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The Scare-Crows of Sexual Slavery

August 1873 — American Society of Spiritualists, Silver Lake Camp Meeting, Silver Lake, MA


My Brothers and Sisters, —

I am going to tell you some plain truths to-night. I know I shall not please all your ears. I value the good opinion of you all, but I value the truth more, and if to gain the former I must withhold one iota of the latter I shall fail in securing it. Your good opinion I crave, for I feel that you are my friends — friends to the great human race, and he or she who is this, though they hate me with a deadly hatred, is my friend; but public opinion I stamp in the mud. It is a stench in the nostrils of truth, for which, if any care, he must say, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” I will not so much as vary a single hair’s breadth from what I conceive to be my duty, though public opinion should turn the faces of every man and woman against me. I will speak the truth, I will be heard; but you may kill me afterward if you will. I have but one sentiment in my soul, and that is to do what in me lies to life up the down-trodden and enslaved of earth, and to inaugurate equality and happiness in the world. I have no kindred, less than the human race, who demand or can have service of me. My life is dedicated to this work, and I come to you to speak such words as will make your souls sink in horror and your curses to rest upon  yourselves, that you have so long quietly permitted these things to go on unrebuked. I would, if it were possible, wring form you the declaration that you would know no rest again until these wrongs be righted. It must come to this. The world is to be made free and beautiful, and happy because so, and methinks I can see in the not distant future, a time wen misery and heartaches and poverty and all unhappiness shall be banished the earth, and the entire human family, both in earth and spirit life, fully and harmoniously united, singing the glad songs of the redeemed. But before this can be, other and terrible things must be. So much suffering as the soul-sick sons and daughters of earth now suffer, cannot be transformed to bright and happy conditions, without the atoning blood of, I had almost said, millions of martyr souls. Let the sacrifice be what it may, however, it must be paid, and heaven help all of them, who love their brothers and sisters all over the world to endure what must be endured. Having thus briefly alluded to what I shall say to you, I will proceed to speak upon


If a stranger visit the farming districts of New England States in the month of June, he will observe in many newly-planted corn-fields the most hideous looking objects, fashioned after the human form . . . .

But now observe upon what the efficiency of these men of straw depends. There they stand motionless, with not so much as the power to raise a hand for harm or good; but the crows, having just sense enough to see in them the resemblance to their great enemy — man — carefully avoid coming within their domain; and thus through ignorance is the young corn saved.

But scare-crows are found in other than corn fields, and for other purposes than to save young corn. They are found in the religious field. Those who have commanded here, in order to save their realm, hold up a hell-fire and the Old Nick himself as scare-crows, to prevent the ignorant and the foolish from invading their possessions, or rather them from exploring beyond them . . . .

In the field of politics there are the same class who invent scare-crows with which to fool the people — their serfs — one of the most terrible of which, at the present, is that of a woman voting, and the idea of justice for industry. These are, indeed, terrific sights, enough to blanch the face of such as, all their lives, have lived under the rod of male domination and the money god, and the belief that man is the natural lord of creation altogether, when every sensible woman knows she belies herself by the admission, since she also should know that she may be the absolute monarch over man, able to compel him upon his knees to supplicate for, instead of presuming to grant favor. Oh! woman, has though not yet learned they subtle yet potent power, that thou doth still grovel in mean servility at the feet of thy serf, if though wouldst have him so!

This naturally introduces the social field, whose scare-crows it is our special province at this time to consider. I know them all to be “men of straw” merely, that the lightest puff, the slightest breath of truth will topple over and expose to the world, if it will but look on them as they fall.

Before we begin this destruction, to pull them in pieces to learn of what they are made, let us if we can, and may, what is the occasion that has called the pretended lords of this field to erect them, and also forestall the criticism that would otherwise be clutched from our simile of the corn field, the distinction to be made between which and the field of sexual freedom being this: While those who plant the corn and erect the straw men to preserve its growth in the former instance, in the latter, reverse the order. The enemy invade the fields where we have sown the seeds of social reform, which are just beginning to make its withered and whitened surface look green again, and on our ground erect these scare-crows to prevent the crows, the ignorant among people, from coming to partake of the feast of gladness that is hear spread. We trust the enemy will take this distinction home with him and carefully bestow it in his memory, so that he may not make himself doubly foolish after a while by the introduction of the criticism for which this is intended as an antidote.

But what is all this about? Well, it is part of the contest between despotism and freedom. Absolutism on the one hand, representing the former, and individual sovereignty on the other hand representing the latter. This contest is not so much a strife between opposites, however, as it is an effort ton the part of despots to prevent their subjects from becoming freemen. In the evolution of civilization the people walk in the path of progress, taking a departure from despotism toward freedom, which is at the other extreme of civilization.

