Influenced by abolitionism, women’s rights advocates turned another popular understanding of freedom—self-ownership, or control over one’s own person—in an entirely new direction. The emphasis in abolitionist literature on the violation of the slave woman’s body by her master helped to give the idea of self-ownership a concrete reality that encouraged application to free women as well. The law of domestic relations presupposed the husband’s right of sexual access to his wife and to inflict corporal punishment on her. Courts proved reluctant to intervene in cases of physical abuse so long as it was not “extreme” or “intolerable.” “Women’s Rights,” declared a Boston meeting in 1859, included “freedom and equal rights in the family.” The demand that women should enjoy the rights to regulate their own sexual activity and procreation and to be protected by the state against violence at the hands of their husbands challenged the notion that claims for justice, freedom, and individual rights should stop at the household’s door.

The issue of women’s private freedom revealed underlying differences within the movement for women’s rights. Belief in equality between the sexes and in the sexes’ natural differences coexisted in antebellum feminist thought. Even as they entered the public sphere and thereby challenged some aspects of the era’s “cult of domesticity” (discussed in Chapter 9), many early feminists accepted other elements. Allowing women a greater role in the public sphere, many female reformers argued, would bring then “inborn” maternal instincts to bear on public life, to the benefit of the entire society.

Even feminists critical of the existing institution of marriage generally refrained from raising in public the explosive issue of women’s “private” freedom. The question frequently arose, however, in the correspondence of feminist leaders. “Social Freedom,” Susan B. Anthony observed to Lucy Stone, “lies at the bottom of all—and until woman gets that, she must continue the slave of men in all other things.” Women like Anthony, who never married, and Stone, who with her husband created their own definition of marriage, reflected the same dissatisfactions with traditional family life as the women who joined communitarian experiments. Not until the twentieth century would the demand that freedom be extended to intimate aspects of hfe inspire a mass movement. But the dramatic fall in the birthrate over the course of the nineteenth century suggests that many women were quietly exercising “personal freedom” in their most intimate relationships.

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