Luisa Capetillo and Charles Erskine Scott Wood: Free Love and the State at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

By the 20th century, Free Love was a movement of global scale.  As a wave of industrialization swept over much of the world, the discourse became relevant to those who resisted the increasing intrusion of state control on individuals’ personal lives.  Charles Erskine Scott Wood, an Oregon elite, and Luisa Capetillo, a working class Puerto Rican, wrote and lived free love in the first decades of the 20th century.  Their works transpire at a historical juncture between radical social movements and dramatically shifting political, environmental, social, and economic climates.

Wood promoted anarchism and free love through his poetry and satire at the brink of the colonization and industrialization of the United States’ last frontier, Pacific Northwest, in the 1890s and 1910s.  Capetillo was a working class labor activist and women’s rights advocate during the rapid industrialization of Puerto Rico and its transition from Spanish to American rule.  The two free lovers’ vastly different social locations implicated both the content and the uses of free love in their lives and works.

I argue that their ideas about free love were not only shaped by race, class, and gender, but also by their relationships to the state.  I consider throughout the paper how race, class, and gender mediate their relationships to the state, and how these dynamics foster vastly different prerogatives in their works.

This paper explores Charles Erskine Scott Wood’s and Luisa Capetillo’s politics of love from their respective locations of the same historical moment.  I briefly cover the historiography of free love to develop a working definition of the term, then offer brief biographies, and finally look directly to their writings to explore more deeply the ways in which their politics of love and relationships to the state were shaped through their gendered and classed relationships to the state.  A comparative analysis of Luisa Capetillo and Charles Erskine Scott Wood reveals how social location, culture, and the state shape free love in distinct ways.

Because free love is a politics against the state, the state outlines its contours of resistance.  They are, in a way, mutually constitutive.  Where the state attempts to regulate-such as enforcing marriage and miscegenation laws-inevitably a certain contingent pushes back.  The push and the push-back, the state and the anti-state, on a certain level, co-create any resistance movement.  Capetillo’s and Wood’s relative angles to the state-the locations, experiences, and privileges from which they rebelled-marked crucial differences between them.  Where Wood’s politics of love were a marked departure from the state, Capetillo’s politics of love were a defense against the state intruding on ways of life that were already common among Puerto Rican working-class culture.

Free Love: a short historiography

Historians of the United States’ 19th century free love movement agree that free love was essentially about a political commitment to eradicating any form of coercion associated with love and sexual relations.  Hal Sears’ 1977 The Sex Radicals: Free Love in High Victorian America, the first major study of the 19th century free love movement, argued that “free love simply allowed no coercion in sexual relations, whether from the legally prescribed duties of marriage or from the unrestricted urgings of libido.”[1] Similarly, Pam McAllister stated in her 1985 introduction to Lois Waisbrooker’s A Sex Revolution that “‘free love’ during the Victorian era referred not to unrestrained lustful pursuits, but to the belief that love and sexual relations should be free of coercion from church, state, or hedonistic urgings.”[2] At the core of free love was a woman’s right to her body and sexuality, a critique of marriage, and a critique of the state’s right to control intimate relations. Beyond this, historians diverge.

Few risked publicly advocating variety (the ability to have multiple partners at once), though all seemed to believe in the importance of leaving a relationship when love had left it.  Many believed that the spiritual affinity in a monogamous, heterosexual, long-term relationship was ideal, but that variety, the opportunity to divorce, and the opportunity to love and live together without being married were necessary in order to make that more ultimate goal attainable.

Joanne Passet, author of Sex Radicals and the Quest for Women’s Equality problematizes the term “free love.”  First, there was no general consensus on the meaning or boundary conditions of the word.  Second, not all people who practiced or advocated the content of the term identified with its label.  And third, ‘free love’ was the term of choice for those who were against it.[3] In a 2005 critical discourse analysis of men’s and women’s prerogatives in two free love periodicals, sociologist Sandra Schroer also found that no common “unified understanding of Free Love and its principles existed.”[4] Schroer found that male free lovers “implied that it did exist and avoided addressing the fact that it did not,”[5] where female free lovers were less inclined to make universal claims about the free love movement.

Passet responds to the ambiguity of “free love” by replacing it with an even broader term, “sex radical,” for which she offers no background and no discussion of the term’s meaning or consistency among individuals of the movement.  Hal Sears’s study includes references to both “free love” and “sex radicals,” even in the title (The Sex Radicals: Free Love in High Victorian America), without offering a definition or reference to the meaning of the latter term within the movement.  Dora Forster’s 1905 book, The Sex Radicals as Seen by an Emancipated Woman of the New Time gives some clues as to the meaning of the term when she uses it interchangeably with “sex reformers.”[6]

Passet makes an important distinction between two types of turn-of-the-century sex reformers: social purity reformers and sex radicals.  Although they shared many goals, their methods were quite opposite:

Advocates of social purity reform … determined ‘to achieve a set of controls over sexuality’ that would protect women from sexual danger because they were ‘structured through the family’ and ‘enforced through law and/or social morality.’  Initially, social purity reformers and sex radicals shared some core convictions….  But over time the social purity campaign’s repressive tendencies ‘overwhelmed its liberatory aspects’ for [sex radical] women.[7]

Historian Mary Odem echoes Passet in her work on the turn-of-the-century sex reform movement: “the measures promoted in the social purity campaigns did little to address the sources of sexual exploitation,”[8] because the reforms limited female sexuality rather than curtailing male sexual violence.

Odem also finds that the social purity movement carried “unintended” racist and sexist consequences.  For example, the movement against “white slavery,” or prostitution, vilified working class women and denied them a significant means of income, to say nothing of sexual exploitation of Black women.  Laws were also unevenly used against Black men, continuing a legacy of discrimination based on the myth of the Black male as rapist.

