There are two earlier lectures, Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, and Anarchism, Atheism and Emma Goldman, which discuss issues during the same time span as the current talk. It is suggested that they be read together in order to form a more complete picture of United States freethought during the Gilded Age until the beginning of the First World War.
The topic of this lecture will be the continuation of a discussion begun in earlier lectures about the freethinkers in this country from just before the Civil War (1861-1865) to just before the First World War (1914-1918) and a little beyond. Many American freethinkers were advocates of free love and of birth control. They wanted both information about birth control and devices to be made freely available to all Americans. We shall be glancing at some of their influences, ideas and attempts to carry out their theories in the real world, to test their ideas’ relevance and workability. We shall be encountering an interesting, vibrant and feisty group of thinkers and activists.
We shall also be encountering their opposite. Those of you who are familiar with this lecture series know I enjoy demonstrating religious villainy, and one of the best examples of crusading religious extremism from the late 1800’s to about 1915, was a pious villain whose wickedness stood out from the garden variety of religious fanaticism.
That zealot was Anthony Comstock (1884-1915). I shall end this lecture with him and the draconian laws he managed to have passed by the government of the United States. The Comstock laws, as they were known, criminalized the mailing of birth control information and devices through the United States Post Office and it took years and many court cases to have them repealed.
Many of the sex radicals and birth control advocates who were active in the United States, particularly during the Gilded Age, were influenced by European radicalism. But most of our homegrown anarchists and freethinkers were first and foremost people who embraced extreme individualism. Some formed communal living groups, but others were not adverse to the concept of private property. Many of those homegrown freethinkers had their roots in the Puritan tradition of the United States, with its emphasis on personal liberty and conscience. We have already discussed the anarchism of the immigrants who arrived in the United States during the second half of the 19th Century. (Please see “Anarchism” at atheistscholar.org.)
It cannot be emphasized enough how important the institution of slavery was to the proliferation of our homegrown freethinkers. They were sickened and outraged at the savagery, cruelty and hypocrisy of the system of slavery. During the years preceding the United States Civil War (1861-1865), Southern slavery was defended by many establishment figures and by many churches and clergymen. Most of the free love radicals and birth control activists began as abolitionists or were firm believers in abolition.
I shall be using the term freethinkers more than the word anarchists to describe the people in the movements to establish free love and birth control in the United States, but please keep in mind that most of the people we shall be discussing were influenced by the philosophy of anarchism, some to a greater extent than others.
The first group of anarchists I would like to glance at began its activity very early in the 19th Century, around the 1840’s. There are scholars who regard it as a gathering of anarchists, but I would like to characterize it as more a community of homegrown freethinkers, abolitionists and free lovers. They were known as the Come-Outers, or No-organisationists. The group was primarily centered around Cape Cod, Massachusetts, with about 300 people, and there was a small membership among the textile workers of Lynn, Massachusetts. Although they began with a serious opposition to slavery, their anti-establishment ideas soon began to develop into a complete denial of church, government, and all forms of what they termed, “social bondage,” by which they meant marriage and sexual inequality. According to Clifford Harper, the Come-Outers renounced money and property, went naked in the summer and attempted to “pursue a life of harmonious self-government.” Their society had no written laws and was based on the moral approval of its community members.
Two important Come-Outers were the sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who escaped to the group from what they described as “the bondage of the churches’ spiritual and ecclesiastical plantations.” They urged all American citizens to engage in non-violent resistance to all slavery, to refuse to attend church or pay taxes.
Angelina married her “soul mate”, as she described it, not with a clergyman or a “binding of words,” but with a ceremony put together with their friends.
I have mentioned the National Liberal League before, in my lecture on Ingersoll. (see Ingersoll and American Freethought) But I would like to glance at it once more, because it was an important freethought organization formed in the middle 1870’s. The ordinary American citizen thought of the members of the League as “infidels.” The group formulated a series of nine demands, beginning with urging taxation of church property and the abolition of government chaplaincies. The League was against all public appropriation for sectarian, education and charitable institutions, and all religious services and uses of religious artifacts in government procedures.
According to Hal Sears, the members urged that “religious days and occasions not be recognized by the government and that ‘Sunday Laws’ be repealed.” They wanted oaths replaced by affirmations and that laws enforcing ‘Christian Morality’ be abrogated in favor of the criteria of natural morality, equal rights and liberty. They urged the rejection of government favoritism to any religion.
I shall go into the Comstock Law in more detail later, but we should keep in mind that the Comstock laws prohibited so-called obscene material from being sent through the mail. As I have mentioned, birth control information and serious sexual manuals were designated as “obscene material,” which prohibited them from passing through the United States mails. The Liberal League drafted a strong oppositional statement concerning the Comstock Laws in 1879.
Now I would like to turn to a discussion of the free love movement, which attracted atheists, agnostics and a fairly large number of spiritualists. The spiritualists believed in sentimental spiritual connections between people rather than simply marriage for procreation. By the 1870’s the more conservative spiritualists tried dissociate themselves from the freethinkers, who were emerging as the vanguard of not only influence but of controversy. Consequently some of the most important members of the free love movement found themselves in legal difficulties due to the Comstock Laws.
Before I proceed with a glance at some of the radical individuals and movements of the late 1800’s, there are two points that I wish to bring up. By doing so, I hope to clear the air of any misunderstanding concerning two areas of controversy about several of the freethinkers of that era. One charge against some of them, as I mentioned earlier, was that they were homegrown anarchists. This is quite true. But they were, as a general rule, non-violent. They were more fierce individualists rather than the European variety of anarchist.
For example, Moses Harman, the owner/editor of the important publication, Lucifer the Lightbearer, contended that the United States was a government for and by the people only in theory rather than in practice. He never resented being called an anarchist. He simply believed that the rights of the governors should be secondary to the rights of the governed. He, as well as most of American homegrown anarchist/freethinkers, were not for violence, chaos and confusion, but affirmed that freethought represented, and I quote Harman again, “…the epitome of law and order since it confined every man within his proper sphere.” Today, such men and women as Harman, would more likely be described as freethinkers or as libertarians rather than anarchists.
