The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The moral crusader behind some of our most draconian, patriarchal laws

How support from blue-blooded elites curtailed women’s rights

Protesters assemble as the Supreme Court hears a case Dec. 1. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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With the Supreme Court’s conservative majority seemingly poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, which gave American women a constitutional right to abortion, it’s important to remember that privileged, elite, White men have been governing women’s bodies for centuries. In the United States, a key moment in this history came in 1873, when a federal law prohibited the mailing of contraception itself or information on contraception and abortion.

It was known as the “Comstock law,” for Anthony Comstock, the zealous, religious man who muscled it through Congress at age 28. He was not unusual in his belief that Victorian-era women should be wives and mothers first, but he was unusual in his ability to make friends in high places. Comstock succeeded solely because of his connections to the blue-blood Christian elite, men of industry and capitalism who made things run in Washington and whose goals aligned with his. The same story plays out again today. The old guard and the industry-to-politics pipeline is passing laws that curtail women’s rights and autonomy, leaving them vulnerable to harm, abuse and even death.

Comstock was a direct descendant, on his mother Polly Lockwood’s side, of the first Puritans in New England. At age 10, he arrived home to find Polly dead of a postpartum hemorrhage after delivering her seventh baby, Harriet. This trauma brought him no empathy for women’s reproductive health. Instead, his life’s work would help ensure that many more would face his mother’s fate.

After serving in the U.S. Army during the Civil War, and finding trouble getting ahead in the dry-goods business, Comstock tapped a relative for advice. LeGrand Lockwood was a banker, a director of the New York Central Railroad and treasurer of the New York Stock Exchange. Lockwood gave Comstock money and instructed him to head to New York.

It was Comstock’s experiences in post-Civil War, “sporting” New York that sparked his moral outrage and changed his trajectory. The obscene book trade was booming, he noted, with smutty postcards, pictures, etchings, novelties and books peddled openly on the street and in cigar shops offering lunch-hour sex in upstairs rooms.

Living at a boardinghouse in Lower Manhattan, Comstock met “sporting men” who frequented brothels and read smut. He became convinced that dirty books led to paying for sex, or to masturbation, both of which led to disease and insanity. Contraception, he believed, was filthy — used by men who bought sex and by women who sold their bodies. Those who supported contraception were “foul of speech, shameless in their lives, and corrupting in their influences.”

Soon after his arrival in New York he joined the Varick Street branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association and got work teaching Sunday school in his Congregational church in Brooklyn. These moves kept him in privileged company; one neighbor and friend was H.B. Spelman, the father-in-law of Standard Oil’s John D. Rockefeller, who accompanied him to court when Comstock was trying to shutter a Brooklyn saloon.

Comstock began acting to turn back what he believed was a tide of deleterious behavior. In March 1872 he helped police make seven arrests of booksellers, all men. They seized books with titles such as “The Confessions of a Voluptuous Young Lady of High Rank” and “Women’s Rights Convention.” He brought along a reporter during a raid and got his name in the New York Times — credit for his crusade.

He soon wrote a letter to YMCA corresponding secretary Robert R. McBurney, explaining that his own “private resources” were “exhausted” and that he needed funds to buy obscene bookplates so he could destroy them. At the time, the 1870s scions of the YMCA, including financier J.P. Morgan, banker Morris Jesup and soap magnate Samuel Colgate, saw danger in the noise, chaos and economic changes of Gilded Age New York. They were also threatened by new immigrants, who they feared would have large, unruly families. Vice, sex, waterfronts, foreigners — and the notion that women might gain power over their own bodies and work — threatened social order. These elites at the Y were primed to be sympathetic to Comstock’s quest.

Soon after Comstock wrote his request for funds, Jesup spotted the letter, sent him a check and invited him to meet his influential friends, including prominent Protestant clergymen and the New York County prosecutor. In 1872 the YMCA Committee on the Suppression of Vice paid for Comstock to lobby in Albany for a stiffer state anti-obscenity law, and soon after, they sent him to the nation’s capital. “Go to Washington and try it,” Jesup told Comstock.

He did and had great success. In the vice president’s room, Comstock displayed a year’s worth of seized articles, such as books, etchings, engravings, sex toys, condoms and other contraceptives to make his case. In Congress, Rep. Clinton L. Merriam of New York, an ally and financial supporter of the Y, introduced Comstock’s bill. With Congress reeling from the shame of the Credit Mobilier scandal, a graft scheme among powerful politicians that fueled distrust, members were eager to pass legislation that made them appear morally upright. In March 1873, the Comstock law passed, making it illegal to mail obscenity, sex toys, contraception or even information about contraception and abortion, imposing long sentences and steep fines. The idea that birth control was “obscene, lewd, and lascivious” suggested that anyone who wanted it was depraved.

Soon states passed their own, even more restrictive Comstock laws. Connecticut, Comstock’s home state, criminalized the act of trying to prevent conception. Medical advice books, which contained anatomy, contraceptive advice and tips on pregnancy and childbirth, went underground. Abortion ads disappeared from mainstream newspapers, which made practitioners, mostly self-taught women, harder to find.

Comstock followed his rising star and with the help of his well-connected network, was appointed as a special agent to the post office. In May 1873, the YMCA bigwigs founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice to enforce obscenity laws, receive help from the police in making arrests and take half of all fines collected. Comstock served as its secretary and general agent. The government now had allies in a private society, run by the wealthiest and most influential capitalists in New York.

Rolling back the contraceptive restrictions in Comstock laws would take nearly 100 years; it was not until 1965 in Griswold v. Connecticut that a married woman’s right to receive contraception from her doctor became constitutionally protected. In 1972, Eisenstadt v. Baird gave single women the same right. Roe came shortly thereafter and is now imperiled.

The FDA’s recent announcement that doctors can send the abortion pill mifepristone by mail permanently (it had been a temporary covid-19 measure) has created a Comstockian twist in abortion rights. Now as then, the mail affords discretion and ease, and today 40 percent of American abortions are administered with pills.

Though the term “Comstock law” suggests a singular crusader, it is misleading. Comstock would have accomplished nothing were it not for his connections to men far more powerful than he was. It was no accident that the society circles Comstock accessed were dominated by wealthy, White, Christian men, eager to impose their version of social order on a changing world. They well understood that contraception was not just about “morality” but also about power, economic opportunity, labor, education and autonomy.

Today, we see echoes of this dynamic on the Supreme Court, with a majority that is White, male, conservative and Ivy League educated. Blue-blood power led to the Comstock law, and, aided by the Federalist Society, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and President Donald Trump, it has shaped the Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe, which would disproportionately harm low-wealth women of color.

Laws are not passed or overturned because of one zealot; they require coordination, networking and money. Comstock would have been just another grocer trying to make it on lower Broadway were it not for the Spelmans, the Morgans and the Colgates who sustained his mission. Without them, he would have been nothing.