It seems incredible now, when websites display all kinds of explicit images for anyone to see, that there was a time when people went to jail for sending “obscene” materials through the mail. During the half-century reign of Anthony Comstock, puritanical secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV), the legal definition of obscenity included information about sex or contraception. The NYSSV was a private organization, but Comstock might as well have been a government official; he was a “special agent” of the Post Office, empowered to issue warrants and make arrests, and essentially wrote the 1873 federal law that criminalized the distribution of “indecent” materials. “The Man Who Hated Women,” Amy Sohn’s lively new book, spotlights eight women who challenged Comstock with their writings and actions.
Comstock “did not believe that he was the man who hated women,” Sohn writes, “but he felt that he should dictate how they should conduct their lives, and that he was the protector of women’s natural innocence.” The women who defied him, from feminist firebrand Victoria Woodhull in the 1870s to birth control activist Margaret Sanger in the 1910s, had no intention of letting a man tell them — or any woman — how they should live. They rejected Comstock’s exaltation of female innocence based on ignorance; they believed that knowledge about and control over their bodies would enable women to have better marriages, better sex, better lives. They declared these beliefs in frank language that outraged America’s still-Victorian notions of decorum.
Sohn deploys a veteran novelist’s skills to animate Comstock and his antagonists. We meet redheaded, 200-pound Comstock as an aggressively pious youth, heartily disliked by those less sanctimonious. No women could be more blatantly unlike his spotless feminine ideal than Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin: feminists, Spiritualists, and all-around troublemakers. Their public takedowns of male hypocrisy landed them in court after Comstock used an alias to get a mailed copy of “Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly” with an incendiary article claiming that a prominent businessman had raped a teenage girl and “carried for days on his finger, exhibiting in triumph, the red trophy of her virginity.” This was dirty stuff in 1872 — not that the jury got to see it. The indictment called the offending material “too indecent to be herein set forth,” a legal obfuscation that would be used against other victims of the obscenity laws. How do you defend yourself when the words you were indicted for aren’t specified? In Woodhull and Claflin’s case, the jury acquitted them anyway, to Comstock’s fury.
The other Comstock adversaries Sohn profiles also stood outside the American mainstream. Angela Heywood was an advocate of “free love,” targeted for lectures in which she declared, “I am going to talk to you about sexual intercourse.” “Madame Restell” (born Ann Trow) provided abortions, which had been legal before “quickening” (detectable fetal movement) until male doctors began lobbying in the 1840s to criminalize a procedure mostly performed by women. Sara Chase practiced homeopathic medicine (disdained by the medical establishment) and gave lectures on sex education and contraception. Ada Craddock was a self-proclaimed “sex-ologist” whose classes and books offered information and advice based on her own sexual experiences with the “unseen spirit lover” she married in 1892 in the Borderland between the worlds of the living and the dead.
Granted, Craddock was pretty loony, even for a “sex radical,” which is Sohn’s apt term for her subjects. Yet Emma Goldman, another sex radical, called her “one of the bravest champions of woman’s emancipation,” and Craddock’s books “Right Marital Living” and “Letter to a Prospective Bride” were favorably reviewed in medical journals. The border between ahead-of-their-time and off-the-wall ideas was porous, and only those unafraid to cross it had the commitment to stand up to Comstock’s relentless persecution and unscrupulous tactics. Craddock was one of the many he entrapped by using a pseudonym to request that she mail him copies of prohibited items. He maintained post office boxes in multiple locations so that his targets committed a federal crime by mailing across state lines. He entered homes and businesses under a false name to solicit books or contraceptive materials, then used them as justification to ransack the place for anything else he could find. Even those who supported his campaign against “filth” were often made uneasy by his methods.
Comstock’s power waned in the 1910s. The NYSSV began to question his judgment and appointed an associate secretary in 1913 to prosecute more circumspectly. By the time he died in 1915, the popular press was more likely to depict Comstock as a bigoted fanatic than a moral crusader. Public opinion about birth control was changing. Although Goldman, Sanger, and dozens of activists were jailed on federal obscenity charges in the two years immediately following his death, they “had laid the groundwork for one of the most powerful social movements of the twentieth century,” Sohn writes. She credits the gradual dismantling of birth control prohibitions and Roe v. Wade as the fruits of the sex radicals’ determined resistance to Comstock’s dictates on what women should know and do. Today’s feminists may well need that determination, she warns, as reproductive rights are restricted across America. “We must face the difficult truth that our efforts may not pay off in our lifetimes,” she writes. “We must fight not for ourselves, but for our daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters and all the women who have not yet been born.”
THE MAN WHO HATED WOMEN: Sex, Censorship, and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age
By Amy Sohn
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 400 pp., $30
Wendy Smith is a contributing editor at the American Scholar and reviews books frequently for The Washington Post.