Questioning the commonplace view of the late nineteenth century as a period of passionless women and so-called Victorian sexuality, this study examines the spread of sex radical thought and notions of free love through American society in the second half of the nineteenth century. During this period a grass-roots movement of women and men, uncomfortable with the social, economic, and political inequalities they saw as inherent to the institution of marriage, participated in frank discussions about the relationship between sexuality and women’s rights.
In charting the growth of the sex radical movement, Joanne E. Passet draws on a host of documents from the period -- letters, periodicals, lectures, and pamphlets -- to establish a strong link between the rise of print culture and the freedom of citizens, especially women, to build geographically dispersed communities of ideas. She also advances models of sexuality that challenge the restrictive mores of society at large and shows that the majority of correspondents who participated in the sex radical movement resided in the Midwest and the Great Plains states, where ideas of individual freedom and sovereignty resonated particularly strongly.
Passet vividly demonstrates how this sex radical movement laid the foundations upon which later generations of women’s rights crusaders and feminists would build, placing discussions of sex and sexuality squarely in the public arena.