The Radical Women Who Paved the Way for Free Speech and Free Love

Anthony Comstock could also be the solely man in American historical past whose lobbying efforts yielded not solely the actual federal regulation he needed however the privilege of implementing it to his liking for 4 many years. Given that Comstock by no means held elected workplace and that the highest appointed place he occupied in authorities was particular agent of the Post Office, this was a unprecedented achievement—and a reminder of the ways in which zealots have typically slipped previous the sentries of American democracy to create a actuality that the remainder of us should stay in. Comstock was an anti-vice crusader who frightened about lots of the issues that Americans of the same ethical and spiritual solid frightened about in the late nineteenth century: the rise of the so-called sporting press, which specialised in randy gossip and person guides to native brothels; the phenomenon of younger males and ladies set free in huge cities, dwelling, unsupervised, in low cost rooming homes; the enervating results of masturbation; the ravages of venereal illness; the straightforward availability of contraceptives, resembling condoms and pessaries, and of abortifacients, allotted by druggists or administered by midwives. But Comstock railed in opposition to all this stuff extra passionately than most of his contemporaries did, and much more successfully.

Nassau Street, at the decrease tip of Manhattan, was a selected horror to him—a groaning board of Boschian temptations. As Amy Sohn particulars in her fascinating guide “The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship & Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), when Comstock arrived in New York as a younger man, simply after the Civil War, he was appalled to see an open market in intercourse toys and contraceptive gadgets (each typically hawked as “rubber goods”), together with smutty taking part in playing cards, books, and stereoscopic photos. At the wholesale notions institution the place he held a job, Comstock lamented that the younger males he labored with have been “falling like autumn leaves about me from the terrible scourges of vile books and pictures.”

Comstock, who was born in 1844, had been raised on a hundred-and-sixty-acre farm in New Canaan, Connecticut, with a view of the Long Island Sound. At house, the place his mom, a direct descendant of the first Puritans in New England, learn her youngsters Bible tales, he appears to have been a mannequin of fine deportment. At faculty, his higher angels seem to have left him uncovered—he was typically whipped for misbehavior, and typically the schoolmasters, with a diabolical aptitude for sowing gender discord, made him sit with the women and put on a sunbonnet. He didn’t attend college, however over time he developed a vigorous rhetorical type. “One cannot get away from a book that has once been read,” he noticed. He introduced his ethical ardor with him when he served a principally peaceable stint with the Union Army in Florida, combating what appears to have been a dropping battle with the urge to masturbate and incurring the ailing will of his fellow-soldiers by pouring out his whiskey rations earlier than anybody else may get at them. For Comstock, the stakes have been, all the time, nearly unbearably excessive. “Lust defiles the body, debauches the imagination, corrupts the mind, deadens the will, destroys the memory, sears the conscience, hardens the heart, and damns the soul,” he wrote.

In 1872, the Y.M.C.A., then a company aimed toward holding younger males in huge cities whistle-clean in thought and deed, labored with Comstock to type a Committee for the Suppression of Vice. He was given his dream job, finishing up the committee’s investigations, which concerned, amongst different ways, sending decoy letters ostensibly from individuals looking for birth-control data or footage of bare girls. The following 12 months, he travelled to Washington, D.C., the place he efficiently lobbied for the passage of a regulation that made it a criminal offense (punishable in some instances with as much as 5 years of laborious labor) to publish, possess, or distribute supplies “of an immoral nature” or to mail something that was “obscene, lewd, or lascivious.” It was the first federal regulation governing obscenity; as the authorized scholar Geoffrey R. Stone notes in his guide “Sex and the Constitution,” previous to the religious-revival motion often called the Second Great Awakening, “government efforts to censor speech were directed at religious heresy and seditious libel, rather than sexual expression.” For most of the nineteenth century, abortion was authorized below frequent regulation and typically acceptable to the public earlier than the stage of quickening—when fetal motion will be felt by the mom—and a few of those that offered it weren’t significantly discreet. (The society abortionist Madame Restell lived in a mansion on Fifth Avenue and took carriage rides in Central Park draped in ermine robes.) And the declining household measurement in the course of the nineteenth century—from a median of seven youngsters to half that—means that the use of birth-control strategies turned frequent; the promoting of contraceptive gadgets, their function typically coyly disguised, actually was.