The second point I wish to address before glancing at some significant individuals in the freethought movement, is the charge that many of them accepted various versions of eugenics. Some of them did, but it was a negative form of eugenics. In other words, they believed that a child conceived in love and not in the strictures of a loveless marriage, would be a more intelligent and healthier child. The vast majority of American radicals did not accept positive eugenics, “the tinkering” with breeding and genes to produce a more superior race.
As for what principles freethinkers werededicated to, here is another quote from Moses Harman’s writings: “(1) Natural Selection through freedom of motherhood, (2) self-ownership of women in the realm of sex and reproduction, (3) intelligent and responsible parenthood with the woman being prominent in the home.” Harmon’s thoughts were shared by many American freethinkers. I shall be giving a talk next month on Social Darwinism in America, and I shall take up the issue of eugenics more thoroughly. But the aim of most United States freethinkers was to secure the happiness and health of children and their mothers rather than bringing about some sinister manipulation of traits to create a “master race.”
I wished to deal with both issues, anarchy and eugenics, with regard to the American freethought movement, so as to make clear that the freethinkers of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries were progressive, compassionate and courageous people. They braved fines and imprisonment to help to improve the hard lot of women and children during that period of American history. Women were looked on by many people as property, property that breeds. Free love advocates such as Dora Foster, spoke and wrote with scorn of the double standard of morality for men and women. A single woman was supposed to, and often did, remain celibate, while a single man could hire prostitutes. Foster pointed out that the prostitutes such men hired were then scorned and debased because they were women engaged in selling sex to men. Most freethinking feminists wanted a saner, healthier society where women could freely express themselves.
An important freethinker, Stephen Pearl Andrews (1812-1886,) was an attorney, philosopher and author of the 1851 Science of Society. He and Josiah Warren (1798-1874), who is often described as the first American anarchist, founded Modern Times in 1851. Modern Times was a utopian community based on Warren’s “equitable commerce theory.” Following the economic theory, people in the community were able to purchase goods with “labor” notes instead of money and women were paid the same wage as men. Modern Times did well for around a decade, but as word spread about the community, many unstable people were attracted to it.
Marriage arrangements at Modern Times were left up to the individuals involved, which opened the door for conventional people who lived outside the community to label it a place of vice and sin. One young woman who arrived there believed in an extreme diet, and died after a year of eating nothing but beans without salt. Events such as that, along with the arrival and residence of undesirable people, helped run the utopia down and it died, with accompanying notoriety. Andrews was undaunted, however, and took his family to New York, where he founded another co-op in the late 1850’s, the Unitary Home.
In 1870, Andrews met the famous Victoria Woodhull in New York. She and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, began the Woodhull and Claflin Weekly. Woodhull was an advocate of free love and a freethinker, although she ultimately embraced spiritualism. Andrews was made editor of the weekly after Woodhull and Claflin became aware of his conviction that a woman had a right to fully choose her sexual partners. In 1872, Andrews endorsed Woodhull as a candidate for the presidency of the United States on the Equal Rights Party Platform. However, on Election Day in 1872, Woodhull was in jail.
The popular Congregationalist minister, Henry Ward Beecher, was a brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the famous 1852 abolitionist novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was a renowned speaker, an abolitionist, woman’s suffrage and Darwinian evolution supporter. However, he had publicly criticized Victoria Woodhull’s stance on free love. Sometime around the 1870’s, Elizabeth Tilton had confessed to her husband, Theodore, that she had had an extra marital affair with Henry Ward Beecher. Tilton told Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the feminist advocate and freethinker, about the affair, and she confided the story to Woodhull and Claflin. Woodhull was furious, and they printed the story of Beecher’s adultery, charging that he was practicing free love in private while denouncing it in public. There had been rumors about Beecher and women for years, but they had remained rumors, not fact. Comstock willingly responded to Beecher’s urging, and had Woodhull arrested for sending “obscene material” through the mail.
Beecher was exonerated by his Congregationalist superiors, who then excommunicated Theodore Tilton. Tilton was enraged and sued Beecher in civil court in 1875.
Beecher’s trial ended in a hung jury and he was ultimately cleared by the Congregational Establishment. He went on to continue his popular ministry. Feminists from American and Europe were infuriated with the treatment meted out to Woodhull and spoke publicly and in print about the double standard accorded to men and women.
Ezra and Angela Heywood were publishers of The Word, begun in 1872. It was a journal that promoted women’s equality as well as labor and monetary reform. The Heywoods had written earlier pamphlets on women’s sexual liberation. I have spoken about the dogged pursuit of Heywood by Anthony Comstock in the “Robert Ingersoll and The Golden Age of American Freethought” lecture at AtheistScholar.org. Comstock was outraged by Heywood’s distribution of his 1876 Cupid’s Yokes, which critiqued marriage and promoted birth control. Heywood evaded prison time until he was sixty one, despite several arrests and trials. Sentenced to two years of hard labor, it was found that his health was poor, so he spent most of his sentence assisting at the prison hospital. One of Heywood’s arrests was for publishing Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, 1855, arguably considered the finest poetry written in the United States. He was also charged at various times for advocating and selling contraceptive devices to women. He died a year after his release from jail, undaunted and still promoting free love to the last.
Moses Harman was another famous publisher of the free love movement. His journal had the rather prosaic initial title of The Kansas Journal. Although not the first publication of the free love movement, it was the most influential and longest running. In 1883, Harman changed its name to the provocative Lucifer the Lightbearer.
Here is Harman on the significance of the name: “While we do not adopt the reputed character of any man, god, demigod or demon, as our model, yet there is one phase of the character of their Lucifer that is also appropriate to our paper, viz: that of an Educator. The god of the Bible had doomed mankind to perpetual ignorance- they would never have known Good from Evil if Lucifer had not told them how to become as wise as gods themselves. Hence according to theology, Lucifer was the first teacher of science.”
Harman was not afraid to take up the most controversial topics about the sexual matters of that era. He had a no censorship policy and the debates about sexuality were fully published in his Lucifer. He had tired of publishing the standard liberal denunciations against religion and moved into the heart of the sexual controversy. The career of Benjamin Tucker developed in the opposite direction. Benjamin Tucker (1854-1939), an important homegrown anarchist philosopher, was focused on the larger cities and became less radical over the years. Hal Sears states that Tucker eventually attained a sort of bourgeois respectability.