Freedom, in general terms, means simply this: that each and every individual has the right in his or her own proper person to make such use of any or all his powers and capacities as he or she may elect to do. Anything less than this is not freedom — it is restriction, and restriction exercised by any person or aggregate of persons over another person is despotism, but the rule of social order must be either freedom or despotism: it cannot be a mixture of both.


Immediately this proposition is made, scare-crow No. 1 is presented to affright the inquirer, and this declares: If everybody be given the right to do just as they wish, anybody would not be safe a moment anywhere. Every saint will be robbed, outraged or murdered by some sinner, and anarchy itself would hold high carnival, while civilization would sink in the blackness of the dark ages.

Now let us not imitate the crow, and fight shy of the scare, but walk straight in its face, and pull off its mask, and tear down its pretense. In the first place the short-sighted wiseacres who pretend to be frightened out of their wits at the thought of freedom, do not see if the right of each individual to freedom be guaranteed, that this alone is perfect protection for everybody; since if everybody have this right secure, he is safe from every interference from another person. If, then, the freedom of any person whatever, is interfered with, it is the fault of the organization of society which causes it to fail to secure every individual of whom it is composed in the possession of his freedom, and not the fault in any sense or shape of the right of freedom itself . . . No sooner, however, that No. 1 is demolished, than instantly No. 2 is put forward. “Well,” says the objector, “suppose it be admitted that it is right for ever individual to have his or her freedom, it is not expedient that it should be exercised entirely free from restrain.” Expediency is the great scare-crow No. 2, but it is even more fatally faulty than No. 1, though a [great] deal dangerous. Many a person will admit that it may be right for him or her to possess freedom and to exercise it, but they don’t exactly know whether it will be quite safe to trust the neighbors with it. . .

It is simply none of your business what other people do; nor any of the business of society what any of its members do, unless they interfere with somebody else without his or her consent; and you and all like you might as well learn this fact here and now as later; since your system of meddling interference with that which is none of your business will not be longer tolerated. If freedom be a right possessed by all individuals, it cannot alter what use be made of it. It must be adopted as the basic principle, and be assured that the results will take care of themselves. Having adopted freedom as opposed to despotism, all its logical deductions are also adopted. It is impossible that anything founded on truth should result in error. If the foundation be right the structure built upon it will not fall from any basic defects.

“But,” replies the objector, “I cannot understand about this business. If there be no law to compel people to live together, everything will be in confusion, the family will be broken up; and this is the safeguard of society, morality and everything else that is good and pure.  Everything will go to the bad directly if it be not maintained by all the safeguards that can be thrown around it. No! no! It will never do to break up the family.”


And thus scare-crow No. 3 is elevated to be in turn demolished. To begin, we deny in toto everything you have said. The very safeguards that you have thrown around the family to make it pure and holy have made instead, a community of little hot hells, in which the two principals torment each other until one or the other gives up the contest, and by which the seeds of devilism are sown in all the children who may unfortunately for themselves and society, result. These safeguards to virtue and morality have made almost every wife a prostitute and every husband a sexual monster, and compels them both, against their better natures, to continually go from bad to worse.

Compel people to live together, would you? Of all the monstrous propositions, this is the most monstrous. As a theory, it is absurd enough; but as a practice it is simply revolting infernalism. Even the condition of prostitutes, of which there is so much pretended commiseration, is to be preferred to this They have the right to refuse to cohabit when they choose; but the poor wife is denied even this. She must submit or take a thrashing, perhaps! Why, sir, your safeguards are the allies of hell, and are responsible for more misery, more sickness and more crime than all other causes combined; and humanity as a whole, perhaps as yet unconsciously, cries to its God for deliverance. Be assured this cry will be heard and answered. For the sake of consistency, sir, you would do well to take in your family scare-crow before you and your like become utterly obnoxious.

“But,” says the objector, “suppose I d, what will become of the children? If the family be left free to be broken up, they will be at the mercy of the world, not knowing who are their fathers even — a terrible dilemma, surely!”


This is scare-crow No. 4. Wouldn’t know their fathers? Ah! That would be bad; a fearful state of things, wouldn’t it? Now, do you really mean that as an objection; do you with it to be understood that you are in earnest? You must be attempting to play a joke upon somebody! Why, sir, there isn’t a person in the world who knows absolutely who his father is! There may be many who perhaps think they know; but thought has deceived many a one in other things, and undoubtedly has in this one as well. It is not safe, only to think, in a matter where it is assumed that positive certainty is necessary . . . .

