A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

A Review of Evolutionary Rhetoric: Sex, Science, and Free Love in Nineteenth-Century Feminism

A Review of Evolutionary Rhetoric: Sex, Science, and Free Love in Nineteenth-Century Feminism by Wendy Hayden 2013; Southern Illinois University Press

Lindsey Banister, Syracuse University

Enculturation: http://www.enculturation.net/free-love (Published May 28, 2015)

In Evolutionary Rhetoric: Sex, Science, and Free Love in Nineteenth-Century Feminism, Wendy Hayden, an assistant professor of English at Hunter College of the City University of New York, examines how the rhetoric of nineteenth-century free-love feminists manifested into a rhetoric of eugenics. Hayden describes subscribers of the free-love movement as exclusively white women who advocated for the right of women and men to choose their sexual partners. Contending that the free-love movement has been relatively ignored because of its seemingly illogical arguments on sexuality and radical connection to eugenics, Hayden situates her study as one of rhetorical recovery that presents the free-love movement as an actual social movement worthy of consideration despite its ultimate failure. Similar to more mainstream feminist movements of the time that focused on women’s suffrage, the abolition of slavery, and gender morality, the free-love feminists advocated for women’s legal rights; however, because they positioned sexuality (and sexual freedom) as the central tenet of reform, those involved in the early women’s rights movements distanced themselves from the more problematic free-love discourse.

Hayden’s project is unique not only because it examines the free-love movement, but also because it adds a more nuanced picture of feminist rhetors from the nineteenth-century. She notes that during this time period, many feminists avoided scientific claims—in favor of using natural rights discourse and religion—because they devalued women, their bodies, and their intellect. However, Hayden’s book and her analysis of the free-love rhetoric broadens the boundaries of what we know about nineteenth-century feminists and their appropriation of scientific claims to further their agenda. Building on the theories of scientists such as Charles Darwin, free-love feminists used the concept of motherhood and the biological process of producing offspring as reasoning for championing women’s sexual freedom. By positioning themselves as “mothers of the human race,” they allowed arguments for eugenics to supersede their calls for reform. After highlighting science as the core of nineteenth-century free-love rhetoric, Hayden reasons that looking at mainstream interpretations of science from the nineteenth-century is essential to answering questions of how such a revolutionary rhetoric of women’s sexuality turned into a problematic rhetoric of eugenics.

Interestingly, Hayden uses Toulmin’s model of argument analysis to examine the logic of the rhetoric produced by this social movement. She also draws on Kenneth Burke’s concept of the terministic screen to position science as a lens through which to view the logic of free-love feminism. Grounding her study in these two theories allows Hayden to effectively argue that science influenced the rhetoric of women’s sexuality in free-love feminist texts. As a caveat, Hayden does note that science is not the only lens through which to examine the rhetorical practices of the free-love movement, but for her project it was the most helpful for tracing and recovering the movement.

Hayden acknowledges that free-love arguments emerged in the 1830s, but then explains that her specific definition of free-love feminism—women’s sexual self-ownership—emerges out of texts published in the 1850s. Placing her work alongside that of scholars such as Karyln Kohrs Campbell, Carol Mattingly, and Susan Zaeske, Hayden argues that examining free-love feminists’ rhetorical techniques, specifically accommodations, ethos, and agency, can help scholars reconceptualize the issues and sources of nineteenth-century women’s rhetorics. She primarily focuses on the 1850s and demarcates 1907 as the end of the free-love movement. Hayden explains that by 1907 most women who supported free-love argued exclusively for eugenics, and it was in this same year that free love feminist, Lois Waisbrooker published Eugenics. Hayden bases her 1850-1907 timeline on primary sources—i.e. the free-love periodical Lucifer, the Light Bearer—where free-love feminist arguments were predominantly featured. Hayden’s reasoning for mainly examining texts only published by free-love feminists is that these documents enabled her to trace the work of the free-love feminists as a cohesive movement. To that end, she reasons that the demise and erasure of the movement is due to contradicting, radical arguments for free-love, and later for eugenics, as well as focusing exclusively on white middle-class heterosexist frameworks.

Hayden’s challenge in this study was to differentiate for her readers the differences between common scientific beliefs from the nineteenth-century and modern day conceptions of those same scientific principles. She therefore organizes each of her chapters by the scientific disciplines—evolution, physiology, bacteriology, embryology, and heredity—that affected discussions of women’s sexuality in the nineteenth-century. This ordering of the chapters also illustrates the chronological progression of the movement’s logic and portrays how the movement’s rhetoric devolved into arguments for eugenics. Each chapter begins with an explanation of its specific scientific discipline, how that discipline was understood in the nineteenth-century, and then how the free-love feminists appropriated this discourse to support their arguments for free-love.

