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

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Author Amy Sohn presents a narrative history of Anthony Comstock, anti-vice activist and U.S. Postal Inspector, and the remarkable women who opposed his war on women's rights at the turn of the twentieth century. Anthony Comstock, special agent to the Post Office, was one of the most important men in the lives of nineteenth-century women. His eponymous law, passed in 1873, Author Amy Sohn presents a narrative history of Anthony Comstock, anti-vice activist and U.S. Postal Inspector, and the remarkable women who opposed his war on women's rights at the turn of the twentieth century. Anthony Comstock, special agent to the Post Office, was one of the most important men in the lives of nineteenth-century women. His eponymous law, passed in 1873, penalized the mailing of contraception and obscenity with harsh sentences and steep fines; his name was soon equated with repression and prudery. Between 1873 and the ratification of the nineteenth amendment in 1920, eight remarkable women were tried under the Comstock Law. These "sex radicals" supported contraception, sexual education, gender equality, and a woman's right to sexual pleasure. They took on Comstock in explicit, bold, personal writing, seeking to redefine work, family, sex, and love for a new era. The Man Who Hated Women tells the overlooked story of their valiant attempts to fight Comstock in court and the press. They were publishers, editors, and doctors, including the first woman presidential candidate, Victoria C. Woodhull; the birth control activist Margaret Sanger; and the anarchist Emma Goldman. In their willingness to go against a monomaniac who viewed reproductive rights as a threat to the American family, they paved the way for modern-day feminism. Risking imprisonment and death, they redefined contraceptive access as a human civil liberty.


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Author Amy Sohn presents a narrative history of Anthony Comstock, anti-vice activist and U.S. Postal Inspector, and the remarkable women who opposed his war on women's rights at the turn of the twentieth century. Anthony Comstock, special agent to the Post Office, was one of the most important men in the lives of nineteenth-century women. His eponymous law, passed in 1873, Author Amy Sohn presents a narrative history of Anthony Comstock, anti-vice activist and U.S. Postal Inspector, and the remarkable women who opposed his war on women's rights at the turn of the twentieth century. Anthony Comstock, special agent to the Post Office, was one of the most important men in the lives of nineteenth-century women. His eponymous law, passed in 1873, penalized the mailing of contraception and obscenity with harsh sentences and steep fines; his name was soon equated with repression and prudery. Between 1873 and the ratification of the nineteenth amendment in 1920, eight remarkable women were tried under the Comstock Law. These "sex radicals" supported contraception, sexual education, gender equality, and a woman's right to sexual pleasure. They took on Comstock in explicit, bold, personal writing, seeking to redefine work, family, sex, and love for a new era. The Man Who Hated Women tells the overlooked story of their valiant attempts to fight Comstock in court and the press. They were publishers, editors, and doctors, including the first woman presidential candidate, Victoria C. Woodhull; the birth control activist Margaret Sanger; and the anarchist Emma Goldman. In their willingness to go against a monomaniac who viewed reproductive rights as a threat to the American family, they paved the way for modern-day feminism. Risking imprisonment and death, they redefined contraceptive access as a human civil liberty.

