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!