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The Women Who Became Sex Radicals and Changed the Course of American History


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In 1893, Anthony Comstock, special agent to the Post Office and secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, visited the Chicago World’s Fair and advocated for the closing of one exhibition: the “danse du ventre”—the belly dance. (Excerpted from Amy Sohn’s The Man Who Hated Women.) 

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By the time Ida Craddock traveled to the World’s Fair, there was plenty of sex information for progressive, curious young people. The German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, which coined the terms sadism and masochism, had been translated into English a year earlier. In 1894, Havelock Ellis, an English psychologist and doctor, would publish a volume on human sexuality titled Man and Woman: A Study of Secondary and Tertiary Sexual Characteristics. And the Illinois physician Dr. Alice B. Stockham’s popular Tokology: A Book for Every Woman (1883) provided anatomical details about male and female bodies, and promoted strategies for coping with labor pains. Physicians and free lovers published manuals on hygiene, child-rearing, pregnancy, and better sex—many advertised in radical journals such as New York’s The Truth Seeker, edited by D. M. Bennett, and the Kansas-based freethinker and free love journal Lucifer, the Light-Bearer, edited by Moses Harman.

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Beginning before the Civil War, utopian communities for Separatists, Shakers, and Transcendentalists had thrived in the United States. Oneida, in upstate New York, was one of the most visible free love communities, featuring a system of polyamorous “complex marriage.” Couples could choose to have “propagative” or “amative” sex. During the latter, men practiced male continence, or coitus reservatus, which Oneida founder John Humphrey Noyes considered more pleasurable, contraceptive, and generally healthy for men, as semen loss was thought to provoke anxiety. Of male continence, in which men abstained from ejaculation through self-control, Noyes wrote that it protected women “from the curses of involuntary and undesirable procreation” and stopped “the drain of life on the part of man.”

Most free lovers, however, did not believe in complex marriage as practiced by the Oneidans. Instead, they advocated for looser divorce laws and self-generated marriage contracts. Less concerned with free sex than with equal rights, free lovers supported the idea of egalitarian marriage, with fair division of work, and consensual, sometimes non-procreative sex. The movement, which had taken off in the 1840s, grew out of abolitionist principles: women were not to be enslaved by men, the church, or the government. From its inception, free love was closely linked with Spiritualism—the idea that living people could commune with the dead. As for sexuality, Spiritualists believed that a man and woman could have a spiritual affinity for each other, an attraction based on complementary auras. To free lovers, this bond was superior to the marital bond.

Opposite the free lovers and Spiritualists were the Baptists, Congregationalists, and Protestants active in the YMCA. As they had in their rural communities, they wanted to protect young men from temptation in the city, guiding them to lead pious lives among pious women. These “Comstockians” opposed prostitution, into which many young women were driven by poverty and alcohol. Social purists—a strange alliance of women’s rights advocates, conservative women, and temperance organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union—similarly believed that marriage and the home were the backbones of society; that the family was more important than the individual; and that intercourse was only for reproduction. Interestingly, social purists (social being a euphemism for sexual) aligned with free lovers on certain issues. Both opposed the sexual double standard, which held that women were expected to be faithful but men were not, though the one side proposed male fidelity and the other polyandry as the solution.

Once Craddock returned to Philadelphia after seeing the belly dance, she felt inspired to write an essay in its defense. She sent it to the World, where it was published as part of a roundup of commentary on the dance. Other contributors included the American modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller, who called it a “graceful pantomime.” Even the third archbishop of New York, who admitted he had not seen it, seemed supportive: “Perhaps Mr. Comstock was too sensitive in the matter, he and the good old ladies who were so shocked. They might have seen worse dances on a Saturday night in New York, dances where real evil is meant.”

Craddock’s essay stood out from the others. She was writing as a representative not of dance or Catholicism, but of phallic worship. Popular with European religious scholars, this area of scholarship examined the use of priapic symbols in world religions. Craddock defended the dance as the continuation of phallic worship, which taught “self-control and purity of life,” meaning male and female continence. Sex, she said, was “the chief educator of the human race in things material and things spiritual.” Far from shutting their eyes to the belly dance, young couples ought to learn from it. If husband and wife moved their hips like belly dancers during sex, and orgasmed spiritually, they would have heightened pleasure and fewer unwanted babies. As though that notion was not incendiary enough, she also took aim at Comstock: “Let the real significance of this dance as a religious memorial of purity and self-control be spread broadcast, so that Anthony Comstock and his helpers may be enlightened on the subject and may refrain from their attacks.” It was a declaration of war on Comstock, and an advertisement for herself as a “sex-ologist.”