30 review for The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age

  1. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    “For someone as powerful and well-connected as he was, [Anthony] Comstock was extremely sensitive to criticism. Radical newspapers filled their pages with anti-Comstock screeds, and he attended atheist and free-thinker meetings to shout at these detractors. He was a zealot who drew no distinction between sex workers and sex radicals, between dealers of lewd postcards and gynecologists. His interest in women’s health and well-being stopped at contraception and abortion, which he often conflated. “For someone as powerful and well-connected as he was, [Anthony] Comstock was extremely sensitive to criticism. Radical newspapers filled their pages with anti-Comstock screeds, and he attended atheist and free-thinker meetings to shout at these detractors. He was a zealot who drew no distinction between sex workers and sex radicals, between dealers of lewd postcards and gynecologists. His interest in women’s health and well-being stopped at contraception and abortion, which he often conflated. The man who did more to curtail women’s rights than anyone else in American history had nearly no understanding of reproduction; he believed a fetus could form seconds after unprotected sex. Though he revered his mother, and all Christian mothers, he despised the midwives and abortionists who helped women in trouble and who saved them from destitution and death. To his mind these practitioners were evil, manipulative, and in it for the money. He did not believe he was a man who hated women. He believed his work was to save the young and innocent from those out to get them…” - Amy Sohn, The Man Who Hated Women Who was Anthony Comstock? Imagine the worst neighbor in the entire world: nosy, aggressive, self-righteous, closed-minded, and imbued with the soul-deep believe that his view of life was the view of life, and that anyone who did not accept and follow his worldview should be prosecuted. Unfortunately, instead of simply terrorizing the people in his immediate orbit, someone in Washington, D.C. had the bright idea to give him – a private citizen, and nothing more – a badge and a gun and prosecutorial authority, so that his narrow, scientifically unsound, and patently ludicrous opinions about sex and sexuality could be upheld as the law of the land. So, again, who was Anthony Comstock? Well, he’s like the Kool-Aid Man, except instead of bursting through your wall to give you a cloyingly sweet beverage, he is coming to make sure that you aren’t reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover or storing condoms in your medicine cabinet. Comstock is the titular prig at the center of Amy Sohn’s The Man Who Hated Women. The Secretary for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Comstock managed – it is not satisfactorily explained how – to parlay his broad-as-the-ocean view of obscenity into a job as a U.S. Postal Inspector. Despite never holding an elective office – one of the more galling parts of his legacy – he used his influence to support a bill that later bore his name. The so-called Comstock Law made it illegal to transport “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” material through the mail, or to publish information about abortion, birth control, or sexually transmitted diseases. Comstock zealously upheld these laws, driving numerous people to suicide, while putting many others in prison. His career lasted over forty years. Though Sohn sets up Comstock as the villain, and provides the outlines of his biography, this book isn’t really about him at all. Instead, it is told through the eyes of some of the women who opposed his crusade. That list includes Angela Heywood, Tennessee Claflin, Victoria Claflin Woodhull, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, and Ida Craddock. Structuring the book this way certainly makes for an entertaining ride. These women were iconoclasts. Almost by definition – and by virtue of not only bucking the system, but tried to dismantle it – they are fascinating. Tennessee Claflin, for instance, was a suffragist who passed herself off as a healer, became very close to Cornelius Vanderbilt, and opened a Wall Street brokerage firm. Then there’s Ida Craddock, who made it her mission to provide accessible sex advice. She also truly believed that she was in a relationship with an angel-husband named Soph. Craddock kept diaries filled with graphic accounts of her alleged ghost sex, which Sohn excerpts at length (I assume this is a finger-in-the-eye to the spirit of Comstock, whose sideburns would have fallen off had he read them). By following so many different characters, rather than choosing one, Sohn provides a sample or cross-section of many different movements happening around the same time. Sohn calls them “sex radicals,” and they stood for many different things, though their common foundation was women’s rights. Some were abortionists, some fought for birth control, and some tried to redefine marriage, especially in terms of a woman’s ability to consent to sex, and to control the number of children she had. Other goals were a bit less lofty, such as the free love movement. Some, such as eugenics – which Margaret Sanger dabbled in – are today seen as reprehensible. The downside to this approach is a less-than-systematic summary of the movement in general. As a matter of personal taste, I like to have an overview first, and then get into the details second. Here, I found Sohn’s approach a bit pointillist, telling a bigger tale through a collection of smaller experiences. Additionally, by spending so much time on personalities, Sohn often obscured her message. Take Ida Craddock, who made a lot of pertinent, commonsense points regarding sex (mainly that it helps to know how to do it before you do it). Her contributions to this end, however, are overwhelmed by Sohn’s decision to dwell at length on Craddock’s assertions that she regularly made love to an angel that no one else could see (a facet of her personality that Sohn – perhaps rightly – makes no effort to explain or diagnose). Sohn’s treatment of Comstock is also a bit shaky. Don’t get me wrong: Comstock was awful. He was an intimacy ghoul, haunted by the idea that someone, somewhere, might be naked. With that said, Comstock is presented as a cartoon villain, even though Sohn herself acknowledges that he wasn’t literally a misogynist – a term that wouldn’t find widespread use till the 1970s – but a freakishly sanctimonious man who not only held delusional ideas about what was right for women, but felt those ideas should be enforced through the laws of his country. Sohn’s contention aside, he was definitely not “the man who did more to curtail women’s rights that anyone else in American history.” The perplexing thing about the Comstock presented in The Man Who Hated Women is that he is both better and worse than Sohn gives him credit for. Comstock certainly stood for a bullish patriarchy blocking the road that led to full equality and citizenship for women. Yet he also aligned himself against illicit gambling, prostitution, and child abuse, all of which were genuinely destructive forces during Comstock’s time. Sohn barely mentions this. On the flip side, Sohn mostly ignores Comstock’s crimes against the First Amendment. As a person who loves to read, there are few things I dislike more than small-thinking busybodies trying to control access to literature. I firmly believe that if you want to peruse Tropic of Cancer on the steps of City Hall, you have a right to do it. Comstock, unsurprisingly, disagreed, and a big part of his career was spent under the misapprehension that society would fail if people got their hands on information that made him uncomfortable. Of course, censorship is not Sohn’s focus, and she makes that clear up front. The Man Who Hated Women has a point to make, but it is not until the final chapter that Sohn finally presents her conclusions. Without agreeing with everything she said, I appreciated the passionate rhetoric and pointed commentary. I only wished she had made her arguments earlier in the book, using it as a framework instead of hiding it behind a veil of historical caricature. The issues Sohn discusses – including abortion, contraception, and the contours of marriage – are often folded into the abstract ideological contest known as “the culture wars.” But these are not abstractions. Rather, they raise extremely important and practical questions over boundaries and limits: the boundaries that a person is allowed to set with regard to their own bodily integrity, and the limits to which government can infringe upon those lines. While imperfect, The Man Who Hated Women does a really good job of demonstrating that these topics are not theoretical, but intensely personal and intimate matters that go to the heart of what makes a human being a human being.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jenny