The Comstock Act, because it got here to be recognized, didn’t outline obscenity, and that omission would give rise to a protracted chain of courtroom instances and to a subjective befuddlement that lasts to this present day. (Each of us might imagine that, like the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we all know it after we see it, however not everybody sees what we see.) Still, the invoice did explicitly tie contraception and abortion to obscenity, and allow the prosecution of people that have been sharing what was primarily medical details about sexuality and replica. This, too, was an innovation: like so many subsequent makes an attempt to limit contraception and abortion over the years, the Comstock regulation made them much less obtainable to the poor, surrounded them with disgrace, and stymied analysis into safer and extra dependable strategies, with out coming near stamping them out. “Comstockery” turned a synonym for the type of American prudishness that acquired works of literature banned in Boston. But books may purchase a sure cachet from their placement in the censor’s crosshairs. The extra profound injury was to bizarre individuals—ladies, specifically—for whom the new regulation rendered life objectively tougher.

Part of what made Comstock extra profitable than different anti-vice crusaders was his early understanding of the mail as a social medium. In that respect, he was like a type of Silicon Valley visionaries who understood the potential of the Internet lengthy earlier than most individuals did. The postal service is “the great thoroughfare of communication leading up into all of our homes, schools, and colleges,” Comstock mentioned. “It is the most powerful agent, to assist this nefarious business, because it goes everywhere and is secret.” When he heard that President Ulysses S. Grant had signed the obscenity invoice into regulation, Comstock wrote in his diary, “Oh how can I express the joy of my Soul or speak the mercy of God!” Soon afterward, he acquired himself appointed as a particular agent of the U.S. Post Office, empowered to learn and seize mail, and to make arrests.

During the subsequent dozen years, nearly half the state legislatures handed their very own “little Comstock laws,” which have been typically stricter: fourteen states prohibited individuals from sharing details about contraception or abortion even in dialog. In rendering a verdict, the courts typically relied on a British authorized precedent often called the Hicklin check: if a single line in a piece was deemed obscene, the work was obscene. Wearing his regulation like a bespoke go well with of armor, Comstock seized and destroyed literature by the ton, and drove brothels and playing homes and peddlers of erotica out of enterprise. (One indignant pornographer slashed Comstock’s cheek, leaving him with a furious scar below his muttonchops.) He additionally harassed and arrested well being practitioners who supplied abortions or contraception and radicals who promoted free love and secure intercourse.

Although the title “The Man Who Hated Women” refers to Comstock, Sohn’s guide is just not a biography, and that’s all to the good; there are strong, current biographies of Comstock on the market already. Sohn, a novelist—that is her first nonfiction guide—focusses as a substitute on a few of the ladies who resisted Comstock and his regulation, providing an alternate historical past of feminism and of the free-speech motion in America. There have been actually males who fought in opposition to Comstockery—outspoken journalists and a bunch of legal professionals who defended banned works of literature and intercourse training in opposition to bluenosed censors. But Sohn factors out that the ladies who did so have been particularly courageous, since lots of them have been persecuted and prosecuted below the regulation at a time when they didn’t have the vote and couldn’t serve on juries—and when a woman who spoke overtly about intercourse may be assumed to have gone mad and be handled accordingly.

A couple of of Comstock’s targets who characteristic in Sohn’s guide are well-known—Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman—and many readers will know, too, about Madame Restell and the flamboyant suffragists, newspaper publishers, and stockbrokers Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, Woodhull’s sister. But the others are more likely to be a lot much less acquainted—they’re the deep cuts, sexual freethinkers left apart by most social histories of the period. “Despite their extraordinary contributions to civil liberties,” Sohn notes, most of those “sex radicals have been written out of feminist history (they were too sexual); sex history (they were not doctors); and progressive history (they were women).” These are good explanations, however there’s one other one: their important weirdness. They’re like the outsider artists of activism, creating their very own unschooled, florid, and enraptured works of protest. Reading Sohn, I grew fairly keen on them.

“My superpowers are listening and downsizing my life.”

