(WOMENSENEWS)–In a Chicago courtroom on Oct. 27, 1899, a 42-year-old woman named Ida Craddock faced the power of the state for writing a pamphlet called “Right Marital Living” that was, in essence, a manifesto of women’s right to sexual pleasure, an indictment of rape in marriage and a sex manual for clumsy husbands.

Technically, the charge was sending “obscene, lewd and lascivious materials” through the U.S. mail. Her antagonist was not only the leading “moral” crusader of the time, but the man who invented a legal end run around outright censorship. Special Agent of the Post Office Anthony Comstock, also head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, spearheaded an 1873 congressional act prohibiting the circulation of anything used for “indecent or immoral purposes.” Craddock pleaded guilty in exchange for a suspended sentence.

The Chicago case was one small scuffle in an ongoing battle between advocates of sexual freedom and enforcers of Victorian repression. Craddock had been fighting the battle for a long time. She was a Pennsylvania native who, in her youth, had campaigned for the admission of women to the leading university there. The “Doctor Ruth” of her time, she provided sexual counseling in a Dearborn Street office and gave courses by mail. Some of her opponents had already tried to have her declared insane. She had come to prominence–and to Comstock’s notice–in 1893, when she defended the appearance of a dancer known as “Little Egypt” at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Comstock had tried to censor the scantily clad belly dancer, but Craddock defended her, adding, provocatively, that the undulating movements were educational and would help women enhance their sex lives.

After Chicago, she moved to New York, Comstock’s bastion, “to face this wicked and depraved man,” she said. In 1902, she again faced him in court. This time, the “obscene” material was a pamphlet called “The Wedding Night,” which the judge refused to let the jury read. Found guilty, she spent three months in the city workhouse and, upon her release, was immediately rearrested, then offered her freedom if she would plead insane.

On the morning of her sentencing, she slashed her wrists. She had, however, left a letter to the public, explaining that she had taken her life hoping that “the American people may be shocked into investigating the dreadful state of affairs which permits that unctuous sexual hypocrite Anthony Comstock to wax fat and arrogant and to trample upon the liberties of the people.”

A quarter century later, with Anthony Comstock in his grave, the laws he was responsible for were still being used to prosecute those who challenged the sexual status quo, including birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. In fact, the 1996 Telecommunications Act includes the Comstock Act, by reference.

Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at [email protected].

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For more information:

Ida Craddock, 1857-1902:

American Experience, Anthony Comstock’s Chastity Laws:

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