The Cairo Street Theatre was the first place where the marriage reformer and special agent would cross paths, but not the last. Their confrontations would span another nine years. The Quaker-educated, Philadelphia-born Craddock and the Congregationalist, Connecticut-born Comstock, only thirteen years apart in age, represented two poles of the rapidly changing American identity: woman and man, modernist and traditionalist, urban and rural, feminist and guardian of the family. That summer in the White City, they may have sat in the Cairo Street Theatre for the same performance and not known it. He would go on to circle her in three other states. Their dance would end in bloodshed, and only one would survive.

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Craddock was one of many women who challenged the Comstock laws in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth. New ideas about money, class, gender, and sex were circulating after the Civil War. Women, who were disproportionately harmed by poverty, unwanted parenthood, lack of employment, and low wages, could only stand to gain by challenging the status quo. Could, and should, motherhood be chosen? Was a wife obligated to have sex whenever her husband wanted? Were women to accept serial infidelity on the part of their men, including infidelity with prostitutes? Could they decide when to make love, and when not to? Could they work outside of the home? And if they did, should they be paid the same as men?

The women who fought the Comstock laws could be categorized as sex reformers, though this book will use the term sex radicals to avoid confusion with more Puritan-minded reform efforts. The sex radicals understood that women’s liberation was possible only if sex was wholly reimagined. Alongside Craddock, they included the suffragist, broker, publisher, and presidential candidate Victoria C. Woodhull; her sister, and partner in brokerage and publishing, Tennessee Claflin; the free lover and editor Angela Tilton Heywood; the Fifth Avenue abortionist Ann “Madame Restell” Lohman; the homeopathic physician Dr. Sara B. Chase; the anarchist and labor organizer Emma Goldman; and the birth control activist Margaret Sanger, whose friend Otto Bobsein coined the phrase birth control in her Manhattan apartment in 1914.

With the exception of Sanger, the women were eccentrics even within the women’s rights and progressive movements. Their more mainstream male peers did not always support them, often distancing themselves from their frank speech and bold writing, while conservative suffragists were terrified by their edgy ideas about sex. Some sex radicals focused on the terrors of unwanted pregnancy, some on the inverse relationship between terror and pleasure. What could enlightened, free-loving men do to help women enjoy sex? Was it possible that contraceptive practices such as male continence could increase joy for women by extending the act?

The sex radicals believed it was not fair for men to have orgasms when women did not, or for men to rape their wives or any other women. They thought sex should be loving, bonded, and sensual. Mutuality would lead to respect, equality, and reasonably sized families. The idea of contraception, then as now, was not only about the body. It was about pleasure: How could a woman enjoy sex when she lived in terror of pregnancy and life-threatening childbirth? It was women who took responsibility for the raising of children; additional babies were harder on the mothers than the fathers.

What makes the Comstock women all the more remarkable is that they did their agitating, writing, and speaking out against him at a time when women did not have the right to vote (though Comstock was appointed and could not be voted out of his position). In court, their fates were decided by men; women were not appointed to judgeships until 1921 and could not serve on federal juries until 1957. With one exception, the Comstock women retained male lawyers who encouraged them to plead guilty and were ineffective advocates, in part because the men did not understand their clients’ thinking.

The sex radicals informed and were informed by other radical movements—abolition, suffrage, Spiritualism, free love, free thought—as there was no “birth control” movement until around 1910. Angela and Ezra Heywood were abolitionists before they came to their free love ideas. Woodhull’s 1872 nomination for president of the United States brought increased attention to the suffrage cause. Woodhull, Heywood, and Craddock identified as Spiritualists, claiming they could communicate with the dead. The Heywoods agitated for fair wages and civil, nonreligious marriages in their widely read journal, The Word, and at conventions of the New England Free Love League. Free thought, a broad term that encompassed secularism, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech, caught on in the 1830s, boosted by independent papers such as the Boston Investigator and New York’s Free Enquirer, and by the end of the nineteenth century included groups such as the American Secular Union, of which Craddock became secretary.

At the time of their arrests for Comstock law violations, the women were as young as twenty-seven and as old as sixty-five. They were married, single, mothers, child-free, virgins, widows, and divorcées. None took reproduction lightly; one had an intellectually disabled son. Woodhull lived with present and former husbands and children; Craddock, alone; Lohman, with her adult grandchildren. Chase’s husband filed for divorce on grounds of abandonment. Sanger’s marriage was open, despite the wishes of her husband. Goldman, who inspired tens of thousands with her rousing speeches, was in a decadelong dysfunctional relationship with her philandering manager. Facing down Comstock, postal inspectors, and Vice Society agents, the women were unafraid and willing to be imprisoned for their cause. Nearly all were impoverished and could not afford their legal fees. The fact that several were past middle age when Comstock pursued them—and still they fought—shows their resilience.

