How An Anti-Vice Crusader Sabotaged The Early Birth Control Movement
The Comstock Act, which passed in 1873, virtually outlawed contraception. In The Man Who Hated Women, author Amy Sohn writes about the man behind the law — and the women prosecuted under it.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to talk about a dramatic turning point in the fight for women's reproductive rights, the women who fought for it and the man behind the law that stood in their way. My guest, Amy Sohn, is the author of the new nonfiction book, "The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, And Civil Liberties In The Gilded Age." The man referred to in the title is Anthony Comstock, who Sohn describes as one of the most important men in the lives of 19th century women. And she doesn't mean that in a good way.
He was an anti-vice crusader who fiercely lobbied for an 1873 law which became known as the Comstock Act. It made the distribution, sale, possession and mailing of obscene material, as well as contraception, punishable with fines and prison sentences. Shortly after the bill was signed, Comstock was appointed as a special agent to the U.S. Post Office, giving him the power to enforce the law.
Sohn writes about Comstock and eight women charged with violating the Comstock Act. The eight included Margaret Sanger, the period's most famous advocate for birth control, Emma Goldman, the famous anarchist, as well as nurses and health practitioners, spiritualists and women in the free love movement. Free love meant something different then. Sohn says these women laid the groundwork for the eventual legalization of birth control and the protection of women's abortion rights. Amy Sohn is the author of five novels and a former columnist at New York Magazine.
A heads up to parents - this is an adult conversation. Amy Sohn, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a really fascinating book. So let's start with the basics. What was the Comstock Act?
AMY SOHN: The Comstock Act was a federal law passed in March of 1873 that criminalized the mailing of contraception and contraception information, abortion advertising and information, with very steep penalties and sentences.
GROSS: So what was already criminalized before that, in terms of obscenity and birth control, in terms of pornography and birth control and abortion?
SOHN: Yeah. Before the Comstock Act, it was obscene materials, which would be things like stereoscopic view postcards and, you know, small erotic books and that kind of thing, not specifically related to birth control or abortion information. And it certainly didn't include things like medical works to describe anatomy and things that a couple could do to try to prevent pregnancy.
GROSS: 'Cause with the Comstock Act, you couldn't even send through the mail books by physicians about sexuality.
SOHN: Yeah, they basically went underground, and they became harder and harder for people to find.
GROSS: So one of the, quote, "innovations" of the Comstock Law was to add, you couldn't send these things through the mail and to add contraception to what was previously outlawed.
SOHN: Yes. And it also included the term newspaper because there was a case in 1872 and 1873 involving these radical publishers, Victoria Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, who had written what he considered to be obscene things in a newspaper.
GROSS: So were you allowed to sell contraception if you didn't get it through the mail?
SOHN: Well, there were modifications made over time related to hand-selling. The initial one in 1873 was only concerned with the mail. But one of the reasons his law had such sticking power is over the decades it came to include speaking about birth control, distributing leaflets, information - meaning, for example, if you were giving a political speech like Emma Goldman did and wanted to give out material about birth control afterwards. So its heart was in the mail, but over time, it became much broader than that. And so even oral information, which reasonable people believed was constitutionally protected - turned out that it wasn't.
GROSS: Was this through modifications of the Comstock Law?
SOHN: Yeah, revisions, and then at the same time, of course, you had state - you had these little Comstock Laws, these state laws, which all looked a little bit different from each other. But, for example, you know, different states at different periods in three or four decades following the 1870s would prohibit, quote-unquote, "hand-selling."
GROSS: So they added to the Comstock Law.
GROSS: Made it even stricter.
SOHN: Yes, they kept adding to it. And one of the things I was so fascinated to discover in my book is that during the first decade of the 20th century, when the government decided it wanted to prohibit those with unconventional political ideas from immigrating into the United States, the law that they used to criminalize certain forms of speech was the Comstock Law.
So obscenity first was what you and I would consider to be smut or pornography. Then it was expanded to include birth control, and then it was expanded to include language that would incite treason. And what that means is that it was such a mutable law because as American concerns about political speech came to dominate the conversation in the 20th century, they could just go back to the Comstock Law and add to it to criminalize that, even speech that had nothing to do with contraception or abortion.
