The right-wing crusade to roll back gay civil rights is gathering momentum.
Memo to editors of campus papers: When the next right-wing ideologue shows up with an ad full of nonsense, just take the money and print it. That way, they will not be able to pose as the victim of "political correctness," they will not get millions of dollars' worth of free publicity and their ideas will not acquire the glamour of the forbidden. By the same token, you will not look afraid of debate and controversy, nor will you have to explain why you rejected their ad while printing something equally false, offensive or stupid on some previous occasion.
Never mind that the people accusing you of censorship practice it themselves: In an amusing riposte to David Horowitz's flamethrower ad opposing reparations for slavery, Salon's David Mazel proved unable to place an enthusiastically pro-abortion ad in papers on conservative campuses; and as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting points out, the Boston Globe, which editorialized against students who rejected the Horowitz ad, itself rejected an ad criticizing Staples, a major advertiser, for using old-growth forest pulp in its typing paper. So there, and so there! But you're in a better place to make such arguments stick if you can stand--however cynically and self-servingly--on the high ground of free speech yourself.
Just as Horowitz faded, having shot himself in the foot by refusing to pay the Daily Princetonian after it printed his ad but editorialized against it, up comes the soi-disant Independent Women's Forum--you know, that intrepid band of far-right free spirits funded by the ultraconservative Sarah Scaife Foundation--with an ad in the UCLA Daily Bruin and Yale Daily News urging students to "Take Back the Campus!" and "Combat the radical feminist assault on Truth." The IWF charges "campus feminism" with being "a kind of cult" in which "students are inculcated with bizarre conspiracy theories about the 'capitalist patriarchal hegemony,'" a fount of "Ms./Information," "male-bashing and victimology." Brainwashing isn't exactly what comes to mind when I think of the revolution in scholarship that has produced such celebrated historians as Linda Gordon, Ellen DuBois, Joan Scott, Rickie Solinger, Leslie Reagan and Kathy Peiss. The sweeping, paranoiac language gives it away--this is IWF member Christina Hoff Sommers speaking from her perch at that noted institution of higher learning, the American Enterprise Institute.
The bulk of the ad consists of a list of "the ten most common feminist myths" and the "facts" that supposedly prove them false. Much of this is lifted from Sommers's Who Stole Feminism?, a book that attempted to deploy a few gotchas against hyperbolic statistics and questionable studies to deny the significance of violence, sexism and discrimination in women's lives. I mean, how important is it that "rule of thumb" may not derive, as some feminist activists believe and some newspapers have printed, from an old legal rule permitting husbands to beat their wives with a stick no thicker than their thumb (Myth #4)? Feminists did not make this folk etymology up out of nothing--actually, according to Sharon Fenick of the University of Chicago, writing on the Urban Legends website, it probably goes back to the eighteenth century, when the respected English judge, Francis Buller, earned the nickname "Judge Thumb," for declaring such "correction" permissible. That it was legal for premodern English husbands to beat their wives within limits is not in dispute (in her book, Sommers obscures this fact by omitting the Latin phrases from a passage in Blackstone's Commentaries); nor is the fact that wife-beating, regardless of the law, was, and sometimes still is, treated lightly by the legal system under the rubric of marital privacy. Thus, in 1910 the Supreme Court, in Thompson v. Thompson, barred wives from suing husbands for "injuries to person or property as though they were strangers." (I learned this, and much else relating to the history of American marriage, from Yale feminist historian Nancy Cott's fascinating Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation.)
And what about Myth #2, "Women earn 75 cents for every dollar a man earns." That doesn't come from some man-bashing fabulator squirreled away in a women's studies department. It comes from the US government! The IWF argues that the disparity disappears when you take education, training, occupation, continuity of employment, motherhood and other factors into account--but even if that were true, which it isn't, to overlook all those things is itself advocacy, a politicized way of defining sex discrimination in order to minimize it.