What will become of the children, indeed? A pretty question to ask is this, when next to nothing is now done to prevent them from going to the bad! Look at the children! What re they but a scraggy, scrawny, half made up lot! And again at the way through which they grow to maturity! Which of them at that time is really worth calling a man or a woman? He is nothing but  poor excuse for a man; and she a worse one for a woman. He has spermatorrhea, and she leucorrhœa, and both are unfit to cohabit or to reproduce themselves; and yet you talk about the children. Why, sir, you must be beside yourself.

Why do you not, in place of asking what what will become of the children, ask what is becoming of them now? Go ask the fifty thousand houseless, half starved, wholly untaught children of New York city, who live from the will-barrels of the rich Christians, what is becoming of them, and they will tell you they don’t know! But it will be plain to be seen that they are going to the bad, surely. I cannot understand how it is that the critics of social freedom should be so terribly concerned about the children who are to be, when they have no concern whatever for those who are. Solicitude for children, when there are five millions of people in the United States, one-eighty of the total population, over ten years of age, who can neither read nor write! Why it is simply absurd! There is no such thing. This pretended solicitude is something pumped up in the imaginations of these idealists as a scare-crow to prevent inquirers after freedom from finding the direct road.

If there were any such thing as solicitude for children, it would show itself in having the conditions in which they are begotten of the most favorable character. The mother, during pregnancy, would be treated as if she were performing the divinest mission of nature, where now she is too often treated more like a slave. Thousands of poor weak women are to-day performing the task of maternity, who are also compelled to labor, to the utmost extent of their strength, for their daily bread, and perhaps also to feed a drunken tyrant to whom the law has made her slave, both sexually and industrially. Care for children! Again I repeat it, they who pretend this must be fools or insane, or else think that you are both, that they may play upon you such a pretense as this . . .

The conditions under which children are begotten and raised, are certainly about as bad as they can well be. Since they are the results of the social system, their condition should not be taken as an indication of what children ought to be under an entirely opposite order; nor as an objection to the establishment of such an order. Inaugurate the new order, and the method of rearing children will be determined by the new conditions of that order.

In the first place, however, in the new social order of society, women will be individually independent of men for support. From the beginning it will be known that they are not to be educated as sexual slaves, for man, merely. In place of this, it will e well understood that no man owes them anything, and that all their intercourse will be government by a maximum of equivalents love. It may be necessary to inform men, but it is not to inform women, that in such conditions there will be no undesired pregnancy; whereas, now, four-fifths of the children who are born are unwelcomed.

Next, when a woman becomes pregnant, it will be held immediately that she is laboring for society in the fact that she is to replenish its natural decrease. She will become the especial care of society and, while she is performing this sacred duty, be paid the highest wages received by any class, and be treated accordingly during the entire period of gestation and lactation, when the fruit of her labor will of right belong to society and she return to her common industrial pursuits.

I know that this by the thoughtless will be considered almost a heartless proposition, since there is no love like a mother’s love for her child. It will, however, be found, if patience permit the full consideration, that what is proposed will give the very greatest scope for the exhibition of the mother’s love. It must not be lost sight of that the first thing to be gained by a revolution in our present social system is better men and women; and if a mother’s love can in ay way interfere with this result, then it should not be permitted to do so.

But before going further, a grave error that exists almost universally should be corrected. It is thoughtlessly and inconsistently eld that the children belong to their parents, and because it is so held, it is the most dangerous question with which the reformer has to deal; but at the same time, of the very first importance. To say that children do not belong to their parents, is to attack a supposed right that has existed from time immemorial, and to call down upon the head of the attacking party the reprobation even of radicals. I am after the truth, however, and let it be what it may and lead where it may I shall pursue it mercilessly, well knowing that when found it will doubly repay all the expense incurred, if that be even complete ostracism.

I would not, however, ruthlessly wound or shock any tender mother’s heart. I would rather show her that her love, if it be really worthy of that divine name, will incline her to desire for her child that which will make it the best man or woman. Now I will ask every mother present if this is not what the love of every other ought to desire; and also further, if in desiring this, any selfish love that she bears merely for her own sake, regardless of the good of her child, ought not to be ignored n the higher consideration of its best interests and through it of society? Every true mother will answer, yes! without hesitation; only those who would sacrifice their children to their own selfish love will even hesitate.

