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February 2015

Free Love: Angela and Ezra Heywood

Sex radicals Angela and Ezra Haywood published the periodical The Word, often battling censors in their effort to get government out of the bedroom.

The scenery of today’s libertarian movement is, for better or worse, a far cry from that of the radical, varied, and distinctly left wing libertarian milieu of the nineteenth century, a time when libertarians attacked the social and economic status quo with pertinacious spirit. Angela and Ezra Heywood’s trailblazing periodical The Word, published in Princeton, Massachusetts by the couple’s Co-operative Publishing Company between 1872 and 1893,1 presents a confluence of the radical reform projects of its time, from free love, free expression, and feminism to labor reform. Accounts of The Word and the Heywoods most often begin with and focus on Ezra, with Angela’s vital contributions relegated to a few scanty mentions; this may help explain the neglect of Angela Heywood among contemporary feminists, a neglect which, as it happens, closely parallels the treatment of Ezra Heywood by today’s libertarian movement. Perhaps neglect of the Heywoods’ significant contributions is attributable to a change in what we might think of as the cultural flavor or undertones of libertarianism and its proponents, a change associated with the post-war realignment that made libertarianism a facet of the political right, a species of conservatism. That shaky and ill-founded alliance has in turn repositioned libertarianism (at least as a cognizable movement) to the opposite side in the so called culture wars, which side is decidedly inhospitable to the feminist and labor movements, to say nothing of free love advocates and their outright rejection of the institution of marriage. Firebrands of the most brazen and defiant sort, Angela and Ezra Heywood were anathema to hidebound traditionalists and conservatives. As Hollie Marquess notes, “Sex radicals, such as the Free Lovers, occupied the fringes of even the most radical of reform movements.”

The free love movement based itself on the distinctly libertarian argument that decisions about love, sex, and family planning ought to be completely freed from the sway of ecclesiastical and governmental authorities. As Ezra Heywood writes, “The belief that our sexual relations can be better governed by the state than by personal choice is as barbarous and shocking as it is senseless.” Damning the institution as the “great social fraud,” Ezra Heywood furthermore contended that marriage made possible “the legalized slavery of women,” rendering sex a commodity and making a wife a “prostitute for life.” If such libertarian notions continue to meet conservative and traditionalist resistance even today, then we can perhaps imagine the challenges Angela and Ezra Heywood faced during the Victorian Era. But while the free love movement demanded individual autonomy and control within the realm of private sexuality, its principles did not necessarily counsel any active or meaningful departure from Victorian norms, much less champion promiscuity. Indeed, “[i]t was the free-lovers’ faith in self-control,” notes historian Dee Garrison, “that made anarchistic individualism seem possible to them….” These radicals more often than not prosecuted their arguments with appeals to, rather than attacks on, conventional morality. Given their radical challenges to existing social mores, laws, and customs, the Heywoods present us with a surprisingly orthodox, even tame, domestic picture—for while they decried marriage and extolled free love, they enjoyed a long and by all accounts faithful marriage and championed abstinence as the most effective means of birth control. The Heywoods’ marriage was a loving and committed partnership, based on mutual respect and admiration. The two worked closely together on The Word during its more than two decade run. Still, as Wendy McElroy2 observes, although following the Heywoods’ marriage Angela became an equal partner in the couple’s publishing and propaganda activities, she rarely received the credit due her. The legacy of Angela Heywood remains too often elided into that of her husband, reduced to a point of trivia in radicals histories if not completely cast into oblivion.

