The Sex Radicals
Free Love in High Victorian America
Sales Date: October 29, 2021
356 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in
- Published: October 2021
- Open access ebook available
- Published: August 1977
This volume provides the first account of the pioneering efforts at sex reform in America from the Gilded Age to the Progressive era. Despite the atmosphere of extreme prudery and the existence of the Comstock laws after the Civil War, a group of radicals emerged to attack conventional beliefs about sex, from traditional marriage to women’s chattel status in society. These men and women had in common a direct, unrespectable, iconoclastic style. They put forth outrageous journalism and had a penchant for martyrdom and for using the courts to publicize their ideologies.
From rare and generally unknown sources, Hal D. Sears pieced together the story of the sex radicals and their surprising ideas. Moses Harman, a minister turned abolitionist and freethinker, is a central figure in the narrative. His Lucifer, the Light Bearer, the only journal of sexual liberty published from the early 1880s to 1907, was dedicated to free love, sex education, women’s rights, and related causes. To a great degree Harman’s publication defines the limits of social dissent in the late nineteenth century.
Other members of the sex radical circle included E. B. Foote, a medical doctor who made a fortune with a home medical book crammed with sex information; Edwin Walker and Lillian Harman, who became a cause célèbre among radicals when their jailhouse honeymoon in Kansas challenged the right of the state to regulate marriage; Elmina Slenker, who promoted a theory of sexual energy sublimation and the idea that women were the superior sex; and Lois Waisbrooker, Dora Forster, Lillie White, and other feminists who, almost a century ago, taught and preached the very ideas we hear today in the women’s movement.
Of course, all these people got into trouble with the law, mostly through the machinations of their archvillain, Anthony Comstock. Sears examines Comstock’s powers of postal censorship and describes Comstock’s personal vendettas against sexual dissenters, particularly the free love philosopher Ezra Heywood. He gives a legal history of obscenity and explains the sex radicals’ significance in the emergence of obscenity law.
Although the sex radicals attest the important reform vitality of provincial culture in late nineteenth-century America, until now they have been almost ignored by historians. Those who have studied sex radicalism at all, apart from its communitarian and sectarian aspects, have viewed it merely as a subsidiary of the more respectable feminist movement. In this book Sears gives careful consideration to the links between sex radicalism and spiritualism, feminism, anticlericalism, anarchism, and the free-thought movement. He presents sex radicalism as a separate and unique movement which illuminates new reaches of the Victorian landscape and establishes a tradition for present-day liberation trends.
"A pathfinding study of great interest and significance. It is clear that Mr. Sears has opened up an important vein of social history for further exploration—and one that should be of extraordinary interest to feminist historians, for so many of the attitudes of the sex reformers prefigure those current in our time among women liberationists."—New York Times
"Sears deserves a vote of thanks for putting these earnest radicals back on the map."—Newsweek
"The book is a valuable contribution to American social history."—Publishers Weekly
"The Sex Radicals provides a strong gust of fresh air. Not only has Hal D. Sears brought some fascinating characters back life, he has recreated a whole largely forgotten movement, one which can provide a model in many ways for our own challenging libertarian efforts."—Gay Books Bulletin
"Social, legal, intellectual and women's scholars will find much information from which to gain understanding of the decades which straddle the turn into the 20th Century."—Journalism History
"It should be read for what it has to say about the trials and tribulations of Harman and his fellow late nineteenth-century free lovers, and for the questions its evidence provokes."—Journal of American History
"This is a fascinating study which carries the reader into a wholly unknown and exotic region of nineteenth-century American history. I don't think it’s going a bit too far to say that its revelations are sensational. It reminds us also of how many gaps there are in our knowledge of even the relatively recent past. A very important book."—Page Smith
List of Illustrations
Part 1: The ties that Bind
1. Love Worketh No Ill: Free Love and Spiritualism
2. Moses Marman
3. Organized Free Thought: The National Liberal League
4. Lucifer, the Light Bearer
Part 2: Unrespectable Reform
5. Awful Letters: Part 1
6. Children of Progress
7. Public Opinion, the Satan Paper, and the Kansas Free Lovers
8. Awful Letters: Part 2
9. the Prairie Cauldron: Reform and Regeneration, 1885-1895
Part 3: The Sex Radical Circle
10. Comstock’s Yokes
11. The Doctors Foote
12. Handmaidens of Diana: Superwomen vs. “Cumberers of the Ground”
13. Handmaidens of Diana: From the Horse Penis Affair to Modernity
14. The Last Chapter