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Victoria prepares to go on without Beecher. Theodore Tilton arrives at Steinway Hall with the thousands of others who will constitute the evening’s audience; the crush of bodies at the front door makes it appear he won’t get in. But he knows of a rear door, and he circles to the back of the building and enters. “I went upstairs and I heard somebody say that there were no brave men in these cities, that several gentlemen had been asked to preside at that meeting, and no man had the courage,” he remembers. “I saw Mrs. Woodhull, and she was weeping.”
The placards advertising her lecture have provoked outrage in certain quarters of the city; violence has been threatened to silence her, and death threats have been leveled against her. “She said she did not believe there was a courageous man on the face of the earth. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘that is a very singular accusation to make.’ She said, ‘Nobody will preside for me; several gentlemen have been asked; everybody declines, and I am going upon the platform alone.’ And she started to go. I said, ‘Wait a moment; I will not have you go before that great audience alone. I was born in this city, and people will hear me, and I will introduce you.’ And I caught up my hat and my coat, and I stepped in front of her to the platform. And I made a little speech.”
Tilton’s appearance helps calm the crowd. Victoria appreciates the aid. “However much Mr. Tilton may have since regretted his course regarding me,” she recalls, “and whatever he may say about it, I shall always admire the moral courage that enabled him to stand with me on that platform and face that in part defiant audience.”
The title of her lecture is “The Principles of Social Freedom.” Declaring that good things come in threes—from the Holy Trinity to freedom, equality and justice—she divides freedom into three categories: religious freedom, political freedom and social freedom. The first is guaranteed to Americans by the Constitution; the second is what Americans have struggled to maintain since their Revolution; the third is yet to come, though it is a necessary corollary to the first two.
Social freedom consists in the ability of individuals to control their lives in society. “Our government is based upon the proposition that all men and women are born free and equal and entitled to certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Victoria says. “Now what we who demand social freedom ask is simply that the government of this country shall be administered in accordance with the spirit of this proposition. Nothing more, nothing less.”
The principle applies particularly to relations between the sexes. Men and women must be free to treat one another on their own terms, untrammeled by oppressive laws, Victoria says. Marriage laws are by their nature oppressive, starting with their insistence on lifelong commitments. In other areas of life, individuals are free to make commitments—contracts—of any duration whatever. “Why should the social relations of the sexes be made subject to a different theory?”
The reason, of course, is that those who make the laws—men exclusively—do not believe in social freedom. They believe instead in social oppression. They say they are preserving morality. “Whether this has been successful or not,” Victoria says ironically, “may be determined from the fact that there are scores of thousands of women who are denominated prostitutes, and who are supported by hundreds of thousands of men who should, for like reasons, also be denominated prostitutes, since what will change a woman into a prostitute must also necessarily change a man into the same.”
Nor are these the only prostitutes. Anyone who remains in a loveless marriage, compelled by law or economic necessity, is a prostitute. “Where sexual commerce results from the dominant power of one sex over the other, compelling him or her to submission against the instincts of love, and where hate or disgust is present, whether it be in the gilded palaces of Fifth Avenue or in the lowest purlieus of Greene Street, there is prostitution, and all the law that a thousand state assemblies may pass cannot make it otherwise.”
Love is an inalienable part of being human. “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 to do.” To legislate on love is worse than useless; it is counterproductive. “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.”
Marriage by law, rather than marriage for love, is outdated and wrong. “The courts hold if the law solemnly pronounce two married, that they are married, whether love is present or not. But is this really such a marriage as this enlightened age should demand? No! It is a stupidly arbitrary law, which can find no analogies in nature. Nature proclaims in broadest terms, and all her subjects reecho the same grand truth, that sexual unions, which result in reproduction, are marriage.” Human law cannot change this. “All compelling laws of marriage and divorce are despotic, being remnants of the barbaric ages in which they were originated.” Existing laws on marriage must be abolished. “Heaven help us if such barbarism cannot be cured.”
Victoria does not assert that all marriages are bad; far from it. “But what I do assert, and, that most positively, is, that all which is good and commendable, now existing, would continue to exist if all marriage laws were repealed tomorrow.” And most of what is bad in marriage results from the compulsion it applies to those who no longer love each other.
Women bear the brunt of the compulsion, being no better than slaves to their husbands. “I protest against this form of slavery!” she says. “I protest against the custom which compels women to give the control of their maternal functions over to anybody. It should be theirs to determine when, and under what circumstances, the greatest of all constructive processes—the formation of an immortal soul—should be begun.”
Victoria’s voice and emotions have been rising as her argument advances; they well up further as she draws on her own hard experience. “It is a fearful responsibility with which women are entrusted by nature, and the very last thing that they should be compelled to do is to perform the office of that responsibility against their will, under improper conditions or by disgusting means. What can be more terrible than for a delicate, sensitively organized woman to be compelled to endure the presence of a beast in the shape of a man, who knows nothing beyond the blind passion with which he is filled, and to which is often added to delirium of intoxication? You do not need to be informed that there are many persons”—men, that is—“who, during the acquaintance preceding marriage, preserve a delicacy, tenderness and regard for womanly sensitiveness and modest refinement which are characteristic of true women, thus winning and drawing out their love-nature to the extreme, but who, when the decree has been pronounced which makes them indissolubly theirs, cast all these aside and reveal themselves in their true character, as without regard, human or divine, for aught save their own desires. I know I speak the truth, and you too know I speak the truth, when I say that thousands of the most noble, loving-natured women by whom the world was ever blessed, prepared for and desirous of pouring their whole life into the bond of union prophesied by marriage, have had all these generous and warm impulses thrust back upon them by the rude monster into which the previous gentleman developed.”
Social freedom requires giving women control of their love, and hence of their lives. Victoria’s face glows and her entire being radiates the passion of her conviction as she brings her argument to its dramatic conclusion. “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 fullness 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!’”