    Anthony Comstock was a misogynistic zealot. This book provides a good window into his reign of terror, although there are some missteps. Sohn oversimplifies some of the collateral information she provides and doesn’t provide much in the way of historical context. I am a harsh critic - American women’s history 1840-1880 is my area of expertise. The first half of this book brought out old friends and old scandals: Victoria Woodhull and Tennje Claflin, the Beecher-Tilton scandal, the free lovers, s Anthony Comstock was a misogynistic zealot. This book provides a good window into his reign of terror, although there are some missteps. Sohn oversimplifies some of the collateral information she provides and doesn’t provide much in the way of historical context. I am a harsh critic - American women’s history 1840-1880 is my area of expertise. The first half of this book brought out old friends and old scandals: Victoria Woodhull and Tennje Claflin, the Beecher-Tilton scandal, the free lovers, spiritualists, and suffragists. A lot of this was oversimplified in the book and Sohn fails to discuss how novel women speaking in public still was in the early days of Comstockery. This would have provided a lot more context to why Comstock was what he was and did what he did and why he had so much support. Still, if you’re not overly familiar with this area of history, Sohn presents a fine introduction.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Donald Powell

    While the focus is on Comstock the true cultural lessons are much more the story. As any friend or acquaintance of me knows this book is in my wheelhouse, given my obsession to lecture on my ideas about sexuality and our culture. This book shines a light on several true American heroines and their suffering for the greater good in gender rights and sexuality specifically. It was good to get the history and personalities in one tome. Ms. Sohn is a great author with organized, interesting and clea While the focus is on Comstock the true cultural lessons are much more the story. As any friend or acquaintance of me knows this book is in my wheelhouse, given my obsession to lecture on my ideas about sexuality and our culture. This book shines a light on several true American heroines and their suffering for the greater good in gender rights and sexuality specifically. It was good to get the history and personalities in one tome. Ms. Sohn is a great author with organized, interesting and clear prose, telling the story in a compelling and moving fashion. The best chapter (IMHO) was the last when the author tied it together succinctly with thoughts about relevance today. A should read for anyone interested in the ongoing struggle for women in our country/society/culture.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Leslie

