“I should say that the majority of women (happily for society) are not troubled by sexual feelings of any kind” wrote William Acton in an 1857 medical tome. By 1873 that philosophy was echoed by Anthony Comstock, leader of The New YorkSociety for the Suppression of Vice. This institution’s mission dedicated itself to supervising the morality of the public. Both men assumed the role of dictating to women’s sexual conduct as defined, particularly by Comstock as obscene, indecent, lewd, and immoral.
Moving from merely directing the New York Society, Comstock convinced Congress, particularly the Postmaster General to prohibit what he considered obscene material passing through the mail. According to Comstock’s prohibitions no correspondence touching on birth control, contraception, or abortion was permitted. Such items were viewed as obscene, though Mr. Comstock never exactly defined obscene. Undaunted, Mr. Comstock forged ahead suppressing any materials he deemed tainted.
An opponent of Comstock, Ezra Heywood, published pamphlets and books endorsing women’s rights, and sexual freedom. Mr. Heywood authored Cupid’s Yoke a book that maintained women can control their own bodies, so, of course Comstock in 1878, had him arrested. Heywood insisted Comstock was destroying the liberty of conscience, that women ought to have a voice in determining the size of their families. Apparently just expressing such ideas was obscene, and Heywood headed to jail for his persistence.
The last of voices discussing morality, obscenity, and sexuality touched on the films produced in Hollywood. Postmaster General Will Hays reined in studios to set standards in motion picture content. Banned was profanity, nudity, violent sexuality, no race mixing, and no lustful kisses. Whew! The code lasted from 1934 until 1968 when the Supreme Court ruled films are art, thus protected by the First Amendment. In its place the Motion Pictures Association instituted the rating system we know today.
Obscenity, sexuality, birth control, abortion, women’s autonomy, immorality, indecency, all seem to challenge close to half of us in the nation. Outside of sexual violence and sexual predators, we really can take care of ourselves. As for defining obscenity, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart expressed the complexity best when he remarked, “I know it when I see it.”
Perhaps politicians ought to concentrate on power grids, global warming, guns, and infrastructure. Playing ‘give and take’ through regulating women has grown tiresome. Forget defining women with a male dictionary.
Women’s healthcare is not obscene.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January:Figure Eight.” Chumbley has penned two stage plays, “Clay” about Statesman Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” an exploration of slavery and racism.
The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know. Harry Truman