It is no coincidence that nearly all were writers. They were products of a rich period of radical publishing, when the nationally read journals where their names appeared enjoyed wide circulation. These publications, sent by mail, included The Word; the Boston Investigator; Dr. Foote’s Health Monthly; Lucifer, the Light-Bearer; Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly; The Physiologist and Family Physician; and The Truth Seeker. In papers, pamphlets, and books, the sex radicals used their pens to excoriate Comstock, the NYSSV, and the law. Nothing Comstock tried—arresting them multiple times; illegally baiting them with so-called test letters that tricked them into breaking the law; harassing them; searching their homes; menacing them in the courtroom—could deter them.

Their primary years of activism took place between the first women’s rights convention in 1848 and the passage of woman suffrage in 1920, which granted white women the right to vote; many women of other races were not able to vote until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Yet the sex radicals are not as well-known as the suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or Alice Paul. Many were outcasts because they were outspoken about sex. They believed in plain speech, using terms such as vagina, penis, semen, and clitoris. They arrived at their views through direct experience with rape, child marriage, alcoholic partners, and poverty, and they used autobiography to advance their political views. They made the personal political.

Though four of them were nurses or health practitioners, they lacked the medical clout of the twentieth-century sex pioneers Dr. Alfred Kinsey or Dr. William Masters. Many were self-taught or educated outside of the traditional medical colleges and societies that were founded by, and for, men. Their writing was explicit and detailed, in an era when men found libidinous women alternately terrifying or titillating, but rarely enlightening.

They laid the groundwork for the eventual legalization of birth control and protection of American women’s abortion rights. Goldman located the necessity for birth control in the context of economic oppression, while Sanger moved away from such a class-based justification in order to broaden its appeal. Sanger believed in, and popularized, the idea that women were different from men, and could coalesce to fight for what they deserved as a group, as a gender.

The radicals’ attitudes stemmed from romantic, not hedonistic, ideals. If anything, they could be accused of being too idealistic about sex—they elevated it, believing in its power to unite man and woman. If marriage were reconceptualized as a romantic institution, entered into on the basis of love instead of money, it could yield greater liberty for women. Though most were not scientists, they had an earnest, scientific view of sex. Energy was exchanged. Currents went back and forth. (Many free lovers viewed sex as an exchange of electric or magnetic forces—dubbed magnetation.) Nudity could increase intimacy. If only women could be in charge of sex! If men listened to women, families would be stronger; if reasonable people married reasonably, there would be fewer unwanted children.

This last concept stemmed from a romanticized view of the heterosexual bond. If women could experience sex as exalted and hallowed, and if they could play some role in selecting a partner, then they could have and control their own orgasms, bear fewer babies, and enjoy sex more. They would learn to recognize the difference between amative and procreative sex. When they did, they would see that amative sex had its own valid aims.

Despite their extraordinary contributions to civil liberties, most of the 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). Nonetheless, they were the connective tissue between nineteenth-century abolitionism and twentieth-century free speech. The free speech historian David M. Rabban calls nineteenth-century freethinkers “libertarian radicals.” They opposed laissez-faire capitalism and the idea that progressive thought required social harmony. Both free thought and free love, Rabban writes, “interposed personal sovereignty and rationality in social, religious, and sexual spheres against the power of church and state.” Libertarian radicals such as Woodhull, Angela Heywood, and Craddock laid the foundation for the modern civil liberties movement and the formation of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The Free Speech League (1902–1917), which counted Goldman as an early supporter, was a predecessor of the ACLU, itself founded in 1920. Sex radicals, who based their ideas on individual autonomy, made free speech possible.

In their willingness to take on a monomaniac whose mission was to keep contraception and abortion from women, they paved the way for early twentieth-century “birth controllers” and 1970s feminists alike. Risking destitution, imprisonment, and death, they defined reproductive liberty as an American right, one as vital as those enshrined in the constitution. They brought women’s reproductive rights to the public dialogue. Without them, there would be no Pill, no Planned Parenthood, no Roe v. Wade. And yet reproductive rights are still a battleground. Without understanding the sex radicals, we cannot fight the assault on women’s bodies and souls that continues even today.

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Excerpted from THE MAN WHO HATED WOMEN: Sex, Censorship, and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age by Amy Sohn. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux  July 6, 2021. Copyright © 2021 by Amy Sohn. All rights reserved.

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