GROSS: When we talk about contraception in the 1870s, what exactly are we talking about? It's not like we had the birth control pill or - we didn't have the diaphragm or the cervical cap as it exists today. What did women have available to them?
SOHN: It's pretty much everything you can think of except for the birth control pill. 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, rhythm - 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.
GROSS: So what were the penalties for sending either contraception or information about contraception through the mail?
SOHN: 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. This is serious business because the people that were sending this kind of information were not wealthy - although there were a few abortionists, one of whom I write about in my book, called Madame Restell, who was considered, you know, a very wealthy woman and practiced out of 5th Avenue and 52nd Street in Manhattan.
Both on the intellectual side - the free lovers and the intellectual people who were writing treatises about the meaning of marriage and the role of contraception and women's liberation - and on the commercial side - the abortionists, the midwives, the practitioners - these were not wealthy people. So these fines, when they were able to get convictions, and these sentences absolutely ruined peoples' 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.
GROSS: And sometimes to prison.
SOHN: Oh, yeah. I mean, yeah, of course, you couldn't manufacture any of these materials from prison. But yeah, a few of the women in my book went to prison. And 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 at that - given what lifespans were at that time, to be a 67-year-old woman facing a ten-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.
GROSS: So this law was commonly known as the Comstock Law even though he wasn't in Congress. He didn't vote for it and in Congress had had a more technical name. So what did he do to get this law into Congress and to get it passed?
SOHN: He befriended the bigwigs in the YMCA in Manhattan, and they paid for him to go on these lobbying trips to Washington to try to pass this law. And on one of the trips, he went into the vice president's room and laid out a collection of dirty materials, including what he called rubber articles, which was a term that could include both forms of contraception and sex toys. And all these politicians came into the room and said to him, we're ready to pass it.
GROSS: And Comstock was a member of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. So, you know, like, pornography, vice, these were really big issues in his life. Tell us a little bit about how he became obsessed with what you're describing as smut and contraception.
SOHN: Well, he was born in a small rural - in a 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, when he moved to New York, what you did if you were a young man moving to New York to make it, find a way to make a living, is you lived in a house with other young men called a boarding house. 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 - many of whom, 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 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. He 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.
GROSS: My guest is Amy Sohn, author of the new book "The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship And Civil Liberties In The Gilded Age." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Amy Sohn, author of the new book "The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship And Civil Liberties In The Gilded Age." It's about Anthony Comstock, the man behind the law named after him, the 1873 Comstock Act, which made it a crime to distribute, sell, possess or mail obscene material as well as contraception. The book is also about eight women charged with violating the law.
Anthony Comstock was made a special agent of the post office by Congress. What did that mean? What power did that give him? And why did they give him that title?
SOHN: Well, he would write people from mailboxes all over the country so that he could get interstate mailing of obscenity and contraception. He decoyed people. He was given that 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. It was a very broad definition of what someone affiliated with the post office could do with regards to individual civil liberties.
GROSS: How many time - like, did he frequently become the person who went in and raided a home or a bar or a store?
SOHN: He used pseudonyms. He would have these clever pseudonyms. Like, his wife's maiden name was Hamilton, so one of his pseudonyms was M. Hamilton. He frequently called himself Mr. Farnsworth. And he would come in and ask to buy abortifacients or contraceptive pills and then return on another day and say, I am Anthony Comstock. And he would wave a handkerchief across the street at police officers and summon them in to seize the house.
He was a very, very strange guy. He carried a revolver. And he hit a pornographer in the head on the way to the Newark jail, and they got into this tussle in the carriage. For a guy who was raised incredibly devout and who hallowed his mother for his entire life, he was not afraid of being violent, although there's no evidence that he was violent to the women that I write about. This was really reserved for the male smut peddlers.
GROSS: He got a scar on his face from a fight.
SOHN: Yeah. He got in a fight in the carriage on the way to Newark with this bookseller named Charles Conroy and had several facial arteries severed. And from that point on, many Comstock antagonists called him scar-faced Tony.
GROSS: So what was Anthony Comstock's marriage like?
SOHN: Anthony Comstock was married relatively young to a woman named Margaret Hamilton, a religious woman. They lived with her sister for most of their marriage, which was not that uncommon. They first lived in Brooklyn and then moved to Summit, N.J., which had a lot of like-minded people living in it. And they had a baby very shortly after their marriage who died in infancy of what we call today summer diarrhea, which was a very common affliction in infants at that time and could lead to death.
