Men’s support for feminism is not just a matter of expressing the same ideas, or, indeed, taking up positions or poses in lively periodical debate. It is also a matter of lived practice in the conduct of personal relationships. This piece of research, part of my research project on the personal and the political in Britain before 1914, and the ways that men and women could and couldn’t combine in feminism. examines such a relationship, between two anarchist revolutionaries in London on the eve of the First World War, Françoise Lafitte and Armistead Collier.
The trouble with researching intimate relationships is that they do not often leave written traces, their very intimacy often making correspondence unnecessary. This is one reason why we know more about engagements than marriages. It is also rare to find accounts by both sides to a relationship; and as anyone privy to only one partner’s story of a relationship will know, over-reliance on one side can heavily distort the story. When relationships fail, the paper record often consists only of a trail of torn letters as split and scattered as the relationship itself, and accounts written after the event may be too conflicting, partisan and bitter to be convincing.
The relationship I examine here is therefore unusual, and potentially more revealing, for three reasons. First, it did leave such traces. Secondly, and unusually, both sides of the correspondence were preserved. Thirdly, it was a self-consciously politically aware relationship, carrying the weight of a prefigurative arrangement which might test and prove the validity of the partners’ ideals.
Like some of the other case studies, it is partly the consequence of a fortunate archival discovery I made in the papers of an American social worker in the labour history archive of a university in Detroit.
The papers concerned are the letters between Françoise Lafitte and Armistead Collier. In 1912, in London, they met, fell in love, and entered an unmarried ‘free union’. Each believed that they had found their ‘soul-mate’ with whom their anarchist ideals for could be fulfilled. They lived together, and there was a child. But within a year, they had parted angrily and finally. They never spoke again, or corresponded for the rest of their lives. Because much of their short relationship was spent apart – she went to France to persuade her family to accept Armistead, and he went to America to make money to support the child – there is plenty of original correspondence. Late in life, Armistead also started to write an autobiography, which is unfinished, unpublished and unused.
Late in life, Françoise did write an autobiography, which was published but it provides only a brief and distorted account of her affair with Armistead. By the time she wrote it in the 1940s, she had become the ‘literary widow’ of the sex psychologist Havelock Ellis, with whom she had lived for the last decade of his life. Her depiction of Armistead was clearly intended to contrast him with Ellis.
She was Françoise Lafitte, aged 26 when she met Armistead, and the daughter of a struggling architect with six other children in Maubeuge, on the Franco-Belgian border. In 1906, she had therefore trained as a teacher and had supported herself in England. She had returned briefly to France, only to escape again to England to avoid marriage to a man she disliked. London had proved hard work for a single woman seeking an independent livelihood. But its opportunities for unchaperoned sociability with men, widened intellectual horizons, and bohemian modes of living had also been liberating.
Françoise was a suffragist, though not a militant, but took what Lucy Delap terms the ‘introspective turn’ in feminism – away from the achievement of the external goals of the vote towards concerns with issues of how women thought and formed their desires. She wrote for The Freewoman and participated in its discussion circles. She objected to the restriction of women’s potential by their families’ determination to push them straight out of the nest into marriage and motherhood. This entailed a seamless dependence on men. She also held that men and women complemented each others’ partial contributions to social progress. ‘Freewomen’ should not therefore merely imitate men – that is, seek to enter their world – but also secure proper recognition of women’s distinct needs.
What women wanted, Françoise told the Freewoman circle at a meeting in November 1912, which Armistead attended (‘I spoke as if for him alone’) was freedom from ‘her economic bondage as lover and mother’. Women could only realise themselves if these essential aspects of their lives – sex and motherhood – could be pursued without having to rely on a man. What women wanted, she later argued, was to ‘claim children without a man, in spite of man, apart from his so-called chivalry, which feeds her and her little children only to keep her enslaved’.
