The “Anti-Marriage Theory” of Thomas and Mary Gove Nichols: A Radical Critique of Monogamy in the 1850s
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The “Anti-Marriage Theory” of Thomas and Mary Gove Nichols
A Radical Critique of Monogamy in the 1850s
Keywords

marriage, monogamy, Thomas Low Nichols, Mary Gove Nichols, sexual mores, 19th-century American culture, attitudes toward sex, women’s heath

Mary Gove Nichols and Thomas Low Nichols, operating separately in the 1840s and then together as a dynamic partnership in the 1850s, earned national reputations as notorious sex radicals. They were public figures well known to other antebellum reformers and to the newspaper-reading public of their day. At their pinnacle of fame, they co-wrote a book titled Marriage (1854) that argued forcefully against traditional monogamy and in favor of freedom of affections in love relations. Thomas Nichols also published a frank book about the physiology of sex, called Esoteric Anthropology (1853), Mary Gove published a thinly fictionalized autobiography, Mary Lyndon (1855), and together they issued a periodical for five years, with some 20,000 subscribers, declaring their advocacy of both men’s and women’s sexual autonomy. They argued not only for a woman’s right to say no to sex, but for her right to say yes as well, even outside of marriage. To note the obvious: No other woman in the 1840s or 1850s was so publicly a free love advocate.1 [End Page 1]

Famous in their own day, the pair fell into obscurity for over a century, precisely because they were considered dangerous and radioactive by their contemporaries, even their progressive contemporaries. They underwent erasure. The leading lights of the emergent woman’s rights movement felt it necessary to distance and marginalize Gove. Henry Blackwell warned his wife, Lucy Stone, to keep Gove and Nichols away from the women’s rights movement.2

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, once on friendly terms with Gove, gave her the cold shoulder after 1852 even though she privately agreed with Gove’s view on the central role that marital relations played in subordinating women. In that year, Paulina Wright Davis, the only woman’srights activist who stayed friendly with Gove, wrote to Stanton that “She asks me to explain [why you no longer write or call on her]. Shall I do so or not.” And when the multivolume History of Woman Suffrage was published in the 1880s, compiled by the movement’s leaders, there was only a single sentence on Mary Gove Nichols, crediting her as an early lecturer on women’s health.3

In recent times, the Nicholses’ ideas have gotten respectful treatment in a number of excellent works on topics such as health reform, the water cure, contraception, sexual cultures, Spiritualism, Fourierism, marriage, and anatomy, and as a prelude to the post-Civil War free love movement. These works help to situate the Nicholses in the various movements of which they were part. But my project takes the biographical approach in order to answer the question of how an antebellum woman could arrive at these radical ideas, and proclaim them, at the considerable risk of becoming a martyr.4 [End Page 2]

Gove’s public American career, spanning the years from 1837 to 1861, defied everything I thought I knew about activist women of the time, and I wanted to discover the source of her backbone (to use a physiological metaphor). There is just one book-length biography, by Jean Silver-Isenstadt, published in 2002 from a 1998 dissertation. It is an engaging read, but it adheres too much to Gove’s manufactured account of her life in Mary Lyndon, which, not surprisingly, left out a number of crucial events. Plus, the improbable story of Thomas Nichols’s life had not yet come to light.5

My entrée to this project actually came via Thomas Nichols. In my research on the sexual underworld of New York City for my book about Helen Jewett, a murdered prostitute, I kept encountering racy news items about one Thomas L. Nichols in the bawdy flash press of New York City. These were satirical weeklies of the early 1840s with titles like the Rake, the Whip, the Libertine, and the Flash, bent on describing the brothel world from the point of view of insiders. Hundreds of individuals got...


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