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Geneology Speaker Revives Story of 1850s ‘Free Love’ Advocates

Writer Patricia Cline Cohen will speak at the Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society’s monthly meeting, 9:30 a.m.-noon. Saturday, April 15, at the First Presbyterian Church, 21 E. Constance St.

She will discuss the joint careers of Mary Gove Nichols and Thomas L. Nichols, advocates of radical marriage reform in the 1850s; and show how genealogy can revive radicals who were nearly erased from history.

Cline Cohen, is writing a biography of this unusual couple, who became prominent in the 1850s for their challenge to traditional patriarchal marriage. They claimed state-regulated lifelong monogamy made spouses into prisoners.

Marriage needed to be based on egalitarian principles fostered by mutual love, and if love faded, partners should be free to go and to follow their hearts.

Their radical views attracted abundant negative newspaper coverage, which branded them as “free love” advocates.

They were especially spurned by the leaders of the emerging Woman’s Rights movement, in the 1850s, who feared that the Nicholses’ emphasis on women’s sexual autonomy would damage their own movement.

Shunned by those who could have been close allies, they moved to England in 1861, never to return. Their disappearance ensured they would be left out of early histories of 19th century reformers; their letters were not purposely saved and archived.

With the use of genealogical sources and methods, she has restored their life stories showing how and why these two came to their radical ideas.

Cline Cohen was a member of UCSB’s History Department from 1976-2014, teaching early American History with emphasis on the history of women.

She is the author of three books, including another genealogically inspired work, The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York (1998).

She has done research for two episodes of "Who Do You Think You Are?" and she appeared in one of them, in 2014, meeting with celebrity guest Cynthia Nixon in a ghostly decommissioned state penitentiary in Missouri.

Special interest groups meet at 9:30 a.m. for Beginning Genealogy, Civil War Genealogy, Writers' Support Group, German Ancestry, Italian Genealogy, French Canadian Genealogy, Computer Genealogy, DNA, and Jewish Genealogy.

The society’s monthly meeting starts at 10:30 a.m. and the featured speaker starts at 11 a.m.

A calendar of genealogical events can be found at the Society web site

— Glenn Avolio for Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society.


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