Victoria Woodhull: Her Body as Hers, Not His

Description: A Portrait of Victoria Woodhull (I)
Source: Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum, Historical Photographs and Special Visual Collections Department, Fine Arts Library

I respect and honor the needy woman who, to procure food for herself and child, sells her body to some stranger for the necessary money; but for that legal virtue which sells itself for a lifetime for a home, with an abhorrence of the purchaser, and which at the same time says to the former, “I am holier than thou,” I have only the supremest contempt.

Victoria Woodhull, “Tried as by Fire; or, The True and the False, Socially” (1874)


By Donovan Cleckley

This collection of selected writings includes an essay by the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin introducing Victoria Woodhull’s life and work, a piece which, using Dworkin’s own words, I refer to as “Her Body as Hers, Not His: The Political Meaning of Sex.” After Dworkin’s introduction follow selected excerpts from three of Woodhull’s speeches. These speeches include, first, Woodhull’s notorious 1871 speech known as “The Principles of Social Freedom,” recognized for its initial presentation of Woodhull’s infamous Free Love argument coinciding with her feminist critique of marriage and prostitution. Next, we see “Tried as by Fire; or, The True and the False, Socially,” delivered in 1874, in which Woodhull further developed the argument that she began in her previous speeches and writings. As a conclusion to the selections, we see an 1895 piece of archived writing known as “I Am the Daughter of Time,” a fragment of what seemed to be the start of an autobiography, although Woodhull never published a final version during her lifetime.

Her Body as Hers, Not His:

The Political Meaning of Sex

By Andrea Dworkin

[Excerpt from “The Politics of Intelligence” in Right-Wing Women: The Politics of Domesticated Females by Andrea Dworkin (1983)]

Victoria Woodhull—the first woman stockbroker on Wall Street, the first woman to run for president of the United States (1870), the publisher of the first translation of the Communist Manifesto in the United States (1871), the first person ever arrested under the notoriously repressive Comstock Law (1872)[1]—crusaded against the material dependency of women on men because she knew that anyone who bartered her body bartered her human dignity. She hated the hypocrisy of married women; she hated the condition of prostitution, which degraded both wives and whores; and especially she hated the men who profited sexually and economically from marriage:

It’s a sharp trick played by men upon women, by which they acquire the legal right to debauch them without cost, and to make it unnecessary for them to visit professional prostitutes, whose sexual services can only be obtained for money. Now, isn’t this true? Men know it is. (Woodhull, “Tried As By Fire; or, The True and The False, Socially,” p. 19)

Woodhull did not romanticize prostitution; she did not advocate it as freedom from marriage or freedom in itself or sexual freedom. Prostitution, she made clear, was for money, not for fun; it was survival, not pleasure. Woodhull’s passion was sexual freedom, and she knew that the prostitution and rape of women were antithetical to it. She was a mass organizer, and the masses of women were married, sexually subordinated to men in marriage. At a time when feminists did not analyze sex directly or articulate ideas explicitly antagonistic to sex as practiced, Woodhull exposed marital rape and compulsory intercourse as the purpose, meaning, and method of marriage:

Of all the horrid brutalities of this age, I know of none so horrid as those that are sanctioned and defended by marriage. Night after night there are thousands of rapes committed, under cover of this accursed license; and millions—yes, I say it boldly, knowing whereof I speak—millions of poor, heartbroken, suffering wives are compelled to minister to the lechery of insatiable husbands, when every instinct of body and sentiment of soul revolts in loathing and disgust. All married persons know this is truth, although they may feign to shut their eyes and ears to the horrid thing, and pretend to believe it is not. The world has got to be startled from this pretense into realizing that there is nothing else now existing among pretendedly enlightened nations, except marriage, that invests men with the right to debauch women, sexually, against their wills. Yet marriage is held to be synonymous with morality! I say, eternal damnation sink such morality! (Woodhull, “Tried As By Fire; or, The True and The False, Socially,” p. 8)

Wives were the majority, whores the minority, prostitution the condition of each, rape the underbelly of prostitution. Woodhull’s aggressive repudiation of the good woman/bad woman syndrome (with which women, then as now, were so very comfortable), her relentless attacks on the hypocrisy of the “good woman, ” and her rude refusal to call the sufferance of rape “virtue” had one purpose: to unite women in a common perception of their common condition. Selling themselves was women’s desperate, necessary, unforgivable crime; not acknowledging the sale divided women and obscured how and why women were used sexually by men; marriage, women’s only refuge, was the place of mass rape. 

Woodhull proclaimed herself a “Free Lover,” by which she meant that she could not be bought, not in marriage, not in prostitution as commonly understood. In telling married women that they had indeed sold their sex for money, she was telling them that they had bartered away more than the prostitute ever could: all privacy, all economic independence, all legal individuality, every shred of control over their bodies in sex and in reproduction both.

Woodhull herself was widely regarded as a whore because she proclaimed herself sexually self-determining, sexually active; she spit in the face of the sexual double standard. Called a prostitute by a man at a public meeting, Woodhull responded: “A man questioning my virtue! Have I any right as a woman to answer him? I hurl the intention back in your face, sir, and stand boldly before you and this convention, and declare that I never had sexual intercourse with any man of whom I am ashamed to stand side by side before the world with the act. I am not ashamed of any act of my life. At the time it was the best I knew. Nor am I ashamed of any desire that has been gratified, nor of any passion alluded to. Every one of them are a part of my own soul’s life, for which, thank God, I am not accountable to you” (Woodhull, Cited in Johnston, p. 205). Few feminists appreciated her (Elizabeth Cady Stanton was an exception, as usual) because she confronted women with her own sexual vitality, the political meaning of sex, the sexual and economic appropriation of women’s bodies by men, the usurpation of female desire by men for the purposes of their own illegitimate power. 

She was direct and impassioned and she made women remember: that they had been raped. In focusing on the apparent and actual sexual worth of wives and whores, she made the basic claim of radical feminism: all freedom, including sexual freedom, begins with an absolute right to one’s own body—physical self-possession. She knew too, in practical as well as political terms, that forced sex in marriage led to forced pregnancy in marriage: “I protest against this form of slavery, I protest against the custom which compels women to give the control of their maternal functions over to anybody” (Woodhull, “The Principles of Social Freedom,” p. 36).

