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April 6, 1872

THE ETHICS OF SEXUAL EQUALITY
BY TENNIE C. CLAFLIN
[Extracts from her March 29, 1872 lecture]

The primal error that is made by society, and it is one that almost everybody makes, is in attempting to compel all sorts of people to conform to the same rules of life—a thing which is not only impossible in itself, but which everybody knows is impossible. It is an absolute law, everywhere in the universe that every condition has its own controlling laws; and it is impossible to compel the law of one sort of condition to apply to conditions of an entirely different character. It would be considered the height of absurdity to say, because some individuals are dyspeptic, hence every individual should subsist on Graham flour. But that would be no more absurd than are nearly all the rules laid down for the government of society in its most fundamental relations.

Finding certain effects existing in its body, society attempts to compel underlying principles to conform to them. Now that is all wrong, and nothing but misfortune can possibly flow from it. The only true mode is to discover the principles and laws which underlie all things, and then to formulate rules of government in conformity to them, in utter disregard of whatever may have been or whatever is.

I have said there is a terrible disease being engendered in society, which all ‘the powers that be’ are exerting their utmost efforts to conceal, and to prevent inquiry being made about it. Those who presume, even to hint, that our sexual rules and regulations are not perfect, and their results are not sound, are at once branded as revolutionists, who desire to demoralize society by their immoral teachings, or who desire to excuse their own lives by advocating rules of conduct conforming to them. . . .

The first thing that we encounter when we examine the present social system, and which is its chief corner-stone is marriage, or the union of the sexes. At the outset the question arises as to what marriage is. Is it a natural condition or an artificial production? Is it governed by natural or by artificial laws? Does it exist in the common order of the universe, or did mankind invent it in order that they might have its use. . . .

That is to say, if marriage is a natural condition, which would exist whether there were any artificial laws or not, then, since it exists and there are laws, the laws which govern it should be such as to harmonize with those which govern in its natural condition. But if marriage is an artificial production, invented to serve specific purposes, as the watch is invented to mark time, then the laws by which it should be governed should be those which will best produce the purposes for which it was invented.

Now, is marriage an invention or is it a natural condition existing in the common order of things? It is scarcely necessary that I should say it is not in any sense of the word an invention made by man. . . .Man found the principle of marriage existing in men and women before there were any rules of society. . . .

But first let us analyze the results that are attained. The first grand attempt is to induce two persons, opposite in sex, to think so much of each other that they feel willing in order to accomplish a present wish, to promise to love each other till death do them part. At the very introduction to the happy state, they are compelled to give a solemn pledge that they will perform something which there can be no human means of determining in advance, whether they can or cannot redeem. The only value a promise or a contract has, is the ability which is involved to fulfill it. . . .

I believe that a large proportion of married people will agree with me that, as compared to what they anticipated, marriage is a stupendous failure—a gigantic fraud. But they don’t realize this until the blow is struck—until the deed is done—from which, twist it as they may, there is no escape. Some rebel . . . The common result is the utter waste of all that is really grand and noble in life, sacrificed to satisfy a custom which the self-styled conservators of morality impose upon society. And the reason this sacrifice is made is because the moral courage to do differently is lacking. It is ostracism to do differently. The important crisis passed, the first incident of importance by which they are overtaken is, that the wife unexpectedly finds herself in a strange condition [pregnant], and wonders what the symptoms mean. Satisfied at length that something is wrong, the services of a Madam Restell [abortionist], if the parties have the means to obtain entrée to her august presence, are secured, and the situation is usually successfully relieved, in a scientific manner. But lacking the open sesame to this aristocratic relief, second, third and fourth rate resorts, according to cost, are put in demand. And when the information, means and courage to do either of these are lacking, then washes, teas, tonics and various sorts of appliances known to the initiated, are resorted to, either of which, if successful, inevitably induces a long list of complaints and weaknesses, the prevalence of which to-day is a standing reproach upon, and a permanent indictment against American women. . . .

The next circumstance that usually turns up, when all resorts fail, is wives find themselves with babies on their hands. How they came by them they are usually only a little less ignorant of than of the care to which they are entitled. . . .

Now, my second indictment against marriage is that it compels women to become mothers against their wish and will, and to maintain sexual relations with men for whom their love is not sufficiently deep to always make them happy at the prospect of reproducing themselves in children. I assert it as my earnest and well-established conviction that no woman should ever hold sexual relations with any man from the possibly consequences of which she might desire to escape.

But this raises a relative question as to what shall take the place of present marriage customs, since, so long as women depend upon the fact of their sex for support, marriage of some sort seems indispensable. . . .

Scarcely any woman deems it dishonorable to assert that she married for a home, or that if it were not for support she would not remain with her husband; but the same woman will denounce a poor unfortunate, who cannot obtain a husband, because she sustains sexual relations, for the same purposes, with a man to whom she is not legally married.

It is, without doubt, the most unfortunate condition to which women are subject, that, as a general rule, they are compelled to rely upon their sex to gain favor with men. . . The only stock a woman has in which to deal is her person. She must sell that to a man for life, or to men indiscriminately, in order to obtain the means of living.

But a great change must come. The total order of society must be reversed. It must be reconstructed so as to make women equally independent with men. Women must be educated as men are—to self support; and the idea that they are only born and grown to become the sexual slaves of some man, or a number of men, must be forever banished from the thoughts of women and from the thoughts of men that they can be so.

If women, when they arrive at their majority, are like men capable of self-maintenance, marriage or sexual relations would only be entered upon from motives other than making them a means of support. They will not surrender their freedom except for love, which should be the motive of all sexual relations.

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Webmaster's Note: Except for some headings, these are actual extracts from the Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly. Some spelling and punctuation has been changed. If an article was too long, some sentences were removed. Sentences or paragraphs that have been removed are indicated with the ellipsis (....)