That was not the desired outcome for Harman, who was active in the free love movement until he died. His children were supportive and active in the cause, as well. Harman’s daughter, Lillian Harman, and her partner, Edwin C. Walker, were prosecuted in 1886 for a relationship that was not considered a legal marriage. Oddly enough, during the trial, the judge rambled on that if either of the two married a new person, the person who engaged in the new marriage with a different party, would be guilty of bigamy.
The Star Newspaper in London pointed out that the “Lucifer Marriage’s participants gained fame as the only couple in the English-speaking world to be imprisoned for their act of marriage.” Note how quickly the press nick-named Harman and Walker’s partnership the ‘Lucifer Marriage’.
The Court evaded the legal issue of whether the marriage could be considered a common law arrangement. Harman and Walker were found guilty. The couple refused to pay their court costs for six months and remained in jail until they were needed back at Lucifer the Lightbearer, whose future was imperiled. Lillian Harman was only about seventeen years old when the whole case began, but she demonstrated she was steadfast and her own person vis-à-vis the free love movement.
Emma Goldman, about whom I have written in the “Anarchy” lecture at AtheistScholar.org, stated unequivocally that she and Margaret Sanger, although important figures in the birth control movement, had not been its pioneers. She said that the pioneering had been done by Moses Harman, his daughter, Lillian, Ezra Heywood, E.C. Walker and Dr. Edward Bliss Foote.
I have discussed the D.M. Bennett trial and conviction in my lecture on “Ingersoll and the Golden Age of Freethought” at AtheistScholar.org. D.M. Bennett, with his wife, Mary, was the publisher of the highly influential freethought periodical, the Truth Seeker. He was tricked by Anthony Comstock into sending Comstock a copy of Heywood’s Cupid’s Yokes. Comstock used a decoy letter, pretending that he was an uneducated person requesting certain publications. He enclosed money and mentioned the publication, Cupid’s Yokes, calling it “Cupid’s something.”
Bennett mailed him the publication and was promptly arrested. In 1879, he was fined three hundred dollars and sentenced to thirteen months in prison. He served the entire time.
Voltairine de Cleyre (1886-1912), was another important American born freethinker, anarchist and sex radical. She was ideologically and philosophically close to Moses Harman; and although she contributed to many freethought journals, she wrote the most articles for Lucifer the Lightbearer. She was an atheist and a brilliant advocate of freethought and free love. De Cleyre considered marriage the sexual enslavement of women, but she also believed it was an impediment to the personal development of both sexes. According to Robert P. Helms: “She defended and practiced varietism (non-monogamy) and intensely criticized traditional domesticity and monogamy.” She was a very progressive and evolved person. When a former pupil who had become deranged shot her in 1902, she refused to testify against him and attempted to defend him from prosecutors. She had come near death from his crazed attack, but under intense pressure, she retained her principles. Helms states that her actions moved many hearts.
For those who would like to learn more about the free love movement, the best book is still Hal D. Sears’ 1977 The Sex Radicals: Free Love in High Victorian America. It is an excellent and well-documented history. You may find it listed in the Bibliography at the end of this written lecture at AtheistScholar.org.
I shall close this section on the sex radicals with some opinions from the eminent British playwright, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950.)
Shaw wrote several scathing letters to the New York Times and other publications about the United States censorship of his play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, written in 1894. But the particular letter I am quoting was written to Harman’s daughter, Lillian, after her father’s death. Here it is in its entirety: “Dear Lillian Harman, it seems nothing short of a miracle that your father should have succeeded in living for seventy-nine years in a country so extremely dangerous for men who have both enlightened opinions and the courage of them as the United States of America. It is certainly no fault of the Americans that he did not die before; that last imprisonment of his was really an outrage to political decency.
I am glad to gather from your letter that he escaped the illness and pain that often trouble a good man’s end; and I hope that now he is dead, and can no longer shock Mr. Comstock and the rest of the American idols, some little sense of shame at the way he was treated may find expression in America. Yours Faithfully, G. Bernard Shaw.”
We should not forget that the conventional marriage standards of the time, as well as its moral standards, allowed many men what Hal Sears calls “a practical degree of sexual freedom.” The free love movement of late 19th Century America was very different- it demanded that women have the same degree of sexual autonomy enjoyed by men. To achieve this, most free lovers believed that coition should be the woman’s choice alone. Such a demand was unprecedented and that it grew and gained strength in puritanical America seems astonishing, and yet, at the same time, appropriate. In my last lecture on “Anarchism, Atheism and Emma Goldman” at AtheistScholar.org,
I pointed out that Goldman realized that a woman with the right to love freely where she chose did not have a meaningful right at all unless she had access to birth control. The demand for access to birth control information and devices was ultimately successful in the United States, although it is still periodically attacked in the present day by social conservatives and religious fundamentalists. Yet the right of a woman to take control of her own body has been a remarkably successful one in America. That is the topic I would like to turn to now- the birth control movement and its pioneers.
The story of the birth control movement in the United States is a long and winding one. Here is a glance at the history of birth, or population, control in past eras. In preindustrial societies, infanticide was a common practice. I am defining infanticide as the killing of a new born baby. Infanticide was often practiced not only as a population control measure, but as a gender corrector in societies where division of labor was gender-determined. Sometimes the baby was killed at birth because abortion was considered too dangerous to attempt. The Pima Indians of Arizona practiced infanticide when the father had died, to relieve the mother of the financial burden. The Yale University on-line education site states that some of the Indian tribes from Australia, and the Cheyennes, as well as other Plains Indian tribes in America, practiced infanticide in order to maintain mobility. In many nations, such as India, Tahiti, Formosa and North Africa, the killing of new born baby girls was the more prevalent or exclusive practice. In ancient Greece, infanticide was often a result of eugenic theories. Not only was female infanticide more common, the decision to kill a new born baby was also nearly always a male prerogative.
During the 18th and 19th Centuries, abortion and infanticide were generally considered crimes. One may look at accounts, however, of trials in newspapers in the 1700’s and 1800’s to find evidence that such practices were fairly routine. Single women were the most common people to resort to infanticide because of the stigma of bearing a child out of wedlock and/or the poverty of the mother. Women in America and elsewhere found guilty of infanticide were often sentenced to death by hanging.