Armistead was 38, and the son of a rich newspaper proprietor and lawyer in Memphis, Tennessee. Attracted to socialist and anarchist ideas, he lived in the Helicon Home Colony in New Jersey founded by the American writer and socialist Upton Sinclair until it burned down in 1907. In 1908, Armistead’s father and brother had tried to have him committed for insanity. This led to a cause celebre public trial in Memphis in December 1908, at which the prosecution cited his anarchism and socialism as evidence of madness, and in which Armistead was successfully defended by expert witnesses, including Sinclair. From 1910-12, he lived in the Single Tax Colony in Fairhope, Alabama, and later the Arden Colony in Delaware. He worked sporadically as a journalist, a poet and a social critic. Armistead came to England in 1912 in search of journalistic work and also to learn more of the syndicalist movement.
Both in New York and in the utopian communes, Armistead came into close contact with the world of the socialist ‘sex radicals’ of the Progressive era. He shared their belief that radical men could be advocates of feminist claims. Armistead himself was a self-described Fourierist, especially in his belief that the marriage was the ‘curse of the age’ and the emancipation of women was the pivot around which all social progress turned. As well as widened opportunities for women to work to achieve independence, and proper support for maternity, the sex radicals favoured better access to birth control and even abortion, on the grounds that this would separate sex and reproduction, allow couples greater reproductive choice, and women greater control over their bodies. They lived as couples, but also within communes, not only out of a socialist desire to minimise propertied relationships, but also to relieve women of drudgery and the social isolation of marriage. And they believed in free love: the freedom of men and women to choose or re-ject sexual partners as they wished. They expected that this would lead to more erotically, sexually and spiritually satisfied women and men, freed from outmoded codes of self-denial and self-restraint.
Armistead and Françoise met, then, at an unusually fluid moment in the history of sexual relationships, in which an attempt was being made to locate the hitherto most personal aspects of life at the heart of radical politics.
Their first meeting was in October 1912, at an anti-war meeting in the Farringdon Street Memorial Hall. They rapidly moved in with each other, but neither wished to marry. For Armistead, the property laws and other requirements of marriage, he believed, appropriated a woman’s soul and a child’s future. Françoise too, with her experiences of the bourgeois family, saw marriage as a matter of ‘barter and money-bargains’, which sacrificed a woman’s love and happiness to familial expediency. Françoise’s family were frequent visitors to London. It was likely that before long they would discover she was living unmarried with Armistead. She therefore went home to tell them that she was living unmarried with him. At more or less the same time, she also began to suspect that she was pregnant with his child.
Françoise’s brothers were prepared to accept their sister’s free union, provided Armistead took legal and financial responsibility for her maintenance. This he agreed to do, though he was unimpressed with their businesslike attitude. ‘I have been dealing with people who give no consideration to the ideals involved’, he wrote, ‘but only to material conditions’. Françoise shared Armistead’s ideals, firmly signing herself in her letters ‘your little anarchist revolutionary’. She refused to seek marriage, despite pressure from her brothers to treat the question as a matter of business. The letters between the two were deeply affectionate. He swore on his life to take care of her and the child, and she wrote happily in reply expressing her unshakeable faith in him. ‘I assure you we shall be most happy’. she wrote to him. ‘Do I not trust you, did I not all through trust you, shall I not always trust you, you big dear?’. ‘All with you, dear little man, all with you to the end and in the spirit; do not misunderstand this spirit, it is a true revolutionary one … I can’t leave you. I love you so’.
Yet within a matter of weeks, the relationship was over. After pledging herself to stay with him, married or unmarried, through ‘fire and hell’, she left him, as he wrote, ‘finally and without hope … that she will ever come to me again’. She had told him that she would ‘find her own support and friends, and will never permit me to see her child, and that if she should die in childbirth, she will find others to act as parent and guardian’.
Out of love
What had gone wrong? In her autobiography, Françoise suggests that there were problems from the start. But this seems implausible: the correspondence between them was optimistic and reassuring. It is full of deep expressions of love and commitment to each other. Yet the relationship had collapsed suddenly, catastrophically and irretrievably. The explanation, we can surmise, must therefore be both easy to miss, but also devastating in its effect. If the difficulties had merely been small, the relationship might have sought to address them rather than ending so abruptly. If they had been visibly large from the start, it is hard to see why the couple would have made the strong mutual pledges they initially did.