Historian Eileen Suarez Findlay shows how tensions between middle class social purity reformers and the working class in Puerto Rico were also racially charged: “discussions of sexual morality or unruliness became a prime way for Puerto Ricans to talk about race and create racial labels….”[9] As in the US social purity movement, middle class feminist social reformers imposed “bourgeois norms of sexual propriety” onto popular classes, including maintaining racial “purity” and white culture.[10]

Where social purity clearly had racist implications both in Puerto Rico and in the states, free love did not have the anti-racist implications in the US that it had in Puerto Rico.  In fact, there were some instances in the early decades of the twentieth century where free love became synonymous, or at least had significant ties, with the eugenics movement.  If not overtly racist or sexist in their intentions, such an alliance had implications which women and people of color could not, for the most part, brook.  The distinction between social purity and free love is important because the movements were essentially two different responses to the same problem: patriarchal sexual violence and a sexual organization of society which limited all people’s freedom.  However, free love and social purity had opposite and antagonistic effects.

For the purposes of this paper I choose to use the term free love rather than sex radicalism.  Free love may have been the term of choice for those who were against the sex radical cause, but all who wielded it agreed on its potential to radically alter the foundation of society.  Free love was used more widely than sex radicalism or sex reform, especially toward the end of the century and in the regions of this study.  Furthermore, the term clearly distinguishes itself from social purity movements, were sex radicalism and sex reform may have more overlap.  Self-identified radicals in the Pacific Northwest and Puerto Rico, including CES Wood, the Portland radical publication The Firebrand, those who lived at the Home Colony in Washington, and Luisa Capetillo and other radical labor activists, particularly in Ponce, Puerto Rico, all used the term “free love” to denote the set of values outlined above.

Charles Erskine Scott Wood

Charles Erskine Scott Wood’s life and writings emphasize the aesthetics of freedom, love, radicalism, women’s rights, and beauty.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these were the ingredients of free love.  However, Wood’s life was not a simple embodiment of turn-of-the-century-radical idealism.  His ideas were very much in tension with his actions-and perhaps, for Wood, these were not entirely contradictory.  The following paragraphs consider the formation of Wood’s politics in relation to the state.

Many accounts of Wood have emphasized his participation in the United States army, his career as a corporate lawyer, and his early contributions to Portland’s high arts and culture.[11] It is almost too easy to paint Wood in a single light: he initiated the Portland library and art museum; fought the Nez Perce and scripted Chief Joseph’s final speech; he secured much of Oregon’s land and defended Oregon’s corporate law.  On one level, Wood effectively acted as an agent of the United States’ will to expand.  Both culturally and materially, Wood served the state in displacing the indigenous and replacing them with whites.

But this is only a half story.  Wood befriended the Native Americans he helped displace; he used the extra time and resources his law profession allowed him to defend radicals, including Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger, for free.  Wood’s free love politics are a marked departure from the state, from his upbringing, and from elite society.

Wood’s father raised him with strict conservative values and compelled him to join the military.[12] He acquiesced to his father’s desires but was anything but the excellent soldier his father and President Grant had planned for him to be: Bingham and Barnes write, “he was a mediocre student and his military record bordered on disgrace.”[13] A young rebel, Wood skipped out of service, drank, disregarded orders almost enough to be discharged, and “such flagrant violations, such as whistling in the hall and being absent at mandatory events, showed that he did not much care if he got caught.”[14] Before he had much to rebel against, the seeds of an ostentatious defiance against authority were already within him.  He was an agent of the state, but scoffed at his duties.

It was through Wood’s participation in the Nez Perce battle that he awakened to the unjust practices of the United States government.  He saw the Nez Perce as “innocent captives,” with “strange wisdom” and an “inability to fuse with the white man.”[15] Although he participated in the last battle of American Indians, chasing them 1,320 miles away from their homeland, by battle’s end he befriended Chief Joseph, recorded and recounted (not quite accurately) the Chief’s now famous speech, culminating in the famous lines, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”  Despite and because of Wood’s participation in the Nez Perce battle, he and Chief Joseph became friends and raised their sons to be friends.  “The whole episode,” Bingham and Barnes write, “opened Wood’s eyes to the power of the state to subdue a desperate and dignified people who were guilty simply of being in the way.”[16] Through his participation, Wood both learned and rejected the logics of power and authority.

Wood’s exposure to the Thlinkits of Alaska may have been a major source of inspiration in understanding women’s rights and empowerment-a core element of free love.  Wood writes of the Thlinkit women: “The Alaskan women are childish and pleasant, yet quick-witted and capable of heartless vindictiveness.  Their authority in all matters is unquestioned….  Their veto is never disregarded.”[17] And of authority in their social organization in general: “They consider corporeal punishment a disgrace, and I did not see a child struck during the time I was among them.  A rebuke, a sharp tone, or exclusion from the cabin seemed to be the only punishments….  With all their gentleness of voice and manner, and their absolute respect for the rights of the smallest and youngest of the family, their love and affection seemed of the coolest sort.”[18] The social organization of indigenous groups became models for Wood, proof that power could be organized in better ways than that which he grew up knowing and writhing against.

Wood’s admiration for native ways of life unquestionably fueled and inspired his anarchism.  However, the quotes from this piece are written for an 1882 publication of Century Magazine, a primarily Anglo audience with white, expansionist prerogatives.  Wood’s article closes not with an encouragement for his white peers to learn new ways of being from these indigenous peoples, nor a call for the preservation of their land and ways of life-which would require stopping American expansionism, not encouraging it.  Rather, Wood closes his article: “When this region shall have been opened up to individual enterprise and settlement, it will then be discovered that Alaska is a valuable possession….Go and see!  The round trip from New York will cost you about six hundred dollars, which does not include hotel expenses.”[19] Wood’s perceptions of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest rationalized his anti-authoritarian and feminist ethics at the same time it rationalized an imperialist attitude of American expansionism.  However unsettling, both discourses flourished here at the turn of the century, competing, yet blindly simultaneous.

On quitting the army Wood took up corporate law, acting as a key agent in colonizing and developing the Northwest, claiming significant land grants and as well as a stake in the formation of free trade.  Wood’s law practice paid well, allowing him to freely support radicals like Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, and Portland’s WWI opposer Marie Equi.  Although Wood did have a political awakening first through the Nez Perce experience and more gradually as he realized the contradictions of his law practice, he did not leave law till he had plenty of money to retire and support his family, his lover, and his lavish lifestyle.