Victoria Woodhull exercised sexual intelligence in public discourse, ideas, and activism. She is one of the few women to have done so. This effort required all the other kinds of intelligence that distinguish humans from animals: literacy, intellect, creative intelligence, moral intelligence. Some consequences of sexual intelligence become clear in Woodhull’s exercise of it: she made the women she addressed in person and in print face the sexual and economic system built on their bodies. She was one of the great philosophers of and agitators for sexual freedom—but not as men understand it, because she abhorred rape and prostitution, knew them when she saw them inside marriage or outside it, would not accept or condone the violence against women implicit in them.

“I make the claim boldly, ” she dared to say, “that from the very moment woman is emancipated from the necessity of yielding the control of her sexual organs to man to insure a home, food and clothing, the doom of sexual demoralization will be sealed” (Woodhull, “Tried As By Fire; or, The True and The False, Socially,” p. 39). Since women experienced sexual demoralization most abjectly in sexual intercourse, Woodhull did not shy away from the inevitable conclusion: “From that moment there will be no intercourse except such as is desired by women. It will be a complete revolution in sexual matters. . .” (Woodhull, “Tried As By Fire; or, The True and The False, Socially,” p. 39). Intercourse not willed and initiated by the woman was rape, in Woodhull’s analysis. She anticipated current feminist critiques of intercourse—modest and rare as they are—by a century. 

As if to celebrate the centennial of Woodhull’s repudiation of male-supremacist sexual intercourse, Robin Morgan in 1974 transformed Woodhull’s insight into a firm principle: “I claim that rape exists any time sexual intercourse occurs when it has not been initiated by the woman, out of her own genuine affection and desire” (Morgan, “Theory and Practice: Pornography and Rape,” p. 165). This shocks, bewilders—who can imagine it, what can it mean? Now as then, there is one woman speaking, not a movement. [2]

Woodhull was not taken seriously as a thinker, writer, publisher, journalist, activist, pioneer, by those who followed her—not by the historians, teachers, intellectuals, revolutionaries, reformers; not by the lovers or rapists; not by the women. Had she been part of the cultural dialogue on sexual issues, the whole subsequent development of movements for sexual freedom would have been different in character: because she hated rape and prostitution and understood them as violations of sexual freedom, which male liberationists did not.

But then, this was why she was excluded: the men wanted the rape and prostitution. She threatened not only those sacred institutions but the male hallucinations that prettify those institutions: those happy visions of happy women, caged, domesticated or wanton, numb to rape, numb to being bought and sold. Her sexual intelligence was despised, then ignored, because of what it revealed: he who hates the truth hates the intelligence that brings it.

Sexual intelligence in women, that rarest intelligence in a male-supremacist world, is necessarily a revolutionary intelligence, the opposite of the pornographic (which simply reiterates the world as it is for women), the opposite of the will to be used, the opposite of masochism and self-hatred, the opposite of “good woman” and “bad woman” both.

It is not in being a whore that a woman becomes an outlaw in this man’s world; it is in the possession of herself, the ownership and effective control of her own body, her separateness and distinctness, the integrity of her body as hers, not his.


  1. Woodhull wrote an expose of Henry Ward Beecher’s adulterous affair with Elizabeth Tilton, the wife of his best friend. Beecher was an eminent minister. His hypocrisy was the main issue for Woodhull. The exposé was published by Woodhull in her own paper, Woodhull and Clafin’s Weekly. She was arrested, as was her sister and co-publisher, Tennessee Clafin, for sending obscene literature through the mails. She was imprisoned for four weeks without trial.
  2. In a recent essay, Alice Walker wrote: “. . . I submit that any sexual intercourse between a free man and a human being he owns or controls is rape. ” (See “Embracing the Dark and the Light,” Essence, July 1982, p. 117. ) This definition has the advantage of articulating the power that is the context for as well as the substance of the act. Walker’s essay—“Embracing the Dark and the Light”—can be found under the title “If the Present Looks Like the Past, What Does the Future Look Like?” in Walker’s collection In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983).


Victoria Woodhull, “Tried As By Fire; or, The True and The False, Socially,” 1874, The Victoria Woodhull Reader, ed. Madeleine B. Stern (Weston, Mass.: M&S Press, 1974)

Woodhull, cited by Johanna Johnston, Mrs. Satan (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1967)

Woodhull, “The Principles of Social Freedom,” 1871, The Victoria Woodhull Reader

Robin Morgan, “Theory and Practice: Pornography and Rape,” 1974, pp. 163-69; Going Too Far: The Personal Chronicle of a Feminist (New York: Random House, 1977)


Description: A Portrait of Victoria Woodhull (II)
Source: Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum, Historical Photographs and Special Visual Collections Department, Fine Arts Library

“The Principles of Social Freedom”


It can now be asked: What is the legitimate sequence of Social Freedom? To which I unhesitatingly reply: Free Love, or freedom of the affections. “And are you a Free Lover?” is the almost incredulous query.

I repeat a frequent reply: “I am; and I can honestly, in the fulness of my soul, raise my voice to my Maker, and thank Him that I am, and that I have had the strength and the devotion to truth to stand before this traducing and vilifying community in a manner representative of that which shall come with healing on its wings for the bruised hearts and crushed affections of humanity.”

And to those who denounce me for this I reply: “Yes, 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; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere. And I have the further right to demand a free and unrestricted exercise of that right, and it is your duty not only to accord it, but as a community, to see that I am protected in it. I trust that I am fully understood, for I mean just that, and nothing less!”

To speak thus plainly and pointedly is a duty I owe to myself. The press have stigmatized me to the world as an advocate, theoretically and practically, of the doctrine of Free Love, upon which they have placed their stamp of moral deformity; the vulgar and inconsequent definition which they hold makes the theory an abomination.

And though this conclusion is a no more legitimate and reasonable one than that would be which should call the Golden Rule a general license to all sorts of debauch, since Free Love bears the same relations to the moral deformities of which it stands accused as does the Golden Rule to the Law of the Despot, yet it obtains among many intelligent people. But they claim, in the language of one of these exponents, that “Words belong to the people; they are the common property of the mob. Now the common use, among the mob, of the term Free Love, is a synonym for promiscuity.”