And then there's #1, the mother of all myths: "One in four women in college has been the victim of rape or attempted rape." The IWF debunks this number, which comes from the research of Mary Koss, by citing the low numbers of reported rapes on college campuses, but the one-in-four figure includes off-campus and pre-college rapes and rape attempts. Are Koss's numbers the last word? Of course not. In 1998 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that among all women, one in five had experienced a rape or attempted rape at some point in her life. In January the Justice Department released a report claiming that 3 percent of college women experience rape or attempted rape per school year, which does add up over four years.
Does irresponsible, lax or even slanted use of facts and figures exist in "campus feminism"? Sure--and out of it, too. (Try economics.) But what does that have to do with women's studies, a very large, very lively interdisciplinary field of intellectual inquiry, in which many of the supposed verities of contemporary feminism are hotly contested? The real debate isn't over the merits of this study or that--in social science "results" are always provisional. Now that the IWF has thrown down the gauntlet, feminist scholars should call for that real debate--Resolved: Women's lives were more seriously studied and accurately understood when almost no tenured professors were female. Or, Resolved: Violence against women is not a major social problem. Or, Resolved: If women aren't equal, it's their own darn fault.
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When a renowned abortion doctor opened a clinic in Ocala, Florida, he was seen as a public pest. So local authorities used the courts to get rid of him.
Here we go, starting on what promises to be a pleasantly engrossing tour of the landmarks of three centuries of Anglo-American intellectual feminism, guided by a seriously impressive scholar, Elaine Showalter of Princeton University.
When Philip Roth compiles lists of the writers he most admires, Tolstoy never seems to make it. There's Flaubert, Kafka, Bellow--the touchstones. Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Céline--the madmen. Henry Miller, of course; even Chekhov and Thomas Mann. But Tolstoy, when he appears in Roth's fiction at all, is usually something of a joke. In The Ghost Writer, young Nathan Zuckerman travels to meet his hero, the reclusive novelist E.I. Lonoff ("Married to Tolstoy" is how the novel describes the plight of Lonoff's wife); lying the first night in the sanctum where Lonoff composes his masterpieces, and knowing that a fetching student of Lonoff's is also staying at the house, Zuckerman is, shamefully, seized by erotic yearnings. He yields to them. "Virtuous reader," he reports, "if you think that after intercourse all animals are sad, try masturbating on the daybed in E.I. Lonoff's study and see how you feel when it's over."
As if this wasn't bad enough, four years later Roth began The Anatomy Lesson with a sexual rewriting of Anna Karenina's famous opening. "Happy families are all alike," Tolstoy wrote. "Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Everything at the Oblonskys' was in confusion." Roth's version: "When he is sick, every man wants his mother; if she's not around, other women must do. Zuckerman was making do with four other women."
So perhaps it is as punishment for this needling that in his old age Roth has become Tolstoy. His last five novels have been Tolstoyan in scope, and, like Tolstoy, he has been celebrated for them. Like Tolstoy he is loathed by the official organs of religion--an archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church suggested that Tolstoy be executed for the antimarital rantings of "The Kreutzer Sonata," while here in America an influential rabbi demanded to know, "What is being done to silence this man?" after Roth's attacks on Jewish suburbia in Goodbye, Columbus. And if it so happens that the Jews are wrong, and Hell exists, there can be no question that the author of Sabbath's Theater will spend eternity there.
But the chief reason that Roth is Tolstoy is that he, almost alone of our contemporary novelists, so insistently has Something to Say, and is prepared, at times, to forsake all his literary instincts in order to say it. Tolstoy's digressions in War and Peace on the mechanisms of history infuriated such early readers as Flaubert ("he repeats himself and he philosophises!"), as well as everyone since. After completing his masterpiece, Anna Karenina, Tolstoy for some time wrote only philosophical and religious tracts. As for Roth, who came dangerously close to turning his last, very powerful novel, The Human Stain, into a political rant against the Clinton impeachment, he too has for the moment dropped most pretenses to fiction and produced, with The Dying Animal, something far closer to an essay.
