In the 1870s, New York City was a haven for artists and radicals. But it was also the nursery for a new kind of moral activism. Led by Anthony Comstock, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice became a media sensation by targeting feminists in a culture war over obscenity and birth control. He then used his fame to lobby Congress for laws that arguably halted the progress of reproductive rights for almost a century. His tactics — a combination of media manipulation and ruthless legal strategies — are a precursor to those used by anti-feminists on social media and in Washington today.
Comstock started his career as a small-time crusader for Christian values. He moved to Brooklyn from Connecticut in the late 1860s and took a job working for a dry goods merchant, but he had bigger plans. When another clerk revealed that he was buying erotic literature at a bookstore nearby, Comstock took it upon himself to investigate. After buying some of the illicit materials, he went to the police and got the shopkeeper arrested for obscenity. Hailed in a few local papers as a hero, Comstock gained a taste for notoriety.
He joined the activist wing of the YMCA, inviting New York reporters along to his busts, where he worked with the police to shut down shops that did mail-order business in rubber dildos and “French postcards” featuring photographs of scantily clad women. Comstock gave speeches and wrote books about how the postal system had become a “putrid stream” of the “filthy productions of licentious minds.”
Supported by wealthy men including J. Pierpont Morgan and Samuel Colgate (yes, the founder of the soap and toothpaste company), Comstock became a full-time activist. But he remained mostly a local nuisance until he found a target famous enough to get him national attention. He decided to take down Victoria Woodhull, who was running for president in the 1872 election. She and her sister Tennessee Claflin had opened the first woman-run brokerage firm on Wall Street and ran a newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, dedicated to women’s suffrage, socialism and “free love,” a term she popularized to describe sex outside the strictures of marriage.
To call attention to her campaign, Woodhull decided to publish an article about the celebrity minister Henry Ward Beecher. Though Beecher came from a liberal family — he was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — he was opposed to free love. And yet he had been having affairs for years, an open secret in New York society. When Woodhull published her tell-all, complete with salacious details about Beecher impregnating his best friend’s wife, the minister was ruined. But the papers sold like crazy.
That’s when Comstock stepped in. He ordered a copy of the newspaper through the postal system, then took the evidence to federal marshals so they could arrest Woodhull for mailing “obscene” depictions of Beecher’s sex life. The charges didn’t stick, but the trial turned Comstock into a national figure, beloved by conservatives who thought women’s rights had gone too far.
A year later, buoyed by donations to his cause, Comstock arrived in Washington to lobby politicians to strengthen federal obscenity laws. The postal system in the 1870s was something like the internet, bringing people into contact with ideas and people they never would have found otherwise. It was also a channel for pornography. Comstock wanted to expand the nation’s laws criminalizing the act of mailing obscene material over state lines. He met privately with policymakers, indulging their prurience by displaying a steamer trunk full of sex toys and erotica that he had ordered by post.
He capitalized on a wave of anti-feminist sentiment directed at activists like Woodhull, who had already irritated Congress by appearing before them years earlier to demand the vote. Woodhull’s allies weren’t just suffragists. They were people who promoted free love as an alternative to the domestic oppression of marriage, and spiritualists who rejected conventional Christianity. Still others taught women how to prevent unwanted pregnancies. And all of them used the postal system to spread their ideas.
Comstock — not satisfied with attacking just pornography — argued that the definition of obscenity should be expanded to include materials related to reproductive health, birth control and abortion, and he drafted legislation with some help from a Supreme Court justice, William Strong. In 1873, Congress passed the “Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use.” The press called it the Comstock Law. States rushed to pass even more draconian versions, with Connecticut banning all forms of birth control entirely.
Congress deputized Comstock as a “special agent” for the post office. At one point, he earned a knife scar across his face when he busted a mail-order pornography operation in a New Jersey basement. Not surprisingly, Comstock was an easy target for mockery. In 1905, George Bernard Shaw, the playwright, referred to censorship-happy moralism as “Comstockery” in a letter to The New York Times. In a cartoon from “The Masses” magazine in 1915, an outraged Comstock drags an unconscious woman before a judge and screams, “Your honor! This woman gave birth to a naked child!”
He may have been easy to satirize, but Comstock’s tactics were deadly serious. He bragged that he’d driven at least a dozen women to suicide. His victims included the Chicago spiritualist Ida Craddock, who killed herself after being sentenced to five years in prison for mailing “obscene” articles about reproductive health and tantric yoga. He reveled in the brutality of his tactics. As the historian Amy Werbel writes in her book “Lust on Trial,” Comstock’s abortion busts sometimes involved dragging women away from their doctors in the middle of a procedure. Writing in his ledger, Comstock noted the arrest of a “very sick” 17-year-old, Barbara Voss, who was charged with “wantonness” and taken, presumably still bleeding, to the police.
The Comstock Laws remained on the books in many states for over half a century after his death. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that courts began to relax restrictions on birth control and abortion.
It might be tempting to laugh off today’s Anthony Comstocks, whether that’s Milo Yiannopoulos attacking Leslie Jones on Twitter, or Vice President Mike Pence expressing his fear of meeting with women alone. But history reminds us that Comstock’s strategy worked. He used the courts to prevent generations of women from gaining access to information about reproduction and sexual health. He normalized the idea that the government could spy on our mail to ferret out “immorality.” Today’s legal battles over abortion access and gender identity are a continuation of his activism. His name may be forgotten, but the age of Comstockery is not over.
Annalee Newitz, a contributing opinion writer, is the author of the forthcoming “The Future of Another Timeline,” a novel about a group of time-traveling feminists.
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