October 2022 Church & State Magazine

A 19th Century Christian Nationalist? A Book Sheds Light On Anti-Birth Control Crusader Anthony Comstock — And The Women Who Opposed Him

  Margaret Hamm

The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age by Amy Sohn, Farrar, Straus and Giroux-Macmillan, 400 pp.

With the number of white Christian nationalist attacks on Americans’ reproductive rights skyrocketing since the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, it might be easy to assume that this kind of action is historically unprecedented.

But these modern attempts to destroy reproductive freedom are rooted in a long history of American government officials and public figures who similarly relied on a rigidly Christian view of what people should do with their bodies. The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age by Amy Sohn, published in 2021 and recently released in paperback, delves into the life and work of one such enemy of reproductive rights and church-state separation: Anthony Comstock.

Although Sohn does not explicitly label Comstock as a Christian nationalist, his fervid, lifelong commitment to eradicating all traces of sex education, abortion and contraception from the public square was firmly rooted in his conservative Christian upbringing and adulthood.

While the book’s title focuses on Comstock himself, its narrative devotes equal – if not more – time to some of the women who opposed him. The Man Who Hated Women provides an engaging deep dive into the lives of the eight women who were charged with violating state and federal Comstock laws, including suffragists and sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claf­lin; publisher Angela Heywood; sex­ologist Ida C. Craddock; and birth control advocate Margaret Sanger. Interweaving stories from Comstock’s work, life and direct interactions with these women, Sohn presents a far-reaching and insightful look at the lengths these activists went to in order to educate others about topics like gender equality and sex education, and to provide reproductive health care to those who needed it.

Sohn’s analysis highlights many conflicts that are sure to resonate with modern audiences who care about upholding the integrity of church-state separation today. For example, the book extensively chron­icles Comstock’s struggle and eventual success in 1873 with the federal passage of the Comstock Act and similar ensuing state legislation. Comstock’s motivation for these laws, which banned sending contraceptives and other “obscene” materials through the mail, stem­med from his desire to root out societal behavior that went against his Christian beliefs, and he worked closely with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) while doing this work.

Reading some of the pas­sages that discuss Comstock’s reli­giously based ob­jections to contra­ceptives and other related materials calls to mind the re­cent increase in reli­gion-based refusals by some conservative Christian pharmacists to fill prescriptions. In the final sentence of the intro­­ductory chapter, Sohn in­vites readers to recognize connections just like these: “Without understanding the sex rad­icals,” she writes, “we cannot fight the assault on women’s bodies and souls that continues today.” Ulti­mately, the clarity of Sohn’s writing allows the reader to make those cru­cial conclusions by learning from the past.

Furthermore, this book illustrates that reproductive freedom and religious freedom have always been interconnected issues, especially for the people fighting for them. The activists in this book were Freethinkers, Spiritualists and adherents of the free love movement, and they often called out, both directly and indirectly, the double standard that existed in the courts and in American political life when it came to Christianity. For example, when Victoria Wood­hull was arrested and tried for an article she had written, she asserted that the piece was “not half so bad as a hundred isolated passages which might be selected from the Bible.”

Another of the women Sohn characterizes as “sex radicals,” Ida C. Craddock, had an even more direct connection to church-state separation issues. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Craddock served as secretary for the American Secular Union, where she spoke and wrote about numerous issues, including the separation of church and state. Many, if not all, of these activists saw the issues they were battling against Comstock over as inextricable from church-state separation, and that principle was a crucial component of their ideologies.

Although it is outside the scope of the book’s main focus, The Man Who Hated Women can also serve as a jumping-off point from which we as the audience can think more broadly and inclusively about who is affected by Christian nationalist attacks on reproductive freedom.

The women memorialized in this book made enormous strides to fight for reproductive freedom, often at the expense of their own well-being, and at the same time, they were far from perfect, as evidenced by recent re-examinations of Margaret Sang­er’s legacy. Many of them were wealthy white women who could easily access abortions and contraceptives and could afford to be bailed out when their activism landed them in jail. The voices missing from this narrative are the people who suffered the most from Comstock’s laws, namely those who due to the structural forces of white su­prema­cy, Christian su­prem­acy and xenophobia, were unable or could not afford to access the care and resources they needed.

Quite literally taking a page from Sohn’s book, we should look to all the activists fighting for reproductive rights and justice as well as everyday people trying to seek reproductive health care in a post-Roe world. Informed by the history laid out in Sohn’s insightful book, we should make sure that their stories receive the recognition and support they deserve right now rather than hoping that the historians of tomorrow are able to recover these important narratives.

The Man Who Hated Women ultimately serves as a powerful reminder of some of the terrible ways that white Christian nationalism has decimated our freedoms and serves as a call for us to combat the Anthony Comstocks of our time and today’s world.

Margaret Hamm holds a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and a B.A. in comparative religion and political science from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She interned in Americans United’s Communications Department this summer.

 

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