Through the rejection of the authority of his father and the US Army, his experiences with indigenous peoples, his exposure to the stark beauty of eastern Oregon’s high desert, and through a radical culture booming via the print industry, Wood honed a critique of government and gendered authority that he would sustain for the rest of his life.  Inspired by Benjamin Tucker’s “philosophical anarchism,” CES Wood applied critiques of power to both “public” and “private” realms of social organization.

Philosophical anarchism “spoke directly to [Wood’s] personal needs.  What was marriage but a legal intrusion upon what ought to be a personal agreement between two people?  What was wrong with Wood’s free decision to make love to Kitty, to Mrs. Corbett, or anyone else he might choose?  ….In anarchism Wood found a political philosophy that supported his vision of social justice, and that also endorsed his ‘pagan’ commitment to personal freedom and guiltless pleasure.”

Wood embodies a mosaic of tendencies, ideologies, and contradictions of his historical, geographical, and social location in the world.  The tensions that marked his life make his radicalism all the more real.  His beliefs were in dialectic tension with all the privileges and vices of a bourgeoning Northwest society, of a literary man and a connoisseur of art and food, one who “delighted in the physical world, especially when it gathered into loveliness.'”[20] Most importantly, Wood left a legacy for two camps of Oregonians: those looking for Oregon fathers, and those looking for Oregon rebels.  One writer from the Sunday Oregonian put it best: “It would be hard to imagine an individual who so beautifully embodies the deeper eccentricities of Portland.  In fact, many of the most Whitmanesque of those oddities–from the hyperactive art scene to our live-and-let-live attitudes about sex–almost seemed to originate with him.”

Of about a dozen books, many self-published, Wood considered The Poet in the Desert to be his life’s best work.  At one point consisting of a pile of papers at the bottom of a trunk, there they remained until Erskine met Sara Bard Field.  A poet, socialist, and woman suffragist, she was equal to himself in intelligence, passion, wit and creativity.  When Erskine invited her to look at his poetry, she found the poems in the trunk and insisted on their potential.  The two became friends over common political and artistic sentiments, and soon lovers, and eventually divorced their respective partners and lived the rest of their lives together in a love that has impressed and inspired everyone who knew them.

The mutual love and respect between Sara and Erskine was the foundation for much of Wood’s poetry.  In a hand bound, 1918 edition of The Poet in the Desert, Erskine wrote in a note to poet Genevieve Taggard that “when I consider how much this book is Sara’s- Her discovery of the manuscript- her insistence on full completion, her insistence also on less preaching and more poetry and her constructive criticisms in arrangement and phrase-many lines are hers- I cannot in this work nor in my life separate myself from her.”[21]

Sara and Erskine had such a profound love for each other as to triumph over many people’s discomforts with their free love beliefs.  Historian Christine Stansell documents Wood’s “long line of lovers” as follows: “his secretary; fellow members of the local branch of the Socialist Party; a New Womanish physician; his wife; and the feminist Sara Bard Field, his longest-lasting, longest-suffering, and most obsessively devoted lover (she outlasted all competition and eventually became his second wife).”[22] But to label Sara as obsessively devoted to Erskine is to tell a story one sided.  The two were by all evidence equally devoted, and it was not outlasting competition which caused the two to marry, but only the legalities of growing old.  In Robert Hamburger’s words, Wood realized that:

“his unconventional relationship with Sara might lead to legal problems that could keep her from receiving the substantial legacy he had provided for her.  After fifty years of arguing that government had no province over love and sexual union, Wood remarried.”[23]

Contrary to Stansell’s depiction, Sara and Erskine’s 1938 wedding actually celebrated free love.  Their rabbi included important anti-authoritarian sentiments in his service:

“I would feel myself sacrilegiously presumptuous to feel that I, as an individual, had any divine authority to pronounce you husband and wife.  Your lives have done that in a manner that has been an example of true marriage far more powerfully than the lives of many whose marriage was, from the first, legalized.”

Stansell accurately, finds that “free love justified his excursions outside marriage and at the same time allowed him to hold on to marriages safeties.  In a peculiarly fin-de-siècle manner, he melded anarchist tenets of personal liberty, Romantic sonorities about Truth and Beauty, and a lyrical celebration of female sexual power… to embellish his seductions and betrayals with higher morality.”[24]

The tension in his life between his radicalism and his elitism shows how agents of resistance (anarchists, for instance) are not simple expressions of ideological liberation, but fleshy knots of tangled discourse.  Such knots cannot be untied, or simply seen as two threads entwined together.  Only in this way can we understand how dreams of liberation could in the same breath be acts of imperialism.  We can also see free love as a part of a larger discourse of radicalism which Wood was able to adopt in two, contradictory ways: radicalism marked a philosophical departure from the state, but aesthetically, he used it to fuel his lavish lifestyle.

Luisa Capetillo

Luisa Capetillo, 27 years younger than Wood, published and spoke on anarchism, women’s rights, labor rights, and free love during the same decades as CES Wood, the 1890s through the first decades of the 20th century.  Capetillo is commonly remembered as the early Puerto Rican feminist.  Although she was widely influential in her time, “not one issue of Luisa Capetillo’s newspaper for working women… has been preserved.”[25] The works of other radical Puerto Rican women, too, have slipped past the archive.  Capetillo was the only working class woman radical to leave any substantial opinions in print, and thus, she has become a token of her kind.

Capetillo was born out of wedlock in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.  Although her parents were both working class, they retained an enthusiasm for literature and education from their European ancestry.[26] From her mother’s homeschooling and both her parent’s examples, Capetillo grew to read and write more efficiently than many of her peers.  As Findlay tells it, Capetillo’s politics were formed both by a positive influence from her mother, and the negative, coercive, influence of her patriarchal first lover.  Her mother-the only woman of 19th century Arecibo to do so-insisted on attending political discussions with Luisa’s father.  Capetillo dedicates her 1911 collection of essays, Mi opinion acerca de las libertades, derechos y deberes de la mujer to her mother, “who never imposed or forced me to think according to tradition” as well as to her children, “for whom I have sighed and continue to sigh….”[27] The “sigh” is clearly linked to her rocky relationship with them and with her first lover.  Manuel Ledesma had two children out of wedlock with Luisa and “kept her under strict surveillance,” then abandoned her with no money.  Later, he forced the children away from her.[28]

Capetillo found work at a cigar factory, where she involved herself in the Federacion Libre de Trabajadores (the Free Federation of Workers), and became active in Puerto Rico’s growing anarchist labor movement.  She soon became active in.  As she became a prominent leader in labor organizing, she grew into the coveted and respected position of the union’s reader.  The tobacco workers hired one person to read to them-politics, news, and literature- as they worked.  Felix Rodriguez writes, “Being a reader was an extremely prestigious public role for a worker and one that immediately placed them among the worker’s elite.”[29] Although women were common workers in the cigar factory-mostly as stemstrippers and leaf strippers, women were not usually, if ever, readers.  This position gave her political and intellectual credibility among labor activists, and soon she was an active writer and talented speaker, traveling throughout the States’ east coast and the Caribbean to speak on behalf of labor rights.