Abortion, too, was a frequent practice since ancient times. In both older eras and in modern ones, the most common method of abortion was for the pregnant woman to take some sort of potion. The potions were made of obnoxious ingredients, such as crushed ants, the mild mix of herbs like marjoram, thyme and lavender, the spit of a camel and so on. In more modern times, women have used turpentine, castor oil, quinine water and other noxious substances. There have always been external methods, as well. In order to induce abortion, women have resorted to severe exercise, lifting heavy objects, climbing trees, taking hot baths or sitting over pots of hot steaming liquid.
According to the Yale online course, diary accounts and correspondence suggest that abortion was not only commonplace but acceptable in 19th Century America. Before the 19th Century, and even in the 19th, many women, in fact, the majority, did not consider abortion a sin. Prior to the 19th Century, apparently neither the Catholic or Protestant religions thought of abortion as a sin until quickening, when the fetus was believed to have gained life. Quickening was the moment during which the pregnant woman felt the signs of life, such as movement from the fetus, in her uterus.
During the 1870’s, the New York Times estimated that there were two hundred full time abortionists in New York City and that abortion safety was quite high. My sources report that in the present day, and most likely during the 19th Century, more women have died from internal methods of inducing abortion than from the mechanically induced ones performed by abortionists.
During the 1800’s abortion ads were plentiful in the daily papers. But according to Linda Gordon, by the first half of the 19th Century, most states in the United States had made abortion a crime at any stage of fetal development. Nevertheless, professional abortionists were in demand in the 1860’s and 1870’s. When brought to trial, abortionists were often acquitted by juries. During the second half of the 19th Century, as there was more public outrage against the practice, medical attacks on abortionists increased.
From what historians have been able to piece out from various sources makes clear that both men and women have consistently tried, by various means of contraception, and as a last resort, abortion, to limit the size of their families. The reasons have been economic, psychological, social and physical. Yet people with opposite political, social, moral and religious views and reasons have attempted to deny women the right to birth control. Religious fundamentalists, up to the present day, attempt to refuse people access to family planning, except for the rhythm method, or male withdrawal before climax, or the completely ineffective suggestion of abstention from sexual relations.
Fortunately the male condom has been produced in the United States since the 1840’s.
It was second in popularity to male withdrawal as the preferred method of contraception during that era. The male condom was first advocated as protection against venereal diseases rather than as a contraceptive device. By World War I and its aftermath, even many religious conservatives were forced to admit the condom’s serviceability and even encourage its use as a protection from venereal disease.
I shall be discussing the religious zealot, Anthony Comstock, very shortly, but I would like all of us to keep in mind that in 1873, Comstock and his associates and backers pushed through a bill which defined contraceptive literature as obscene and against the law to distribute throughout the country by the United States Postal System. The law was not removed until 1932, when Margaret Sanger, the birth control advocate, arranged for a package of diaphragms to be shipped from Japan to a sympathetic doctor in New York City. U.S. Customs confiscated the package and Sanger brought a law suit. In 1932, a federal appeals court ruled that the government could not interfere with doctors providing such devices to their patients.
Even prior to Comstock’s crusade, all abortions in the United States had been banned by the 1860’s except for those necessary to save the mother’s life. In 1869, Pope Pius IX declared that all abortions were murder. However, Comstock’s attack on the dissemination of contraception information and birth control devices in the United States was lengthy and draconian. He was not only responsible for the passage of the law known as the Comstock Law on the federal level, but also for the passage of egregious birth control laws in twenty-two states.
Many states levied heavy fines on offenders and some of the laws carried jail sentences for using contraceptive devices; in addition, some of the laws stated that anyone helping the offender in any way, even with advice, was deemed an accessory and would be punished as though they were an offender themselves.
It is no secret that one of the most important reasons for attempting to ban contraception in the United States was the desire of both government groups and religious groups to fill factories, industries and new farming land with people. Others thought the United States would fare better economically and socially with large, stable families. There were additional reasons, such as religious and social conservatives learning that life in the fetus occurs earlier than they had been aware. In the 1870’s, most of the early suffragettes advocated celibacy and abstinence for birth control purposes, because they were concerned about being accused of aiding immorality. But as the social and religious conservatives increased their campaign to ban sex for pleasure and to contend that marriage not given up to the making of babies was immoral, suffragettes began to speak out publicly for birth control.
Let us keep in mind that the free love groups from the 1870’s and later, were always closely related to freethought, agnosticism and atheism. Freethinkers were passionately resentful of the established Christian churches’ ability to influence laws and to create restrictive social and cultural norms. During the later years of the 19th Century, those cultural and social norms were the reason why most suffragists, worried about promiscuity and concerned about being accused of promoting immorality, did not go beyond the concept of voluntary motherhood.
As I have mentioned, they did not venture further than suggesting celibacy and abstinence for family planning and preventing pregnancy. Free lovers, too, were oddly restrained about advocating the use of contraceptive devices. They entertained the idea that such devices were not “natural,” and some free lovers had the notion that they interfered with the romantic relation between two people. However, for freethinkers, the concept of free speech ultimately overrode the other qualms they might have had about disseminating birth control information and devices.
Therefore, Ezra Heywood decided to publish some ads for a vaginal syringe. He assured his readers, however, that he deplored its use. With characteristic bravery, when prosecuted for obscenity because of the ads, he altered his position to a more radical stance. Although artificial means of preventing conception were not generally approved by free lovers, he stated, it was necessary for some women to defend their rights to voluntary motherhood when their male partners were inconsiderate and brutish. His wife, Angela, also approved of women being free of legislation that took away their freedom.
Eugenics was another large factor in the birth control movement, but I plan to take the issue up in my next lecture on Social Darwinism in the United States. Social purity was the notion that gave rise to many egregious ideas and goals. Some of its advocates, for instance, would have liked to prevent prostitutes from having children, on the grounds that their “immorality” could be transmitted to their children. Women were often surgically sterilized to prevent their having children, particularly on Indian reservations in the United States. The facts are readily available in contemporary histories and they are damning evidence against social purity and eugenics promoters.