Against this absurd proposition I oppose the assertion that words do not belong to the mob, but to that which they represent. Words are the exponents and interpretations of ideas. If I use a word which exactly interprets and represents what I would be understood to mean, shall I go to the mob and ask of them what interpretation they choose to place upon it? If lexicographers, when they prepare their dictionaries, were to go to the mob for the rendition of words, what kind of language would we have?

I claim that freedom means to be free, let the mob claim to the contrary as strenuously as they may. And I claim that love means an exhibition of the affections, let the mob claim what they may. And therefore, in compounding these words into Free Love, I claim that united they mean, and should be used to convey, their united definitions, the mob to the contrary notwithstanding. 

And when the term Free Love finds a place in dictionaries, it will prove my claim to have been correct, and that the mob have not received the attention of the lexicographers, since it will not be set down to signify sexual debauchery, and that only, or in any governing sense.

* * * * * 

My friends, you see this thing we call Freedom is a large word, implying a deal more than people have ever yet been able to recognize. It reaches out its all-embracing arms, and while encircling our good friends and neighbours, does not neglect to also include their less worthy brothers and sisters, every one of whom is just as much entitled to the use of his freedom as is either one of us. But objectors tell us that freedom is a dangerous thing to have, and that they must be its conservators, dealing it out to such people, and upon such matters, as they shall appoint. Having coined our name, they straightway proceed to define it, and to give force to their definition, set about citing illustrations to prove not only their definition to be a true one, but also that its application is just.

* * * * * 

I tell you, my friends and my foes, that you have taken hold of the wrong end of this business. You are shouldering upon Free Love the results that flow from precisely its antithesis, which is the spirit, if not the letter, of your marriage theory, which is slavery, and not freedom.

I have a better right to speak, as one having authority in this matter, than most of you have, since it has been my province to study it in all its various lights and shades. When I practiced clairvoyance, hundreds, aye thousands, of desolate, heart-broken men, as well as women, have come to me for advice. And they were from all walks of life, from the humblest daily labourer to the haughtiest dame of wealth.

The tales of horror, of wrongs inflicted and endured, which were poured into my ears, first awakened me to a realization of the hollowness and the rottenness, of society, and compelled me to consider whether laws which were prolific of so much crime and misery as I found to exist should be continued; and to ask the question whether it were not better to let the bond go free.

In time I was fully convinced that marriage laws were productive of precisely the reverse of that for which they are supposed to have been framed, and I came to recommend the grant of entire freedom to those who were complained of as inconstant; and the frank asking for it by those who desired it. My invariable advice was:

“Withdraw lovingly, but completely, all claim and all complaint as an injured and deserted husband or wife. You need not perhaps disguise the fact that you suffer keenly from it, but take on yourself all the fault that you have not been able to command a more continuous love; that you have not proved to be all that you once seemed to be. Show magnanimity, and in order to show it, try to feel it. Cultivate that kind of love which loves the happiness and well-being of your partner most, his or her person next, and yourself last. Be kind to, and sympathize with, the new attraction rather than waspish and indignant. Know for a certainty that love cannot be clutched or gained by being fought for; while it is not impossible that it may be won back by the nobility of one’s own deportment. If it cannot be, then it is gone forever, and you must make the best of it and reconcile yourself to it, and do the next best thing—you may perhaps continue to hold on to a slave, but you have lost a lover.”

Some may indeed think if I can keep the semblance of a husband or wife, even if it be not a lover, better still that it be so. Such is not my philosophy or my faith, and for such I have no advice to give. I address myself to such as have souls, and whose souls are in question; if you belong to the other sort, take advice of a Tombs lawyer and not of me. I have seen a few instances of the most magnanimous action among the persons involved in a knot of love, and with the most angelic results.

I believe that the love which goes forth to bless, and if it be to surrender in order to bless, is love in the true sense, and that it tends greatly to beget love, and that the love which is demanding, thinking only of self, is not love.

I have learned that the first great error most married people commit is in endeavouring to hide from each other the little irregularities into which all are liable to fall. Nothing is so conducive to continuous happiness as mutual confidence. In whom, if not in the husband or the wife, should one confide? Should they not be each other’s best friends, never failing in time of anxiety, trouble, and temptation to give disinterested and unselfish counsel? From such a perfect confidence as I would have men and women cultivate, it is impossible that bad or wrong should flow.

On the contrary, it is the only condition in which love and happiness can go hand in hand. It is the only practice that can insure continuous respect, without which love withers and dies out. Can you not see that in mutual confidence and freedom the very strongest bonds of love are forged? It is more blessed to grant favours than to demand them, and the blessing is large and prolific of happiness; or small and insignificant in results, just in proportion as the favour granted is large or small. Tried by this rule, the greater the blessing or happiness you can confer on your partners, in which your own selfish feelings are not consulted, the greater the satisfaction that will redound to yourself.

Think of this mode of adjusting your difficulties, and see what a clear way opens before you. There are none who have once felt the influence of a high order of love, so callous, but that they intuitively recognise the true grandeur and nobility of such a line of conduct. It must always be remembered that you can never do right until you are first free to do wrong; since the doing of a thing under compulsion is evidence neither of good nor bad intent; and if under compulsion, who shall decide what would be the substituted rule of action under full freedom?

In freedom alone is there safety and happiness, and when people learn this great fact, they will have just begun to know how to live. Instead then of being the destroying angel of the household, I would become the angel of purification to purge out all insincerity, all deception, all baseness and all vice, and to replace them by honor, confidence, and truth.

* * * * * 

Talk of Freedom, of equality, of justice! I tell you there is scarcely a thought put in practice that is worthy to be the offspring of those noble words. The veriest systems of despotism still reign in all matters pertaining to social life. Caste stands as boldly out in this country as it does in political life in the kingdoms of Europe.

It is true that we are obliged to accept the situation just as it is. If we accord freedom to all persons we must expect them to make their own best use thereof, and, as I have already said, must protect them in such use until they learn to put it to better uses. But in our predication we must be consistent, and now ask who among you would be worse men and women were all social laws repealed?

Would you necessarily dissolve your present relations, desert your dependent husbands—for there are even some of them—and wives and children simply because you have the right so to do? You are all trying to deceive yourselves about this matter. Let me ask of husbands if they think there would be fifty thousand women of the town supported by them if their wives were ambitious to have an equal number of men of the town, to support, and for the same purposes? I tell you, nay! It is because men are held innocent of this support, and all the vengeance is visited upon the victims, that they have come to have an immunity in their practices.