Between her own father’s leaving, Ledesma’s leaving, and struggling against patriarchal men in the labor movement (with one of them she had a third child), Capetillo had learned enough about patriarchy. She challenged her union members to support women’s rights and became an outspoken feminist.  Findlay emphasizes that Capetillo’s feminist politics were neither a direct product of European feminist influences nor of the Puerto Rican male left.  Rather, it was a melánge of these discourses, and most importantly, Capetillo herself writes, “The majority of my studies I have carried out in relation to myself.”[30] In other words, Capetillo’s particular experiences intersected with multiple European and Puerto Rican discourses, in which she intervened through a specifically local, not imported, feminist thought.

Her first political writings (essays and plays), echoed the patriarchal prerogatives of the labor movement at large, prioritizing class solidarity and de-emphasizing women’s demands.  “But by 1910,” Findlay writes, “Capetillo was loudly asserting in no uncertain terms that sexuality was political, indeed central to a revolutionary agenda.”[31] Capetillo politicized male infidelity and prioritized bodily autonomy as central to working class people’s goals.[32]

Capetillo’s first book, Mi opinion, marked “the first time that a feminist treatise was published in Puerto Rico,” and one of the first feminist texts of the Caribbean and Latin America.  Felix V Matos Rodriguez writes.[33] In 2004, Rodriguez edited her work and Alan West-Duran translated it into English, making it widely accessible for the first time since 1913.

She is popularly remembered for being the first Puerto Rican woman to wear pants, a 1919 challenge to Puerto Rican legislature which landed her in jail.  Capetillo won the case by “arguing in court that no law prevented her from wearing men’s garb, and that such clothing was appropriate for the changing role of women in society, and that she had worn similar clothing in the streets of Puerto Rico and Mexico without state intervention.”[34] That Capetillo should be allowed to wear pants without state intervention was symbolic of a larger struggle against state and patriarchal control in her life.

Free Love: the Pacific Northwest and Puerto Rico

The late 19th century in both the Pacific Northwest and Puerto Rico was a time of rapid transition and an attendant collision of intellectual trends.  In the Pacific Northwest, even as the government and its army forced the last free indigenous groups onto reservations, as imperialist profiteers and homesteaders developed businesses and industries which transformed the pristine wilderness into “natural resources,” many individuals had radical-and radically divergent- hopes for this final strip of United States territory.  Anarchists, socialists, spiritualists, environmentalists, and suffragists had alternative, if conflicting ideas about what this space could offer.  Among Pacific Northwest free thinkers were a significant number who advocated free love, a movement by already in its second wave by the 1850s.

Like the Pacific Northwest, the turn of the century in Puerto Rico was thick with social, environmental, political, and cultural change.  The 1898 Spanish-American war landed Puerto Rico under US rule, and industrialization quickly spread throughout the island.  Rapid industrialization spurred radical resistance to worker’s exploitation and the ensuing economic crisis. The city of Ponce had an anarchist study center where labor organizers met and discussed their politics.  Simultaneously, middle class Puerto Rican women were fighting for the United State’s suffrage to extend to themselves (only literate women), and many working-class Puerto Rican women agitated for universal suffrage and socialist organization.[35] Puerto Rico’s turn of the century free love movement arose from this flourishing of radical intellectual stimulation, labor agitation, and increasing demand for women’s independent citizenship and education.

Where Puerto Rico’s free lovers were deeply rooted in their geography, free love in the Pacific Northwest was a newcomer’s philosophy.  The mentality of empty space, newness, and potential of the Pacific Northwest’s “new frontier” drew free lovers from across the country.  “Characterized by the juxtaposition of hauntingly beautiful virgin land and a rapidly developing urban-industrial society,” Oregon and Washington abounded with opportunities for utopian experiments.[36] Western historian Carlos Schwantes found that to Portland, Oregon anarchists, the lush nature of the undeveloped Pacific Northwest offered “one last opportunity to create a workable alternative to the dehumanizing industrial system so much a feature of life in the commercial and manufacturing centers of the eastern United States and Europe.”[37] Land was cheap and fertile surrounding the Puget Sound in Washington[38], and radicals congregated there on five utopian communities to escape the increasingly unhealthy city life of Portland, Tacoma, and Seattle at the turn of the 20th century.[39]

White radicals came to the Northwest seeing little contradiction between their colonization of indigenous territory and their eagerness to set up their utopian, new frontier lives.  Even while they were inspired by indigenous ways of life, many saw it their task to bring “culture” to the Pacific Northwest.  CES Wood is a classic example of such contradiction.

Working-class Puerto Rican’s were in somewhat of an opposite position.  While whites were pouring into the Pacific Northwest with all their New England ways, working-class Puerto Rican radicals were holding fast to their ways of life while white elites attempted to uproot their cultural practices.  The city of Ponce, Puerto Rico flourished with labor activism and interracial solidarity.  The free love movement, born of the labor movements’ most radical leaders, rejected social constructions of a racialized sexual purity that the middle class attempted to impose onto the working class.  White middle class feminists, in particular were attempting to impose elitist moral codes onto the working class, including marriage, miscegenation laws, and anti-prostitution campaigns.  For the working class, resisting these white feminists actually became a feminist and anti-racist project in itself.