He then, about five years later, is said to have encountered a baby lying next to the baby's mother, who had died in childbirth, on a raid in Chinatown and took the baby home to Summit, although he and Margaret Comstock never filed formal adoption papers for her. And they raised her. She had developmental disabilities and was later institutionalized. I've wondered in my research what it must have meant for them not to be able to conceive again after their biological daughter, Lillie, died so young. The other piece of Comstock's biography that I encountered in my research that has never been covered in any works about him is that his own mother died when he was 10 of a uterine hemorrhage after delivering his younger sister, Harriet.
GROSS: Yeah. When - you know, when I've read that, I wondered, why doesn't he worry more about the risks of childbirth, the health risks of childbirth to women? 'Cause there was a high risk of infection and of mortality.
SOHN: Yeah. He was so religious that the idea of being fruitful and multiplying was something he was learning about in Sunday school, you know, as soon as he was old enough to go. And my guess is that he understood his mother's death simultaneously to be the single most painful event of his life and the defining event of his adult life and his mission and, at the same time, the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate sacrifice of a Victorian-era woman, which was to lose her own life in the process of building a large family.
GROSS: I also wonder about the connection, if there is any, between him wanting to basically outlaw contraception and being in a marriage where they were unable to conceive after their infant died.
SOHN: I had the same idea. Was there bitterness? My guess is that they tried many times to conceive following this one birth, and there may have been complications either around the pregnancy or the childbirth itself that prevented her from conceiving again. But I think it's simplistic to say that he was motivated by - I mean, first of all, we know he was against contraception before he ever became a father himself. But I think it's simplistic to say that this came only out of some personal animus. This was ingrained in his psyche.
And one thing I had never thought so much about until I wrote the book was communities like New Canaan, Conn., in the 1840s, which was the decade of his birth - I mean, these were extremely religious agrarian communities. And so religion was just absolutely the heart of the community. And so you don't put it away when you move to a big city like New York. It's still in you. And the whole reason that the YMCA decided to build a building in New York was, they wanted men to have a place to go that were not these boarding houses. They wanted them to be able to read the Bible, and do gymnastics, and sit and have intelligent discourse. They were trying to protect these young men. And in many ways, they were doing a service because it's scary to move to a new city when you know no one.
GROSS: And Comstock became very active in the Y.
SOHN: Yeah. Part of it was luck, which was that he's - he was able to befriend the higher-ups. But yeah, absolutely. I mean, he was associated with the Y in a way that probably no other leader was because of his anti-vice work.
GROSS: And so yeah. And Comstock worked for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. What was that, and what was he able to accomplish through that?
SOHN: It was a privately incorporated society that came out of a Y committee that had been organized to suppress vice. And it was a marriage of public and private because the officers of the society were able to arrest people, but they were also able to use the police to help them. So was an incredibly well-funded society whose primary purpose was to root out obscenity.
GROSS: My guest is Amy Sohn, author of the new book "The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, And Civil Liberties In The Gilded Age." We'll talk more after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Amy Sohn, author of the new book "The Man Who Hated Women." The man referred to in the title is Anthony Comstock, an anti-vice crusader who lobbied for the law that was named after him, the 1873 Comstock Act, which made it a crime to distribute, sell, possess or mail obscene material as well as contraception. The book is also about eight women, including Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman, charged with violating that law.
So several of the women who you write about in the book, women who were targeted by Anthony Comstock, not only supported birth control and, for some of them, abortion, they were part of the free love movement of the time. Tell us a little bit about what the free love movement was like back in the late 1800s.
SOHN: Well, 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, Woodstock and, you know, 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. And regarding contraception, many of them practiced a technique called coitus reservatus, which was a form of withdrawal intended to limit pregnancy. Later on, some of the more radical women that I write about began to talk about female continence.
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. You know, 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.
GROSS: So that's the way eugenics enters the picture.
SOHN: Yeah, though that word wasn't used quite then. It was this idea that we needed more righteous thinking and justice. And when - you know, these so-called enlightened people, many of whom lived in - Oneida was a free love commune in upstate New York - that if you could get all these people together, then, you know, the world would be purified by their children. And of course, this is a very, very controversial idea today.
