“Because liberty permits us to correct our mistakes…files the chains that bind us to the dead body of the past…we strive [for liberty in] morals and love.”
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In September 1886, Edwin Walker and his new bride, Lilian Harman, occupied neighboring cells in the Oskaloosa, Kansas county jail. They stood charged of violating the state’s marriage licensing laws after having pledged themselves to each other in the presence of Lilian’s father Moses. Harman and Walker planned to push Kansas to recognize their non‐religious, non‐state union, thereby undermining the institutional foundations for all marriages. In their vows, both explicitly retained their individuality, their full and equal rights, and freedom of action. The bride’s father did not “give her away,” wishing her instead “to be always the owner of her own person.” Walker served a sentence of seventy‐five days; his wife served forty‐five.
A decade later, Moses Harman and his weekly individualist‐feminist newspaper Lucifer, the Light‐Bearer relocated to Chicago, where he, Walker, and a long list of comrades continued the fight for liberation. In the following speech to the Chicago “Lucifer Circle,” Edwin Walker developed an individualist vision for domestic life “when men and women are free from sexual superstitions.” For the structure of a family’s home life to benefit all parties concerned, equal individual rights must be respected absolutely. Walker’s “Free Love” social ideals included multiple partners with overlapping unions and families cohabitating in peace through overarching, fundamental respect for the individual. Even in the family home–the common property of all–individuals must respect one another’s privacy, independence, equity, and perhaps above all, liberty. In fact, if we hope and expect to live better, freer lives, Walker argued that we must first reconcile ourselves to the equal freedom and dignity of our fellow beings.
By Edwin C. Walker
“Home Life, Health and Happiness,” a speech delivered before the Lucifer Circle of Chicago, republished in Lucifer, the Light‐Bearer, Third Series, Vol. 1, No. 3, 20 January 1897.
Home life in relation to health and happiness is my subject. When men and women are free from sexual superstitions how will they live? How should they live to obtain the best results? As individuals differ in temperaments and tastes, they will necessarily differ in their methods of seeking happiness, and so we must be prepared to find social radicals occupying diametrically opposite positions as to which is the most desirable form of home life. But I believe that observation and experience have made the great majority of emancipated lovers suspicious of the common home. I have found men and women who are State or Fabian Socialists in economics who are stanch Individualists in regard to domestic arrangements.
One feature of the coming social organization seems to be already fixed. Whether the free man and woman will live in a communistic home, or will keep their business interests separate while dwelling in the same house, or will maintain entirely separate establishments, it can not be doubted that each man and woman and child will have his or her own room. This involves far‐reaching economic changes, but they must come before human liberty and dignity can be adequately safeguarded. There must be one place where the man or woman may be intruded upon by no other–where none may enter without the invitation of the occupant, and where any whom the occupant chooses may freely come. This secures woman’s initiative when desired. Here will be found that restful solitude which every one craves at times, and here the man, the woman, the child is master, is mistress. No matter how intimate the relations of the persons, neither can come unwelcomed into the presence of the other without invasion, and without making mere frail and uncertain the tenure of their love.
The common home cannot be had without either making the woman more or less of a domestic drudge or introducing assistants who are on a different intellectual plane and who will be spies upon the actions of their employers. Of course some women are perfectly happy in the performance of household labors, but they are not often found within the ranks of the socially emancipated. Progressive women, as well as progressive men, generally desire to make for themselves places in the world, and they chafe under the system that gives them nothing more to do than keep a few rooms clean and cook and wash for the members of small households. The work is very necessary, or course, and there is nothing “low” about it, but it is not, as at present performed, an economical expenditure of force, and it narrows the horizon of women who wish to see beyond the confines of the flat or cottage. Not all women are by nature adapted to this kind of work, any more than all men are fitted for blacksmiths or farmers or lawyers.
Besides, and still more important, the constant association of two persons tends to make prosy, irritating and hateful their mutual life, and rubs off all the bloom of romance and love that should remain to the end of their days. As husband and wife or as lovers in a “free union,” living together, they are constantly tempted to assume the attitude of owners and dictators, no matter how broad and free their theories may be, and they must annoy each other in a thousand ways. But as guest and hostess or host they are put upon their good behavior; they are independent; each is supreme in his or her own domicile; each may be alone or have company as suits the mood of the hour and each may have any company that is congenial, without annoying the other by the presence of those whom that other, for any reason, does not like.
With the individual home, free to all friends on invitation, and to those only, undesired solitude would be reduced to a minimum while undesired association would become almost unknown. While some would prefer to do their own cooking and washing, there is no doubt that by far the greater number would find it more economical and pleasant to combine and have their food prepared at one place and their washing done where the best results could be obtained at the least expense. The members of a group could dine at a common table, or break up into sub‐groups, or have their meals sent to their rooms. In this way those women–or men–who had a special aptitude for culinary and laundry work could labor where they could use their talents to the best advantage, leaving all other comrades free to do the same. Any work is done best when done willingly, and it will be done willingly only when it is done by those who prefer it to other kinds of labor.
The same general principles apply in the care and education of children. It is a wasteful extravagance for a woman who is an expert in housework or floriculture or bookkeeping or literature but who is not a natural nurse or teacher to devote her entire time to the training of a child or of two or three children. With proper free co‐operation the children can be together during the working hours of their mothers and return to them at night, and on days of recreation, if so desired. Put under the charge of efficient nurses and instructors, they will be better company for one another, while learning more quickly than they could do if alone with adults. Such a combination of forces by free men and women would enable many women, amply qualified in every way to be mothers, to have children. I know many free women who intensely desire children, who feel that their health would be better if they could have them, but who realize that, as wage‐workers or as persons whose business ventures yield them very small incomes, they cannot afford to assume such responsibilities, for the care of children would take them from their work and lessen or destroy their economic and therefore their sexual independence. In this connection, a Boston friend has suggested the formation of a voluntary mutual motherhood insurance company, each free woman and each free man to pay so much per month into the common treasury to aid such unmarried members as should become mothers. The plan merits serious consideration.
Freedom of thought is valueless if it does not secure for us freedom of action. Health is essential to happiness, and health is not attainable except under conditions that permit full freedom of the sex life. If we wish to be healthy and therefore happy we must strive to emancipate ourselves from the trammels of ignorance and prejudice. If we are wise we will no more refuse the delights of love because they are under the taboo of convention than we will refuse to eat certain foods or on certain days because some church has ordered us not to eat said foods or on said days. If we are rational beings, we will no more abdicate our right to accept and enjoy the friendships and loves that come to us than we will abdicate our right to work or play on the priests’ day. We profit by the experiences of the past chiefly by avoiding the mistakes made by those who passed through those experiences. That is the main use of history. It is a danger signal.
Because liberty gives opportunity to grow; because liberty permits us to correct our mistakes; because liberty files the chains that bind us to the dead body of the past; because liberty has worked better than despotism in the fields of religion, politics, and industry–because of all these facts we strive to attain liberty in the fields of morals and love, believing that there as in all other fields of human thought and action, a measure of health and happiness will come to us through liberty that never could be ours through despotism. Generation after generation must pass into oblivion before the race can reach the summits we build in thought, but that need not change us–we can do only the work that lies at our feet, and in doing that we must find our satisfaction in that and in the confidence and love of our fellow workers.
See Also: Wendy McElroy, “The Roots of Individualist Feminism in 19th-Century America,” Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Washington, D. C.: The Cato Institute, 1982): 16–17.