Friday, July 9, 2021
In 1873, Congress passed a law outlawing the distribution, sale, mailing and possession of "obscene" materials — including contraception.
The Comstock Act, as it became known, was named after Anthony Comstock, an anti-vice crusader who later became a special agent to the U.S. Post Office, giving him the power to enforce the law. In her new book, The Man Who Hated Women, author Amy Sohn writes about Comstock — as well as eight women charged with violating the Comstock Act.
While working for the post office, Sohn says, Comstock "decoyed people" by using the mail to solicit obscenity and contraception.
"[Comstock] was given that [post office] title so that he could have the power to inspect the mail and over time it was expanded to be able to come into people's houses and seize items," she says. "It was a very broad, broad definition of what someone affiliated with the post office could do with regards to individual civil liberties."
Over time, the scope of the Comstock law expanded: "Its heart was in the mail, but ... it became much broader than that," Sohn says. "Even oral information, which reasonable people believed was constitutionally protected, turned out that it wasn't."
In 1916, feminist activist Emma Goldman was arrested in New York City just before giving a lecture on family planning. One year earlier, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger had been charged with violating the law. Goldman and Sanger are just two of the eight women profiled in Sohn's book. Others include nurses and health practitioners, spiritualists and women in the so-called free love movement.
The Comstock Act lasted until 1965 when the Supreme Court ruled it violated the right to marital privacy. "It was in Griswold v. Connecticut that married women could finally have the right to receive contraception from their doctors," Sohn says.
As for single women? They didn't get the same rights until the 1972 Eisenstadt v. Baird ruling — 99 years after the passage of the Comstock Act.