Social Purity

The Anti-Obscenity and Birth Control Movements


Debating Vice

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At the height of the Victorian era, concerns over women’s bodies and behavior—especially prostitution, nudity, and sexual reproduction—intensified. These fears coalesced in the 1870s into an anti-obscenity movement, spearheaded by the notorious censorship crusader, Anthony Comstock, along with physicians and reform groups like the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

They argued that controlling immorality would offset the threats that mounting poverty and crime—often attributed to the city’s influx of newcomers and immigrants—posed to New York’s social order. Anti-obscenity crusaders achieved success in the 1870s and 1880s, when New York State passed legislation criminalizing abortion and prohibiting the distribution of contraceptives and other “obscene” materials.

Many New Yorkers resisted Comstock’s anti-obscenity laws, among them free-love advocates, publishers, performers, activists, female doctors, and so-called “irregular” medical practitioners. They claimed Comstock’s censorship crusade had overreached and was endangering freedoms of expression, speech, and religion.

In the face of many efforts to challenge Comstockery in New York, the law remained intact until the early 20th century, when birth control advocates Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman, and Mary Ware Dennett each fought regulations on the use and distribution of contraceptives. By 1930 their work had helped to add protections for women of all classes and backgrounds to control their fertility under the law.

Key Events

Global Year    Local
The American Medical Association launches a campaign to criminalize abortion, culminating with New York’s 1881 passage of one of the nation’s strictest state abortion bans 1856  
Congress passes the Comstock (Anti-Obscenity) law 1873  
  1870 Clemenceau Case hits Broadway
  1914 Margaret Sanger coins the term “birth control”; two years later, she opens the country’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn for 10 days before authorities shut it down
  1916 Emma Goldman is arrested in Union Square for speaking publicly on birth control and contraception
  1919 Mary Ware Dennett establishes the Voluntary Parenthood League
  1921 TMargaret Sanger establishes the American Birth Control League, which becomes the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942
United States v. Dennett rules that the Comstock Laws should not interfere with scientific sex instruction 1930  
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