The widespread attraction of American radicals to the Pacific Northwest may have been especially potent for those idealists and nature enthusiasts who had not shifted toward the realism and syndicalism associated with the IWW and urban socialism, as much of anarchist America at the turn of the 20th century had.  Most of the east coast utopian communities fractured under the pressure of infighting, WWI anti-communism, and the Comstock Law.  Simultaneously, the IWW consumed more and more radical energy.  Harry Kelly, a participant in east coast anarchist colonies wrote that “Colonists are often… denounced by those who consider themselves ultra-radicals for ‘deserting’ the labor movement by moving to the country.'”[40] On the contrary, anarchists had largely shifted away from rural radicalism-utopian projects in particular- and the belief that “the restructuring of society could be based upon changes in the social organization of intimate life.”[41] By the 1890’s utopian experiments were fading in popularity across the country as realism overgrew idealism.

Among the five communities near Puget Sound, one, the Home community, played a significant role in the free love movement, publishing important publications-Discontent: Mother of Progress, The Demonstrator, and Why?- and embodying the ideas that they touted.  A community in Portland, Oregon, too, for a time, moved to the outskirts of their town and tried out subsistence living as a part of their larger anarchist philosophies.

The tension in the States between the aesthetics and prerogatives of rural idealism and urban pragmatism did not pertain to Puerto Rico.  Since radicalism and free love came out of the labor movement, there was no sense that the labor movement was taking away from the politicization of the private sphere.  “One of the most significant developments of the new U.S. colonial regime in Puerto Rico after the 1898 invasion” Felix Matos Rodriguez writes “was the rise and prominence of organized labor.”[42] The labor movement spawned intellectual and artistic trends including radical critiques of the state and church.  Historian Eileen Suarez Findlay writes, “plebian intellectuals penned passionate defenses of prostitutes, whom they presented as the quintessential example of capitalist exploitation; developed critiques of marriage and women’s sexual exploitation; and advocated the practice of free love.”[43]

Unique to Pacific Northwest and Midwestern rural radicals, a fundamental link between women’s rights, anarchism, and free love was “the law of nature.”  The wild and unindustrialized beauty of the Pacific Northwest symbolized the possibility to experience love as wild and free as the Pacific Northwest landscapes.  Wood laments, “The birds and the beasts find their escape from the divorce courts in the fact that they were never legally married[44] He believed that humans, like other animals, should love and mate only as long as there was mutual desire, and no longer.  In another poem, he writes,

Love of the flashing wing,

Love of the earliest Spring,

Hark to Earth’s chorusing:

Love, Love is free.

Love, Life’s eternal fire,

Mounting forever higher,

Hart to the heavenly choir:

Love, Love is free.[45]

Nature, especially the Pacific Northwest, was both a guideline and an inspiration for human action.  What other constant would radicals look to in this time of rapid transition?  Certainly not the Bible, not the state, and not traditional patriarchal roles.  As much as nature has acted as a timeless appeal to nearly anything one might want to advocate, nature filled a particularly important role at this time of industrialization, colonization, imperialism, and the increase of the state’s control of gender and sexuality.

Free love in Puerto Rico grew into a point of intersection between vastly different discourses. Despite its Western roots, free love was not an ideological import, but a name for a way which many Puerto Ricans already lived.  Free love in Puerto Rico was based on rejecting middle class “honor codes,” and a “politicization of the sexual norms of the popular classes, as well as a public affirmation of these norms’ superiority over those of the more privileged classes.”[46] The labor radicals who advocated free love were mostly influenced by political writers from Spain, Argentina, and Brazil,[47] but also from European anarchists.  They advocated relationships to be based on love, not on economics, not on false notions of morality, and not on racial divisions.  Partners should be able to leave a relationship whenever and if ever they wanted.  But these values were embedded in Puerto Rico’s plebian culture already: “Puerto Rican sexual radicals were also building on the moral norms of the popular classes within which they came of age.”[48] Common relationships were already based on serial monogamy, marriage and racial purity were ideologies of the middle class, and virginity was not a significant factor in women’s social standings.

Puerto Rico’s free love was distinctly working-class.  It rose up from plebian culture and when met with resistance by the state and middle-class reformers, it took on a Western name.  The act marked a beginning of strategic international alliances that the working class, women, and radicals would make for a century to come.  The Pacific Northwest’s free love movement was cross-class, but invariably influenced by the more privileged outlook of citizens of a prospering, expanding country.  The radicalism was tinted by internal contradictions of colonization and expansion, but it also drew inspiration from the natural landscapes.  Free love for Puerto Rican’s was a new inclusion of women’s rights, but a steady defense of generations and generations of cultural practices.  Free love for those in the Pacific Nothwest was most often a departure from the practices of individuals’ families and communities, a departure from state alliances, and even a physical departure from their previous residences as they populated a new place with hopes for new social and cultural possibilities.

A Madness Preciouser Than Health[49]

“The great boon of freedom will be to banish lying, hypocrisy, jealousy, and murder for love-and teaching couples to plunge madly into the mad joy, knowing if it should pass they can part loving friends saying, ‘We have had each other for a day in Paradise’.”[50]

CES Wood considers The Poet in the Desert the apex of his career.  This book-length poem grows from the intersection of turn of the 20th century discourses on love, anarchism, women’s rights, and nature.  It is characterized by the politics and natural landscapes in the Pacific Northwest, but also filled with an unapologetically American individualism and a “new frontier” attitude about the West.  It is a mix of arrogance and radicalism, of 18th and 19th century romantic language and fiery, progressive politics.

Wood’s poetry employs classic, even cliché, metaphors likening women to nature. But rooted in this language is a keen political agenda which lends his poems both authenticity and power.  Couched in the language of eastern Oregon’s high desert landscape, and through the feminization and idealization of this beloved place, Wood calls for free love along with women’s rights, anarchy, and environmental conservation.

Subjects of the Pacific Northwest’s natural landscape-the buds, Juniper trees, grasshoppers, crickets, cicadas, the seasons and the stars- shape this book-length poem’s arguments for freedom from authority and coercion on all levels, public and private.    Consider the following stanza:

Silence invincible; impregnable;

Compelling the soul to stand forth

And be questioned.

Night overwhelms me.

