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

The Radical Women Who Paved The Way For Free Speech And Free Love The New Yorker 880x800

Anthony Comstock may be the only man in American history whose lobbying efforts yielded not only the exact federal law he wanted but the privilege of enforcing it to his liking for four decades. Given that Comstock never held elected office and that the highest appointed position he occupied in government was special agent of the Post Office, this was an extraordinary achievement—and a reminder of the ways that zealots have sometimes slipped past the sentries of American democracy to create a reality that the rest of us must live in. Comstock was an anti-vice crusader who worried about many of the things that Americans of a similar moral and religious cast worried about in the late nineteenth century: the rise of the so-called sporting press, which specialized in randy gossip and user guides to local brothels; the phenomenon of young men and women set loose in big cities, living, unsupervised, in cheap rooming houses; the enervating effects of masturbation; the ravages of venereal disease; the easy availability of contraceptives, such as condoms and pessaries, and of abortifacients, dispensed by druggists or administered by midwives. But Comstock railed against all these things more passionately than most of his contemporaries did, and far more effectively.

Nassau Street, at the lower tip of Manhattan, was a particular horror to him—a groaning board of Boschian temptations. As Amy Sohn details in her fascinating book “The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship & Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), when Comstock arrived in New York as a young man, just after the Civil War, he was appalled to see an open market in sex toys and contraceptive devices (both often hawked as “rubber goods”), along with smutty playing cards, books, and stereoscopic images. At the wholesale notions establishment where he held a job, Comstock lamented that the young men he worked with were “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 home, where his mother, a direct descendant of the first Puritans in New England, read her children Bible stories, he seems to have been a model of good deportment. At school, his better angels appear to have left him exposed—he was often whipped for misbehavior, and sometimes the schoolmasters, with a diabolical flair for sowing gender discord, made him sit with the girls and wear a sunbonnet. He did not attend university, but over time he developed a vigorous rhetorical style. “One cannot get away from a book that has once been read,” he observed. He brought his moral ardor with him when he served a mostly peaceful stint with the Union Army in Florida, fighting what seems to have been a losing battle with the urge to masturbate and incurring the ill will of his fellow-soldiers by pouring out his whiskey rations before anyone else could get at them. For Comstock, the stakes were, always, almost unbearably high. “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 an organization aimed at keeping young men in big cities whistle-clean in thought and deed, worked with Comstock to form a Committee for the Suppression of Vice. He was given his dream job, carrying out the committee’s investigations, which involved, among other tactics, sending decoy letters ostensibly from people in search of birth-control information or pictures of naked ladies. The following year, he travelled to Washington, D.C., where he successfully lobbied for the passage of a law that made it a crime (punishable in some cases with up to five years of hard labor) to publish, possess, or distribute materials “of an immoral nature” or to mail anything that was “obscene, lewd, or lascivious.” It was the first federal law governing obscenity; as the legal scholar Geoffrey R. Stone notes in his book “Sex and the Constitution,” prior to the religious-revival movement known as 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 legal under common law and generally acceptable to the public before the stage of quickening—when fetal movement can be felt by the mother—and some of those who provided it were not particularly 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 family size in the course of the nineteenth century—from an average of seven children to half that—suggests that the use of birth-control methods became common; the advertising of contraceptive devices, their purpose often coyly disguised, certainly was.

The Comstock Act, as it came to be known, did not define obscenity, and that omission would give rise to a long chain of court cases and to a subjective befuddlement that lasts to this day. (Each of us may think that, like the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we know it when we see it, but not everyone sees what we see.) Still, the bill did explicitly tie contraception and abortion to obscenity, and enable the prosecution of people who were sharing what was essentially medical information about sexuality and reproduction. This, too, was an innovation: like so many subsequent attempts to restrict birth control and abortion over the years, the Comstock law made them less available to the poor, surrounded them with shame, and stymied research into safer and more reliable methods, without coming close to stamping them out. “Comstockery” became a synonym for the sort of American prudishness that got works of literature banned in Boston. But books could acquire a certain cachet from their placement in the censor’s crosshairs. The more profound damage was to ordinary people—women, in particular—for whom the new law rendered life objectively harder.

