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  • Miranda L. Galbreath, MA, MA, LPC

Sex radicals of the Gilded Age

It's been 149 years since the 1873 passing of the Federal Comstock Laws prevented the use of the U.S. Postal Service to send "obscene" content through the mail.

This included anything broadly seen by (male) authority figures to be "obscene," such as medically accurate information about sex, sexual organs, contraception, abortion, and frankly just about anything that Gilded Age prudery frowned upon...ESPECIALLY if it was written or being mailed by a woman. It also included sending any manner of contraceptive device.


At a time when women activists, writers, medical professionals, and religious leaders were attempting to raise awareness about female sexual pleasure, placing control over childbearing in the hands of women, and strategies for improving intimacy and love in relationships, Anthony Comstock, a special Agent to the U.S. Postal Service, took it upon himself to be a "defender" of women....by dedicating his decades-long career to ensuring that women did not have access to information that challenged his puritanical beliefs about ideal womanhood. Comstock was clear that the laws he inspired and enforced were specifically targeted to keep women in their place (as he thought it should be).


Amy Sohn's very enjoyable book chronicles the efforts of eight women activists of the Gilded Age to continue to work to improve the quality of life for women despite being repeatedly hounded, persecuted, arrested, jailed, fined and having their livelihoods ruined by his persistent belief in an outdated ideal of womanhood.


This book contains a few names and stories folks might find familiar (Victoria Woodhull, female presidential candidate and Margaret Sanger, birth control advocate), but many who have been relatively lost to the pages of history. These include Tennessee Claflin (spiritualist, free love advocate, writer and public speaker), Ann "Madame Restell" Lohman (medical provider to women specializing in contraception and abortion), Dr. Sara Blakeslee Chase (homeopathic physician and sex educator), Angela Heywood (writer and public speaker), Ida Craddock (sexologist), and Emma Goldman (anarchist and women's rights advocate).


Reading this book, I felt gratitude for the efforts these women made to blaze a path toward the knowledge and rights we have today. The materials these women went to jail for sending via the U.S. Post Office are the same types of materials I can get easily today as I pursue a certification in sex therapy. (As a matter of fact, I just received some "obscene" content delivered by the U.S. Postal Service today!) At the same time, it chills me to think that 149 years and all of the sacrifices made by these remarkable women later, the battle for control over the bodies of women rages on. It pays to be informed about our history, as we are never very far from it.....


The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, & Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age

Amy Sohn // Farrar, Straus and Giroux // 309 pages

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