Coyotes bark to the stars.

Upon the midnight sand I lie,

Thoughtfully sifting the earth

Through my fingers.

I am that dust.

I look up to the stars,

Knowing to them my life is not

More valuable than that of the flowers;

The little, delicate flowers of the Desert,

Which, like a breath, catch at the hem of Spring

And are gone.[51]

This poem captures several important elements in Wood’s work.  Objects of nature overwhelm the poem.  Coyotes, stars, sand, earth, flowers, and spring gather into epistemological challenges to Western ways of knowing.  He deflates the importance of humans, particularly of men, and places them within a value context of nature: either less important, or of equal value.  Such a project hinges on infusing the reader with a sense of humility and utter respect for life, down to the tiniest flower.

The Poet in the Desert develops a value dualism between women and men which parallels the value dualism between nature and culture.  Women are naturalized and nature is feminized, and both are valued above men and culture.  The classic value dualism, men/culture over women/nature, is simply reversed.  For example, consider the following lines:

“the Desert…

insists upon humility.

She insists upon meditation.

She insists that the soul be free.

She requires an answer.”[52]

Wood clearly marks the desert as female with the repetition of the pronoun “she.”  Maintaining a classic woman-nature association but reversing the value hierarchy, he places the desert in an authority position: the desert “insists”; the desert “requires.”  But ironically, “she” uses her authority to insist upon freedom.

In other moments the author’s insistence on freedom becomes more explicitly connected to free love:

Thrice-blessed are we, my lover with grey eyes,

To dwell within this peach-perfumed spot,

Far from the paltry turbulence and lies.

Here, narrow superstitions are forgot;

We live our life as Nature willed we should,

In full abandon of the wholly free;

Knowing that untaught longings are all good,

The soul-blown seed from far eternity.

The scarlet dogwood strips her beauty bare,

But the dark pine stands clad for winter snow;

Shall every weed perceive its proper care

And not the spirit its true welfare know?

Better than all Man’s blighting, blind control,

The unchecked blossoms of the God-born soul.[53]

Here again there is a tension between man and nature over authority and control.  Wood seems to believe that nature has the only authority to “will” any particular prerogatives, and in this case again, nature wills freedom, and vests control away from “Man.”  Through this arrest of control, the two lovers are able to live in alliance with nature, freed from the unnatural “superstitions” of man, presumably referring to marriage and monogamy.

Many ecofeminists, whose theories do not begin to appear for sixty years after the book’s publication, adopt a similar approach: feminizing and glorifying nature, while vilifying maleness and culture.[54] But many have attributed the dominance, exploitation, and destruction of women and nature to this woman-nature association, whether it is positive or negative on the surface.  Karen Warren writes, and other ecofeminists critique this symbolic woman-nature connection because it tends to “feminize nature and naturalize women to the mutual detriment of both.”[55] They deconstructed, rather than reversed, the value dualisms of man/culture over woman/nature.  To simply react to the negative construction of women and nature in our society by reversing dualisms-to consider women superior to men and nature superior to culture-ecofeminists argue, is to avoid deconstructing the oppressive conceptual framework on which the exploitation of women and nature are founded.

Although Wood’s dualism reversals may not deeply deconstruct the framework of exploitation, oppression, and ownership-key issues associated with “man” and “culture” in his work- his intent is, like earlier ecofeminists, to restore value to that which his culture was rapidly destroying.

Wood’s flipping of the traditional value system has some important elements besides valuing women and nature.  Much of what is associated with “woman” and “nature” in Western thinking also takes on a significant value in Wood’s work.  Irrationality, associated with femininity, weakness, a lack of intelligence, etc, is central to Wood’s theory of love.  In a play called “The Masque of Love,” he writes, “[Love] is a madness preciouser than health.”[56] In this play, Magdalen and Edwin contest the meaning of love and its place in relationships:

EDWIN. You give your love too wastefully.  You have no other thought.  That is not good.

MAGDALEN. Nay, is it not?  Can ever be too much of good?  Doth good afflict?  If love be truly good, methinks the more ’tis piled with eager hands, the richer is the one who takes.

EdWIN. Love is a sweet, and most endures if Lent is sometimes kept.

MAGDALEN. Speak not of Lenten love to me.  My hungry soul would starve into a ghost too pitiful, and die….

EDWIN When shall I marry you?

MAGDALEN. Never.  What’s marriage unto me?  You know I scorn the marrying rites of priests, and laws which make a mockery.  True marriage needs but two.  That marriage we have had and that, dear Christ, I’ve lost!  A chilling change stands bodily before my eyes.  ‘Tis palpable.  I fold my battered wings and close my eyes.  You talk of marriage from a dutiful and cooling heart.  Such marriage is to me but Hell and whoredom, though all the stale machinery of man with (woman) clank should forge the chain.[57]

Magdalen develops a new way of thinking about love that contrasts and challenges Edwin’s traditional, monogamous, marriage-oriented way of thinking about love.  Love is best in abundance, marriage without love is “Hell and whoredom,” and true marriage is forged through love between two people, not through the sanctification of the church or the state as third parties.  Importantly, Edwin, the man, represents the masculine old patriarchal tradition, where Magdalen, the woman, represents the new understanding of love, the challenge to marriage, the scorn of tradition.  Especially in this wave of the free love movement, the discourse hinged on women’s rights and women’s interest.  In another poem, the desert whispers to Wood: “‘Only Man has defied his Mother/And set up the idols of his ignorance./ Only Man has denied Freedom,/ And cherished ugliness.”[58] Even while men were the most publically vocal and took up the most printed space, free love was at its core a movement about women’s empowerment, women’s ability to refuse sexual advances of men and to enter sexual engagements willingly and of their own accord.

Capetillo’s Free Love

Capetillo leads her book, Mi opinion sobre las libertades, derechos y deberes de la mujer with an essay on women’s rights titled “Woman in the home, in the family, and in the government.”  This essay was re-titled “Introduction to the study of women,” in the un-translated 1913 edition of her work, which, Felix Matos Rodriquez portends, “is more direct in her feminist challenges.”[59] In this essay, Capetillo outlines her opinions on gender relations and women’s opportunities in Puerto Rican society.

