I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; [and] to change that love every day if I please.
Victoria Woodhull, And the Truth Shall Make you Free
Victoria, quoted above, was speaking about ‘free love’ back in ’71, at a political rally. Quite the beauty – dark haired; with catlike eyes, a Mona Lisa smile, and more than a touch of the Cate Blanchett about her – she was also quite the radical. She had a hugely successful Wall Street stock-broking business, ran for the American Presidency, and owned and wrote her own newspaper in which she lobbied for sex education, short skirts, vegetarianism and legalised sex-work. She publicly argued for women’s ‘ownership and control of [their] sexual organs’. Now, for any ageing hipsters tempted to unclench their permanent peace-sign-fists long enough to write in to ER and inform us that nothing post-1967 is really radical, a minor clarification: Victoria’s lecture on sexual liberty was delivered in 1871, a full century before.
How quickly we forget. To Hunter Thompson, interviewing ‘Hashbury’ hippies during the Summer of Love, it had certainly seemed that something identifiably new was happening: he could trace a clear divide between the political awareness and activism of the 1950s beatniks, and the disengaged, doped-out ‘giggling freaks’. The hippies themselves boasted to him that they were ‘a completely new thing in this world, man.’ But had Hunter looked back earlier still, he would have seen that none of the hippy ideals – communal living in self-appointed ‘families’, desire for equality, disdain of ownership, radical counterculturalism, a yearning for ‘authenticity’ – were in fact original to them at all. All of these qualities, including that tendency toward mysticism, guru-worship and polyamorism whose dark side was to surface in Charles Manson or the Reverend Jim Jones, had already flourished in previous centuries. Not even the beards were new.
It seems that as long as there’ve been chaps with chutzpah enough to persuade a dozen girls of their acquaintance that they should all move to the country ‘and, like, live and love freely in a totally new way, yeah?’ nature has supplied sufficient gullible women to meet their needs. (Forgive me my sexism, but while in some cases equal numbers of both sexes couple-up interchangeably, I’ve yet to encounter any example of one woman to a half-dozen or more men). Some – Cathars, the ‘Free Spirit Brethren’, Catholics – safeguarded themselves with pseudo-apostolic idealism, professing a celibacy that those outside the walls of their enclave found hard to believe. Doubtless some did succeed. Others though, like the priest in Venice’s notorious convent of San Lorenzo (whose patrician inhabitants wore white gowns cut courtesan-style to reveal the entirety of their breasts, and frequently paraded in naked beauty pageants) who was beheaded in 1561 for living ‘like a sultan in his harem’, only confirmed everybody’s worst suspicions.
Of course he was not the first nor the last: in 1830 John Wroe, a 48 year-old former farmer and leader of the Christian Israelite Church, announced that God had commanded him to take seven virgins ‘to cherish and comfort him.’ Though riots broke out among his followers when the virgin comforters returned from a preaching tour with one of their number pregnant, this didn’t stop them from raising the funds he required when a subsequent dream suggested he build a mansion set in a hundred acres of grounds, near Wakefield. Here Prophet Wroe lived until his death with a select few, never shaving or cutting their hair, which earned them the name ‘beardies’.
In Somerset Wroe’s contemporary, Reverend Henry Prince, was enjoying similar favours. A charismatic but fierce-looking man with enormous sideburns and a talent
for appealing to women, his licence to preach in the Church of England was revoked amid gossip of sexual misbehaviour. Despite this he managed to raise enough money from the spinsters of Brighton and Weymouth to purchase land and build himself a walled commune with eighteen bedrooms. Here he took multiple wives from the 200 men and women whose labour kept him in luxury, and who all addressed him as ‘Beloved’. Though he even picked a 16 year-old virgin to add to his brides and publicly ‘favoured’ her in front of a full hymn-singing congregation, his popularity remained high. After Prince’s death in 1899 the cult passed into the hands of another sex-maniac, the Reverend Smyth-Piggott, who upped the tally of ‘soul brides’ to fifty and reigned amongst them until his own death in 1927.
The religious don’t have a monopoly on kinky communes. It would be hard to get more sacrilegious than Aleister Crowley, self-styled ‘Great Beast’, who founded a somewhat idiosyncratic Sicilian utopia in 1920. In his Abbey of Thelema, Crowley and his followers studied the black arts, did yoga and practised sex magick. Anti-religious intellectuals had likewise from the late 18th century also espoused free love, though from very different motives. Where Crowley and more conventional prophets had employed their charismatic talents to preach a doctrine of freedom that, seen clear-sightedly, gave far the most freedom to themselves, the Godwins, the Shelleys, Clara Zetkin, William Black, Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, Richard Wagner, George Sand, Havelock Ellis and numerous others were more disinterestedly concerned with the enlargement of human freedoms. Whether they were philosophers, abolitionists, feminists, anarchists or socialists coloured the nature of the social and sexual ills they attributed to the lack of freedom in love, but their ultimate argument was the same. All believed it urgently necessary to redefine and reform the relationships between individuals and society, since with self-determinism for all would come greater human happiness.
Proposals were put forward for trial marriage; for companionate marriage; for three-party or four-party marriages. The gloriously-named Emil Rüdebusch suggested ‘erotic relations with unlimited numbers’, leaving it to each individual to decide how few or many of their contacts would be sexual. It was not a decision artist Augustus John agonized over for long: the commune he established at Alderney Manor (and later Fryern Court, Fordingbridge) absolutely heaved with his conquests and their children, whom he installed in dozens of chalets and gypsy caravans. Though a claim that he managed to father a hundred children is likely an exaggeration, it was certainly fashionable in bohemian circles to claim to be pregnant by him. John became increasingly political with age, supporting anarchism, socialism, the abolition of capital punishment, gypsy rights and the Voluntary Contraception League. In the Delphic Review and in radio broadcasts he called for the breakdown of Nation States into small autonomous, self-supporting, communities like his own.
At a time when you could enjoy little social freedom unless you happened to be white, male and rich, the tendency was for all counterculturals – to borrow George Orwell’s wonderful phrase, ‘every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, nature cure quack, pacifist and feminist’ – to band together. There were those who practised free love, and may or may not have cared if anyone else enjoyed their harem-like privileges; there were others though, who felt that society needed to be radically restructured and for whom free love meant the unshackling of shame from sex, of sex from marriage, and of marriage from the state. Many wanted to dismantle marriage altogether, believing that that way unions would only ever be voluntary. They wanted emancipation for all, whether that was of the poor, of slaves, or of women from a union that robbed them of autonomy.
It is easy to see that like the later hippies, Victoria Woodhull, her fellow suffragists, the bohemian radicals, the anarchists and socialists were energised by the optimistic naivety of the privileged. Just as legalising prostitution will never liberate a sex-worker whose pimp is her constant shadow, so the ability to enjoy stigma-free erotic encounters sadly never resulted in the eradication of violence, unkindness, manipulation, compromised judgement or emotional dishonesty from sexual relationships. The problem was never the institution, but human nature. We are all still striving for free love, and here in ER is probably the closest you’ll get to finding it.
Works Cited: George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)
Hunter S. Thompson, ‘The “Hashbury” is the Capital of the Hippies,” New York Times Magazine (1967)
Emil Rüdebusch, The Old and the New Ideal: A Solution of that part of the Social Question which pertains to Love, Marriage and Sexual Intercourse (1897)
Victoria Woodhull, ‘And The Truth Shall Make You Free: A Speech On The Principles Of Social Freedom’ (November 20, 1871)
Victoria Woodhull, The Elixir of Life (1873)
Illustration by Michael Faraday.