President Theodore Roosevelt inadvertently helped the causes of sexual revolution and birth control in March, 1905, when he attacked women specifically. In fact, he branded the women who avoided having children as “…criminals against the race… the object of contemptuous abhorrence by healthy people.” He did not use the term, “race suicide,” but that notion had been in some people’s minds and vocabulary for some time. There were four basic objections to birth control during Roosevelt’s era. I have already mentioned the first two, immorality and the desire for large, stable families. The third objection to birth control was the dislike of women’s rebellion against what was seen as their primary duty- motherhood.
The fourth objection was racist in nature. Roosevelt gave voice to the fear that “Yankee stock”, which for some time had been displaying the lowest birth rate in the United States, would be outnumbered numerically and therefore politically, by immigrants, non-whites and the poor. The Yankee upper classes saw themselves at the top of the economic and social layers in the United States, where they wanted to remain. The concept of “race suicide” had been bruited about for nearly forty years before Roosevelt gave it voice. Roosevelt’s pronouncement galvanized feminists into coming out publicly for birth control. They began to reject the overdone cult of motherhood, and questioned whether all women should devote themselves exclusively to child-rearing.
In the meantime, doctors had begun to reverse their earlier prejudiced views against birth control.
According to Linda Gordon: “Despite the reluctance of many of their members, the medical profession became the first established moral authority in the United States to endorse the separation of sex from reproduction.” Because of their respected role, doctors played an important part in the sexual revolution.
There was more revolution to come in the 1910’s and 1920’s. A radical shift in sexual attitudes took place in the United States among leading intellectuals and reformers. Americans had first led the way to sexual freedom with its sex radicals, but their presence had been relatively small and they had not been in well organized groups. The newer American intellectuals learned from European thinkers’ investigations of sexuality in the fields of psychology and anthropology. British intellectuals like Edward Carpenter, the gay socialist, and the Swedish feminist, Ellen Key, had large social movements supporting them, such as Fabian Socialism. Havelock Ellis, an important British reformer, was a lover of Margaret Sanger, the American birth control activist, and an importance influence on her ideas.
Americans embraced the scientific study of sex in the work of Sigmund Freud, or what they supposed were scientific theories. They misinterpreted his darker vision, however, and used his ideas as support for general sexual liberation. The trend continued during the 1960’s and 1970’s, and despite fierce opposition from religious and social conservatives, has continued to the present day. Surgical abortion has lost some support among Americans, but new drugs have entered the marketplace which produce efficient and safe pregnancy interruption.
The growing incidence of sexually transmitted disease has put pressure on the scientific community and pharmaceutical industry to try to discover safer and more efficient drugs for interrupting pregnancy and for protection against STDs. I have no doubt that the future will bring such innovations to pass.
Now I would like to glance at some important figures in the early birth control movement. For people who wish a more developed view of the women in the birth control struggle, I recommend Moira Davison Reynolds’ volume, Women Advocates of Reproductive Rights. But here is a glance at some seminal personages and moments in the fight for reproductive knowledge and rights.
Charles Knowlton (1800-1850) was a freethinker and a physician in the United States who began to give out information about birth control early in his career. Around 1832, he wrote his recommendations into a small pamphlet which he self-published anonymously. The pamphlet was titled Fruits of Philosophy, or the Private Companion of Young Married People by a Physician. He toured the state of Massachusetts, lecturing and selling copies of his book. Knowlton recommended douches, one of which would have been effective and one that was not. He was fined and jailed for three months in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1832. The result was greater publicity for Fruits of Philosophy, and freethought presses kept reprinting it throughout the 19th Century.
The news about the book spread to England and led to the famous 19th Century trial of Annie Besant, a freethinker who later turned to spiritualism, and Charles Bradlaugh. The two of them tried to distribute Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy, and the pamphlet was allowed to go through several printings.
Then the English authorities suddenly cracked down on it, possibly because of its additions. The freethinker, George Drysdale, had updated the publication and added descriptions of the sponge, the utilization of the safe period, coitus interruptus, and the condom. In 1876, the pamphlet was seized and the bookseller sentenced to two years in prison. Besant and Bradlaugh continued to distribute the new version of Fruits of Philosophy. They were both arrested and put on trial in 1877. The jury found the book was calculated to deprave public morals but that Besant and Bradlaugh had no corrupt motives in distributing it. The judge oddly decided that this meant the two were guilty, but despite being sentenced to fines and prison time, they ultimately won their case on appeal. They continued to publish Fruits of Philosophy despite official warnings against doing so, and were never bothered again.
The American freethinking physician, Edward Bliss Foote (1829-1906), published Medical Common Sense in 1864, which contained four methods of birth control, three of which were effective. Although due to the Comstock laws, he could not mail it out, the book was bootlegged in other states and Foote sold it in New York. His wife, Dr. Mary Bond Foote, was also a physician and a freethinking advocate for birth control, as was their son, Edward Bond Foote.
Emma Goldman, the anarchist and free love advocate, and her companion, Dr. Ben Reitman (1879-1943) were influential birth control activists. Reitman, sometimes known as the “hobo doctor,” because he had actually been a hobo in his youth, completed his medical studies and kept on with his work in birth control.
Goldman was a strong advocate for birth control all her life, but her anarchist activities drew her back to political organizing as her main concern after a time. Goldman and Reitman were both important to the United States birth control movement. I have discussed Emma Goldman and her life in my lecture titled “Anarchism, Atheism and Emma Goldman,” at AtheistScholar.org.
Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) was arguably the most influential of birth control activists in the United States. She was the daughter of a freethinker and a dominant voice for birth control in the 20th Century. Sanger was originally active in socialist organizing and worked as a visiting nurse early in her career. It was during that time she had an opportunity to observe many poor women’s wretched lot, bearing child after child, being unable to care for them properly, losing some to disease and having their own health ruined. Her own mother had succumbed to tuberculosis and Sanger believed that bearing eleven children and having seven miscarriages had weakened her mother’s health to the extent that she was unable to fight off the disease. She eventually traveled to Europe, and in France she learned more about what Emma Goldman had been saying about birth control and women’s freedom.
When Sanger returned to the States in 1914, she launched the Woman Rebel, a feminist publication which ran seven issues until the United States Post Office shut it down. When Sanger could no longer mail Woman Rebel, she wrote up a detailed birth-control pamphlet, called Family Limitation. She was arrested and before her trial was due, fled to Canada and then to London.