Until women come to hold men to equal account as they do the women with whom they consort; or until they regard these women as just as respectable as the men who support them, society will remain in its present scale of moral excellence. A man who is well known to have been the constant visitor to these women is accepted into society, and if he be rich is eagerly sought both by mothers having marriageable daughters and by the daughters themselves. But the women with whom they have consorted are too vile to be even acknowledged as worthy of Christian burial, to say nothing of common Christian treatment.

I have heard women reply when this difficulty was pressed upon them, “We cannot ostracise men as we are compelled to women, since we are dependent on them for support.” Ah! here’s the rub. But do you not see that these other sisters are also dependent upon men for their support, and mainly so because you render it next to impossible for them to follow any legitimate means of livelihood? And are only those who have been fortunate enough to secure legal support entitled to live?

When I hear that argument advanced, my heart sinks within me at the degraded condition of my sisters. They submit to a degradation simply because they see no alternative except self-support, and they see no means for that. To put on the semblance of holiness they cry out against those who, for like reasons, submit to like degradation; the only difference between the two being in a licensed ceremony, and a slip of printed paper costing twenty-five cents and upward.

* * * * * 

The false and hollow relations of the sexes are thus resolved into the mere question of the dependence of women upon men for support, and women, whether married or single, are supported by men because they are women and their opposites in sex. I can see no moral difference between a woman who marries and lives with a man because he can provide for her wants, and the woman who is not married, but who is provided for at the same price. There is a legal difference, to be sure, upon one side of which is set the seal of respectability, but there is no virtue in law. In the fact of law, however, is the evidence of the lack of virtue, since if the law be required to enforce virtue, its real presence is wanting; and women need to comprehend this truth.

The sexual relation must be rescued from this insidious form of slavery. Women must rise from their position as ministers to the passions of men to be their equals. Their entire system of education must be changed. They must be trained to be like men, permanent and independent individualities, and not their mere appendages or adjuncts, with them forming but one member of society. They must be the companions of men from choice, never from necessity.

Free Love, then, is the law by which men and women of all grades and kinds are att racted to or repelled from each other, and does not describe the results accomplished by either; these results depend upon the condition and development of the individual subjects. It is the natural operation of the affectional motives of the sexes, unbiased by any enacted law or standard of public opinion. It is the opportunity which gives the opposites in sex the conditions in which the law of chemical affi nities raised into the domain of the aff ections can have unrestricted sway, as it has in all departments of nature except in enforced sexual relations among men and women.

* * * * * 

Promiscuity in sexuality is simply the anarchical stage of development wherein the passions rule supreme. When spirituality comes in and rescues the real man or woman from the domain of the purely material, promiscuity is simply impossible. As promiscuity is the analogue to anarchy, so is spirituality to scientific selection and adjustment. Therefore I am fully persuaded that the very highest sexual unions are those that are monogamic, and that these are perfect in proportion as they are lasting. Now if to this be added the fact that the highest kind of love is that which is utterly freed from and devoid of selfishness, and whose highest gratification comes from rendering its object the greatest amount of happiness, let that happiness depend upon whatever it may, then you have my ideal of the highest order of love and the most perfect degree of order to which humanity can attain. An affection that does not desire to bless its object, instead of appropriating it by a selfish possession to its own uses, is not worthy the name of love. Love is that which exists to do good, not merely to get good, which is constantly giving instead of desiring.

* * * * * 

Oh! my brothers and sisters, let me entreat you to have more faith in the self-regulating efficacy of freedom. Do you not see how beautifully it works among us in other respects? In America everybody is free to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, or even not to worship anything, notwithstanding you or I may think that very wicked or wrong. The respect for freedom we make paramount over our individual opinions, and the result is peace and harmony, when the people of other countries are still throttling and destroying each other to enforce their individual opinions on others. Free Love is only the appreciation of this beautiful principle of freedom. One step further I entreat you to trust it still, and though you may see a thousand dangers, I see peace and happiness and steady improvement as the result.

To more specifically define Free Love I would say that I prefer to use the word love with lust as its antithesis, love representing the spiritual and lust the animal; the perfect and harmonious interrelations of the two being the perfected human. This use has its justification in other pairs of words; as good and evil; heat and cold; light and dark; up and down; north and south; which in principle are the same, but in practice we are obliged to judge of them as relatively different.

The point from which judgment is made is that which we occupy, or are related to, individually, at any given time. Thus what would be up to one person might be down to another differently situated, along the line which up and down describe. So also is it of good and evil. What is good to one low down the ladder may not only be, but actually is, evil to one further ascended; nevertheless it is the same ladder up which both climb. It is the comprehension of this scientific fact that guarantees the best religion. And it is the non-comprehension of it that sets us as judges of our brothers and sisters, who are below us in the scale of development, to whom we should reach down the kind and loving hand of assistance, rather than force them to retreat farther away from us by unkindness, denunciation and hate.

* * * * * 

I believe in love with liberty; in protection without slavery; in the care and culture of offspring by new and better methods, and without the tragedy of self-immolation on the part of parents. I believe in the family, spiritually constituted, expanded, amplified, and scientifically and artistically organized, as a unitary home. I believe in the most wonderful transformation of human society as about to come, as even now at the very door, through general progress, science and the influential intervention of the spirit world. I believe in more than all that the millennium has ever signified to the most religious mind; and I believe that in order to prepare minds to contemplate and desire and enact the new and better life, it is necessary that the old and still prevalent superstitious veneration for the legal marriage tie be relaxed and weakened; not to pander to immorality, but as introductory to a nobler manhood and a more glorified womanhood; as, indeed, the veritable gateway to a paradise regained.

* * * * * 

I prize dearly the good opinion of my fellow-beings. I would, so gladly, have you think well of me, and not ill. It is because I love you all, and love your well-being still more than I love you, that I tell you my vision of the future, and that I would willingly disturb your confidence, so long cherished, in the old dead or dying-out past. Believe me honest, my dear friends, and so forgive and think of me lovingly in turn, even if you are compelled still to regard me as deceived. I repeat, that I love you all; that I love every human creature, and their well-being; and that I believe, with the profoundest conviction, that what I have urged in this discourse is conducive to that end.