The first possibility to consider is sexual infidelity. This remains a possibility, but two things count against it here. The first is that he denied it. That would, of course, not always count for much. But that is because infidelity is, by conventional standards, shameworthy. Armistead’s view of sexual fidelity was different, and both simple and consistent. He was not a varietist – that is, he did not think promiscuity was desirable in itself – nor a Hintonist – a believer in absolute sexual freedom to do as one wished. But he did believe – ‘my only original contribution to human thought’ – that sexual relationships that imposed exclusiveness were repressive because they implied property claims over others. He held this view openly, as many attest, and therefore saw no reason to conceal affairs. The second, perhaps stronger, evidence is that Françoise neither accused Armistead of infidelity to her nor admitted sexual jealousy on her part, either in the many reproaches in her letters to him, or in her autobiography. Indeed, she shared his view of free love, throughout her life.
Nor did the relationship collapse because of his unwillingness to provide for a child. On the contrary, he was fully prepared to work in order to support both her and their child, even after she had rejected him.
Françoise’s reasons for rejecting Armistead were different, subtle, and revealing. It is evident, first of all, that friction had arisen over the diminished standard of living involved in the free union. Armistead thought that she had been unwilling to make economies. But that cannot be quite right, because she was used to making do on very little. What irked was not making ends meet, but economizing within a structurally unequal situation, made all the harder because the free union was meant to transcend dependency. He was the breadwinner, and she, no longer maintaining herself as she had been as a teacher, now relied on him. Without the endowment of motherhood, for which she had argued to the Freewomen, the pregnant, unmarried mother’s only course was a forced compromise of her person and self-development.
The question of the family was also a source of difference. Both of them deeply disliked the demands that families made on the free individual. She needed family, and resented his attempts to deprive her of its conflicted, emotionally freighted support. Her desire to remain close to her family, especially when she had no other resources of her own, conflicted with his desire to break with the family altogether.
Indeed, closer study of Armistead’s earlier relationships suggests that this was his habitual practice. He invariably put the woman at odds with her relatives. He thought that only by abandoning the family could women break with the old world. But the consequence was an even greater dependency on him, and nowhere to turn if things went wrong. By contrast, his breach with his family, however, had been made possible by his greater capacity to survive alone, through casual work and living rough.
A further source of Françoise’s unhappiness was sexual. In her autobiography, she claimed that she and Armistead were never sexually compatible and that he was an inconsiderate lover. Whether that is so or not, there certainly seems to have been a difference between him, for whom sexual freedom meant more frequent, less inhibited physical sex, and her own desire for sex and emotional intimacy to be linked in a much deeper way than before. This, in her later life with Havelock Ellis, became Françoise’s mission. There is, by contrast, no sign in Armistead’s anarchist writings or lived practice that he thought that sex itself would change after the revolution. He had strong views concerning the repression of women’s sexual responsiveness by monogamy and marriage, but little to say about what might happen once these had been cast off. He assumed that, once freed, sex and love would readily harmonise.
Another tricky area of dispute was the balance of power within the relationship. Armistead thought of himself as the teacher and Françoise as the pupil, ready for instruction in revolutionary ideals. Much the same occurred when Upton Sinclair courted his wives with reading-lists and tutorials on socialism. The men did not think the women innately less capable, but intellectual equals who had been deprived of educational opportunities and dulled by domesticity and social convention. They positioned themselves as educators who would bring out their potential.
Armistead was better-read, more sure what he thought, and more confident in the world. Part of the attraction of such men was that they opened doors that women did not know were there. But the completeness of the men’s utopias left something out. ‘[H]e somehow gave me the sensation that we were living in Morris’ News from Nowhere’, wrote Françoise. ‘He acted as if it were already there in this relation of the sexes’. It took time to see what exactly was missing.