Like so many of the radicals of his period, before embarking on his long career as an agitator for free love and labor reform, Ezra Heywood joined with those urging the abolition of slavery. As historian Lewis Perry has observed, Heywood’s antislavery activities have also been largely neglected, despite the “direct link” that Heywood creates “between [William Lloyd] Garrisonism and postwar radicalism” of the kind we have been considering here. Perry further notes the rhetorical or stylistic legacy of Heywood’s abolitionist days, apparent in his constant identification of capitalism with slavery. Heywood’s free market libertarianism looked forward to a day when “the idle property class [would] follow in the wake of their late relatives, the slave-holding class.” For anarchists such as Heywood, capitalism was not the equivalent or embodiment of a competitive free market, but rather a system of privilege, a coercive, state-sponsored way for an owning and ruling class to exploit the true creators of wealth. Heywood’s libertarian labor politics, though unorthodox in the context of today’s political divides and categories, made perfect sense in his own time. He wrote that “Labor Reform is simply an anti-theft movement; all it asks is that people have intelligence enough to know what stealing is, and character enough to keep their hands off of other people’s property.” Moreover, Heywood took exception to the idea that the philosophical “tendency of labor reformers is ‘communistic’” per se, their cause an attack on the right of property and an attempt to “pillage the rich.” Class warrior though he was, Heywood was neither communist nor socialist—at least not in the way we use that word today. Heywood’s class war was one waged against plutocratic legal privilege, a war on both capitalism and the state, which he saw as depending on one another. The individualist anarchism of Ezra Heywood (of which his student Benjamin Tucker later came to be the archetype) maintained that fully realized open competition would end the exploitation of unequal exchange, closing the gap between cost and price. Although influenced by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, this individualist permutation of the anarchist idea, also occasionally called “Boston anarchism,” was distinctly American, combining the socialist currents of the day with a radicalization of the principles of classical political economy. Heywood praised the First International and served as the secretary for the New England Labor Reform League, for which fellow co-founder William Batchelder Greene served variously as Vice President, President, and Chairman. Though Heywood was active in or associated with a wide variety of reform minded groups, he always maintained his independence of thought and conscience, his consistent and radical approach to issues. For instance, in the very first issue of The Word, in affirmation of Greene’s objection to “the way the woman suffrage agitation is conducted,” Heywood distinguishes himself from “the Boston school of woman-suffrage advocates,” which he says have treated working women with “patronizing insolence.” Here, Greene and Heywood embody the characteristic tension always present in American individualist anarchism, a desire for tangible reform which coexists with deep resistance to participation in mass movements or political routes to social change.

Over the course of their publishing career, the frequency and alacrity with which Angela and Ezra Heywood flouted the rigid obscenity standards of their time made them favorite targets of Anthony Comstock and his New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. For his part, Ezra was arrested no less than five times. The first of these arrests Comstock executed personally, interrupting a meeting of the New England Free Love League, “an organization Heywood was instrumental in forming.”3 Benjamin Tucker returned to The Word (more on his resignation below) and quickly got to work organizing for Heywood’s release, an effort that included the creation of a National Defense Association. As a result of the unprecedented support Heywood received from his fellow citizens—which support included a petition for the repeal of the Comstock Act and a protest rally of approximately 6,000 in downtown Boston—President Hayes granted him a pardon on December 16, 1878. It is notable that while President Hayes’s pardon of Heywood may seem to represent at least a qualified victory for free speech, President Harrison refused to pardon Heywood after his subsequent conviction under the Comstock Act in 1890.4

When Ezra’s clashes with the law left Angela at the helm (in fact, if not in title), The Word pursued its “plain speech” policy with the fearless élan characteristic of its female lead and her bold prose.5 And as the years passed, Ezra and Angela’s various trials and tribulations, their encounters with Comstock and his New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, may actually have served to further focus their publication on the issues and concerns of the Free Love movement. As a result of this shift in emphasis, associate editor Benjamin Tucker announced his departure from The Word, his valedictory in December of 1876 stating that while he accepted free love as “the world’s highest expression of the affectional nature,” he nevertheless must advance on “to efforts more in harmony” with his views. Tucker, to whom the associate editorship of The Word had taught so much both about publishing and the labor question, was to inaugurate his short-lived Radical Review in the following year, with Liberty following in 1881.