The IWW union people mailed the pamphlets for her by pre-arrangement. While in London, she decided to dedicate her entire career to the birth control movement. She is credited with first using the expression, “birth control.” She came into contact with many neo-Malthusians in England, and learned more about population control theories.
Havelock Ellis (1859-1939), the social reformer, physician and sexual researcher, was Sanger’s lover for a time. He talked to her about the latest ideas about birth control and sexuality. She was to put many of these theories into effect when she returned to the United States. She desired to propagate the idea that sex could not only be engaged in without fear of pregnancy, but that it could also be enjoyable for women. She was a believer in free love all her life. Although she could say oddly mystical things when she went through crises, Sanger was essentially without religion. She was castigated by the Roman Catholic Church throughout her long career.
Her first and by then, estranged husband, Bill Sanger, was tricked by a representative of Anthony Comstock’s. The agent pretended to be a friend of Margaret Sanger and asked to have a copy of her birth control pamphlet. Bill was arrested and sentenced to thirty days in jail for giving the agent the illegal Family Limitation pamphlet in 1915. The conviction and sentence resulted in a fire storm of negative publicity for the Comstock Laws, with the left wing and sex radicals keeping up a vocal protest against them. Margaret Sanger decided to return to the United States and plead not guilty to the charges against her. She tested the laws against birth control many times throughout her career. At the same time she was planning her trial strategy, her four year old child, Peggy, died of pneumonia, which was frequently fatal during that era. Sanger’s entire family was devastated. However, she was suddenly perceived as humanized by the tragedy and there was a general wave of public sympathy for her. The public saw her as a grieving mother as well as an activist. Many feminists, sex radicals and others announced they were behind Sanger. In the end, all charges against her were dropped.
Sanger visited Dutch birth control clinics in 1915 and learned about the diaphragm, which she realized was a more effective method of birth control than the douches and other practices her movement had been promoting. She decided to distribute diaphragms in the United States. She and her sister opened the first birth control clinic in America in 1916 and were arrested. Sanger continued to prevail against the law, however, testing it over and over. As I mentioned earlier, she had a sympathetic doctor agree to receive diaphragms from Japan and when the box containing them was seized by United States Customs, she went to law again. As a result of her appeal of the birth control clinic shutdown and the publicity surrounding the seizure of the diaphragms, the birth control movement won a significant victory in 1918. Judge Crane, of the United States Federal Appeals Court, ruled that doctors could prescribe contraceptives for their patients for therapeutic reasons. In 1936, there was a ruling that doctors could distribute information about contraceptives and contraceptive devices across state lines.
Sanger had many lovers all her life, but eventually married Noah Slee in 1922. He was a very wealthy, somewhat conservative business man who financed her endeavors. The publicity she had garnered by her activism inspired many people to support her cause and more money came to the birth control movement as a result.
By the time she had married Slee, she had begun to distance herself from the radicalism of her earlier years, in a successful attempt to gain support from the American middle class.
Sanger was a founder of the American Birth Control League in 1921, which eventually became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942. She is rightly considered the founder of the Planned Parenthood Federation. Before that, in 1937, the American Medical Association approved birth control as a topic for medical schools, in effect endorsing birth control.
Sanger’s culminating act was to partner with another wealthy birth control activist, Katherine McCormick, to sponsor vital research to create a birth control pill. They provided the financing to allow another freethinker, Gregory Pincus, to develop a commercial birth control pill in 1950. Without Sanger and McCormick’s help, Pincus might never have made the scientific breakthrough that led to the pill. Sanger alone raised over $150,000 for the research. McCormick contributed two million dollars from her personal fortune. The pill, Enovid, was approved for usage by the FDA in 1960. Needless to say, such an important and significant development in birth control and family planning was extremely dismaying to religious and social conservatives. According to Vern Bullough: “Effective birth control and later safe and effective abortions are among the major contributions to society for which freethinkers deserve credit.”
Now that we have glanced at the important activities of American sex radicals and birth control activists during the late 19th Century and into the 20th Century, I would like to turn to their most venomous and effective enemy during that time period.
His story is a cautionary example of what happens when exaggerated power is bestowed on a religious fanatic, and how such a zealot can misuse his power to hold back significant and needed social progress. That is what happened in the United States. The secular community needs to pay heed to the history of this man and resolve to never let such a religious fanatic rise to unprecedented power again.
Anthony Comstock was born in 1844 in New Canaan, Connecticut. His father was a prosperous farmer and his mother was a strict Congregationalist, in other words, a Puritan. Although she died when Comstock was only ten years old, her faith was embraced by her son, who went on to become a true religious demagogue and persecutor of American citizens, particularly free lovers and birth control advocates. He would combat freethinkers and atheists, as well, during his attempt to bring repressive and regressive morality to the United States. To achieve his goal, Comstock engaged in cruelty, dishonesty, trickery and vicious behavior. He was able to find supporters for his cause, who helped finance and support him over the years. When people like Comstock are allowed to gain power and try to turn back the clock on reform, it takes many years to undo the legislation they have been instrumental in promoting. During that time, innocent people and their families suffer. I am gratefully dependent on Robert P. Helms, Linda Gordon and Case Western Reserve University’s online site for the information I gathered for this part of my lecture.
By the time Comstock was eighteen, he distinguished himself by shooting rapid dogs in his area and destroying a whiskey still near his home.
Apparently he believed that the devil was omniscient in his temptations, so if one did not engage in any impure thoughts or behaviors, they would be able to be perfectly righteous. Comstock became a Union soldier for the last eighteen months of the Civil War. He was stationed in a relatively peaceful area of Florida and saw almost no real battle action. This gave him ample time to wage war against the use of tobacco, alcohol, gambling and atheism through the Christian Commission. He was an active participant in that Christian group, which was created by the Young Men’s Christian Association, or the YMCA. He was most active in the group’s mission of sending ministers to the Civil War battlefields in an effort to enlist the government in the battle to keep the soldiers moral. The Commission actually managed to get a provision into the 1865 Post Office bill that made it a misdemeanor to send “obscene books or pamphlets through the mail.”