Capetillo’s writings were entirely direct.  At least in what has survived the archive, she did not infuse her philosophies into poetry or in any form of abstract expression.  In contrast, when I mentioned free love to CES Wood’s great granddaughter, she laughed and said “yes… his writing was full of analogies disguised as amphigory.”[60] Wood could afford abstraction, but Capetillo could not.  Her writings were originally distributed as pamphlets and passed through friends, family, labor activists and intellectual allies.  They were not published gilt-edged on the finest paper, with the finest embossments.  They were not written from a second office at a law firm or at a California estate safely separated from the world and guarded with stone cats.  Capetillo critiqued the state and patriarchy from in the mess of it, in the grips of it.

The liberation of women was much more utilitarian than aesthetic, which it might have been for Wood.  Free love for Capetillo was entrenched in the pragmatics of economic survival.  Where Wood focuses on the rights of love and freedom in the abstract, women’s rights are an implied corollary.  But for Capetillo, free lovemeant women’s rights, and women’s rights meant economic survival.  Capetillo writes, “Woman, as an important factor in human civilization, is worthy to obtain complete liberty.”[61] Complete liberty came through avenues of reforming women’s opportunities in love, education, family life, and work.

Luisa Capetillo shapes her free love philosophy from a very different set of prerogatives than does Wood.  Historian Eileen Suaraz Findlay writes, “Capetillo’s feminism did not spring solely from either European theorists or her political formation within the male-dominated Puerto Rican labor movement….  She also drew directly on the practice by the Puerto Rican popular classes of rapto and serial monogamy to formulate her critiques of marriage and advocacy of free love.”[62] Findlay’s research reveals that free love in plebian Puerto Rico was a name for what already existed, what most people were already practicing, rather than a subversive practice in which only a minority partook.

Capetillo uses the language of marriage positively.  She develops a reformed idea of what marriage is, where Wood rejects the institution altogether.  Ironically, wedlock was not a part of Capetillo’s life.  It was common among working class Puerto Rican’s not to marry, not to include the state or church to institutionalize love relations.  But Capetillo writes,

“Marriage as currently practiced is an error.  In our current society, women get married only to follow custom….  I think that a man should…choose the woman he loves with all of his soul, and make her his wife, and create a family.  And if they are not compatible and feel obligated to separate, then they scan each choose again in the future.”[63]

Capetillo’s free love was restricted to heterosexuality.  She advocated heterosexual love outside of marriage and heterosexual love within marriage, with the option to leave relationships.  Despite her masculine appearance and her adoption of many previously male-only roles in labor activism and education, she held surprisingly strictly traditional views on sexuality and gender.  For instance, she argued that if parents “oppose a marriage bond” of their children’s choosing, they cause their daughters to “surrender to masturbation or the crime against nature of being with the same sex.”[64] The law of nature, Capetillo portends, allows women to freely enter and exit heterosexual relations, but does not touch other sex radical causes as masturbation and same sex loving, which were generally a part of free love discussions in the states.  Capetillo uses “the law of nature” to decide what is natural, and therefore acceptable, and what is not.  Unfortunately, this is the same discourse that had forced women into unhappy marriages in the first place, as such a discourse is used to create another hegemony within Capetillo’s writings.  Like Wood, Capetillo writes, “Nature indicates to us the true path toward goodness, but we want to be wiser than nature, and herein lies the origin of all our errors, in wanting to modify the natural laws, which is where beauty, health, harmony, and truth are to be found.”[65]

Capetillo’s idea of free love is in many ways contradictory to Wood’s: “No man should be with a woman other than she whom he will choose to create a family….  This is free love, which we are criticized for, which they try to profane and defame, saying that it is immoral, when immorality, emotional disorders, and vice are what currently reign.”[66] In neither his life nor his work did Wood suggest that freedom in love could restrict loving relationships to families.  Rather, this is the kind of thinking which Wood’s writing reeled against.  At the same time, Wood’s writing did not take into account the kind of economic struggles that often accompany children out of wedlock.  Wood’s theory of love was romantic, even recreationalist, where Capetillo’s theory of love was tied to economic survival and women’s political and educational rights-issues that Wood only brushed by in the abstract.


Wood’s free love philosophy was triply dipped in resistance to the state, the psyche of state-formed democratic ideals, and inspiration from indigenous (stateless) peoples.  Free love moves in and through state politics, but it’s very resistance to the state and its very birth from Western philosophy defined and shaped its prerogative.

Capetillo’s free love philosophy was shaped at an opposite angle to the state.  Capetillo was in the midst of resisting middle class white feminists impositions of their perspectives on morality and respectability as well as US and Puerto Rican capitalists impositions of their perspectives on class formation, labor, and profit.  Capetillo’s free love was based on a self-formed working class feminism, a radical labor politic, and the cultural roots of love practices in plebian society.

Where Wood’s free love was much more ideologically based, it did not extend far beyond his ability to freely make love to many women.  Capetillo’s free love, on the other hand, was a part of a much more complicated web of “subversions,” including interracial relationships, gender bending, and serial monogamy.

Free love, for Capetillo, was a resistance to the very state and ideological formations which Wood implemented in his participation in the colonization of the West.  Since Wood’s radicalism was funded by corporate law and the initial formations of free trade agreements, it is likely that this connection is all too literal.

Although free love is considered a Western discourse, at least by its name, its practice was more common among Capetillo’s culture and social networks than Wood’s.  For Wood, free love required a philosophical departure from the norm.  For Capetillo, on the other hand, free love was a name for the particular blend of personal reflection, Western radicalism, labor resistance, and plebian culture.  Although she did advocate change within her own culture, especially for women’s rights, many of values that free love called for already existed in her way of life.

I hope that this essay has explicated the relationship between state formations and resistance theories on the contested site of radical love.  I have tried to show how tradition, class, participation within or outside of state mechanisms, and gender have shaped both the content and the form of Luisa Capetillo’s and CES Wood’s free love writings.

Works Cited

Azize-Vargas, Yamila. “The Emergence of Feminism in Puerto Rico, 1870-1930” in Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women’s History. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Barnes, Tim and Edwin Bingham. Wood Works: The Life and Writings of Charles Erskine Scott Wood. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1997.