    Anthony Comstock was a pretty awful human being--self-righteous, petty, meanspirited, interfering, arrogant, bossy, manipulative--and he did an awful lot of damage to an awful lot of people, especially to women. And the damage continued long after his death, thanks to the awful laws passed in his name and which he vigorously (often vindictively) enforced during his lifetime. He said he was a brave warrior against vice, but he was really a nasty busybody who was sure that he knew exactly how othe Anthony Comstock was a pretty awful human being--self-righteous, petty, meanspirited, interfering, arrogant, bossy, manipulative--and he did an awful lot of damage to an awful lot of people, especially to women. And the damage continued long after his death, thanks to the awful laws passed in his name and which he vigorously (often vindictively) enforced during his lifetime. He said he was a brave warrior against vice, but he was really a nasty busybody who was sure that he knew exactly how other people ought to be living their lives and was eager to punish them for falling short of his mean standards. He started with the assumptions that sex was dirty and disgusting, so any mention of it or of body parts was inherently dirty and disgusting; that women needed to know their place and stay there, so uppity women or disobedient women or sexual women or outspoken women or rebellious women needed to be thoroughly and visibly punished lest other women get ideas; and that there was one right way to live, one right way to believe, one right way to love, one right way to speak or write or behave and that anyone who coloured outside his designated lines deserved to have the full weight of the legal system brought down on their heads. And if his harassment resulted in their suicide or other disastrous consequences, well, then they should have behaved properly in the first place, shouldn't they? There are an awful lot of people who still think like Comstock out there, and they are as contemptible as he was.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Thomas Little

    Author was on NPR being interviewed by Terry Gross today. Some new material on Comstock however I find the title sensationalistic, Comstock was just an overzealous reformer and crusader from the 19th century who enforced the law against real frauds and became fanatical in the reproductive and sexual sphere as most Victorians were. There have been a number of important biographies of Comstock with commentaries from people like Hayward Broun. It's easy to be critical of Comstock over 100 years afte Author was on NPR being interviewed by Terry Gross today. Some new material on Comstock however I find the title sensationalistic, Comstock was just an overzealous reformer and crusader from the 19th century who enforced the law against real frauds and became fanatical in the reproductive and sexual sphere as most Victorians were. There have been a number of important biographies of Comstock with commentaries from people like Hayward Broun. It's easy to be critical of Comstock over 100 years after his passing. You have to ask how the people of that time would feel about how our culture has tilted far in the other direction?

  6. 5 out of 5

    Aiya

    I really enjoyed this book. it is a great first introduction to this era of history. At times the story felt a little watered down and oversimplified, there wasn't much context provided for the time period for how revolutionary it truly was for women to write/publish books and speak at conventions. Most of the narratives were fully fleshed out and went very in-depth in the short amount of time provided to each woman. Comstock was a man who represented all the worst parts of the era he grew up in, I really enjoyed this book. it is a great first introduction to this era of history. At times the story felt a little watered down and oversimplified, there wasn't much context provided for the time period for how revolutionary it truly was for women to write/publish books and speak at conventions. Most of the narratives were fully fleshed out and went very in-depth in the short amount of time provided to each woman. Comstock was a man who represented all the worst parts of the era he grew up in, and his misogyny played a massive role in the development of contraceptive and abortion laws. I think this is a definite must-read for anyone interested in reproductive laws and the impact of Christian morality on the accessibility of abortion.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Maya Gandhi

