Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 8, Dec. 11, 2005


State of ‘The Union’: Marriage and Free Love in the Late 1800s

Sandra Ellen Schroer
Routledge, New York, 2005

111 pages plus bibliography and index

ISBN 0-415-97594-8

Reviewed by David S. Hall

This small book, part of the Routledge Studies in American Popular History and Culture series, is a sociological dissertation on the Free Love movement in the last half of the 1800s. Dr. Schroer has joined the editorial board of this Journal and I am pleased to have had the opportunity to read this interesting study.

Dr. Schroer searched for, found, and studied eleven of the thirteen periodicals on the subject of Free Love that were mentioned in her extensive literature search on the subject. The peak of the Free Love movement was during the years 1850 to 1902 and she read all 757 issues found from this period. This reading revealed the vast difference in these publications and her subsequent content analysis was based on three of these, Discontent, Age of Freedom and Good Time Coming.

From this sub-sample, she collected 241 articles for Content Analysis. In separate chapters she analyzed the male, female and gender unknown authors of the articles on a series of nine topics. In the final chapter, she compares the two gendered view points. Needless to say, they were very different, although both were supportive of Free Love.

The social context was one in which the developing Free Love communities were being criticized by the larger society, mostly on the moral basis of “sexual variety”, which was considered appalling. This was the topic covered by the smallest number of articles in the sample. Marriage was the topic most discussed, with Free Love second and women’s equality third.

The initial question guiding the research was:

Why were women and men involved in the Free Love movement of the mid- to late 1800s?

Four issues were key for both men and women, Free Love as a human right and a search for community; Free Love in its connection to marriage, divorce, women’s equality and religious/spiritual perspectives; achievement of social change; and an opportunity for individual growth. For both men and women, freedom remained central to their arguments.

While there were differences between women and men in how they discussed these issues, they both agreed that marriage was a form of slavery, and saw no relationship between marriage and love. However, there were shades of meaning attached to these issues. Women saw marriage as an act of oppression and social inequality, while men saw it as governmental interference in the personal domain. Women called for action and to work together as a group while men avoided messages of social activism. There are other questions and differences discussed in the final chapter too numerous to mention here.

Both the authors of the 1800s discussed in this study and the World Association for Sexual Health in 1999 stressed sexual autonomy, sexual freedom, the ability to make free and responsible reproductive choices, and the importance of emotional sexual expression. However, in the late 1800s, publically acting on these ideas rewarded people like Victoria Woodhull with jail sentences. Reproductive choice was denied women in the 1800s, and it again is being threatened. Political agendas were enmeshed with religious doctrines in those days, and not much is different today.

For anyone interested in social change, personal and sexual freedom, this is a study that will provide historical information and comparison with the social change movements in these areas today.

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