Thus have I explained to you what Social Freedom or, as some choose to denominate it, Free Love, is, and what its advocates demand. Society says, to grant it is to precipitate itself into anarchy. I oppose to this arbitrary assumption the logic of general freedom, and aver that order and harmony will be secured where anarchy now reigns. The order of nature will soon determine whether society is or I am right. Let that be as it may, I repeat:

“The love that I cannot command is not mine; let me not disturb myself about it, nor attempt to filch it from its rightful owner. A heart that I supposed mine has drifted and gone. Shall I go in pursuit? Shall I forcibly capture the truant and transfix it with the barb of my selfish affection, and pin it to the wall of my chamber? Rather let me leave my doors and windows open, intent only on living so nobly that the best cannot fail to be drawn to me by an irresistible attraction.”

“Tried as by Fire; or, The True and the False, Socially”


No man who respects his mother or loves his sister, can speak disparagingly of any woman; however low she may seem to have sunk, she is still a woman. I want every man to remember this. Every woman is, or, at some time, has been a sister or daughter; and if she be now “out upon the cold world,” do not forget that some son or brother helped, perhaps forced her there. Nor can it be amiss for men to ask: “Am I pure enough to make my judgments just?”

Let these thoughts check the rising frown and the cruel words you would bestow upon any unfortunate woman, in whatever condition, and call forth your love and sympathy instead, in some practical way for her rescue or assistance.

* * * * * 

The sexual relations of humanity are fundamental to its continuous existence, and are, therefore, the most important into which men and women enter. It is vital that they should be entered into properly, that they should be understood clearly, and, still more so, that they should be lived rightly.

Nevertheless, the world has virtually declared that this shall not be. It denies all knowledge of them to the young, and permits the youth and the maiden to walk blindfolded into their exploration, ignorant even of their own functions, only taking special care that the journey, once begun, may never be retraced or stopped. It has left the travelers, as it were, in the mid-ocean of what may be their eternal happiness, if the course pursued be right; or their certain destruction if the chosen way be wrong, without chart or compass, subjected to winds which drive them, they know not where, and to currents and counter-currents, for which no haven of safety is provided; and, alas! they too often go down to untimely graves, victims to a willful ignorance. Such are the results of modern social regulations.

I am conducting a campaign against marriage, with the view of revolutionizing the present theory and practice. I have strong convictions that, as a bond or promise to love another until death, it is a fraud upon human happiness; and that it has outlived its day of usefulness. These convictions make me earnest, and I enter the fight, meaning to do the institution all possible harm in the shortest space of time; meaning to use whatever weapons may fall in my way with which to stab it to the heart, so that its decaying carcase may be buried, and clear the way for a higher and a better institution.

I speak only what I know, when I say that the most intelligent and really virtuous people of all classes have outgrown this institution; that they are constantly and systematically unfaithful to it; despise and revolt against it as a slavery; and only submit to a semblance of fi delity to it, from the dread of a falsely educated public opinion and a sham morality, which are based on the ideas of the past, but which no longer really represent the convictions of anybody.

* * * * * 

Of what in reality does this thing consist, which, while hanging like a pall over the world, is pretendedly the basis of its civilization? The union of the opposites in sex is an instinct inherent in the constitutions of mankind; but legal marriage is an invention of man, and so far as it performs anything, it defeats and perverts this natural instinct. Marriage is a license for sexual commerce to be carried on without regard to the consent or dissent of this instinct. Everything else that men and women may desire to do, except to have sexual commerce, may be and is done without marriage.

Marriage, then, is a license merely—a permission to do something that it is inferred or understood ought not to be done without it. In other words, marriage is an assumption by the community that it can regulate the sexual instincts of individuals better than they can themselves; and they have been so well regulated that there is scarcely such a thing known as a natural sexual instinct in the race; indeed, the regulations have been so at war with nature that this instinct has become a morbid disease, running rampant or riotous in one sex, and feeding its insatiable maw upon the vitality of the other, finally resulting in disgust or impotency in both. Isn’t this a pretty commentary on regulation?

Talk of Social Evil bills! The marriage law is the most damnable Social Evil bill—the most consummate outrage on woman—that was ever conceived. Those who are called prostitutes, whom these bills assume to regulate, are free women, sexually, when compared to the slavery of the poor wife. They are at liberty, at least to refuse; but she knows no such escape. “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands,” is the spirit and the universal practice of marriage. Of all the horrid brutalities of this age, I know of none so horrid as those that are sanctioned and defended by marriage.

Night after night there are thousands of rapes committed, under cover of this accursed license; and millions—yes, I say it boldly, knowing whereof I speak—millions of poor, heart-broken, suffering wives are compelled to minister to the lechery of insatiable husbands, when every instinct of body and sentiment of soul revolts in loathing and disgust. All married persons know this is truth, although they may feign to shut their eyes and ears to the horrid thing, and pretend to believe it is not. The world has got to be startled from this pretense into realizing that there is nothing else now existing among pretendedly enlightened nations, except marriage, that invests men with the right to debauch women, sexually, against their wills. Yet marriage is held to be synonymous with morality! I say, eternal damnation sink such morality!

When I think of the indignities which women suffer in marriage, I cannot conceive how they are restrained from open rebellion. Compelled to submit their bodies to disgusting pollution! Oh, Shame! where hast thou fled, that the fair face of womanhood is not suffused with thy protesting blushes, stinging her, at least into self-respect, if not into freedom itself! Am I too severe? No, I am only just! Prate of the abolition of slavery! There was never servitude in the world like this one of marriage. It not only holds the body to whatever polluting use—abstracting its vitality, prostituting its most sacred functions, and leaving them degraded, debauched and diseased—but utterly damning the soul for all aspiration, and sinking it in moral and spiritual torpor. Marriage not slavery! Who shall dare affirm it?

Let woman practically assert her sexual freedom and see to what it will lead! It is useless to mince terms. We want the truth; and that which I have about this abomination I will continue to give, until it is abolished.

* * * * * 

It may now be asked: What are proper sexual conditions?

I reply: Sexual commerce that is based upon reciprocal love and mutual desire, and that ultimates in equal and mutual benefit, is proper and healthful; while improper sexual commerce is that which is not based upon reciprocal love and mutual desire, and that cannot, therefore, ultimate in equal or mutual benefit. Children begotten by the former commerce will never be bad children physically, mentally or morally; but such as are begotten by the latter commerce will inevitably be bad children, either physically, mentally or morally, or, which is more likely to be the case, partially bad throughout.