Findlay, Eileen Suarez. Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870-1920. Duke University Press, 1999.

Forster, Dora. Sex Radicalism as Seen by an Emancipated Woman of the New Time. Chicago: M. Harman, 1905.

Hamburger, Robert. Two Rooms: The Life of Charles Erskine Scott Wood. University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

Koenig, Brigitte. “Law and Disorder at Home: Free Love, Free Speech, and the Search for an Anarchist Utopia.” Labor History 45, no. 2 (2004): 199-223.

LeWarne, Charles Pierce, “The Anarchist Colony at Home, Washington, 1901-1902.” AW 4 (1972).

Odem, Mary. Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920. The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Passet, Joanne. Sex Radicals and the Quest for Women’s Equality. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

Schroer, Sandra. State of ‘the Union’: Marriage and Free Love in the Late 1800s. New York and London: Routledge, 2005.

Schwantes, Carlos. “Free Love and Free Speech on the Pacific Northwest Frontier.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 82 (1981): 271-293.

Sears, Hal. The Sex Radicals: Free Love in High Victorian America. Kansas: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1977.

Stansell, Christine. 1998. “Talking About Sex: Early-Twentieth-Century Radicals and Moral Confessions” in Moral Problems in American Life: New Perspectives on Cultural History, ed. Karen Halttunen and Lewis Perry, 283-307. New York: Cornell University Press.

Waisbrooker, Lois, A Sex Revolution. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1985.

Warren, Karen. “Ecological Feminist Philosophies: An Overview of the Issues.” In Karen Warren (Ed.), Ecological Feminist Philosophies. Bloomington, ID: Indiana University Press, 1996

Wood, Charles Erskine Scott Maia, Self-published, 1919.

Wood, Charles Erskine Scott, A Masque of Love. Chicago: Walter M. Hill, 1904.

Wood, Charles Erskine Scott, Poet in the desert. Portland, Oregon: Press of F.W. Baltes and Company, 1918.

[1] Hal Sears, The Sex Radicals: Free Love in High Victorian America (Kansas: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1977), 4

[2] Lois Waisbrooker, A Sex Revolution (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1985), 3

[3]Joanne Passet, Sex Radicals and the Quest for Women’s Equality (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 4

[4] Sandra Schroer, State of ‘the Union’: Marriage and Free Love in the Late 1800s (New York and London: Routledge, 2005), 89

[5] Ibid.

[6] Dora Forster, Sex Radicalism as Seen by an Emancipated Woman of the New Time (Chicago: M. Harman, 1905), 7

[7] Passet, 94

[8] Mary Odem, Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920 (The University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 188

[9] Eileen Suarez Findlay, Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870-1920 (Duke University Press, 1999), 7

[10] Ibid., 74

[11] Oregon Blue Book, Wikipedia, OPB, Oregon history Project, George Venn, David Michael Liberty, Sherry L Smith

[12] Robert Hamburger, Two Rooms: The Life of Charles Erskine Scott Wood (University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 21

[13] Edwin Bingham and Tim Barnes, Wood Works: The Life and Writings of Charles Erskine Scott Wood (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1997), 5

[14] Hamburger, 27

[15] Ibid., 48

[16] Bingham and Barnes, 9

[17] Ibid., 52

[18] Ibid., 53

[19] Ibid., 63

[20] Ibid., 23

[21] Handwritten note

[22] Christine Stansell, “Talking About Sex: Early-Twentieth-Century Radicals and Moral Confessions” in Moral Problems in American Life: New Perspectives on Cultural History, ed. Karen Halttunen and Lewis Perry, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1998), 288

[23] Hamburger, 342

[24] Stansell, 288

[25] Findlay, 158-9

[26] Luisa Capetillo, A Nation of Women: An Early Feminist Speaks Out (Houston: Arte Público Press, 2004), xiii

[27] Ibid., 2

[28] Findlay, 160

[29] Capetillo xvi

[30] Ibid.

[31] Findlay, 161

[32] Ibid.

[33] Capetillo, ix

[34] Leslie Feinberg, February 2007, “Bodies shackled and repressed,” Workers of the World,

[35] Yamila Azize-Vargas, “The Emergence of Feminism in Puerto Rico, 1870-1930” in Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women’s History. (New York: Routledge, 2000), 271

[36] Carlos Schwantes, “Free Love and Free Speech on the Pacific Northwest Frontier,” (Oregon Historical Quarterly 82, 1981), 273

[37] Ibid.

[38] Brigitte Koenig, “Law and Disorder at Home: Free Love, Free Speech, and the Search for an Anarchist Utopia,” Labor History 45, no. 2 (2004), 203

[39]Charles Pierce LeWarne, “The Anarchist Colony at Home, Washington, 1901-1902.” AW 4 (1972), 157

[40] Koenig, 218

[41] Ibid., 199

[42] Capetillo, xv

[43] Findlay, 137

[44] Bingham and Barnes, 114

[45] Charles Erskine Scott Wood, Maia, (Self-Published, 1919), no page #

[46] Findlay, 151

[47] Ibid., 152

[48] Ibid.

[49] Charles Erskine Scott Wood, A Masque of Love (Chicago: Walter M. Hill, 1904), 42

[50] Hamburger, 199

[51] Charles Erskine Scott Wood, Poet in the desert (Portland, Oregon: Press of F.W. Baltes and Company, 1918), 5

[52] Ibid., 8

[53] Charles Erskine Scott Wood, Maia, no page #

[54] Riane Eisler (1990), Arisika Razak (1990), Collard and Contrucci (1988)

[55] Karen Warren. “Ecological Feminist Philosophies: An Overview of the Issues.” In Karen Warren (Ed.), Ecological Feminist Philosophies. (Bloomington, ID: Indiana University Press, 1996), xiii

[56] Charles Erskine Scott Wood, The Masque of Love, 42

[57] Ibid., 41-42

[58] Ibid.

[59] Capetillo, x

[60] Personal email conversation, March 19th 2008

[61] Capetillo 4-5

[62] Ibid., 160

[63] Ibid., 25

[64] Ibid.

[65] Capetillo, 26

[66] Ibid., 29


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