How the reactionary Christian ideology of one government official contributed to the suppression of women’s reproductive freedom for decades.
In this important work of biographical history, novelist Sohn traces the career of Anthony Comstock (1844-1915), special agent to the U.S. Post Office and secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. For more than 40 years, Comstock, a deeply Christian dry goods seller from Connecticut, harassed and imprisoned many of the important pioneers in the birth control movement. “He became convinced that obscenity, which he called a ‘hydra-headed monster,’ led to prostitution, illness, death, abortions, and venereal disease,” writes the author. In 1873, with the aid of well-heeled YMCA leaders, he was able to pass the Comstock Act, which “made the distribution, selling, possession, and mailing of obscene material and contraception punishable with extreme fines and prison sentences.” Wielding this law, he doggedly pursued freethinking, activist women and their supporters as they attempted to speak and write about women’s bodies, sexual matters, and abortion. These activists included the sisters Victoria C. Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, stockbrokers, spiritualists, and “free lovers”; Angela and Ezra Heywood, printers and writers; abortionist Ann “Madam Restell” Lohman, who committed suicide rather than be prosecuted; Dr. Sara B. Chase, who, in defiance, named her popular birth control device the “Comstock Syringe”; Ida Craddock, a spiritual consultant and writer on happy marital sex, who also killed herself when prosecuted; Emma Goldman, anarchist and birth control activist; and Margaret Sanger, who took on Comstock in court and prevailed in starting the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. Throughout this immensely readable history, Sohn fashions sympathetic narratives of these women’s lives and underscores their invaluable sacrifices for a vital cause. Many readers will be appalled to learn that literature about birth control was once considered obscene.
Stellar research in women’s history, especially crucial due to recent threats to abortion rights across the country.