The Comstock Laws were a set of highly restrictive laws at the turn of the century that censored and controlled the publication of what was deemed at the time to be lewd and/or inappropriate. Its effects were felt throughout society, but especially hindered the production of literture that promoted behavior contrary to the conforms of society, like that of Kate Chopin.
American Reformer Anthony Comstock © Bettmann/CORBIS
Original caption: Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) American reformer.
The Man Behind the Laws
(March 7, 1844 – September 21, 1915)
Anthony Comstock was born in New Canaan, Connecticut and was raised as an ultra-conservative Puritan. He fought for the Union during the Civil War from 1863 to 1865. After serving, he went on to become an active member of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) in New York City. His work with the YMCA was based on upholding the morality of the public and led to his creation of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in early 1873. The organization's aim was to supervise, regulate, and control society's access to materials and influences that Comstock thought to be illicit and/or anti-Puritan. In the midst of local reform in New York City, Comstock sought to criminalize pre-marital sex and adultery. As a Puritan, Comstock saw abortion and birth control as two names for the same thing and so in March of 1873, Comstock's society introduced the Comstock Laws.
The official seal of the New York Society Society for the Suppresion of Vice
The Comstock Laws
On March 3, 1873, Congress passed An Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use, which became known commonly as The Comstock Laws. The act was a federal law that criminalized the sale or distribution of materials that could be used for contraception or abortion, the sending of such materials or information through the federal postal system, or the import of such materials into the United States from abroad. It was meant to stop the trade of what Comstock considered to be obscene literature and/or immoral articles. After the act was passed, Comstock was named a special agent and Postal Inspector for the U.S. Post Office and was able to see out his agenda in full. He held the position for the next 42 years.
Cartoon of the Postal Service in the Comstock Era © The Journal of American History
Comstock claimed to have successfully prosecuted more than 3,600 defendants and destroyed over 160 tons of obscene literature during his service as Postal Inspector. He targeted upper and lower classes alike, but thought of the lower class as an easier target. At the height of his power, Comstock made it illegal for medical students to receive anatomy textbooks through the mail. He made the Louisiana Lottery (the only legal lottery in the U.S. at the time) illegal, and he also attempted to make it criminal for art gallery owners to sell European paintings of partially clad women. It was at this point that Comstock's original supporters began to question him. What he was doing began to infringe upon Americans' right to free speech. Kate Chopin Writing in the Comstock Era??As Comstock believed strongly that “a woman’s prime responsibility was rearing and educating children within the context of a father-dominated household” (Bates 61), the prohibition of contraceptives and abortion tools effectively stopped women from preventing and/or terminating unwanted or dangerous pregnancies and further cementing them in their constricted roles as wife and mother.
Credit: Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis.
Original Caption: Kate Chopin with sons: Fred, George, Jean, Oscar, 1877.
The reflection of these constrictions is ever-present and explicitly expressed within Kate Chopin’s work. The female protagonists in Chopin’s stories and novels often experience an epiphany upon the realization that society has oppressed them and forced them into roles as only wives and mothers with no room for self-awareness or expression.A few examples are:
"The Story of an Hour" (1894) - Upon learning of her husband’s death, a woman finally feels life without the burden of bending her will to his.
"Madame Celestin's Divorce" (1894) - A woman debates whether or not to divorce her abusive, neglectful husband in the face of a society that would shun her for doing so.
"A Pair of Silk Stockings" (1896) - While shopping for her husband and children, a woman sees a pair of silk stocking and decides to finally buy something for herself, but soon finds it difficult to stop.
The Awakening (1898) - Trapped in a passionless marriage with children she sees primarily as an obligation, Edna Pontellier starts a new life on her own, but soon realizes that a woman’s independence in a patriarchal society is a difficult undertaking.
When Kate Chopin prepared the collection "A Vocation and a Voice" for publication, she intentionally excluded her story "The Storm" (1898) because she recognized it was too explicit and advanced for the period. Her description of passionate sex would have been difficult enough to publish with Comstock in charge, but her endorsement of adultery would have scandalized her readers and completely gone in the face of everything Comstock stood for and the laws he created to preserve his beliefs.
While there is no reason to believe that Anthony Comstock ever read any of Kate Chopin’s work, he would not have been a great fan, insofar as any literature that promoted women’s rights violated everything he held to be "natural and was, therefore, as obscene [...] as the most licentious pornography" (61). He was vocally opposed to literature that promoted the "human interest story" (70) – a thematic concept very much dealt with in Chopin’s writing. Her themes of feminism, self-awareness, independent identity, and her protagonists’ refusals to follow the law as it pertained to their role in society would more than likely have infuriated Comstock.
Reformer Anthony Comstock © Bettmann/CORBIS
Original caption: Anthony Comstock, (1844-1915), an American fanatical and anti-vice activist is shown. The source word "Comstockery," is derived from his protests.
The Evolution of the Comstock Laws
The Comstock Laws remained unchallenged until birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger took it upon herself to oppose the Comstock Act. The first changes came from Sanger's arrest in 1916 for opening the first birth control clinic in the United States in Brooklyn, New York. Her case resulted in the 1918 Crane decision, which allowed women to use birth control for therapeutic and medicinal purposes.
The next amendment came in 1936 with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision, United States v. One Package. The decision permitted doctors to distribute contraceptives across state lines. This decision did not eradicate the issue of the Comstock Laws on the state level; however, it was paramount. Physicians were legally allowed to mail birth control devices and contraceptive information, paving the way for the acceptance of birth control by the medical industry and the public.
Margaret Sanger Beginning Birth Control Convention © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS
Original caption: Mrs. Margaret Sanger, left, President of the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, photographed today [January 15, 1934] as she opened the Committee's convention in the ball room of the Mayflower at Washington. Mrs. John Dryden, center, Chairman of the Washington committee and Professor Henry Pratt Fairchild of New York University, noted authority on population and economic problems, right, are photographed with Mrs. Sanger.
Anthony Comstock’s “Chastity” Laws. PBS. Web. 20 Oct. 2009.
Bates, Anna Louise. Weeder in the Garden of the Lord: Anthony Comstock’s Life and Career. New York: University Press of America, 1995.
Beisel, Nicola. Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997. Print.
Broun, Heywood, & Margaret Leech. Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord. New York: The Literary Guild of America, 1927. Print.
Carlson, Allan C., Ph.D. Comstockery, Contraception, and the Family – The Remarkable Achievements of an Anti-Vice Crusader. The Family in America Online, Vol. 23, No. 1. Online Journal. 20 Oct. 2009.
Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. “Victoria Woodhull, Anthony Comstock, and Conflict Over Sex in the United States in the 1870s.” Journal of American History 87.2. (Sept. 2000): 403-434. Print.
Lewis, Jone Johnson. Margaret Sanger. About.com. Web. 20 Oct. 2009.