dissident press, championed for free love after a failed marriage and remarriage. Financed by the wealthy Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, Woodull and her sister founded Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, that advocated for women’s rights, proclaiming “Progress! Free Thought! Untrammeled Lives!”
Woodhull further gained success by running for president and speaking before U.S. Congress to legalize female suffrage. Her efforts were praised by Elizabeth Cady Stanton for advancing the cause of American women.
Censoring the Sexual Reform Press
Anthony Comstock sought to censor obscenity and lobbied for Congress to pass legislation. The Comstock Acts were passed, stating that anyone found guilty of mailing or receiving obscene material would be sentenced to ten years in prison. Eventually, Woodhull had to give up Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly due to censorship, jail time and personal losses.
Although the sexual reform press never succeeded in spawning a social movement, it was successful in destroying the institution of marriage and replacing it with a system where women and men were free to create and dissolve sexual unions at will. According to Roger Streitmatter’s Voices of Revolution, Woodhull’s work provided a venue for conversation that mainstream press refused to hear.
Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly dared Victorian society to rethink the views of sexual behavior despite this censorship and repression, making it one of the most influential voices in the dissident press.