    Academic critiques aside, I genuinely really enjoyed this book, which was narratively rich and rigorously sourced. I learned a lot, and was compelled throughout. Would highly recommend to readers of women’s history. BUT, it was striking how uncritical the author was of her (radical women) subjects at times. The last chapter is an excellent case in point, where the author frames the women as perfectly encapsulating the ~diversity of viewpoints~ that would benefit contemporary feminism. I was also Academic critiques aside, I genuinely really enjoyed this book, which was narratively rich and rigorously sourced. I learned a lot, and was compelled throughout. Would highly recommend to readers of women’s history. BUT, it was striking how uncritical the author was of her (radical women) subjects at times. The last chapter is an excellent case in point, where the author frames the women as perfectly encapsulating the ~diversity of viewpoints~ that would benefit contemporary feminism. I was also surprised that, despite frequent references to these women as supporters of eugenics, the link between eugenics and racism/ableism was not mentioned until the very last page. With Sanger especially, the effort to contextualize her views on eugenics felt overly defensive. More broadly, the book had little discussion of race or WOC, and how they may have been differently/disproportionately affected by Comstock laws. Finally, from a historiographical point of view, I found it a little ironic that a book about radical women seeking agency had such strong Great Man History vibes with respect to Comstock himself. The notion that he singlehandedly shaped a century of obscenity jurisprudence and women’s reproductive health felt a bit surface level to me, and I would have liked more contextualized discussion of the social factors at play — which we get a little bit with the obscenity laws, but less with the birth control aspects.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Annie

    I have to agree with other reviewers that the title of Amy Sohn’s whirlwind recounting of Anthony Comstock and his eponymous laws, The Man Who Hated Women, is misleading. This book is much more about the women Comstock targeted than about the bewhiskered busybody himself. For those who aren’t familiar, Comstock crusaded against vice in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. To Comstock, “vice” encompassed pornography, contraception, abortion, free love—basically, anything written or said I have to agree with other reviewers that the title of Amy Sohn’s whirlwind recounting of Anthony Comstock and his eponymous laws, The Man Who Hated Women, is misleading. This book is much more about the women Comstock targeted than about the bewhiskered busybody himself. For those who aren’t familiar, Comstock crusaded against vice in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. To Comstock, “vice” encompassed pornography, contraception, abortion, free love—basically, anything written or said about people doing things with their naughty bits. Leveraging his position as the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Comstock was able to convince Congress to appoint him as an inspector with the Postal Service. This position and a growing body of laws allowed Comstock to prosecute men and women who dared to challenge mores about sex and reproduction. Because of Comstock, Sohn argues, we Americans are still decades behind the rest of the world when it comes to reproductive rights. I have to agree... Read the rest of my review at A Bookish Type. I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    Anthony Comstock, special agent to the Post Office, was one of the most important men in the lives of nineteenth-century women. His eponymous law, passed in 1873, penalized the mailing of contraception and obscenity, and his name was soon equated with repression and prudery. Between 1873 and the ratification of the nineteenth amendment in 1920, eight remarkable women, also known as "sex radicals," supported contraception, sexual education, gender equality, and a woman's right to sexual pleasure. Anthony Comstock, special agent to the Post Office, was one of the most important men in the lives of nineteenth-century women. His eponymous law, passed in 1873, penalized the mailing of contraception and obscenity, and his name was soon equated with repression and prudery. Between 1873 and the ratification of the nineteenth amendment in 1920, eight remarkable women, also known as "sex radicals," supported contraception, sexual education, gender equality, and a woman's right to sexual pleasure. The Man Who Hated Women tells the overlooked story of their valiant attempts to fight Comstock in court and the press. Risking imprisonment and death, they redefined contraceptive access as a human civil liberty. Author Amy Sohn does bring these women's stories to life. While the content is very graphic sexually - both in the descriptions of sexual encounters and talk about sex norms of the time - the story is important. These eight women and many other men and women fought for freedoms. Still 140 years later, women still fight for the right to sexual freedom and the control of their bodies. This book can encourage us to keep fighting.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Filipa Perry