Part of what made Comstock more successful than other anti-vice crusaders was his early understanding of the mail as a social medium. In that respect, he was like one of those Silicon Valley visionaries who understood the potential of the Internet long before most people did. The postal service is “the great thoroughfare of communication leading up into all of our homes, schools, and colleges,” Comstock said. “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 bill into law, Comstock wrote in his diary, “Oh how can I express the joy of my Soul or speak the mercy of God!” Soon afterward, he got himself appointed as a special agent of the U.S. Post Office, empowered to read and seize mail, and to make arrests.

During the next dozen years, almost half the state legislatures passed their own “little Comstock laws,” which were sometimes stricter: fourteen states prohibited people from sharing information about birth control or abortion even in conversation. In rendering a verdict, the courts generally relied on a British legal precedent known as the Hicklin test: if a single line in a work was deemed obscene, the work was obscene. Wearing his law like a bespoke suit of armor, Comstock seized and destroyed literature by the ton, and drove brothels and gambling houses and peddlers of erotica out of business. (One angry pornographer slashed Comstock’s cheek, leaving him with a livid scar under his muttonchops.) He also harassed and arrested health practitioners who offered abortions or birth control and radicals who promoted free love and safe sex.

Although the title “The Man Who Hated Women” refers to Comstock, Sohn’s book is not a biography, and that’s all to the good; there are solid, recent biographies of Comstock out there already. Sohn, a novelist—this is her first nonfiction book—focusses instead on some of the women who resisted Comstock and his law, offering an alternative history of feminism and of the free-speech movement in America. There were certainly men who fought against Comstockery—outspoken journalists and a host of lawyers who defended banned works of literature and sex education against bluenosed censors. But Sohn points out that the women who did so were especially brave, since many of them were persecuted and prosecuted under the law at a time when they did not have the vote and could not serve on juries—and when a lady who spoke openly about sex might be assumed to have gone mad and be treated accordingly.

A few of Comstock’s targets who feature in Sohn’s book 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 likely to be much less familiar—they are the deep cuts, sexual freethinkers left aside by most social histories of the era. “Despite their extraordinary contributions to civil liberties,” Sohn notes, most of these “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, but there is another one: their essential weirdness. They’re like the outsider artists of activism, creating their own unschooled, florid, and enraptured works of protest. Reading Sohn, I grew quite fond of them.

210726 A25367
“My superpowers are listening and downsizing my life.”
Cartoon by Bob Eckstein

Angela Heywood, for instance, was a working-class woman from rural New Hampshire who, with her husband, Ezra, became a public advocate for “free love,” which they defined 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 times like a contemporary couple who might have met at an Occupy demonstration and settled down in Brooklyn doing something artisanal. Before they married, Ezra had left his graduate studies at Brown to become a travelling antislavery lecturer. Angela supported the abolitionist movement as well, and held a series of odd jobs. The Heywoods, who put down stakes in central Massachusetts, were happily monogamous, but believed that the institution of marriage should be reimagined on more egalitarian terms. They denounced debt and wanted to disband corporations. They also published frank guides to conjugal relations and a journal, which brought them to the attention of Comstock, while operating a tasteful, rustic inn where one of their young sons, Hermes, ran around in girls’ clothes.

At the same time, the Heywoods were steeped in ideas that are harder to identify with today—including nineteenth-century spiritualism and hereditarianism. Angela believed that she could commune with the beyond, and thus enjoyed a prophetic authority to speak that was seldom granted to Victorian women. (A friend said, “She has visions, hears voices and dreams, and she is at times a whirlwind of words.”) They were not fans of artificial contraception—they counselled that men should practice continence instead—and thought that unwanted children were more likely to suffer from physical defects than wanted ones were. They disapproved of abortion, too, though they argued that men should not be able to dictate the laws that governed women’s bodies.

For all that, the Heywoods ended up inspiring mainstream defenses of free expression that, as Sohn shows, had a lasting impact. Comstock’s tireless harassment of the couple, along with the arrests and trials of Ezra Heywood, helped prompt the formation of an organization called 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 right to use 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 instead 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 also helped articulate grander principles of free expression and the right to privacy. “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?”