GROSS: You know, even Emma Goldman for a while considered herself to be practicing free love. What did she mean by it? She was an anarchist and is also very, you know, famous for her advocacy of birth control.
SOHN: Well, she was a really troubled figure, as inspiring as she was to many, many, many Americans and what a incredible, popular speaker she was on the lecture circuit. She was in a very difficult relationship with a man named Ben Reitman, who was nine years younger than she. And he was not faithful to her. And so she would give these speeches about free love and women's empowerment, but personally, she wanted a monogamous relationship, so there was this real schism between what she was saying and what she was living. She believed in women's emotional empowerment and felt that the suffrage movement was very limited, that women's true empowerment came from within; it was about liberating yourself from male tyrants in your life, including your father and male partners who were not good for you. And she thought that to claim that the right to vote was the only way to empower women was just far too limiting.
GROSS: So one of the women in the book who I was totally unfamiliar with is Angela Heywood. Tell us a little bit about her and why Anthony Comstock went after her.
SOHN: Well, Angela Heywood was married to a very prominent free lover named Ezra Heywood, and they lived in Princeton, Mass., and published a free love journal called "The Word" to which she was the primary contributor alongside Ezra. And Angela believed that women should be able to have access to syringes, which were a form of contraception, even though free lovers generally opposed artificial devices. And Ezra was prosecuted several times over the course of his life for writing, some of which was Angela's writing. And she definitely, definitely wanted Comstock to go after her, but he only went after her husband, and she never had a chance to defend her writing in court. She believed in using plain English to discuss the body. She believed that women were emotionally empowered and should marry just and righteous men, and she was a happily married mother and wife. They had four children and were lifelong companions, and their marriage ended only after his death.
GROSS: Why did she actually want to be prosecuted?
SOHN: She wanted her words to be indicted so that she could defend the thinking behind them.
GROSS: Did she feel like she was discriminated against 'cause they only went after her husband when she was the writer, too?
SOHN: Yeah. This was the strange thing about Anthony Comstock, is that he pursued far, far more men than women. And when it came to this kind of group of intellectual women, I think he understood on some level the issues at hand in having a woman on the stand. So for example, at one point, it looked like she was going to be able to testify on her own behalf, but the trial of Ezra kept being delayed because she had a baby. So Anthony Comstock, I think, imagined this, you know, either pregnant or, more likely, a woman who had just given birth being on the stand, and he said that this wasn't a good - was not going to be a good way to go. So frequently, women have been left out of histories of free love because there were many prominent men. But she was an absolute coequal with her husband and, really, was one of the first women to advocate for the use of plain English terms as a way of democratizing sex and making sex information available to young people and strengthening marriages and making them more egalitarian.
GROSS: Anthony Comstock died in 1915. But the law lived on. When did the Comstock Law end?
SOHN: Well, because the Comstock Law included obscenity components and what was then called birth control components - the term birth control didn't come around until around 1911 - it was dismantled at different times in history. In terms of the birth control provisions of the Comstock Law, the first major blow came in the 1930s with a case that has a very long name but that Margaret Sanger took involving pessaries sent from Japan. And the case was called United States v. One Package Containing 120 More Or Less Rubber Pessaries To Prevent Conception. It was 1936. And that was a second circuit court decision that found that doctors could send contraception to their patients through the mail.
GROSS: And what were the other aspects of the law that ended?
SOHN: Well, this is what's just so astounding. It wasn't until Griswold v. Connecticut, 1965, which was a supreme case that invalidated the Connecticut Comstock Law on the grounds that 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. Well, you might wonder, what about single women? It was not until 1972 that single woman could. That was 99 years after the Comstock Law was passed.
GROSS: My guest is Amy Sohn, author of the new book "The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, And Civil Liberties In The Gilded Age." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Amy Sohn. Her new book, "The Man Who Hated Women," is about Anthony Comstock, the man behind the law named after him, the 1873 Comstock Act, which made it a crime to distribute, sell, possess or mail obscene material as well as contraception. The book is also about eight women charged with violating the law.