As the unflinching author of her own sex-positive and explicit “language for claiming sexuality,”6 Angela Heywood was a century ahead of her time, laying the groundwork for the explicit feminist movement that would follow, reincarnated in successive waves. Anthony Comstock once remarked that of all his experiences in attending the meetings and speeches “where foul-mouthed women” gathered, Angela Heywood delivered “the foulest address” he had ever heard. Not one to be cowed or shamed by Comstock’s sententious denouncements, indeed wearing them as a badge of honor, Heywood aspersed him right back, saying that “if Comstock’s own penis was well-informed and behaved,” he would not be bothered by her policy of plain speech. Regarding sexuality as an “ever-present, irresistibly-potent fact,” she understood that simple and easily rectifiable errors were at the root of justifications for the subjection of women to the domination and rule of men. Heywood thus endeavored to erase euphemism and circumlocution from discussions of health, hygiene, and sex, to frankly and plainly present the public with the relationship between these sensitive subjects and the then radical idea that women ought to enjoy absolute control of their own bodies. She believed in the joy of sex for its own sake, free of guilt or shame, even if (perhaps especially if) it took place outside of marriage, even if it was not calculated to produce a child. For Angela Heywood, the way we talk about sex and the body is inextricably bound together with the way we think about these things, the connection being of critical importance in the struggle to end the subjection of women. While ever open about and affirming of sex and sexuality, Angela nevertheless reviled prostitution as “the most accusing evil” in society, calling on women to push men toward moral improvement by speaking out. She naturally regarded prostitution as connected to the labor question, the solution of which would, she argued, obviate the need for women and girls to degrade themselves in such a way.

In Angela Heywood’s work, we find no neat separation of considerations of social, domestic, and economic issues. Like other reformers of her time, giving themselves over to a certain utopian or millenarian impulse and understanding of progress, Heywood took a holistic approach and, for example, made “marriage tyranny” and “property robbery” two sides of one authoritarian coin. Angela Heywood avoided the strange and senseless rhetoric—so common among today’s libertarians—which treats social rights and issues as neatly distinguishable from economic rights and issues. This mistake has led libertarians into the misrepresentative, confusing description of our political position as “socially liberal and economically conservative,” which (besides implicating a long, historical exercise on the assorted meanings of these terms) serves only to becloud the issues and hide the consistency that distinguishes the libertarian philosophy. Angela Heywood, in contrast, saw the cause of human liberation as an unbroken whole. Her columns in The Word moved seamlessly from the labor and suffrage questions to issues of love, sexuality, and the relations between men and women. Long before the articulations of the contemporary pro-choice movement, she opposed all attempts to restrict access to or proscribe abortion, though she nonetheless called it “a most fearful, tragic deed.” It may well be that Angela Heywood was completely alone amongst nineteenth century reformers in pursuing this argument, considered beyond radical in her day.7 Angela Heywood’s articles expanded the horizons of acceptable speech and opened new frontiers in the face of social ostracism. It was for distributing one such article by his wife that Ezra Heywood was arrested for a fifth and final time in 1890.

In spite of the relentless harassment they endured, the Heywoods’ intrepid propagandizing for total freedom in all of life’s affairs propelled and transformed the public conversation around sex and women’s rights. As important forerunners of today’s libertarians and early voices for women’s liberation and sexual freedom, Angela and Ezra Heywood deserve far more attention in libertarian and feminist scholarship and popular work. Their contributions were indispensable in the creation of a framework for discussing difficult and controversial issues, many of which continue to divide the nation. Revisiting the Heywoods and their brilliant, courageous periodical is a worthwhile and illuminative undertaking for anyone interested in the variety of social, political, and economic issues they explored.


1.) Martin Blatt’s The Collected Works of Ezra H. Heywood notes, “There were several gaps in the publishing history of The Word due to lack of financial resources, family illnesses, and the pressure of trials or imprisonment. The Word was not published during the following periods: September-November 1885, May-July 1886, December 1886-February 1887, June-August 1887, May-June 1888, and July 1890-June 1892.

2.) McElroy has doubtless done more than any other single individual to reintroduce Angela Heywood’s important contributions to feminist thought. See, for example, her biographer essay, “Angela Fiducia Tilton Heywood: In the Shadow of a Man,” which appears in her book Individualist Feminism of the Nineteenth Century: Collected Writings and Biographical Profiles.

3.) Martin Blatt, “Ezra Heywood & Benjamin R. Tucker,” Benjamin R. Tucker & The Champions of Liberty: A Centenary Anthology, edited by Michael E. Coughlin, Charles H. Hamilton, and Mark A. Sullivan.

4.) David M. Rabban, Free Speech in its Forgotten Years, 1870-1920, 41.

5.) John Tomasi, “Can Feminism Be Liberated from Governmentalism?” in Toward a Humanist Justice: The Political Philosophy of Susan Moller Okin, edited by Debra Satz and Rob Reich.

6.) Nicola Beisel, Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America

7.) Linda Gordon, The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America, 65.

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