Cartoon by Bob Eckstein

Angela Heywood, for occasion, was a working-class girl from rural New Hampshire who, together with her husband, Ezra, turned a public advocate for “free love,” which they outlined as “the regulation of the affections according to conscience, taste, and judgment of the individual, in place of their control by law.” The Heywoods sound at occasions like a recent couple who might need met at an Occupy demonstration and settled down in Brooklyn doing one thing artisanal. Before they married, Ezra had left his graduate research at Brown to grow to be a travelling antislavery lecturer. Angela supported the abolitionist motion as nicely, and held a sequence of wierd jobs. The Heywoods, who put down stakes in central Massachusetts, have been fortunately monogamous, however believed that the establishment of marriage ought to be reimagined on extra egalitarian phrases. They denounced debt and needed to disband companies. They additionally printed frank guides to conjugal relations and a journal, which introduced them to the consideration of Comstock, whereas working a tasteful, rustic inn the place considered one of their younger sons, Hermes, ran round in women’ garments.

At the similar time, the Heywoods have been steeped in concepts which can be tougher to establish with at this time—together with nineteenth-century spiritualism and hereditarianism. Angela believed that she may commune with the past, and thus loved a prophetic authority to talk that was seldom granted to Victorian ladies. (A buddy mentioned, “She has visions, hears voices and dreams, and she is at times a whirlwind of words.”) They weren’t followers of synthetic contraception—they counselled that males ought to observe continence as a substitute—and thought that undesirable youngsters have been extra more likely to endure from bodily defects than needed ones have been. They disapproved of abortion, too, although they argued that males shouldn’t be in a position to dictate the legal guidelines that ruled ladies’s our bodies.

For all that, the Heywoods ended up inspiring mainstream defenses of free expression that, as Sohn exhibits, had an enduring impression. Comstock’s tireless harassment of the couple, together with the arrests and trials of Ezra Heywood, helped immediate the formation of a company referred to as the National Defense Association, which aimed to “roll back the wave of intolerance, bigotry and ignorance” and defend “cherished liberties.” In the eighteen-seventies and eighties, Angela wrote tributes to graphic language and her proper to make use of it in public, anticipating later iterations of such advocacy, from George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” to “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” Regretting that she herself hadn’t been tried and sentenced as a substitute of her husband, she wrote, “The he was imprisoned in part to shut up the she tongue-pen-wise. But I am still at it; penis, womb, vagina, semen are classic terms, well-revered in usage.” She praised the “aptness, euphony, and serviceable persistence” of “such graceful terms as hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, fucking, throbbing, kissing and kin words.” The Heywoods additionally helped articulate grander rules of free expression and the proper to privateness. “If government cannot justly determine what ticket we shall vote, what church we shall attend, or what books we should read,” Ezra wrote, “by what authority does it watch at key-holes and burst open bed-chamber doors to drag lovers from sacred seclusion?”

In the final many years of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth, the National Defense Association and a bunch referred to as the Free Speech League held huge rallies and fervent fund-raising dinners not solely for the Heywoods however for nonetheless trippier and extra marginal intercourse radicals. The National Defense Association got here to the help, for instance, of Sara Chase, a forty-one-year-old homeopathic doctor and single mom, whom Comstock arrested on obscenity costs in 1878. Chase gave afternoon lectures on sexuality at an outfit referred to as the New York Physiological Society, on West Thirty-third Street, which additionally featured music, dialog, and recitations. Comstock nabbed her, Sohn tells us, for promoting a vaginal syringe that may very well be used to inject spermicide after intercourse, and for, in his phrases, “all the filthy detail” she “used in describing this article and its use.” Chase had a humorousness. She filed a lawsuit in opposition to Comstock for false arrest—“a startling act of defiance,” as Sohn says—whereas persevering with to market the offending merchandise, now below the moniker “the Comstock syringe.” An advert in her well being journal learn “We trust that the sudden popularity brought to this valuable syringe by the benevolent agency of the enterprising Mr. Comstock, will prove to suffering womankind the most beneficent of his illustrious life.”

Ida Craddock was a lecturer and author on the “divine science” of intercourse who practiced telepathy and loved frequent, transcendent lovemaking periods with the ghost of a person she had as soon as recognized. But Sohn provides Craddock her due as a courageous campaigner who inveighed in opposition to marital rape, urged husbands to interact in foreplay with their wives and inspired each companions to get bare throughout intercourse, and shared pretty dependable anatomical data. She was additionally pragmatic sufficient to maintain the ghost on the down low when vital. She instructed her lawyer, the younger Clarence Darrow, that, if requested about her spirit lover, she would merely say that her husband was lifeless. Any additional inquiries into her spectral intercourse life ought to be rejected as a violation of privateness.