Comstock found Protestant ministers to lecture to the troops and organized countless prayer meetings as well. After being made the lay head of an Episcopalian Church in St. Augustine, Florida, he refused to allow soldiers to use the church for “singing and pleasures.” In his 1864 Diaries, he described how his fellow soldiers wrecked his bed and gear out of resentment for his strident piety.
Comstock made his way to New York after the war, working as a clerk in a dry goods store, but continued and increased his work with the YMCA. After a few years, he settled in Brooklyn, New York. His cause and the Y’s cause meshed during that era, as the YMCA was occupied with the behavior of young men during their recreational hours in the city.
The young fellows’ free time was much occupied with gambling, “drinking at saloons with pretty waitress girls,” and reading so-called obscene literature. Comstock believed such literature led young men to brothels. He maintained that obscenity and drunkenness were “twin evils.” During that time period, he actually married, a young lady by the name of Margaret Hamilton.
It is important for us to keep in mind that all sorts of erotica, pornography and prostitutes freely circulated around New York during that era. Contraceptives and abortion services, as I have mentioned, were very available in the city. Comstock claimed to have lost a friend to the moral decay caused by the temptations of the city.
With the help of the YMCA, Comstock began his moral crusade. He would go into the shops of retail merchants, book dealers and others who sold the offensive material. Pretending to be a customer, he would buy a sample, take it to a police magistrate as evidence, and have the merchant arrested when he could. Comstock quickly expanded his efforts to publishers and express drivers who transported the objectionable material, and even to the printers who printed it. He soon headed the YMCA’s Society for the Suppression of Vice, which later became an independent organization, and received funding for his work.
Helms states that it was around that time that Comstock began to display the “blind cruelty” with which he practiced his Christianity. He would announce as achievements the death of his prey, either by suicide or accident, in his public addresses. Later, he would boast of causing at least fourteen suicides.
On the eve of going to federal prison for distributing her self-published pamphlet on birth control, one of his victims committed suicide in 1902. The woman, Ida Craddock, left a long letter, denouncing Comstock as a sadist, “a person, in whom,” she said, “the impulses of cruelty arise concurrently with the stirring of sex emotion.”
I have mentioned the arrest of Victoria Woodhull and her sister in 1872 for exposing the Beecher/Tilton extramarital affair. After being released from a month in jail, the sisters began slamming Comstock again in their paper. He rearrested Woodhull, once again demonstrating his penchant for persecuting people who disagreed with his moral crusade. He also detested Woodhull’s spiritualism. His lack of success in getting Woodhull convicted unfortunately strengthened his case to have a federal obscenity law enacted that would have teeth, when he took his Crusade to Washington.
In 1872, as I have mentioned, Comstock and his followers founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. A similar organization was begun in Boston. Virtually all the members of both groups were millionaires, in the social register, professional men or business men. Comstock tried to convince the public that obscenity threatened the well-being of children, and the ploy was successful in some cities, but not all. When he was able he did great harm to people with alternative opinions on sex, marriage, birth control, abortion, women’s rights, freethought and so on.
Comstock finally reached the pinnacle of his career as arbiter of public morals. On March 1, 1873, Congress passed the “Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and the Circulation of Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use,” which became known as the Comstock Act. The power-crazed Comstock was appointed a special agent of the United States Post Office. He was given police powers to seize obscene or otherwise objectionable material and to arrest those people who sent them through the mail. According to Helms, the passage of the law was Congress’s first anti-obscenity act. It had been prompted by lobbying from Comstock and his cohorts, and aided by a public display of “obscene materials,” such as dime novels and contraceptives. Spiritualist literature was thrown in for good measure. The entire public exhibition was authorized by the Vice President of the United States, Schuyler Colfax.
Interestingly enough, at the same time as the display of “obscene materials” and the passing of the obscenity law, there had been a corruption scandal in Washington over financing concerning a railroad company that involved many congressmen, including the Vice President. Comstock cleverly used the public outcry for more morality in the country to target, not politicians and business, but ordinary citizens. It is important to remember that the United States was in one of its periodic and distasteful religious revivals during that era, which increased the urgency to stamp out sin and vice. Someone like Comstock had the opportunity to flourish in such an overheated atmosphere. Please see Ingersoll and the Golden Age of Freethought at AtheistScholar.org. for a more detailed discussion of the American religious revival.
In the Ingersoll lecture, I glanced at Comstock’s two famous 1887 cases against free lovers and freethought exponents.
As I mentioned earlier, one of his victims was Ezra Heywood, for distributing Cupid’s Yokes and Sexual Physiology. Comstock physically seized Heywood during a convention, saying that he “had looked over the audience of about 250 men and boys and I could see lust on every face.” George Bernard Shaw, the eminent British playwright, most likely coined the term, “Comstockery” to describe the draconian and hypocritical acts committed in the name of decency in the United States at that time.
Comstockery was in full flower at Heywood’s trial. The Judge refused to let the jury see, or even hear, any part of the texts that were supposedly so offensive. The defense was not allowed to call any witnesses or explain the contents of the publications. The only questions that were allowed were for the purposes of ascertaining that the material had been mailed. Comstock’s assertions that they were obscene were accepted at their face value. Heywood was convicted, sentenced to two years in jail and fined $100.00.
As I mentioned earlier, a week after Heywood was arrested, D.M. Bennett, of the Truth Seeker, was arrested, and ultimately fined and sentenced to thirteen months imprisonment. Here is Helms on the disastrous consequences of the trial’s outcome. “The ruling on this occasion by Judge Samuel Blatchford would serve as the standard in obscenity cases in the United States for fifty years. The ruling relieved the court and any future courts in America of any need to spell out on the record just what was obscene about the material in question when it was introduced as evidence in an obscenity case.” It gave Comstock and his people enormous latitude in defining what was obscene, according to their subjective opinions.
The American establishment, or parts of it, may have endorsed Comstock, but he was hated by many citizens. When a man named James Conroy was arrested in 1875 for publishing obscene literature, he severely slashed Comstock’s head and face with a knife. When Comstock arrested a physician, Sarah Chase, for violating the obscenity act, a grand jury found his case bogus. She charged Comstock with causing her financial losses and other difficulties and had him arrested. But he posted bail for $2500 and was released.