In Chapter One, Hayden argues that the free-love movement has been ignored because of its incongruent ideas and lack of consistency. Thus, her primary objective in this chapter is to recover the free-love movement and trace a cohesive agenda. To do so, Hayden provides an overview of eight free-love feminists who were the most prominent in the movement because they advocated for their views in periodicals, pamphlets, and lectures. Hayden mainly focuses on Mary Grove Nicholas and presents her as a pioneer of the field who also influenced the other women discussed in the chapter. At the end of the chapter Hayden previews the rest of the book, specifically the various scientific claims that the free-love feminists adopted for their rhetoric.

In Chapter 2, Hayden shows how free-love feminists relied heavily on the work of Charles Darwin, specifically his theory that in the natural world males compete for female attention, and, as a result, that females are in charge of selecting their mate. Hayden also highlights that it is a particular tenet of Darwin’s theory that would lead the free-love feminists to a rhetoric of eugenics. Free love advocates reasoned that if females had the right to choose their own mates, then they were also responsible for the evolutionary progression of the human race.

Chapter 3 centers around physiology and unlike the other discussions of scientific principles presented in this book, physiology did not offer free-love feminists any new knowledge. Hayden explains that during this time period, physicians believed that women’s sexual organs controlled their minds and bodies. Free-love feminists accepted this warrant and appropriated it to argue that because women’s sexual organs controlled their bodies, they were entitled to choosing their own sexual partners for pleasurable sex in order to maintain a healthy physiology.

Chapter 4 focuses on the field of bacteriology and how this scientific discipline provided free-love feminists with the exigency they needed for their movement. Physicians discovered new information about disease causation and transmission, specifically that many married women were contracting venereal diseases from their husbands. This discovery allowed free-love feminists to argue that marriage is a “diseased institution” and that women have a right to protect the home, their bodies, and their health. Free-love feminists also used this scientific warrant to cultivate a discourse of sexual responsibility.

In Chapter 5 Hayden emphasizes how scientific warrants about embryology initiated the dramatic shift towards a rhetoric of eugenics. At this time free-love feminists were producing texts that scientifically discussed women’s pregnancies, such as the conditions under which a woman can become pregnant, to combat the silences about the relationship between sexual intercourse and pregnancy. Free-love feminists thus turned to warrants about embryology because physicians acknowledged that the embryo grew within the female body. Free-love feminists used embryology to construct a rhetoric of responsibility and agency to amplify their arguments for women’s sexual rights and for women’s rights to control the sexual conditions that lead to reproduction. It is this latter line of thought that guided their rhetoric towards eugenics, especially after it was discovered that the growth of the embryo could be influenced by the environment outside the female body. Free-love feminists thus demanded rights to improved conditions for pregnant women, which would morph into the argument for improvements for the next generation. 

Chapter 6 explores how the women’s rights agenda advocated for by free-love feminists took a back seat to eugenics. Hayden examines the cause of the shift from a women’s rights discourse to championing eugenics as the movement’s end goal. She accounts for the fact that many women were emotionally distraught with their numerous miscarriages and stillbirths and, therefore, looked for ways to produce stronger, healthy children. Eugenics provided them with a scientific solution. Hayden also stresses that eugenics carried very different cultural connotations and associations when it was first introduced in the nineteenth-century than it does today.

Hayden’s project concludes with the implications of recovering this movement in light of what it devolved into. Because feminist recovery work often champions the credibility of the women recovered and of their rhetoric, Hayden acknowledges the difficulty of positioning nineteenth-century free-love feminists and their rhetoric of eugenics as worthy of study. However, Hayden carefully maneuvers around this issue and contends that it is necessary and just as important to learn from the mistakes of the darker sides of rhetorical discourse. Hayden also calls us to celebrate select achievements of the free-love feminists such as their production of arguments for sexual liberation that would become prominent in the twentieth century. Ultimately, she maintains that it is possible to recover and value the free-love feminists for their rhetorical and argumentative techniques and negotiations while remaining wary of the content of their rhetoric.

This book is extremely useful for anyone studying the rhetoric of social movements as well as interesting for anyone studying feminist rhetorics from the nineteenth-century, feminist recovery work, and scientific rhetorics. Hayden’s text fits well alongside important works such as Karlyn Kohrs Campbell’s Man Cannot Speak for Her, Jessica Enoch’s Refiguring Rhetorical Education, or even Thomas Lessl's Rhetorical Darwinism. While I would have liked to have had a clearer explanation of Hayden’s data gathering process, that is, how she came to collect and select her sources, she does note that she gathered and rhetorically analyzed the sources cited in the free-love feminist texts. Hayden’s text is easily accessible, valuable to the continued development of feminist rhetorics, and, frankly, it is quite fascinating considering its subject matter.