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  Wendy McElroy

Moses Harman: The Paradigm of A Male Feminist
February 20, 2001
by Wendy McElroy, mac@ifeminists.com

Moses Harman (1830-1910) is the sort of social visionary whom historians often overlook, even though his influence during his own lifetime was immense. (He also tends to be overlooked by feminist historians, perhaps because he is male.)

Neither a New England intellectual nor a West coast radical, Harman lived most of his life in the Midwest, sharing many of the values that are associated with that region: he was a soft-spoken, hard-working, and devoted family man with an unswerving sense of right and wrong. He was also one of the most stubborn and persistent 19th century Americans involved in the fight to advance the rights of women. Most of his writing remains buried in the pages of the now obscure periodical he edited for twenty-four years: Lucifer, the Light Bearer. His main impact derives from his decades-long fight for freedom of speech, especially concerning birth control and the open discussion of other sexual issues. His persistence resulted in a series of imprisonments and culminated in his imprisonment in Joliet, Illinois, breaking rocks at hard labor, at the age of seventy-five.

The British playwright George Bernard Shaw referred to Harman's last imprisonment in a letter to the New York Times of September 26, 1905, in which he explained why he would not be visiting the United States. Shaw declared, "The reason I do not go to America is that I am afraid of being...imprisoned like Mr. Moses Harman.... If the brigands can, without any remonstrance from public opinion, seize a man of Mr. Harman's advanced age, and imprison him for a year under conditions which amount to an indirect attempt to kill him, simply because he shares the opinion expressed in my Man and Superman that 'marriage is the most licentious of human institutions,' what chance should I have of escaping?"

Harman and Shaw had an intellectual bond. They shared the same opinion of 19th century traditional marriage: namely, they believed such marriages were defined by laws and customs that enslaved women, who were stripped thereby of the right to their own wages, custody of their children, and the legal ability to defend themselves against sexual attack by their husbands. As an alternative, they favored 'free love' unions in which there was no state interference into the voluntary sexual contracts of couples.

As a personal matter, Harman believed in monogamy. He conducted his life accordingly and without scandal. But as a point of social theory, he demanded that all voluntary sexual arrangements be legally tolerated and that women be treated as full equal partners. His insistence upon speaking out for 'true' marriage and the rights of women led to his many years of legal persecution under the Comstock Act (1873), which forbade circulating obscene information -- such as birth control advice -- through the mails.

With the streak of hard stubbornness that often arises in the American personality, Harman simply would not be silenced. As he phrased it, "I believe in Freedom -- equal freedom. I want no freedom for myself that all others may not equally enjoy... The Spencerian formula: "each has the right to do as he pleases, so long as he does not invade the equal right of others," tells what freedom means. It is equivalent to saying that liberty, wedded to responsibility for one's acts, is the true and only basis of good character, or of morality." This conviction lay at the heart of his lifelong battle to secure what he called the right of private judgment in moral matters.

Born in western Virginia to a poor family, Moses Harman grew up in Southern Missouri. Although he had only a few months of formal schooling, the young Moses became an avid reader, especially after an accident left him crippled with an enduring lameness. At sixteen he began teaching school and, then, went on to attend Arcadia College, Missouri. Harman soon became galvanized by the ideal of abolitionism -- the pre-Civil War movement that demanded an immediate cessation to slavery on the grounds that every human being had a right to his (or her) own body. When the Civil War erupted, Harman was unable to enlist in the Union army due to his lameness. But he remained such an outspoken abolitionist that the proslavery county of Crawford, Missouri held a vote and determined to 'run him out' because of his unpopular sentiments.

When Harman married Susan Scheuck, the daughter of a Union sympathizer who had been executed by a roving band of Confederates, their marriage was a harbinger of his later commitments. Although the ceremony was conducted according to law, the young couple also entered into a personal contract that based their voluntary union on love, and not upon duty. Their two children, George and Lillian, were both born in Missouri. A third child died along with Susan during the birth process in 1877. One can only speculate on how deeply the death of his much-loved wife in childbirth influenced Harman's later insistence on the availability of birth control information to women.

In 1879, Harman took his young children to live in Valley Falls, Kansas, where his cousin Noah was a well-to-do farmer. Harman described his new home, "Valley Falls, a pretty little city, midway between Topeka and Atchison on the Santa Fe Railroad. It had then two weekly newspapers, five or six churches, several flourishing manufacturing establishments, good schools, as schools go, and was and is a very good sample of cities of second or third class in the young Commonwealth of Kansas, a name ever memorable for the bloody dramas enacted on its soil during the five or six years immediately preceding the great American Civil war of 1861." Moses took a job teaching at the district school, and soon became known for speaking his mind in a dignified but blunt manner. One exchange in particular would determine much of his future course.