A single question will, however, show the absurdity of the theory of ownership. If parents own their children, how does it come that they ever lose their title, as they do at adult age; or again, and still more forcibly, if the title of children is in the parents, how is it that society, by its laws, claims them when, before adult age, they commit some crime; or still again, to whom is this ownership transferred when the parents die; and again, how is it that society compels the education of children? If they belong to their parents, what right has society to meddle? Answer these and then say if you can that children do not belong to society.

It is well known that, as civilization progresses and education becomes more a question of public interest, society demands more and more the conduct of the instruction of children. Public schools are now imperative, where, but a hundred years ago, there was no such system . . . . It is but one step beyond compulsory education to the complete charge of children. If society have the right to say how and how much a child shall b educated mentally it certainly has the right, also, to say what the other processes of education shall be . . . .

We have not yet disposed of all the scare-crows, and the next one that is erected to frighten the people, of freedom, is license — a most terrible spectre indeed, one from which the multitude falls back in dismay, almost convinced that it is impossible to discover freedom where this monster stands guard over the way. This monster assumes, if all restriction to liberty be removed, that license is thereby granted to everybody to do all sorts of bad things, and that a great many people will immediately proceed to do all these bad things.

First of all, every woman, except those of our household, will incontinently go to the bad, indulging in the most outrageous extremes of all sorts of debauchery; while the men, everybody excepting “ourselves” of course, will also incontinently proceed to commit rape upon every woman who is so unfortunate as to fall in their way. Age of either extreme will fail to command respect when men are free, and terror and horror will reign triumphant. So much for the assumptions.

But hold, dear sir. Are you not making yourself just a little ridiculous? Did you not say that all the women would immediately rush into the arms of every man they should meet, let it be in the street, in the car or wherever else; that even negroes would not escape the mad debauch of white women? Now observe. If this be so, upon whom are these outrages, by men, to be committed? Do you not see if every woman is of her own accord to rush to debauchery, that it will be entirely unnecessary for me to resort to any sort of force whatever, or even to resort to persuasion. A splendid commentary on woman, indeed. . . .

All the laws that can be made regarding sex, and in harmony with the general theory, maintained in everything else, are such as would punish sexual intercourse obtained by force — in other words, rape; and this is the end of the whole question . . . .

License in love where consent is made a necessary qualification, by the guarantee of freedom to women to refuse, if they will, is simply an absurdity. . . .

Marriage license sexuality, while nothing else does; and the horrors that are practiced under this license, are simply demonical; almost too horrible to be even thought of without shuddering, how much more so to relate! There is nothing else but marriage that licenses a man to debauch a woman against her will. There is no sexual license except in marriage.

But those who would save this institution by force, having attempted to defend it, and thereby having invited us to the contest, we must not hesitate to drag from their hiding-places the terrific skeletons that marriage has left in almost every household; and it must be expected that it will be done mercilessly. This infamous system that murders one-half the children in babyhood and three-fourths of the mothers, and robs almost all the rest of it all happiness in this life, shall not, if it can be helped, be tolerated any longer. I have declared relentless warfare against it, and by the help of heaven, it shall be waged until the last vestige of this remnant of savagery shall be wiped form the otherwise fair face of present civilization.

Going a little backward to the early days of abolitionism, it is found that the same system of warfare that is now proposed was waged by the heroes of that freedom. They not only attacked slavery upon the question of abstract right, but they also attacked it in the concrete, in its practices. Individual instances of cruelty, as well as the general tendency of the system, were pointed out and depicted with all the terrible effect of truth. Individual offenders were compelled into the light and held up to public detestation, and were made a by-word to the fullest possible extend. The public sensibilities were shocked by actual and vivid pictures of whatever atrocities the slaveholding system developed. Many people cried shame! and denounced it as scandalous, stopping their ears and eyes les themselves should be shocked at the knowledge that such things could be in a civilized country, and pretended to share all their sympathy with the real offender for being driven to the light, just as if it were not a thousand times worse that such things should be enacted at all. But the brave warriors rushed on in spite of their criticisms and their sensibilities until at last the institution fell, and nobody now dare say they were wrong or that aught but good has resulted; but they repeat the error nevertheless.

