Charlotte Gray, while reviewing Amy Sohn’s THE MAN WHO HATED WOMEN, writes in the Wall Street Journal: “In 1873, a new federal law prohibited the distribution and promotion through the U.S. postal service of ‘obscene, lewd or lascivious’ material. The legislation covered not only dirty postcards and sex toys, but also pamphlets about contraception and sexual health. A booklet about marital relations or an abortifacient powder was now considered as indecent as an advertisement for a brothel.” The question: who caused this to happen: The answer: Anthony Comstock.
Amy Sohn describes in her book, The Man Who Hated Women, how Comstock’s forceful move to pass this federal law dealt a severe blow to information that women needed to care for and understand their bodies.
The law profoundly affected women’s health. It not only supported a prudish misogyny that harkens back to Puritan history, but aspects of it can still be found in laws that prevail today in parts of the U.S.
WHO WAS ANTHONY COMSTOCK?
Certainly he was a woman hater, also a Congregationalist, who believed in the Victorian ideal of womanhood: the woman should only be “the angel in the house.” Born in 1844, Comstock went from being a store clerk to turning to anti-vice activism. He was offended by what he called the moral corruption of the Gilded Age in New York City.
WHY TAKE IT OUT ON WOMEN?
Like some of our cities today, New York during the Gilded Age was the center of huge wealth but also abject poverty. Wealthy men were eager to take advantage of poverty stricken women who walked the streets of New York as prostitutes, and who had nothing to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and the dangers of childbirth.
Sohn writes in her book: “…Comstock lumped women together with “sinful” practices.” He got the YMCA to form the Suppression of Vice committee and to make him their lobbyist in Washington. This allowed him to push for harsher penalties against obscenity peddlers. Then, to convince the male representatives in DC, “Comstock organized the most vivid exhibition of sex toys the capital had ever seen.” Congress members handled the toys and other articles, saying they would pass the law he wanted.The result: The Comstock Act of 1873. Other states went on to pass similar laws.
Don’t We Often Say: When someone is obsessed with something, he might actually like it.
Comstock could not keep the dirt out of his own eyes. He began seeing pornography everywhere, started lawsuits that tried to subdue materials “as diverse as lottery tickets, pornography and medical books written my physicians.”
Being unable to quell his own urges, and hating women, Comstock, decided to fight EVERYTHING and everyone, especially women. Gray writes that he hounded “sex radicals” the eight women who were caught up in sex-oriented movements of the time. Those included abortion, spiritualism, atheism and anarchism.
THE WICKED EIGHT
In her book, Amy Sohn focuses on eight women Comstock went after, sexologist Ida C. Craddock getting the most attention. Unable to attend the University of Pennsylvania because of her gender, Craddock studied comparative religion and developed a passion for sex and symbolism.
At the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Craddock watched a belly dancer, then later wrote that dance utilized an ancient religious rite, symbolizing self-control of sexual pleasure. But Comstock was also watching. He called the performance obscenity, and wanted to jail the performer.
WOMEN AND MEN IN THE BEDROOM
Ida C. Craddock fought for women, argued against marital rape, telling women they had a right to enjoy sex. Craddock printed business cards that read: Scientific Motherhood, Prenatal Culture, Right Living in the Marital Relation. She sent information through the mail: “putting herself right in the crosshairs of the Comstock Act.” Comstock won that battle, having her arrested in 1902 for being “lecturer of filth.” Eight months later, unable to face prison, Ida C. Craddock committed suicide.
THE AFTERMATH… The early 1900’s was a time when newspapers pulled in readers with wild tales of sex and sin. But gradually, Comstock’s harsh beliefs no longer coincided with the growing power of women. Though he died in 1915, his law continued to stay on the books for many more decades, inciting women to claim their power, speak out for their rights and needs. Year to year this fight intensified, encouraging “transformative feminist activism.” Comstock might actually have helped the feminist movement, helped women see the need for more agency in their own lives.
Ms. Sohn ends her book with a warning: “Wombs are still a battleground because of what they represent.” Then she then quotes Ida Craddock: “I would lay down my life for the cause of sex reform; but I don’t want to be swept away, a useless sacrifice.” Craddock died, was forgotten, but Sohn and others have successfully resurrected this amazing woman.
Ida Craddock’s manuscripts and notes are preserved in the Special Collections of the Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Her battle with Anthony Comstock is the subject of the 2006 stage play Smut by Alice Jay and Joseph Adler, its world premiere at Miami’s GableStage in June 2007.
Amy Sohn’s book is THE MAN WHO HATED WOMEN Farrar, Strauss and Giroux Publishers. Artwork: The Gilded Age, Central Park New York City
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