    Was really looking forward to this one, but it was a disappointment. It reads like a morality play with caricatures of “good” and “bad” guys. The author trips over herself to convey how evil Anthony Comstock was, including by portraying him as obese and physically grotesque. (Authors: you don’t need to resort to these tactics; let people’s repulsive words and actions speak for themselves.) She also takes pains to redeem Sanger and her peers from their flaws, such as by writing that Sanger held v Was really looking forward to this one, but it was a disappointment. It reads like a morality play with caricatures of “good” and “bad” guys. The author trips over herself to convey how evil Anthony Comstock was, including by portraying him as obese and physically grotesque. (Authors: you don’t need to resort to these tactics; let people’s repulsive words and actions speak for themselves.) She also takes pains to redeem Sanger and her peers from their flaws, such as by writing that Sanger held views that would be abhorrent to people today. Sanger held views that were abhorrent to people in HER day. In fact, many of her religious critics were among those to declare eugenics intrinsically evil. Why does she get the benefit of being “of her times,” but Comstock does not? Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the author’s general framing. But history is messy, and authors have a responsibility to capture—or at least try to capture—the nuance. I think it would only strengthen her project if she didn’t try so hard to make things black and white. One strength of this book is that the author acknowledges the spiritual/religious motivations of early feminists and sex radicals. Too many writers today try to sanitize progressive figures of their faith, which is one reason why modern-day Comstocks enjoy so much cultural authority.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Meg Martinez

    3.5/5. The work of the women profiled in this book is critical to understanding the continued politicization of women's bodies and the history of the feminist and reproductive rights movements in the US. That said, unfortunately I found the first half or so of this book to be a bit of a slog at times. I also wish the author would have spent more time addressing the eugenicist inclinations of some of these women along with their terrible views on disability and those living in poverty. It goes un 3.5/5. The work of the women profiled in this book is critical to understanding the continued politicization of women's bodies and the history of the feminist and reproductive rights movements in the US. That said, unfortunately I found the first half or so of this book to be a bit of a slog at times. I also wish the author would have spent more time addressing the eugenicist inclinations of some of these women along with their terrible views on disability and those living in poverty. It goes unaddressed until the epilogue and feels pretty limited and apologist.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Becca

    I didn't know very much about Comstock or his laws before reading this, so I'm glad I picked it up. However, while the author's dislike of Comstock is very understandable, I agree with the criticism that she reduced many complicated situations and issues to the "good guys" (suffragists, feminists, etc.) vs. "the bad guys" (Comstock, hardcore traditionalists). Her tendency to gloss over information that might reflect poorly on early feminists - for example, Margaret Sanger's eugenicist views- rob I didn't know very much about Comstock or his laws before reading this, so I'm glad I picked it up. However, while the author's dislike of Comstock is very understandable, I agree with the criticism that she reduced many complicated situations and issues to the "good guys" (suffragists, feminists, etc.) vs. "the bad guys" (Comstock, hardcore traditionalists). Her tendency to gloss over information that might reflect poorly on early feminists - for example, Margaret Sanger's eugenicist views- robbed the book of much-needed nuance. While Comstock was obviously a sexist douchebag who probably isn't enjoying his afterlife, critiquing him extensively using modern values and not doing the same for the rest of the characters who feature prominently in his story detracted from her overall argument.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Viola