I desire to be fully understood upon this part of the subject. I have been generally denounced by the press as an advocate of promiscuousness in the sexual relations. I want you to fully comprehend the measure of truth there is in this charge. Hence I repeat that there is but one class of cases where commerce of the sexes is in strict accordance with nature, and that, in this class, there are always present, first, love of each by each of the parties; second, a desire for the commerce on the part of each, arising from the previous love; and third, mutual and reciprocal benefit.

Of improper sexual commerce there are several classes: First, that class where it is claimed by legal right, as in marriage; second, where the female, to please the male, accords it without any desire on her own part; third, where, for money, for a home, for any present, as a payment for any claim, whether pecuniary or of gratitude, or for any motive whatever other than love, the female yields it to the male; fourth, where there is mutual love and desire, but where, for any reason, there is such want of adaptation as to make mutual consummation impossible. This is the promiscuousness that I advocate now, and that have, from the first, advocated.

* * * * * 

I advocate complete freedom for sexuality the same as for religion. The charge of promiscuousness is laid in this fact, and some intelligent minds have thought it was a sound charge, until its inconsistency and utter absurdity have been pointed out to them.

This is the proposition: I advocate sexual freedom for all people—freedom for the monogamist to practice monogamy, for the varietist to be a varietist still, for the promiscuous to remain promiscuous. Am I, therefore, an advocate of promiscuousness, variety or monogamy? Not necessarily either. I might do all this and be myself a celibate and an advocate of celibacy. To advocate freedom in sexual things and also the right of individuals to choose each for himself to which class to belong, is by no means synonymous with the advocacy of the class which he chooses.

Advocating the right to do a thing and advocating the doing of that thing are two entirely separate and different matters. Is not this too clear to be misunderstood? I will make it still clearer, lest some may not see it. As I said, I not only advocate sexual freedom, but also religious freedom. I claim that every individual has the right to be a Pagan, Christian, Jew, Mohammedan, Quaker, Oneida Perfectionist, Calvinist, Baptist, Methodist, Trinitarian, Unitarian, Universalist, or whatever else he has a mind or the will to be. Every person advocates the same right—the same freedom—and I am sure if an attempt were made to subvert this right in this country, every hand would be raised against it. I am, however, neither one nor any of these, but a Spiritualist, and I bend all my religious energies to the advocacy of Spiritualism.

* * * * * 

Prostitution is popularly applied to certain kinds of sexual commerce but it has a much wider application, extending to every faculty, function and capacity of the body and mind. It means a perverted, unnatural or excessive use of a capacity. A person who overworks his body or brain is a prostitute. The unhealthy use of anything is its prostitution. They prostitute their stomachs who over-eat or over-drink. Therefore, prostitution, sexually, means a great deal more than intercourse obtained in houses of ill-fame for money. In a scientific sense, it means all sexual commerce that has not a proper basis in love and desire.

There may be prostitution in marriage, and proper commerce in the bawdy house. It depends upon the specific conditions attending the act itself, and not where or how it is obtained. In the exact sense, the woman who sells her body promiscuously is no more a prostitute than she is who sells herself in marriage without love. She is only a different kind of a prostitute. Nor are either of them any more prostitutes than are the countless wives who nightly yield their unwilling bodies to lecherous husbands, whose aim is sexual gratification without regard to the effect upon their victims. The difference is this: In the latter cases the men have legal permission to use the women whether they desire or object, while in the former the woman consults her own wishes—it is a slip of paper costing twenty-five cents and upward, good during life, that a man carries about with him to save the expense of purchasing, from time to time, elsewhere.

It’s a sharp trick played by men upon women, by which they acquire the legal right to debauch them without cost, and to make it unnecessary for them to visit professional prostitutes, whose sexual services can only be obtained for money. Now, isn’t this true? Men know it is. Those who haven’t a wife know very well that they procure for money what they would otherwise have by law. And what is more disgraceful still, is that thousands of men marry because they cannot afford the cost of satisfying their sexual demands with prostitutes. You and I and everybody else know that what I say is true, and yet the sanctity of marriage—the holy sacrament—is talked of as if it had existence! Bosh! It’s an insult to common honesty to trade in such stuff and call it holy. Holy! To me it is nastiness; or if there is any worse name, call it that.

I know hundreds of wives who confess privately that they would not live another day with their husbands if they had any other method of support; and yet pass the poor prostitute as though her touch were leprous. As between the two, the legal prostitute is the more depraved at heart. It is axiomatic, that only those women are really pure whose sympathies go out to the unfortunate whom society has driven to the street and brothel by its unjust anathema; who can visit them without contamination; whose virtue is so assured that it is above suspicion.

If there is any sister in this place so low that no other woman will visit her, tell me; there will my feet wend their way. If there is any child so wretched that none will care for it, there will my mother’s heart wander. Why should Christian women shun the outcasts of society? The Master whom they profess, habitually made them His companions. What excuse can they offer for a departure from His example? None! But it adds to their long lists of crimes the sin of hypocrisy. Let them beware lest the harlots get into the Kingdom before them.

* * * * * 

I respect and honor the needy woman who, to procure food for herself and child, sells her body to some stranger for the necessary money; but for that legal virtue which sells itself for a lifetime for a home, with an abhorrence of the purchaser, and which at the same time says to the former, “I am holier than thou,” I have only the supremest contempt. If there is anything that is vulgar it is a modern fashionable marriage. The long retinue, the church, the priest—all to do what? To give the bride, sexually, to the bridegroom. It is a public notice that these people, who have been everything else to each other, are now united sexually. Why, modesty itself should forbid such a parade!

* * * * * 

If the women, in every city where there are professional prostitutes, would organize, and agree to bring the women home to the men who visit them, prostitution, so called, would be abolished at once. It is the women who stand in the way. They, knowing that their husbands visit these women, continue to live on, doing their best to damn the women, but saying nothing about the men. They probably forget that the wife who consorts with the man whom she knows consorts with prostitutes, is just as bad as they are.

But where is prostitution in its greatest luxury? At Washington. There are to be found the most elegant mansions, most sumptuously furnished. Why all this magnificence? Why, indeed! Because in Washington there are assembled the best, the most brilliant men in the nation—the men to whom the people have committed the national interests and who conduct the national affairs. Of course there should be all the elegance that wealth can furnish for the accommodation of such men.