Harman became involved in the Valley Falls Liberal League, a local branch of the National Liberal League, which sought to separate church and state, religion from politics. This was an issue around which many figures in the American Individualist tradition gathered after the Civil War. In the words of Harman, the local "club was the successor of an older club...which meetings were conducted on the plan of equal rights for all, regardless of race, color, party or creed." The League soon became involved in an exchange conducted with clergymen in the local Republican paper on "issues dividing the current and popular theologies from the deductions of modern science". Although respectful of true (voluntary) Christianity -- as he was respectful of true marriage -- Harman argued the scientific point of view under the pseudonym "Rustic."

When the newspaper proved unwilling to continue the voluminous debate, the Liberal League issued its own periodical, the Valley Falls Liberal in August 1880, with Harman serving as one of the unofficial editors. The new periodical became the foremost voice of liberalism in the 19th century sense within Kansas. In 1881, it was rechristened the Kansas Liberal.

The Kansas Liberal eventually became the unfortunately named Lucifer, the Light Bearer (1883-1907) for which Harman would become notorious nationwide. The name was unfortunate because it raised suspicions within many religious-minded people. Indeed, since periodicals as controversial as Lucifer published without encountering the legal problems that plagued Harman, it is probable that some of his persecution was sparked by the provocative name. To voices of caution, Harman explained why he chose the title, "Lucifer, the ancient name of the Morning Star, now called Venus, seems to us unsurpassed as a cognomen for a journal whose mission is to bring light to the dwellers in darkness..."

Perhaps his stubbornness came from receiving such as the following from a nurse who commented on his pamphlet "Motherhood in Freedom," "Most of my patients are women in confinement, and could I tell you all the pitiful stories I hear, of enforced motherhood, you would perhaps be startled more than you ever have been,--familiar as you are with the subject. My heart has ached for these helpless mothers and for the little unwelcome babes when I have taken them into my arms. So many of my patients have asked for knowledge in regard to prevention that I have decided, if I can obtain the desired information, that I will do what I can to prevent unwelcome babies and save worn-out women from this awful burden."

If the gentle and cultured Harman had been the only one to choose the words printed in Lucifer, he might have escaped persecution for obscenity. For better or worse, however, Harman pursued a policy of not censoring the word choices of contributors. Harman believed that absolute freedom of speech cleansed society in a therapeutic manner: it allowed individuals to feel honestly drawn or repelled by certain ideas, and to understand their reactions rather than to suppress them.

In June 1886, Lucifer published 'The Markland Letter' which described an especially brutal instance of forced sex within marriage and called it rape. Indeed, it may have been the first discussion in print of this subject on the American scene. The letter was graphic, but used no words that were not to be found in a dictionary or a medical textbook. Markland asked rhetorically, "Can there be legal rape? Did this man rape his wife? Would it have been rape had he not been married to her?... If a men stabs his wife to death with a knife, does not the law hold him for murder?"

In sending the issue of Lucifer containing the Markland Letter through the mails, Harman ran afoul of the Comstock Act, which provided a penalty of up to ten years' imprisonment for anyone who intentionally mailed or received obscene material. Ominously, the word 'obscene' had not been defined by the Act. But Anthony Comstock, the moving force behind censorship in late 19th century America, defined obscenity in such a manner as to include the discussion of and protest against rape within marriage.

There is a sense in which Lucifer was an unlikely target for Comstock: it seemed to be an idyllic family business, a labor of love. Harman described the set-up, "I did the office work, assisted by my son George, aged fifteen, and daughter Lillian, aged thirteen who had already learned to set type. We lived on a little fruit farm one mile from the printery at which the typesetting and press work were done. Editorial work was mainly done at home, in the early morning hours and late at night, while much of the day was spent by all three at work on the farm, raising fruits and vegetables, from the sale of which we supplied our own daily wants, besides helping to defray the expenses of publication; the folding and wrapping of the paper being done at night by the entire family, including wife Isabella, whom I had married since our removal to Kansas."