Before you wrote this book, when you were starting your career when you were in your 20s, you wrote columns about dating and relationships. And I'm wondering if there's a connection between what you were writing about then and your interest in the subject of, you know, birth control, abortion, the laws against it - the connection of the free love movement to the kind of radical writing that Anthony Comstock went after.
SOHN: Absolutely. When I was in my 20s writing about dating downtown and being frustrated in my quest to find a boyfriend, I think I had a lot of rage. And the rage was that the men were setting the rules around commitment and behavior. And I was in a lot of situations in which I didn't feel I was being treated with respect. And yet, I didn't really see any other model for doing things. Now, some of that has to do with being in one's 20s. But it seemed to me, if I had the benefit of being born in 1973, the year Roe v. Wade was decided, the fact that I should still be having to struggle to say, you know, it's really not nice when you don't call somebody back - (laughter) I was having to educate these guys in the '90s. This is very frustrating.
And I also found that writing provocatively about sex makes you a lot of enemies and makes you very dangerous. I got a lot of hate mail when I was writing my column "Female Trouble" at the New York Press. And the things that the men would say in their hate mail were so misogynist and cruel that it struck me that they had to be very angry at women in general. They couldn't just be angry at me. I became kind of a stand-in. And I realized that there's still just terrible, terrible miscommunication, particularly between young men and young women, about sexual intimacy and sexual pleasure.
And as I've watched the sexual assault conversation evolve over the 25 years since I left college, I'm always interested in why we hear so little about the opposite of coercion, which is pleasure. And are we educating young women about what they should want and what should feel good as much as we're educating them about what to be afraid of?
GROSS: Can you think of an example of a column that you wrote that got a really big negative reaction?
SOHN: (Laughter) Well, the very first column I wrote was called "The Blow-Up Boyfriend." And it was about if you could have a boyfriend who, as soon as he started talking about his band and got really boring, you could just deflate him.
GROSS: (Laughter) Why did that get such a negative reaction?
SOHN: Well, it was really just kind of a rant about my frustration with men in general. And at the time - it was 1996 that I published it - saying, you know, all these 20-something guys that think they're so cool with their artistic projects, maybe they're just self-important, narcissistic jerks. And, of course, what I wasn't saying explicitly was that my own writing was a form of art. And I wanted that to be evaluated and looked at with the same seriousness that these guys wanted their music and art to be looked at.
GROSS: Having gone through the experience of getting all this, like, angry mail for expressing your experiences and what you thought about them, how you interpreted your experiences, and now after writing this book about the early birth control movement and the early advocates of what was then called free love - which is different from what we now call free love - did it make you want to become an activist as well as a writer, to, like, be on the front lines of the reproductive rights movement?
SOHN: Certainly now that we see these 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 - you know, what is a post-Roe landscape going to look like? And from what I understand, we're going to have a - 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.
GROSS: And now we're facing a possibility - well, we already have a system in which abortions are really hard to get, abortion clinics are really hard to find, in some areas of the country, and much - there's much easier access in other areas. And a lot of women don't have the time or the money to go to the places where abortion might be accessible to them.
SOHN: Yes, and the statistics show that abortions do decline in places where women don't have clinics nearby. And the reason that's so chilling is we have to wonder, are they getting dangerous abortions, and we're not hearing about them? I'm sure some of them are. And then are some of them carrying these pregnancies to term, and what are the long-term implications of that? How young are the women? What are the circumstances of their getting pregnant? What are the reasons that they want an abortion in the first place?
So the Comstock Law definitely worked, and overturning Roe will work. It will change behavior. And we just know too much by now. We know how dangerous that is to women's bodies. We know that women will die. And so the fact that we're still talking about this after a hundred years, a hundred and twentysome-odd years, is incredibly sad to me.
GROSS: You sound confident that Roe's going to be overturned.
SOHN: Well, the reading that I've been doing says that even in the best case, it's going to get harder for a lot of people to have access to abortion. And so even if it's not overturned, it will probably be narrowed in ways that have an incredibly negative impact on women.
GROSS: Amy Sohn, thank you so much for talking with us.
SOHN: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Amy Sohn is the author of the new book, "The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, And Civil Liberties In The Gilded Age." After we take a short break, John Powers will review the new season of the British series, "Unforgotten," about a police unit that investigates cold cases. This is FRESH AIR.
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