    The Radical Women Who Paved the Way for Free Speech and Free Love Anthony Comstock’s crusade against vice constrained the lives of ordinary Americans. His antagonists opened up history for feminists and other activists. By Margaret Talbot. July 19, 2021 Photo collage of women surrounding a book Sexual freethinkers created their own unschooled, enraptured works of protest.Illustration by Mari Fouz; Anthony Comstock may be the only man in American history whose lobbying efforts yielded not only the ex The Radical Women Who Paved the Way for Free Speech and Free Love Anthony Comstock’s crusade against vice constrained the lives of ordinary Americans. His antagonists opened up history for feminists and other activists. By Margaret Talbot. July 19, 2021 Photo collage of women surrounding a book Sexual freethinkers created their own unschooled, enraptured works of protest.Illustration by Mari Fouz; Anthony Comstock may be the only man in American history whose lobbying efforts yielded not only the exact federal law he wanted but the privilege of enforcing it to his liking for four decades. Given that Comstock never held elected office and that the highest appointed position he occupied in government was special agent of the Post Office, this was an extraordinary achievement—and a reminder of the ways that zealots have sometimes slipped past the sentries of American democracy to create a reality that the rest of us must live in. Comstock was an anti-vice crusader who worried about many of the things that Americans of a similar moral and religious cast worried about in the late nineteenth century: the rise of the so-called sporting press, which specialized in randy gossip and user guides to local brothels; the phenomenon of young men and women set loose in big cities, living, unsupervised, in cheap rooming houses; the enervating effects of masturbation; the ravages of venereal disease; the easy availability of contraceptives, such as condoms and pessaries, and of abortifacients, dispensed by druggists or administered by midwives. But Comstock railed against all these things more passionately than most of his contemporaries did, and far more effectively. Nassau Street, at the lower tip of Manhattan, was a particular horror to him—a groaning board of Boschian temptations. As Amy Sohn details in her fascinating book “The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship & Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), when Comstock arrived in New York as a young man, just after the Civil War, he was appalled to see an open market in sex toys and contraceptive devices (both often hawked as “rubber goods”), along with smutty playing cards, books, and stereoscopic images. At the wholesale notions establishment where he held a job, Comstock lamented that the young men he worked with were “falling like autumn leaves about me from the terrible scourges of vile books and pictures.” Published in the print edition of the NewYorker July 26, 2021, issue, with the headline “Purity.” +++++++ Margaret Talbot joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2004. She is the author, with David Talbot, of “By the Light of Burning Dreams: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Second American Revolution.”

  14. 5 out of 5

    Nann

    Raised in rural Connecticut, Anthony Comstock moved to New York after the Civil War. He joined the YMCA movement that sought to provide a wholesome outlet for young men with athletics, lending libraries, and lectures to distract them from the allure of gambling dens and brothels. With his work in the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice he lobbied successfully for what is known as the Comstock Act -- federal legislation that made it illegal to distribute or even talk publicly about sex a Raised in rural Connecticut, Anthony Comstock moved to New York after the Civil War. He joined the YMCA movement that sought to provide a wholesome outlet for young men with athletics, lending libraries, and lectures to distract them from the allure of gambling dens and brothels. With his work in the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice he lobbied successfully for what is known as the Comstock Act -- federal legislation that made it illegal to distribute or even talk publicly about sex and sexuality, from pornographic novels, titillating photographs, and belly dancing to contraceptives and sex education books. Sohn profiles eight women who were targets of Comstock's witch hunts. Though they were quite different from one another, they all advocated for women's autonomy and the ability (and authority) to make their own choices about marriage and childbearing. Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin were sisters, suffragists, and successful financiers. Madam Restell was an abortionist. Ida Craddock, Angela Heywood, and Sara Chase provided information in publications and public lectures. Emma Goldman and Marjorie Sanger advocated for family planning and birth control. This is an informative and lively addition to women's history.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jeanne

    It’s depressing to learn about how women, like our grandmothers and great grandmothers, had so little access to sexual Information and contraception not that long ago. And the women who tried to provide that information were hounded, threatened, forced to leave the country or in prisoned. I very much enjoyed reading about the women who fought for women’s rights. Didn’t enjoy reading about Comstock, but then again, he played a major role (unfortunately) in suppressing women in the 19th and 20th c It’s depressing to learn about how women, like our grandmothers and great grandmothers, had so little access to sexual Information and contraception not that long ago. And the women who tried to provide that information were hounded, threatened, forced to leave the country or in prisoned. I very much enjoyed reading about the women who fought for women’s rights. Didn’t enjoy reading about Comstock, but then again, he played a major role (unfortunately) in suppressing women in the 19th and 20th century. As the author stated “ Anthony Comstock’s reign was devastating to American women, but his era was a thrilling period of transformative feminist activities.” Sometimes the detail in the book made it a bit dry, but I would give it a 4.5 rating.