This contented picture was shattered on February 1887, when a warrant was served for the arrest of the editors and publishers of Lucifer: Moses Harman, Edwin C. Walker, and George Harman. Harman and his son were taken to Topeka where, upon executing bonds of $500 each to appear at the April term of court, they were allowed to go home. Ironically, E.C. Walker was already in jail when the warrant had been served. Both he and the sixteen year old Lillian Harman had been arrested and imprisoned for their non-State marriage, which Moses called an "Autonomistic Marriage." It consisted of an agreement, publicly declared in the presence of relatives and friends. Although there were no legal impediments to a traditional marriage, the couple preferred to enter into an entirely private and voluntary union. For their autonomistic marriage, Walker was sentenced seventy-five days and Lillian to forty-five days in jail. Because they refused to allow court costs to be paid for them, the couple remained in jail for

Moses and George Harman grappled with their own legal difficulties. After attending the April term court, they had been ordered to execute another bond and to reappear the following July. At the July term, they were told the weather was 'too hot' to present the charges against them to the grand jury. They executed another bond to appear at the October term, and went home. Over the next eight years, Harman was forced to waste a great deal of time traveling back and forth to Topeka at the legal whim of the court, and to spend scarce money in executing dozens of bonds, even though one bond alone would have answered the requirements of law.

Finally, in October, the accused were allowed to know the specific charges brought against them -- information that had been withheld. The grand jury indicted Lucifer on 270 counts of obscenity, which were eventually quashed because neither the judge nor the district attorney could discern a legally intelligible charge in any one of the counts. Not to be thwarted, the district attorney procured a new set of indictments, totaling 216 counts in all. The articles upon which the indictment was originally based were four in number, then the count was reduced to two: the Markland letter and a letter written by Mrs. Celia B. Whitehead, a well respected mainstream reformer which argued against the use of birth control devices.

Charges were dropped against George Harman and Edwin C. Walker in 1888. Moses Harman stood alone as the sole defendant, and a defiant one. In the June 22, 1888 issue of Lucifer, he reprinted the Markland letter: in columns running parallel to the letter, he also reprinted the 38th chapter of Genesis. His purpose was to demonstrate that the language of the Markland letter was no more offensive than that of the Bible. To declare the former obscene might lead to prohibiting the circulation of scripture through the mail.

Meanwhile, Harman's ongoing court process stirred up a storm of controversy. One of the protest letters written to the presiding Judge Foster came from the indignant Celia Whitehead who demanded that the judge mark the parts of her letter he had declared as exciting "impure thoughts" in his mind. The district attorney was also deluged by protests from virtually every state in the nation. As a result, he continued the case over until 1890, at which point he was no longer in office.

In February, 1890, Harman was arrested on fresh charges arising from 'the O'Neill letter' written by a New York physician. Graphic in its language and speaking from nineteen years' of medical experience, Dr. O'Neill spoke of witnessing many cases of the derangement or early death of women caused by 'rape within marriage.' Harman was escorted to Topeka once more and released on bail of $1,000 and a bond to appear.

Harman was finally sentenced to five years' imprisonment for mailing the Markland letter, but released due to a technical error in the proceedings. Then, in January 1891, Harman was sentenced to one year imprisonment for the O'Neill letter. Another writ of error ensued in March. The legal harassment continued for years until, in June 1895, new sentencing placed Harman in the Kansas state prison at Lansing. Upon his release in 1896, the exhausted editor moved his family and Lucifer to Chicago.

Of this period, he later wrote, "...for more than nine years, I was never for one moment free from the 'shadow of the jail' -- that is, I was either securely locked within prison walls or was under bonds outside of those walls, with the threat of imprisonment, like the sword of Damocles, constantly hanging over my head." He continued by proudly declaring, "Meantime Lucifer, the real object of the prosecutors, did not die; Lucifer did not suspend; Lucifer did not retract; Lucifer, 'Son of the Morning,' did not cease to shine on friend and foe alike."

But some 'friends' were becoming critical of Harman's insistence on discussing the sexual matters that impacted women. For example, George MacDonald, editor of the Truth Seeker, severely criticized Lucifer's recklessness, but added, "Having thus expressed our opinion of Mr. Harman's offense, we are quite willing to go to his rescue. He is an earnest, honest, simple old gentleman with one idea, a little fanatical on that perhaps, but sincerely laboring for the good of the world, ever resolutely pursuing what he sees to be his work... This is not a case for law; it is not a case for justice even, but for mercy. Every energy of Mr. Harman's friends should be bent to secure leniency for an aged & almost irresponsible gentleman, who has offended, not willfully but unwittingly, & through the best of motives."

Benjamin Tucker, editor of Liberty, considered the "prosecution as [an] outrage", but warned, "Mr. Harman's act was a rash one, & he has no business to be disappointed if Liberals do not rally to his defence."

Both defended and reviled, Moses Harman acquired the aura of a folk hero in which he began to appear in mainstream periodicals. Even the conservative Woman's Journal -- the influential voice of the American Woman Suffrage Association -- had some words of praise. "No one can have less sympathy than the editors...with some of the views advocated in Lucifer; but on one point Mr. Harman's opinions are perfectly sound, and that is on the right of a wife to the control of her own person."