Count me in for the time-travel experiment (or not less than the HBO sequence or Atlas Obscura immersive night) through which I get to see ladies in ringlets and crinolines and males in bowlers and spats listening to earnest lectures about the giving and getting of sexual pleasure. Taken collectively, these tales of the sudden additionally supply a recent angle on the historical past of American free-speech activism. Many of us consider it as starting with the founding of the A.C.L.U., in 1920, and its protection of political radicals hounded below the Espionage and Sedition Acts, not with dreamy, self-taught sexologists expounding on the delights of the physique. The intercourse radicals and their champions aren’t totally unknown. (A biography of Ida Craddock, “Heaven’s Bride,” got here out in 2010.) Still, “The Man Who Hated Women” takes us down some hidden passageways resulting in bigger, extra acquainted rooms of the previous.

We stay in a world that Anthony Comstock would have walked by means of hellfire to forestall. After his demise, in 1915, a sequence of landmark lawsuits, stretching into the nineteen-seventies, step by step eroded the attain of the Comstock statutes. They carved out extra and extra room for sexually express supplies and for the distribution of contraception and details about it. The cultural modifications wrought by second-wave feminism, homosexual liberation, the sexual revolution, and capitalism’s limitless capability to promote individuals stuff that turns them on did the relaxation. These days, individuals are in a position to identify and pursue their sexual needs and identities extra freely and overtly than ever earlier than. Porn is as immediately obtainable as any utility in the privateness of your private home. Evangelical Christians who may be presumed to be Comstock’s heirs helped elect a President who boasted of grabbing ladies by the pussy. The Communications Decency Act, which appears like one thing Comstock may have sponsored, will help Internet-service suppliers keep away from duty for, amongst different noxious developments, the look on their platforms of revenge porn and sexualized hatred. For higher and for worse, all of us stay on Nassau Street now.

Strangely, although, considered one of the phenomena that Comstock most needed to quash stays weak at this time. In the subsequent Supreme Court time period, the Justices will hear an abortion case that will overturn Roe v. Wade. Even entry to contraception continues to be topic to restrictions; employers with spiritual objections can refuse to cowl contraception of their well being plans. The faith-based conviction that life begins at conception, and some notion of motherhood as ladies’s overarching function, proceed to train affect over coverage. As Brett Gary writes, in the forthcoming guide “Dirty Works: Obscenity on Trial in America’s First Sexual Revolution,” “women’s reproductive autonomy” persists as “a perpetual source of political controversy and site of conservative political mobilization in part because the patriarchal dimensions of Comstockery remain steadfast in the culture.” On this, greater than another topic, the phrases of Ezra Heywood nonetheless sound radical: a lady’s “right to limit the number of children she will bear is unquestionable as her right to walk, eat, breathe or be still.”

Was Comstock a person who hated ladies? As Sohn acknowledges, he wouldn’t have mentioned so. He would have mentioned that he revered virtuous ladies—his religious Congregationalist mom, who died when he was ten, simply after giving delivery to her tenth youngster; his pious, docile spouse; his daughter, whom he’d taken in as a child, after rescuing her from the arms of her lifeless mom throughout a raid on a Chinatown tenement—and believed that his life’s work was to safeguard them. But the language he used to explain the different type of ladies, the ladies he sought to arrest and imprison, was revealing. One anecdote that Sohn relates—she has a present for summoning up such scenes—jogged my memory vividly of modern-day Internet trolls. After Ida Craddock was arrested, in 1902, Comstock accompanied her on an elevated practice above the streets of New York to the police station: “As she sat quietly in her corner of the seat, he showered her with what she called ‘opprobrious epithets’ and loudly told the other passengers that she wrote filthy books.” Politely, she pleaded with him to cease, saying {that a} “public conveyance was not a place for the discussion of such subjects.” After her trial, hours earlier than she was to look in courtroom for sentencing, Craddock killed herself. Looking again on the case a 12 months later, Comstock in contrast her to a rabid canine that needed to be put down: “To those who realize the effect of a mad dog’s bite, it is imperative that mad dogs of all sizes should be killed before the children are bitten.” Craddock addressed a heartbreaking suicide notice to her mom, who was embarrassed by her and whose understanding she was perpetually searching for. “The real Ida, your own daughter, loves you and waits for you to come soon over to join her in the beautiful, blessed world beyond the grave, where Anthony Comstocks and corrupt judges and impure-minded people are not known,” she wrote. Purity is in the thoughts of the beholder, however beware the man who vows to guard yours. ♦


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