  16. 4 out of 5

    James Beggarly

    Thanks to Netgalley and FSG for the ebook. This is a fascinating story about a man in history I’d never heard of before. Anthony Comstock, in New York between 1873 and his death in 1915, was the US Postal Inspector in charge of obscene material going through the mail system. Along with materials of female nudity, Comstock makes his name by opposing anything to do with contraception and abortion, making him the enemy of women that are trying to further women’s rights. With fines and imprisonment Thanks to Netgalley and FSG for the ebook. This is a fascinating story about a man in history I’d never heard of before. Anthony Comstock, in New York between 1873 and his death in 1915, was the US Postal Inspector in charge of obscene material going through the mail system. Along with materials of female nudity, Comstock makes his name by opposing anything to do with contraception and abortion, making him the enemy of women that are trying to further women’s rights. With fines and imprisonment Comstock battles well know activists Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman, but also a group of earlier activists that were crucial in this fight, sometimes giving up their very lives.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jeffrey

    eBook. As I was reading, kept thinking "plus ca change...". Spends more time discussing the women he persecuted for writing and talking about sex and birth control (some of whom had pretty strange ideas to a modern reader. but at least they were talking, as opposed to Comstock and the Societies for the Prevention of Vice, who wanted to suppress all this information. And I had forgotten they were not formally overturned until 1965. eBook. As I was reading, kept thinking "plus ca change...". Spends more time discussing the women he persecuted for writing and talking about sex and birth control (some of whom had pretty strange ideas to a modern reader. but at least they were talking, as opposed to Comstock and the Societies for the Prevention of Vice, who wanted to suppress all this information. And I had forgotten they were not formally overturned until 1965.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Shannon Carney

    A tough one to read and rate coming off of Empire of Pain. I was really drawn in by the concept of this book, but I really could not get behind the writing. It came across as stilted and almost like a term paper, which was disappointing because nonfiction work is at its best when it’s accompanied by creative storytelling. It took a lot longer to read than I think it could have. I know Sohn has also written a few novels, so maybe those are better?

  19. 4 out of 5

    Carol Kearns

    I couldn’t have read this book at a more relevant time! It gives the history of Anthony Comstock and the Comstock laws that sought to keep ANY information on family planning away from the public and the women that needed it. The book covers the time period from the mid-1800’s through the 1970’s. It isn’t what I would call a “fascinating” read, but I certainly shook my head many times as I read this history of the women’s movement in relation to contraception.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Caryn

    The book was chock full of excellent information. The audio book lacks a dynamic and engaging voice. The information is important for every American female to know. We're still suffering from the effects of Comstock on Women and our own bodies The book was chock full of excellent information. The audio book lacks a dynamic and engaging voice. The information is important for every American female to know. We're still suffering from the effects of Comstock on Women and our own bodies

  21. 5 out of 5

    Susan Reeves deMasi

    Don't be fooled by the salacious-sounding title! This is actually pretty boring. But I learned some things, so I'm rounding up to 3 stars. Don't be fooled by the salacious-sounding title! This is actually pretty boring. But I learned some things, so I'm rounding up to 3 stars.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Debi G.

    Informative in a narrative style. Dry though salacious.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    As seen in the New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/20... As seen in the New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/20...

  24. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

    Great idea, mediocre execution, middling writing

  25. 4 out of 5

    Melanie

    The title is misleading- Comstock didn't hate women, he idolized them- and strove for a morally upright, asexual society in time when sexuality and morality was being challenged and redefined. The title is misleading- Comstock didn't hate women, he idolized them- and strove for a morally upright, asexual society in time when sexuality and morality was being challenged and redefined.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Tracy

  27. 4 out of 5

    Rebeca

  28. 4 out of 5

    Bette

  29. 5 out of 5

    Audrey Farley

  30. 5 out of 5

    Britta Moen

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