Victoria Woodhull arrived in New York in 1868, and almost immediately created a sensation. In 1870, she and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, became two of the first female stockbrokers; the same year they started a newspaper.
In Woodhull’s early years, she had worked as a clairvoyant as part of her family’s shop. In this capacity, she later said, she heard from ‘thousands of desolate, heart-broken men, as well as women’, thwarted in love or trapped in bad marriages, who had come for advice. She developed a belief that the institution of marriage was at the heart of the problem. She became a vocal supporter of free love, which she defined as the ability to enter or exit a monogamous romantic relationship at will. The law had no place in love, she argued, especially in the context of marriage and divorce laws, which favoured men.
In 1871, a year before she became the first woman to run for President of the United States, she addressed an audience of 3,000 on this topic at Steinway Hall, New York City. She quoted the doctrine of free love as: ‘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…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.’ A mesmerizing speaker, Woodhull seems to have carried her audience along easily until, being challenged by a critic, she tore a white rose from her lapel and threw it down, declaring, ‘Yes, I am a Free Lover’.
The Principles of Social Freedom 1871
Law cannot change what nature has already determined. Neither will love obey if law command. Law cannot compel two to love. It has nothing to do either with love or with its absence. Love is superior to all law, and so also is hate, indifference, disgust and all other human sentiments which are evoked in the relations of the sexes. It legitimately and logically follows, if love have anything to do with marriage, that law has nothing to do with it. And on the contrary, if law have anything to do with marriage, that love has nothing to do with it. And there is no escaping the deduction.
If the test of the rights of the individual be applied to determine which of these propositions is the true one, what will be the result?
Two persons, a male and a female, meet, and are drawn together by a mutual attraction – a natural feeling unconsciously arising within their natures of which neither has any control – which is denominated love. This [is] a matter that concerns these two, and no other living soul has any human right to say aye, yes or no, since it is a matter in which none except the two have any right to be involved, and from which it is the duty of these two to exclude every other person, since no one can love for another or determine why another loves.
… To love is a right higher than Constitutions or laws. It is a right which Constitutions and laws can neither give nor take, and with which they have nothing whatever to do, since in its very nature it is forever independent of both Constitutions and laws, and exists – comes and goes – in spite of them. Governments might just as well assume to determine how people shall exercise their right to think or to say that they shall not think at all, as to assume to determine that they shall not love, or how they may love, or that they shall love.
… 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 love is a right higher than Constitutions or laws.