On was considered an “obscenity,” while some would disagree

On the books for decades, the Comstock Law inhibited women from gaining access to information on birth control and abortion. A clear violation of the First Amendment, Anthony Comstock’s law censored mailings, books, pamphlets and more that might have been considered pornographic or obscene, but these laws were far more strict in practice than in writing. The study of these laws in history is particularly interesting because it tells us a lot about American society when these laws were in place. It seems as though anti-abortion and anti-birth control attitudes swept the country in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. The general attitude was that sole purpose of intercourse was reproduction and women were held accountable to “proper” behavior. Women were not supposed to engage in intercourse without the purpose of reproduction, although studies show that they did. As a violation of First Amendment rights, the Comstock Laws had a great negative effect on the lives of women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Despite being a direct violation of the First Amendment, the Comstock Law reflected public attitude towards contraceptives, birth control and abortion. Although information on contraceptives was forbidden by law, access to it was not impossible as many women obtained and used birth control in their more private lives. The Comstock Law hindered, but did not prevent access to information on birth control and abortion. Because the First Amendment states that the federal government cannot abridge the freedom of the press, the Comstock Law was a direct violation of these fundamental rights. Historians speculate that the Comstock Laws were initially passed to conserve the country’s morality and prevent premarital sex. (Connecticut).  The country’s attitude toward contraceptives being “unethical” overrided the right to the freedom of the press. Information on birth control was considered an “obscenity,” while some would disagree today. (Anthony). Anthony Comstock’s religious upbringing led him to push for laws against commercial birth control. He also had more personal ties to the matter of contraceptives. “Comstock, who lost his only daughter as a baby and later adopted a child, may have resented women who limited the size of their families when he and his wife had difficulty conceiving.” (Collins, 323). Whatever his motivation was, Comstock’s determination paired with sponsorship from the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV) caused congress to pass the Comstock Law. Birth control in the late 1800s, while not completely reliable, provided a woman the ability to control if she has children, when she has them, and how many she had. This gave women a new and unprecedented form of power. The initial Comstock Act was passed in 1873 at the height of the industrial revolution, meaning women had more access to factory jobs. Women were able to work longer and as a result earn more money if they did not have the responsibility and/or burden of taking care of a family. But, if a woman did not have control over when she got pregnant, her time in the workforce could be abruptly terminated by her obligation of raising of a child. This desire to control women’s power was not new to American History. Although Comstock law was a promotion for morality, the ability to control women was an added “benefit.”Comstock continued to persecute advocates for women’s rights, even after the Comstock Law was passed. The NYSSV arrested over one hundred men and women on accounts of violation of the law. (Collins). His main tactic for arrest was “entrapment,” which consisted of persuading someone into selling him explicit material or giving him contraceptives, and then arresting them under the Comstock Law. (Rierson). Prominent 19th century abortionist Madame Restell fell victim to one of his stunts and committed suicide soon after she was arrested. (Collins). Comstock put an and to her life’s work as an abortionist and women’s rights advocate. Comstock convicted Margaret Sanger on her published newspaper, The Woman Rebel, which provided information on birth control for women. (Rierson). Overall, his arrests totaled about four thousand. (Rierson). The amount of arrests in such a short time period shows that although it seems as if most of the country was against birth control, many were still practicing it. This is proof that Comstock’s law and personal work were obstacles in the distribution of contraceptives, but did not prevent it entirely. Talk about pregnancy, contraception and abortion was nonexistent and considered improper during the Victorian Era. The general notion of the public was anti-contraceptive, primarily for the belief that birth control was immoral. Women during the late 1800s were expected to engage in sex solely for the purpose of reproduction. “The idea that women would want to indulge in intercourse while avoiding pregnancy was strange to many people who still believed that women were too pure to be interested in sex.” (Collins, 322).  However, this public opinion failed to carry over into private life in some cases. Whils responses from the Mosher Survey were mixed, some women responded that they did have knowledge of sexual physiology before marriage and did have desire for sex. “Thirty-five of the forty-five women testified that they felt desire for sexual intercourse independent of their husband’s interest.” (Degler, 238, Mosher). More of these women practiced birth control, although some of those same women admitted to conceiving a child by accident. This makes sense given that access to birth control information and abortions was limited at the time this survey was conducted, largely due to the Comstock Law. Perhaps access to commercial contraceptives would have been more effective  than at-home or “natural” methods.Still, the Mosher survey reveals more about the private lives of working-class married women and proves that the Comstock Law was not completely effective.  Many of these women expressed progressive views on birth control and sex. “Given the view generally held about sexual attitudes in the nineteenth century, it comes as something of a surprise to find that only thirty marked ‘reproduction’ as the primary purpose of sex.” (Degler, 239). This demonstrates that the majority opinion regarding birth control during this time was not the only opinion, and many middle to upper-middle class married women not only had desire for sex, but had desire to engage in intercourse without conception. While access to information on birth control is no longer limited, our country shares some of the same anti-contraception feelings as were common a century ago. Anti-abortion protesters cluster outside of planned parenthood and other women’s clinics, handing out pamphlets and readings on the immorality of abortion. There is still a strong connection between ethics, birth control, and some religions (most commonly Catholic). While not as prominent as before, there still exists an obsession with “purity” and “morality”- the same ideas that helped put the Comstock Law in place nearly a century and a half ago. In efforts to eliminate access to birth control, contraceptives and abortions, the Comstock Law was moderately successful. It modeled public opinion and followed the notion of “ethical” marriages. But the mosher survey and deegler essay offer insight into the lives of average women during the time the comstock laws were in place. “The Comstock Act did not necessarily have an effect on private behavior- the size of families continued going down. ” (Collins, 324). This implies the use of contraceptives. In spite of Anthony Comstock’s ruthless campaign against contraceptives and many arrests made under the law, information regarding birth control was still accessible to many women.

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