* * * * * 

I say it boldly, that it is the best men of the country who support the houses of prostitution. It isn’t your young men, but the husbands and fathers of the country, who occupy positions of honor and trust. It is not the hard-working, industrial masses at all, but those who have money and time to expend for such purposes, who are really the old hoary-headed villains of the country. The young haven’t money enough to support themselves. So when you condemn the poor women, whom you have helped to drive to such a life, remember to visit your wrath upon the best men of the country as well.

* * * * * 

But we are told that prostitution is a “necessary evil,” and long articles are published tending to establish this proposition. Necessary for what? So that men may satiate their sexual demands. This is the plain English of it! Mothers, what does this say to you? This, and it is a blotch of infamy upon womanhood that can never be effaced except by woman herself rising in the dignity and divinity of her maternal nature and making a falsity of the damning fact: that you must yearly contribute a certain percentage of your daughters to fill the infernal maw of prostitution; give them up to be sunk in infamy, to be abhorred of their sisters and despised of their brothers; in a word, to walk the prostitutes’ road to hell.

Necessary evil! Necessary indeed! Isn’t it rather your shame, and my shame, and the dishonor of womanhood and the disgrace of manhood that should make the stones weep to contemplate—a million of innocent, virgin girls of from twelve to sixteen years of age—your daughters, mine, perhaps sacrificed to this “necessary evil” every fifteen years! Think of it, mothers, and let the blush of shame never fade from your cheeks until this infamy is blotted from existence; or until you have made the victims of this “necessary evil” as respectable as its promoters and supporters.

* * * * * 

But love and lust are terms equally misapplied even by the most brilliant minds. Love is an universal principle. It is the life of the universe. It is that power called attraction which holds all things together. It is that force which unites the two elements from which water is formed and the two natures of which a sexual unit is composed. It uplifts the mountains and depresses the valleys; causes the water to flow and the clouds to float; the lily to blossom and the violet to bloom; the dew to fall and the storm to descend; it is the living and motive power of the world; it is God.

The Christian tells the same story, but he speaks in a language which he does not understand—God is Love. If this be so, then Love is God; then all the love there is, is God; but this love they tell us is free. I have been endeavoring to convince them of the truth of their own most cherished, though heretofore meaningless proverb, so that they may appreciate its beauty and bask in its glory, and for my pains I am dubbed “the Devil.” I have tried to show that all love must be as they say that God is—Free; that love cannot be confined to the limits of a man-made law any more than God can be shut up in a creed.

Attempt to put the limits of a written law about love, saying, thus far and no farther, and love is destroyed. It is no longer love, because it is limited, and love, being God, cannot be limited. When a limit is placed upon anything that by nature is free, its action becomes perverted. All the various attractions in the world are but so many methods by which love manifests itself. The attraction which draws the opposites in sex together is sexual love. The perverted action of sexual love, when limited by law or otherwise, is lust. All sexual manifestations that are not free are the perverted action of love—are lust. So, logically, the methods enforced by man to ensure purity convert love into lust. Legal sexuality is enforced lust. 

* * * * * 

I make the claim boldly, that from the very moment woman is emancipated from the necessity of yielding the control of her sexual organs to man to insure a home, food and clothing, the doom of sexual demoralization will be sealed. From that moment there will be no sexual intercourse except such as is desired by women. It will be a complete revolution in sexual matters, in which men will have to take a back seat and be content to be servants where they have been masters so long. The present system is at variance with everything in nature. Everywhere, except among men and women, the female has supreme authority in the domain of sex, and the male never pretends to oppose it, nor to appeal from its decisions.

Compare men and women with the animals and see how far below them they have fallen in this regard. Yet among animals the principle of freedom is thoroughly exemplified. Why are they not degraded, debauched and diseased? Simply because the female is the dominant power in sex. What would be the result among animals were the barbarous rule of marriage enforced; were the female to be compelled to submit herself without reserve to the lecherous instincts of the male? It would be the same that has obtained among women—disease everywhere, until there is scarcely a sexually healthy woman past the age of puberty to be found. This is the parity, this the morality, this the divinity of marriage. Oh, God! is there no power that can restore woman to the level of the brutes? Is there nothing that can rescue her from this shameless condition, from this pollution, this nastiness?

To woman, by nature, belongs the right of sexual determination. When the instinct is aroused in her, then and then only should commerce follow. When woman rises from sexual slavery into freedom, into the ownership and control of her sexual organs, and man is obliged to respect this freedom, then will this instinct become pure and holy; then will woman be raised from the iniquity and morbidness in which she now wallows for existence, and the intensity and glory of her creative functions be increased a hundred-fold; then may men and women, like the beasts or the birds, if they will, herd together, and the instinct in woman, by the law of natural attraction and adaptation, rouse in man its answering counterpart, and its counterpart only.

* * * * * 

Suppose that all the women in the land, on a given day, should rise and throw off the yoke of marriage, and declare and hold themselves free, how long would it be before the men would accede to any terms? Do you think it would be a month—three weeks—two weeks? I haven’t the slightest idea that they would hold out a single week. Women are entirely unaware of their power. Like an elephant led by a string, they are subordinated by a writing, drawn up by just those who are most interested in holding them in slavery. I am sometimes almost out of patience at the servility with which women fawn upon their masters, when they might lead them by the nose wherever they please

* * * * * 

I said at the outset that I am endeavoring to effect a revolution in marriage, or rather to replace the institution by a better method of providing for women as mothers and children as progeny. Everybody admits that our social system is far from perfect. Society, like everything else in the universe, evolves by natural laws.

Marriage is not the perfect condition. It will be replaced by another and more perfect, which will be a legitimate outcome of the old. As republicanism in politics is a legitimate child of constitutional monarchy, so in socialism shall personal freedom be the offspring of legal limitation; and when it shall come, not anybody will doubt its parentage or question its legitimacy.

