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How An Anti-Vice Crusader Sabotaged The Early Birth Control Movement


In 1873, Congress passed a law outlawing the distribution, sale, mailing and possession of "obscene" materials — including contraception.

The Comstock Act, as it became known, was named after Anthony Comstock, an anti-vice crusader who later became a special agent to the U.S. Post Office, giving him the power to enforce the law. In her new book, The Man Who Hated Women, author Amy Sohn writes about Comstock — as well as eight women charged with violating the Comstock Act.

While working for the post office, Sohn says, Comstock "decoyed people" by using the mail to solicit obscenity and contraception.

"[Comstock] was given that [post office] title so that he could have the power to inspect the mail and over time it was expanded to be able to come into people's houses and seize items," she says. "It was a very broad, broad definition of what someone affiliated with the post office could do with regards to individual civil liberties."

Over time, the scope of the Comstock law expanded: "Its heart was in the mail, but ... it became much broader than that," Sohn says. "Even oral information, which reasonable people believed was constitutionally protected, turned out that it wasn't."

In 1916, feminist activist Emma Goldman was arrested in New York City just before giving a lecture on family planning. One year earlier, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger had been charged with violating the law. Goldman and Sanger are just two of the eight women profiled in Sohn's book. Others include nurses and health practitioners, spiritualists and women in the so-called free love movement.

The Comstock Act lasted until 1965 when the Supreme Court ruled it violated the right to marital privacy. "It was in Griswold v. Connecticut that married women could finally have the right to receive contraception from their doctors," Sohn says.

As for single women? They didn't get the same rights until the 1972 Eisenstadt v. Baird ruling — 99 years after the passage of the Comstock Act.

Interview Highlights

On the forms of birth control that were available in the 1870s

They had sponges. A very common form of birth control that many women used was vaginal douching, which were these syringes. And you could use them for health and hygienic purposes, but they would also put various substances in them, acidic substances that were said to have spermicidal qualities. Also [the rhythm method] — although they did not understand the rhythm method, and so the times that they were abstaining were actually the worst possible times to abstain. And withdrawal, which was sometimes successful and sometimes not successful.

On how Comstock became obsessed what he considered "smut"

Well, he was born in a small, rural area called New Canaan, Conn. And it was the kind of town where you knew everybody and you knew everybody's business. And his parents were very religious; he was raised Congregationalist. And after the Civil War ... he moved to New York ... [and he] lived in a house with other young men called a boardinghouse. And New York at the time was dominated by what was called "sporting culture," where all of entertainment was tailored toward these young single men ... most of whom were living apart from their families for the first time. So there were billiards and boxing and pretty waiter girl saloons. And he was exposed to all of this and [was] just absolutely disgusted. He had trouble finding men of similar religious thinking. And so that was when he decided to do something about it.

But the real precipitant to his becoming an anti-smut, anti-vice activist was he had a co-worker at his dry goods store who told him that he had visited a prostitute and become diseased and corrupted. [Comstock] became convinced that the reason this guy had gone to a prostitute was because he read dirty books. So he went to the store where the books were sold and called the police. And that was the beginning of his career as a vice hunter.

On the Comstock Act and the penalties for sending contraception or information about it through the mail

They could be up to $5,000, which would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars today and either five or 10 years of hard labor. ... So these fines, when they were able to get convictions, and these sentences, absolutely ruined people's lives and didn't just cut off their ability to make a living, but frequently sent them into poverty and completely out of the business [and sometimes to prison]. ...

One of the fascinating things about Comstock and the women that he went after — I focus on eight women he pursued — is many of them were middle-aged and older, some as old as their late 60s. And so given what life spans were at that time, to be a 67-year-old woman facing a 10-year prison sentence, you were almost certain you were going to die in prison. And that is why some of the women he went after and was able to prosecute took their own lives.

On what the "free love" movement was like back in the late 1800s

The free love movement was this idea that there should be equality in romantic relationships. A lot of people hear free love, and they think of like, Woodstockand the summer of love. It was not about having sex with as many partners as you could. Most free lovers were monogamous. The heart of it was better equality, better division of domestic tasks, and the idea of abolishing marriage laws that two people should be able to enter into their own romantic contracts, which should not be legal. Most free lovers were opposed to abortion, except in extreme cases. ...

But what's interesting about the free lovers is they were civil libertarians, and many of them were also extremely leftist in their ideas about economics. So, for example, they felt that too many men and women were marrying for economic reasons. Women needed money, and then they would marry men that they didn't love. They wanted all relationships to be based on love and mutual respect. The most radical thing that they believed is that if a man and a woman really loved each other, they would give birth to superior children.

On how the Comstock story relates to our current reproductive issues, including challenges to Roe v. Wade

Certainly now that we see these [reproductive] rights already being chipped away and I'm lucky to live in a state like New York, which is trying to protect abortion access no matter what happens with Roe. But, yes, I think the biggest thing, though, is that I have a teenage daughter, and so I think about the generations into the future and what is a post-Roe landscape going to look like? And from what I understand, we're going to have, even more so than we already do today, a real two-tiered system where your access to abortion is going to rely heavily on where you happen to live. And the reason that saddens me is Roe was decided precisely to stop that from happening. And the other reason it fills me with dread is that was essentially what Anthony Comstock created, a two-tiered system, which was that even after the passage of the Comstock law, you could get what was called a "medical exemption" or a "therapeutic exemption" if you were wealthy and you could find your way to having abortions. But women who didn't have that kind of access couldn't.

Sam Briger and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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