Lillian Harman, born in 1869, was the daughter of radical newspaper editor and social reformer Moses Harman. She campaigned for changes to the way society treated women from an early age and, alongside her brother George, helped her father publish a number of provocative newspapers.
Lillian went on to become an important voice in late nineteenth-century campaigns for social and sexual equality in her own right. She published widely on the importance of giving women the power to choose if and when they became mothers, as well as their right to access birth control.
She also challenged the inequalities of marriage; disagreeing with the way marriage stripped women of their legal rights, their self-ownership, and control over their own bodies. In her writing she fought against the marital exemption of rape, which allowed husbands free and unrestricted sexual access to their wives’ bodies even if they refused it, and insisted women should be free to live and love on their own terms. This was quite an extreme view in a society that expected a woman to get married, to serve her husband, and to have lots of children.
Though many late nineteenth-century feminists may have shared Lillian’s concerns about marriage and the rights of women, most of them campaigned for changes to the law to protect women, or saw equality as a promise for the future – Lillian, however, saw immediate action as the best response. So, in 1886, against all the proper laws and customs of the day, she decided to live her free love beliefs and entered into a ‘free marriage’ with Edwin C. Walker. This means she refused to sign any legal documents and rejected the involvement of church and state in her private life. Instead she took informal vows in front of her friends and family. She retained her surname, her ‘free will and choice’, and declined to take any vow that promised ‘obedience’ to a man. For this refusal to conform she was arrested, and she went on to spend almost 6 months in prison.She even refused bail when it was offered,instead choosing to stay in prison to draw attention to the unfair ways women were treated.
Following her release in 1887, and the birth of a daughter in 1893, Harman travelled to London to become president of a small society called the Legitimation League. The League campaigned for the right to sexual freedom outside of marriage and for greater equality between men and women. This is where I encountered Lillian as part of my research into free love and sexual freedom in Britain in the late nineteenth-century. Sex radical women like her were pioneers of campaigns that we are still fighting today –however, they are so often overlooked in favour of better-known, more ‘respectable’ women in feminist accounts of sexuality in the past.
For me, Lillian is inspiring firstly for her willingness to stand against the full force of social convention and standards of ‘respectability’ to support what were quite extreme feminist beliefs. Also, importantly for me, she was funny. She remained good humoured, graceful, and quick witted in the face of utter scorn and contempt. Whether she was calling Queen Victoria the ‘most over-rated woman in the world’, or making fun of men for not being able to handle child birth, Lillian faced down her ‘respectable’ critics, and indeed the law, with courage, humility, and wit. I am moved by her bravery, her charm, and her willingness to not only write and campaign for greater freedom, but to live for it too. Lillian died in 1950, at the grand age of 80.
Sarah Jones is a PhD student in the Centre for Medical History at the University of Exeter. You can follow her on Twitter @sljones206.
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