Armistead was a difficult human being – disturbing, self-righteous, intense, brutally honest and inflexible. It is impossible to see him as the ‘new man’ for whom feminists hoped. But it is equally wrong to see him as merely an unreconstructed philanderer seeking to take advantage of liberated women. ‘As a moral lunatic I should shut you up or have you castrated like an animal so that you could do no more mischief in the search of your Ideal’, one of Françoise’s older women friends wrote angrily (and ungrammatically) to him, on learning that Françoise was pregnant and unmarried. She was horrified that an unmarried woman had become pregnant, something she could only understand to be consequence of seduction, not of Françoise’s choice to enter a free union. But her codes were not those of Françoise and Armistead. That seducers existed need not be doubted. But intelligent, new women like Françoise were doubly prepared for them: by respectable upbringing, with its repeated warnings against falling for unreliable men; and by their feminism, with its new understandings of the world the ‘old’ men had made for themselves.
Armistead was something more complicated and unfamiliar, yet also a type very frequently thrown up by periods of rapid change in ideas: the ambiguous prophet. Far from being casual about sexual relationships, he was deep, mystical and serious. Had he been merely an ‘old’ seducer, his success with ‘new’ women would be inexplicable. They would have found him easy to avoid and easier still to condemn. As ‘John the Baptist’ – his nickname, owing to his wild appearance and preacher-like habits – he was harder to place. His ideas spoke to something that was elusive and missing in their lives. This last element was, however, all-important. Armistead brought conflicting emotions to the surface, and forced women to choose, but he could not resolve the contradictions of their lives.
This case study forms part of my research project on the personal and the political, and the ways that men and women could and couldn’t combine in feminism. The purpose of shining such a strong light on this single relationship was to illuminate aspects of this question that remain invisible when we confine ourselves to theoretical statements of belief. The conventional finding of almost all such exercises is that practice does not live up to theory, something usually put down to hypocrisy (the beliefs are not sincerely held) or weakness of will (the beliefs are not practised when inconvenient). Several people in this story have said as much. Hypocrisy was Françoise’s charge against Armistead in her autobiography, though significantly not at the time. Likewise, Armistead blamed Françoise (and other lovers) of being too socially conventional to take the plunge that their beliefs implied.
But when we look more closely, theory and practice, though in tension, did not tug on each other so crudely. For them all, practice was not the acid test of theory. Theories had to be modified, or perhaps even rejected, if practice revealed flaws. But revolutionaries, even ‘revolutionaries asunder’, as Françoise termed them, could not accept that practice carried final authority. Practice did not defeat theory: it was theory lived. It was too hard, too early, too complicated, for the practitioner to be sure what was right, living just one lifetime, among the residue of what she knew to be wrong.
This is what almost all those in this story did, which is why neither hypocrisy nor lack of effort are fair explanations. Armistead and Françoise were not poles apart. Had they been so, they would never have attracted each other in the way in which they did. They shared a basic set of commitments to personal freedom, and to the free union as its expression. But only living together revealed the difference between the value they placed on it: for him, the absence of constraint; for her, the reduction of a woman’s dependence on a man. The harder truth was that they began with the sincere commitment to what seemed a single magnetic pole of freedom in love, to which men and women were in their different ways attracted. Their failure is to be explained by the realisation that there were – not forever, but in this time and place – two magnetic poles, close enough that the men and women they attracted could share part of the journey; but also distinct, so that to reach them meant diverging and not converging.
IMAGE CREDITS: JACQUES-HENRI LARTIGUE, BOUBOUTTE AND LOUIS (DETAIL) (1910) / UNKNOWN PHOTOGRAPHER, FRANÇOISE LAFITTE (1909) / UNKNOWN PHOTOGRAPHER, ARMISTEAD COLLIER (1912) / UNKNOWN PHOTOGRAPHER, THE LAFITTE FAMILY (1896) / UNKNOWN PHOTOGRAPHER, CASTING AND PUBLICITY PHOTOGRAPHS OF ARMISTEAD COLLIER IN HOLLYWOOD (1916) / UNKNOWN PHOTOGRAPHER, FRANÇOISE LAFITTE (c.1916) / UNKNOWN PHOTOGRAPHER, FRANÇOISE LAFITTE AND HER BABY SON, FRANÇOIS LAFITTE (c.1914) / JACQUES-HENRI LARTIGUE, VILLERVILLE: NANIK ET MONSIEUR PLANTEVIGNE (1906).