Now through just such experiences have the holders of sexual slaves got to be compelled. All the horrors of this slavery will have to be dragged to the light, and whenever individual offenders can be caught they must be exposed. All this may be seemingly hard; nevertheless it is the only method by which the atrocities to which the system has given birth, can be unearthed, and its own foundation shattered. Many are the tales of horror and brutal violence that have been related of negro slavery, where the lash of the driver was depicted until their hearers almost felt its stings in their own flesh, and almost the red streams flowing down their own backs, and these appealed to the souls of men and women until they were ready to do whatever was needed to destroy a monster that could cause such suffering to a single human being. But I am fully convinced that all the suffering of all the negro slaves combined, is as nothing in comparison to that which women, as a whole, suffer. There were several millions of negro slaves. There are twenty millions of women slaves. The negroes were dependent upon their masters for all the comforts of life they enjoyed; but it was to the interest of their masters to give them all of these that health demanded. Women are as much dependent upon men for their sustenance as were the negroes upon their masters, lacking the interest that they had in the negroes as personal property.

It is an unpleasant thing to say that women, in many sense, are as much slaves as were the negroes, but if it be true, ought it not to be said? I say, a thousand times, yes! And when the slavery to which they are subjected is compared to that which the negro endured, the demand for its consideration increases again, still a thousand times more.

Perhaps it may be denied that women are slaves, sexually, sold and delivered to man. But I tell you, as a class, that they are, and the conclusion cannot be escaped. Let me convince all doubters of this. Stand before me, all ye married women, and tell me how many of you would remain mistresses of your husbands’ homes if you should refuse to cohabit sexually with them? Answer ye this, and then tell me that ye are free, if ye can! I tell ye that you are the sexual slaves of your husbands, bound by as terrible bounds to serve them sexually as ever a negro was bound to serve his owner, physically; and if you don’t quite believe it, go home and endeavor to assert your freedom, and see to what it will lead! You may not be made to feel the inevitable lash that followed rebellion on the part of the negro, but even this is not certain; yet lashes of some sort will surely be dealt. Refuse to yield to the sexual demands of your legal master, and ten to one he will turn you into the street, or in lieu of this perhaps, give you personal violence, even to compelling you to submit by force. Tell me that wives are not slaves! As well you might have done the same of the negroes, who, as the women do not, did not realize their condition.

. . . For my part I would rather be the labor slave of a master, with his whip cracking continually about my ears, my whole life, than the forced sexual slave of any man in a single hour; and I know that every woman who has freedom born in her soul will shout in deepest and earnest response to this — Amen! I know what it is to be both of these. I have traveled the icy pavements of New York in mid-winter, seeking employment, with nothing on my feet except an old pair of india-rubber shoes, and a commo calico dress only to cover my body, while the man who called me his wife and who made me his sexual slave, spent his money upon other women. I am speaking whereof I know not. My case may be thought an extreme one, but I know of thousands even worse. Then tell me I shall not have the right to denounce this damned system! Tell me I shall be sent to Sing Sing if I dare expose these things! Open your Sing Sings a thousand times, but not of their terrors shall stop a single word. I will tell the world, so long as I have a tongue and the and the strength to move it, of all the infernal misery hidden behind this horrible thing called marriage, though the Young Men’s Christian Association sentence me to prison a year for every word. I have seen horrors beside which stone walls and iron bars are heaven, and I will not hold my peace so long as a system, that can produce such damnation and by which, as its author, heaven is blasphemed, exists.

Would to Heaven I could thunder these facts forth until women should be moved by a comprehension of the low degradation to which they have fallen, to open rebellion; until they should rise en masse and declare themselves free, resisting all sexual subjection, and utterly refusing to yield their bodies up to man until they shall grant them perfect freedom. It was not the slaves themselves who obtained their own freedom. It was their noble white brothers of the North, who, seeing their condition, and realizing that though they were black, still that they were brothers, sacrificed themselves for the time to emancipate them. So it will not be the most suffering slaves of this horrible slavery who will accomplish its abolition; but it must be those who know and appreciate the terrible condition, who must, for the time, sacrifice ourselves, that their sisters may come to themselves and to own themselves.

Go preach this doctrine, then, ye who have the strength and the moral courage: No more sexual intercourse for men who do not fully consent that all women shall be free, and who do not besides this, also join the standard of the rebellion. It matters not if you be wife or not, raise your voice for your suffering sex, let the consequences to yourself be what they may. They say I have come to break up the family; I say amen to that with all my heart. I hope I may break up every family in the world that exists by virtue f sexual slavery, and I feel that the smiles of angels, the smiles of those who have gone on before, who suffered here what I have suffered and what thousands are suffering, will give me strength to brave all opposition, and to stand even upon the scaffold, if need be, that my sisters all over the world may be emancipated, may rise from slavery to the full dignity of womankind.



Source: Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, September 27, 1873, pp. 3-14.


Also: Selected Writings of Victoria Woodhull: Suffrage, Free Love, and Eugenics, ed. Cari M. Carpenter (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press) 2010, pp. 198-211.