Sexual freedom, then, means the abolition of prostitution both in and out of marriage; means the emancipation of woman from sexual slavery and her coming into ownership and control of her own body; means the end of her pecuniary dependence upon man, so that she may never even seemingly, have to procure whatever she may desire or need by sexual favors; means the abrogation of forced pregnancy, of antenatal murder, of undesired children; means the birth of love-children only, endowed by every inherited virtue that the highest exaltation can confer at conception, by every influence for good to be obtained during gestation, and by the wisest guidance and instruction on to manhood, industrially, intellectually and sexually. It means no more sickness, no more poverty, no more crime: it means peace, plenty and security, health, purity and virtue; it means the replacement of money-getting as the aim of life by the desire to do good; the closing of hospitals and asylums, and the transformation of prisons, jails and penitentiaries into workshops and scientific schools; and of lawyers, doctors and ministers into industrial artizans; it means equality, fraternity and justice raised from the existence which they now have in name only, into practical life; it means individual happiness, national prosperity and universal good. Ultimately, it means more than this even. It means the establishment of co-operative homes, in which thousands who now suffer in every sense shall enjoy all the comforts and luxuries of life, in the place of the isolated households which have no care for the misery and destitution of their neighbors. It means for our cities, the conversion of innumerable huts into immense hotels, as residences; and the combination of all industrial enterprises upon the same plan; and for the country, the co-operative conduct of agriculture by the maximum of improvements for labor-saving, and the consequent reduction of muscular toil to the minimum. And it means the inter-co-operation of all these in a grand industrial organization to take the places of the present governments of the world, whose social basis shall be all people united in the great human family as brothers and sisters.

So after all I am a very promiscuous Free Lover. I want the love of you all, promiscuously. It makes no difference who or what you are, old or young, black or white, Pagan, Jew, or Christian, I want to love you all and be loved by you all; and I mean to have your love. If you will not give it to me now, these young, for whom I plead, will in after years bless Victoria Woodhull for daring to speak for their salvation. It requires a strong and a pure woman to go before the world and attack its most cherished institution.

No one who has not passed through the fiery furnace of affliction, and been purged of selfishness by the stern hand of adversity, and become emancipated from public opinion, could stand the load of opprobrium that I have been forced to carry. I sometimes grow weary under its weight and sigh for rest, but my duty to my sex spurs me on. Therefore I want your sympathy, your sustaining love, to go with me and bless me; and when I leave you for other fields of labor and stand upon other rostrums, fearing I may not be able to do my duty, I want to feel the yearnings of your hearts following me with prayers that my efforts may be blessed.

I want the blessings of these fathers, the affections of these sons, the benedictions of these mothers and the prayers of these daughters to follow me everywhere, to give me strength to endure the labor, courage to speak the truth and a continued faith that the right will triumph. And may the guardian angels who are hovering over you carry the benign light of freedom home to your souls to bless each sorrowing heart, to relieve each suffering body, and to comfort each distressed spirit as it hath need, is the blessing which I leave with you.

Description: Caricature of Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927) by Thomas Nast (1840-1902). Illustration in Harper’s Weekly, V. 16, February 17, 1872, p. 140.
Source: Library of Congress

“I Am the Daughter of Time”


“I am the daughter of Time. I expect everything from my father.”

– Reason, from The Man of Forty Crowns by Voltaire (1768)

I regret having to inflict on my friends any account of the sorrow and anxiety I am passing through, owing to the duplicity and treachery of those who should have stood fast by me. I need not say how deeply humiliating to me is the course of action I am forced to take, both privately and publicly, in this matter; but I feel that the position I have occupied, and am now occupying before the public, demands from me an explanation of conduct seemingly inconsistent with past professions. Not until the long struggle that I have made in the old world since my worn heart and weary feet first touched its soil in August, 1877, is known in its entirety, shall or can I be judged justly.

* * * * * 

I unhesitatingly say and I feel I shall be believed, that during all these long years of exile from the land which gave the casket which holds all there is of me, I have never known one moment’s real rest. Often during these days and months of ceaseless conflict, I have prayed and wished for release suddenly; but it came not, nor will it come until the little fevered part it was destined to play here has run its course.

Link after link of a busy life has been snapped by malevolence and hatred, until there have been moments of such fierce rebellion in my woman’s outraged spirit that I would have ended the unnatural condition violently, had it not been for those I must have left behind me to struggle on and on. If the story of all these persecutions were told in the simplest way, it would not be believed, and if it were depicted in the cold light of actuality, it would be deemed the wildest fiction.

When I left New York City on July 26th, 1877, with my mother, sister, and little daughter, I did not know that I should live to reach our destination; but the Gods who have watched, and do watch over me, silently led me on, sometimes blindly, as it seemed to me, but oftener with strength and faith, which, in a figurative sense, did remove mountains of opposition.

I do not believe that I should have retained my reason during many of these volcanic outbursts of malevolence if my brain had not been illumined by divine wisdom to penetrate the causes which produced them. Often, in tracing such phenomena to their source, I was given an insight into Nature’s laws, which inspired me with an intense love for study on scientific lines of thought, leading to grand results. But at last I began to realize that if I was to be of any real service to mankind, I must put it out of the power of the undeveloped brains of those by whom I was assailed to keep me in a constant tumult, whereby unable to concentrate my whole will-power on the subject before me; thus often causing me to lose the light and shade of an important problem, which may have been months or even years in maturing.

Nature performs her great works in silence, and it is in our most tranquil moments the divinest thoughts are brought into activity, which, if undisturbed at the moment of reflection, may leave on the retina of our brain, the outlines of a truth never to be prejudice or ignorance. Those whose souls are attuned to the music of the spheres know how slight a jar may destroy divine harmony, leaving the physical sometimes prostrate and unable for long periods to pick up the line of thought or action thus wantonly disturbed.

* * * * * 

The deeper I delve for a sure footing, the higher I reach for light, the more convinced am I that only here and there do we find an instrument capable of responding to the hungry heart’s desire for Truth.

Whittier had a glimpse of this subtle truth, and leaves it as a memory for those who understand: 

(“My Soul and I” by John Greenleaf Whittier, an excerpt)
Like warp and woof all destinies
Are woven fast,
Linked in sympathy like the keys
Of an organ vast.

Pluck one thread, and the web ye mar;
Break but one
Of a thousand keys, and the paining jar
Through all will run.

O restless spirit! wherefore strain
Beyond thy sphere?
Heaven and hell, with their joy and pain,
Are now and here.

Therefore I feel well assured that whatever be the misrepresentations to which I may be subject at present, the event must be committed to Time, who relentlessly unravels all distortions and rights all wrongs.

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