The move to Chicago did not prevent the same sort of legal problems that had arisen in Topeka. Nor did Harman's dignified demeanor protect him. On writing of Harman's continuing harassment by the law, Lucifer contributor Jonathan Mayo Crane contended, "The writer of these lines has known Mr. Harman intimately for the last ten years and has talked with him on almost every conceivable subject of interest to humanity, including race culture and the relations of the sexes. In all that time never have I heard him tell a lewd story, or utter any word commonly regarded as vulgar or indecent.". Unfortunately, Harman had become almost a symbol to censors who did not feel able to ignore Lucifer.

Postal harassment preceded Harman's final arrest, with Lucifer being denied the use of second-class mail rates until the matter was appealed to Washington. Then, the Chicago post office began to confiscate and destroy issues it declared to be obscene. One issue was destroyed because it contained an article by the venerated feminist Alice Stone Blackwell -- an article which had been reprinted from the well-respected and conservative Woman's Journal. Another article declared obscene by the postal authorities was an excerpt from a United States bureau of animal industry report, that had been issued by authority of Congress.

Finally, Harman was indicted and tried in May 1905 for mailing two articles: "The Fatherhood Question", which argued in an inoffensive manner that every prospective mother had the right to select the best possible conditions for procreation; and, "More Thoughts on Sexology" by the seventy-year old Sara Crist Campbell, which argued that sexual ignorance inflicted needless pain upon women. The court refused to allow expert medical testimony on Harman's behalf, and the judge's instructions to the jury left little doubt as to his opinion that Harman was guilty. Thus, at the age of 75, Moses Harman was sentenced to one year at hard labor.

From Cook County jail in Chicago, Harman wrote a 'hail and farewell' letter to his friends, restating the object of Lucifer's publication, the object for which he was willing to endure yet another imprisonment. "...to help woman to break the chains that for ages have bound her to the rack of man-made law, spiritual, economic, industrial, social and especially sexual, believing that until woman is roused to a sense of her own responsibility on all lines of human endeavor, and especially on lines of her special field, that of reproduction of the race, there will be little if any real advancement toward a higher and truer civilization."

He requested friends not to "write in a vindictive or revengeful spirit" to those "who have been instrumental in putting me in prison." Quoting the First Corinthians from memory, he reminded them "Love suffereth long and is kind; love endureth all things, hopeth all things." He ended the letter, "I do not always agree with the Nazarene, but when he said, 'Father, forgive them; they know not what they do,' he showed a commendable spirit."

Each issue of Lucifer after Harman's arrest carried a portrait of the imprisoned editor, with the heading "A Victim of Postal Inquisition." Under the portrait, his age and the length of his sentence served were listed like a clock going upward. For example, the June 7, 1906 issue declared, "Today Moses Harman is 75 years 7 months and 26 days old. he has served 101 days of his sentence to imprisonment for one year at hard labor. His task at present is breaking stone."

Transferred to Joliet, where he broke rocks during the bitter winter months, Harman's health deteriorated disastrously. A transfer to Leavenworth -- secured by the determined intervention of family and friends -- probably saved his life. There, he spent a large portion of his remaining sentence in the hospital. Those expressing admiration for Harman and dismay at the his continuing persecution ranged from the respected Clarence Darrow to the notorious Emma Goldman and Eugene Debs. Journalists such as Louis F. Post in the Public and James H. Barry of the San Francisco Star wrote articles of staunch support. His case was discussed sympathetically in British, French, Dutch and Japanese periodicals. Indeed, it was in discussing Harman's imprisonment that Shaw coined the term "Comstockery."

Upon his release from prison in 1907, the 76 year old Harman changed Lucifer's name to the American Journal of Eugenics. The format became more scholarly, and the focus shifted more firmly onto eugenics -- the study of how to improve reproduction and the human race -- a subject that captured the imagination of many early twentieth century reformers.

On January 30, 1910, Moses Harman died in Los Angeles, where he had moved in 1908. The American Journal of Eugenics died with him. Although two memorial services were held for the venerated editor -- one in Los Angeles, the other in New York City -- the most fitting memorial may well be a letter published in Lucifer, August 1891, by Lizzie Holmes. Of Lucifer, she commented, "It is the mouthpiece, almost the only mouthpiece in the world, of every poor, suffering, defrauded, subjugated woman. Many know they suffer, and cry out in their misery..." Moses Harman and the circle surrounding Lucifer, the Light Bearer were among the brave social pioneers who fully acknowledged the suffering cries of women and attempted to heal their pain.

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