As business and commerce drove rural Americans and new immigrants to the bustling city of New York during the latter half of the nineteenth century, an anonymous, booming subculture of dealers, buyers, and sellers in “obscene” materials emerged. In response, some New Yorkers founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an organization of vigilante citizens determined to clean up New York City. Through their efforts, and particularly those of their secretary, Anthony Comstock, the Society shaped the policing of women’s sexuality and reproduction in ways that reverberated across the nation.
Policing Women: The Censorship of Reproductive Health
The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice was founded in 1873 in order to enforce laws for the “suppression of trade in and circulation of obscene literature, and illustrations, advertisements, and articles of indecent and immoral use, as it is or may be forbidden by the laws of the State of New York or of the United States.” The organization was spearheaded by Anthony Comstock, who served as the secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice as well as an agent and inspector for both the Society and the United States Postal Service. The early annual reports of the society make clear that information or appliances for birth control, contraceptives, or abortion were considered obscene, even pornographic. All of this obscene material, including pamphlets, newspaper advertisements, pills, and powders used by abortionists, was to be confiscated and destroyed by The Society.
“The Difficulties Encountered” at the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice
Under the heading “Difficulties Encountered” in the annual report of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, dated January 1, 1907, are case studies of lewd or lascivious materials encountered by the society. One such encounter was with advertisements in New York circulars containing information about “pills that could be used for criminal purposes,” or abortifacient pills. These pills were being sent to women and girls who had responded to various advertisements. In the same section of the annual report, The Society describes the materials that they considered to be obscene:
“Each one of these ounce packages had concealed a small red book, containing an advertisement of the pills. These boxes of pills, which were sold for $2.10 a box by mail, were put up in pasteboard boxes, with eight one-ounce packages of each of these herbs in each box. Twelve of these pasteboard boxes containing the pills and the herbs, with circular advertisements, blanks for names, and directions, were placed in a wooden box. They were sent out broadcast over the country to tempt young girls and women from paths of virtue, and as a menace to motherhood.”
As part of their annual report, the Society provided a “Tabular Statement: Showing a Part of the Work of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.” The statement provides numerical data and descriptions of obscene or immoral items that the Society was able to destroy. Among the items listed are “Articles for Immoral Use, of Rubber, etc.” and “Boxes of Pills, Powders, etc. used by Abortionists.” The “immoral uses of rubber” included several types of contraception used during the nineteenth century. One was the use of rubber condoms, which were marketed and sold along with other birth control materials. Another use of rubber that was deemed immoral by the Society was the use of rubber pessaries, as depicted in Margaret Sanger’s Family Limitation, an early family planning pamphlet (see below). Pills, herbs, and powders claiming to function as abortifacients were marketed to young women, who often had no other options for terminating pregnancies. Products like these, which prevented the conception of a child, were considered to be obscene and immoral material, and were something the Society considered to be an assault “made upon the sanctity of the home, motherhood, and the virtue of women and girls.”
From New York to the Nation
Anthony Comstock was the force behind the Comstock Laws, a series of acts passed by the United States Congress between 1873 and into the early twentieth century. In the original act, “An Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, obscene Literature and Articles of immoral Use” there is an explicit statement made about the categorization of birth control information, contraceptives, and abortifacients under obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent, filthy, or vile material.
“Every paper, writing advertisement, or representation that any article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing may, or can, be used or applied for producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral purpose; and every description calculated to induce or incite a person to so use or apply any such article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing – is declared to be non-mailable matter and shall not be conveyed in the mails or delivered from any post office or by any letter carrier.”
What Every Girl Should Know
In 1911, Margaret Sanger, a nurse and reproductive health advocate living in New York, began writing articles on sexual education, hygiene, and reproductive health in the left-wing newspaper The New York Call. Between 1912 and 1913, Sanger published a series of sexual education columns titled, “What Every Girl Should Know,” which included information about birth control and venereal disease prevention. Sanger’s efforts are featured in the New-York Historical Society women’s history film We Rise.
Anthony Comstock called for the censoring of Sanger’s sex education column, and Sanger was charged with criminal obscenity. On February 9, 1913, after the charges were brought up and The New York Call was censored for violating the “Comstock Law,” the New York Call published a censored version of “What Every Girl Should Know,” stating – “Nothing! By order of the Post Office Department.”
Advocates of free love, sexual education, and reproductive health during this time pushed back against the limitations of the Comstock laws. In 1914, Sanger published a pamphlet titled Family Limitation, which functioned as a instruction manual for basic family planning. The diagram included below illustrates one type of birth control method known as the pessary or cervical cap, which Sanger believed to be the surest form of birth control. The pessary would be fitted at the mouth of the womb to prevent any “germ or semen” from affecting the woman’s reproductive system.
Sanger fled to Europe to avoid imprisonment for the criminal obscenity charge she faced after publishing “What Every Girl Should Know” in The New York Call. While she remained safely abroad, her husband, William Sanger was jailed in for providing one of her Family Limitation pamphlets to an agent who was working with Anthony Comstock. William’s trial came up in April of 1915, but around that same time, Comstock fell ill, and died of pneumonia later that year. However, the Comstock Laws continued to hold immense power over the circulation of all types of materials from pornography to birth control for decades to come, and vestiges of the original Comstock Laws remain today.
Sex and the Constitution
The Center for Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society recently held our third annual Diane and Adam E. Max Conference on Women’s History on the theme “Sex and the Constitution.” The conference, and the panelists — leading scholars of history and law — discussed the ways in which sex, in all of its definitions, has been governed, censored, and policed through legal means. Questions about the ramifications of the Comstock Laws were prevalent throughout the discussions, and provided insight into current questions about the rights of individuals over their bodies in the context of the law.
– June Titus, Center for Women’s History
Top image credits: Letter from the Board of Managers, New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, March 2, 1906, New-York Historical Society Library.