According to Helms, Comstock and his assistant cornered Fanny Hoffman in her home in 1879 and physically prevented her from calling for a policeman. They had not identified themselves as agents of the Post Office and she was frightened that they were criminals. A magistrate named Pool threw Comstock out of his court in 1905 when Comstock insisted it was up to him to judge the matter about material the judge had not found obscene. Pool shouted: “I don’t want to hear it. Get out of this court.”
Comstock was additionally determined to attack art students and galleries. There was a famous, or infamous story, a true one, of his walking into the Art Student League in New York and asking to see a copy of The American Student in Art. He then arrested the lady who handed it to him and proceeded to confiscate the entire stock of the journal. Such proceedings garnered ridicule from the art circles of the country and even reached the shores of an incredulous Europe. Judges refused to indict many defendants who were art gallery owners and all charges brought by Comstock against them resulted in acquittals.
The novel, The Kreutzer Sonata, written by the great writer, Leo Tolstoy in 1889, became a cause célèbre, calling down more ridicule on the Comstock Act. Tolstoy was very religious and the Sonata is dismayingly so, calling for sexual abstinence in marriage and other nonsense. The novel was censored in Russia. It is not in the least obscene and its puritanical message apparently was misunderstood. President Theodore Roosevelt called Tolstoy a “sexual moral pervert.” The United States Post Office banned newspapers that were mailed from publishing serialized versions of the novel. This was confirmed by the Attorney General in 1890.
But in reality the Kreutzer Sonata case involved a business dispute between the aforementioned Benjamin Tucker, the novel’s publisher, and Wanamaker’s Department store. Tucker claimed the store had missed the deadline for a discount on an advance order for the book. John Wanamaker was Postmaster General at the time and decided to punish Tucker for not allowing his department store the discount. Tucker proceeded to humiliate Wanamaker in the daily papers and many important people agreed with him. New York and Pennsylvania courts lifted the ban, but according to Helms, “…before the affair was over, six street peddlers in Philadelphia were arrested and jailed for selling the Kreutzer Sonata.”
In 1887, Elizabeth (Elmina) Drake Slenker, an elderly Virginia sex radical, was arrested for mailing letters giving frank advice about sex, marriage and avoiding unwanted pregnancies. She refused a lawyer, and refused to swear on the Bible, declaring herself a materialist who did not believe in god or Christianity.
“Aunt Elmina,” as she was called, said her work in sex education was a service to humanity. First found guilty, she was ultimately acquitted.
I have mentioned the case brought against Margaret Sanger’s husband, Bill, earlier in this lecture. Anthony Comstock died of pneumonia in 1915 while the trial was going on. Helms states that his cadaver was put into a hole in Brooklyn, New York. Prior to that, and I am quoting Helms, “It is without doubt that by the beginning of the 20th Century, this soldier of Christian decency had earned the reputation of a callow, brutal and power drunk religious extremist who was out of touch with the times.”
Margaret Sanger, as previously mentioned, repeatedly challenged the Comstock Laws. In 1961, note the date, two women physicians, Buxton and Griswold, opened a birth control clinic in Connecticut. That state had the most draconian laws banning birth control in the country. The two doctors were arrested and fined. The Planned Parenthood League appealed the Griswold vs Connecticut Case and in 1965, the United States Supreme Court struck down the 1879 Birth Control Law as unconstitutional. After eighty-six years, birth control could be used legally in Connecticut. In 1972, the Supreme Court legalized birth control for all citizens of the United States, irrespective of marital status. In 2013, one brand of emergency contraceptive pill, Plan B One-Step, became available without a prescription on drugstore shelves.
The religious right and social conservatives continue to introduce legislation to limit birth control access and emergency contraception, as well as attempting to remove abortion access and abortion rights in the United States.
We must fight them at every step of the way. Many members of such groups are religious fanatics and/or self-serving, opportunistic politicians. We have seen the horrors perpetrated by religious zealotry from the time of the Christian Inquisition to the present day Middle East theocracies. Such injustices occur when religion is allowed to run rampant and impose its beliefs on all people. The secular community must fight them in court, in the press, on the web, and try them in the court of public opinion. Let us expose their cruelty, their hypocrisy and their attempts to take the United States back to the Middle Ages. If we stand firm, we shall continue to win this battle and preserve sexual freedom and the freedom to choose for future generations.
We must continue to assert our legislative rights and petition our lawmakers to reject draconian attempts to derail family planning and abortion rights. Women are not breeders or receptacles, nor are children property who are brought into the world by unwilling and often abusive parents. The religious would have us believe the world would be better if their backward and vicious policies were put into effect. We only need point to countries that restrict birth control and abortion to see the misery, need and violence that ensues under such policies. Let us not allow such fanatical, hysterical and erroneous laws to ever enter our society again. Religion must be restrained and it is the responsibility of our secular society to keep faith based policies from ever becoming the law of our United States.
Video of Lecture: American Freethought – Birth Control Advocates and their Enemy, Anthony Comstock
Video of Discussion: American Freethought – Birth Control Advocates and their Enemy, Anthony Comstock
Books and Printed Articles
Boyer, Paul S. The Vice Society and Book Censorship in America. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968.
Broun, Heywood and Margaret Leech. Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord. New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1927.
Bullough, Vern L. Ed. Encyclopedia of Birth Control. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2001.
Dittrick Medical History Center, History of Contraception Gallery, https://artsci.case.edu/dittrick/online-exhibits/history-of-birth-control/
Gaylor, Annie Laurie. “Margaret Higgins Sanger.” In Tom Flynn, Ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 681-682.
Gordon, Linda. Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: Birth Control in America. Rev.& Updated Ed. London: Penguin Books, 1977.
Haney, Robert W. Comstockery in America: Patterns of Censorship and Control. Boston: Beacon, 1960.
Harper, Clifford. Anarchy. London: Camden Press, 1987.
Helms, Robert P. “Anthony Comstock and Unbelief.” In Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 207-210.
Herrada, Julie. “Sex Radicalism and Unbelief.” In Tom Flynn, Ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 704-706.
London, Kathleen. The History of Birth Control.
Reynolds, Moira Davison. Women Advocates of Reproductive Rights. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1994.
Sears, Hal. The Sex Radicals: Free Love in High Victorian America. Lawrence, Kansas: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1977.