The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, & Civil Liberties In The Gilded Age by Amy Sohn

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Amy Sohn is a novelist, but she has also written for Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, The Nation and The New York Times.  The Man Who Hated Women is a well researched history of feminist ‘sex radicals’ during The Gilded Age up to the death of Anthony Comstock in 1915 (the man who hated women) and beyond.  This information was not taught in my high school U.S. History class!

The Comstock Law was promoted by Anthony Comstock whose life’s work was to fight to uphold Victorian morality.  He was against obscene literature, abortion, contraception, gambling, prostitution, and patent medicine.  At the same time, dedicated woman were committed to educate both men and women about sex solely for pleasure as well as sex for reproduction.  The fight to free women from sexual oppression coincided with Comstock’s power and influence.  An anti-vice activist, Comstock was instrumental in passing the The Comstock Act of 1873 which made it illegal to send “obscene, lewd or lascivious,” “immoral,” or “indecent” publications through the mail. The law also made it a misdemeanor for anyone to sell, give away, or possess an obscene book, pamphlet, picture, drawing, or advertisement.  Comstock was appointed United States Postal Inspector, and he was also the secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. During his long career, he successfully went after women activists who were promoting women’s control over their own bodies.  Literature he deemed obscene was confiscated, and anyone trying to teach or publish and disseminate information about valid sex education was harassed, jailed, or forced to go abroad for protection from his reach; the sex educator/activist Ida C. Craddock was actually driven to suicide by Comstock.  Comstock proudly claimed to have successfully prosecuted more than 3,600 defendants under federal law, and he destroyed over 160 tons of “obscene” literature in his role as a special postal agent.

The Man Who Hated Women highlights the courageous women and their supporters who challenged Comstock.  Women like Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger continued to fight against his legacy for years after his death. Comstock’s influence is still operating as the struggle to protect women’s control over our own bodies is still alive and well. (Sohn does provide biographical information that helps explain Comstock’s passion for fighting obscenity. Good intentions can pave the way to…..A lesson for us all!)

Along with learning lots of history around the fight for women’s sexual freedom, I also learned about the many different reasons why eugenics was supported during The Gilded Age (which added to what I learned about eugenics reading The Unfit Heiress). Spiritualism also developed and reached its peak growth in membership from the 1840s to the 1920s in the U.S.  Ida Craddock believed her lover/husband was a spirit from whom she gained sexual experience and information that she then used in her publications and consults on healthy sex.  She was otherwise not married.  Comstock took a strong stand against “belly dancing,” another interesting topic.  Now I know the history of the Hoochy-Koochy. Lots going on to keep me engaged. 

Oh, I wanted to mention that Comstock was so obsessed that he provoked a political cartoon showing him dragging a woman into court because she gave birth to a naked baby!

8 comments on “The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, & Civil Liberties In The Gilded Age by Amy Sohn”

  1. Barbara, I just read a short piece about Comstock somewhere so I appreciate learning more from your comments. Sounds like he was from Texas. Sounds like he’d be welcome in the Texas Legislature today. I must read about the Hoochy-Koochy; I heard this around when I was growing up. Isn’t there a little ditty like this: “You do the Hoochy-Koochy and you turn yourself around and that’s what it’s all about” ??

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  2. We also sang “Do the hokey pokey…”; Sohn mentions the hokey pokey may have been inspired by the hoochy-koochy–no footnote. The names are certainly similar although the dances are very different. Comstock’s outrage over belly dancing originated at the 1893 World’s Fair where Middle Eastern dancers performed. In Arab culture the dance is tied to ancient religious practices that celebrate women’s sexuality. The Hoochy-Koochy is an Americanized version that took off in vaudeville and burlesque after the fair. It seems the dance found support from those who were part of the rise in spiritualism as well as those fighting for women’s sexual liberation. It was condemned by Comstock and those who found it obscene. The Gilded Age was a fascinating time in history–many of it’s problems are currently replaying in updated ways. I read an article comparing the Gilded Age to contemporary history. While there are lots of parallels, the author of the article warned that the expression of current injustices requires modern solutions. The 19th Amendment and The New Deal and even abortion rights/access to birth control were deeply flawed in that they were limited by discrimination; they left out large swathes of our population.

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    1. Oh, yes, how embarrassing to get the Hoochy-Coochy confused with the Hokey-Pokey. I just signed up for a virtual book tour event for “Against White Feminism” which sounds like it addresses some of the exclusionism of which you speak.

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      1. 💡I just remembered what we sang as kids in the 50’s–something like: “There’s a place in France where the women do a dance, and the dance they do is called the Hoochy Koo.” Gyrating hips were definitely unacceptable in the 50’s. Were you allowed to watch Elvis on Ed Sullivan?

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      2. Hmm…I can’t remember seeing Elvis on Ed Sullivan so probably, no. Actually, I don’t know if I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan when it aired or if I just remember it because I saw it so many times afterward.

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      3. I did not see Elvis on Ed Sullivan but I sure do remember seeing the Beatles. It changed everything. I could sense it, even as a child.

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  3. Woah. Your informative review is both unnerving and exhilarating. And for the same reasons – look how far we’ve come/have we really come very far. I don’t know which is more true.

    On another note, if this kind of thing was taught in history class, I definitely would have paid much closer attention, would have been more engaged.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I agree. Because so many diverse voices are adding to our body of knowledge, we are getting more than a white, male heterosexist view of things. Topics are being looked at from so many more points of view. I have learned how important a solid understanding of the past is in order to understand the present and act responsibly. Now I really enjoy exploring history especially through well researched novels, memoirs, biographies/autobiographies and solid historical investigations that connect the past to the present. Storytelling from a variety of perspectives makes history so much more engaging. As a young student, I was taught “facts” that were removed from a broader context or that simply represented what was false for large numbers of people. Like nature itself, the human imagination requires diversity to thrive and transform us into our best selves.

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