It is an essay, naturally, about sex. Lenin claimed that Tolstoy was the mirror of the Russian Revolution; for the past forty years, Roth has been the mirror of the sexual one. In his work, the contradictions of that libidinal revolt have found their fullest expression. During the 1960s, Roth hailed its arrival--indeed, three years after the 1969 publication of Portnoy's Complaint, Irving Howe could damningly suggest that Roth was "a man at ease with our moment." But Portnoy, Zuckerman and the rest have also testified eloquently to the costs of such freedom. You may shatter convention, Roth showed, but be warned that society (with its thuggish enforcer, the superego) has the resources to defend itself, with extreme prejudice.
The same paradigm fits the slim plot of The Dying Animal. The narrator, 70-year-old David Kepesh, is a cultural arbiter and professor who has systematically been sleeping with everyone, including and especially his students, since leaving his wife and child in the 1960s. You will perhaps object that Kepesh doesn't have any kids, and you'll be right. Roth has never been scrupulous with his characters' biographies--Zuckerman's childhood, for example, what with the boxing lessons and ping-pong in Swede Levov's basement and the Communism, is beginning to look awfully crowded--and in this case he outfits Kepesh, who appeared in two previous, rather mediocre outings as a hesitant philanderer in The Professor of Desire and as a giant breast in The Breast, with a more virile résumé and an abandoned son from a different first marriage. Nor does he bother to explain how the mammillary Kepesh turned himself back into a man.
But it's still the same Kepesh, of all Roth's narrators the dullest and most methodical. Even when he ceased to be a man, Kepesh was a most reasonable breast. He is reasonable still, as he catalogues his sexual habits, rules and arrangements; of an affair with a middle-aged former student, he explains: "It was a joint venture, our sexual partnership, that profited us both and that was strongly colored by Carolyn's crisp executive manner. Here pleasure and equilibrium combined." Given this regimented administration of his own happiness, it is naturally satisfying to see Kepesh--"the propagandist of fucking"--caught up in all the old emotions after an affair with a particularly stunning student. "This need," he moans, referring not to lust but to attachment. "This derangement. Will it never stop?"
But before everyone runs out to buy this paean to the triumph of the bourgeois spirit, they should be warned that Roth takes Kepesh far more seriously than this plot summary indicates--takes him at his word. It should even be noted--if I may be allowed a quick critical crudity--that Kepesh's style is the closest among his narrators to the style of Roth's own essays and memoirs. His concerns are Roth's, and he shares many of the master's ideas about the world. For Kepesh is not merely a reflection of the sexual revolution, but also its historian.
And here I must stop myself--it is so easy to make fun of Roth. Sixty-eight years old and again with the sex. When Tolstoy published his attack on physical love in "The Kreutzer Sonata," young wits suggested that the Count's own kreutzer might be out of order. It is easy, in other words, to make fun of old men. I myself have done so. I thought--it seems to be the general consensus--that sex for Roth was a device with which to propel his fictions; that he could have used cars, or whales, or sports, and chose sex merely because it was historically ripe, as a subject, and for the simpler reason that it was the quickest way to épater ye olde bourgeoisie. Diaphragm! Cunt! "The Raskolnikov of jerking off"!
I no longer think so. It seems obvious that at this point Roth can do little with sex that he hasn't done already (though he tries in The Dying Animal, he tries). This continued fixation is fictionally fallow--as Roth writes, baldly, in The Dying Animal, "You know you want it and you know you're going to do it and nothing is going to stop you. Nothing is going to be said here that's going to change anything." Since sex is, in this view, overdetermined, it's like writing about gravity. (In fact, not having sex is far more promising--one of the things it promises being future sex.)
Yet Roth persists, and after forty years it can only be because he believes sex the most important topic he could possibly tackle, and now more than ever. So this book demands that we approach it with a straight face, even when a straight face seems the least natural response. Kepesh, of course, is professorial, telling of the Merry Mount trading post in colonial Massachusetts, raided by the Puritans because it was a bad influence on the young. "Jollity and gloom," he quotes Hawthorne, "were contending for an empire." He is also empirical, a one-man research institute, reporting the number of times (one) that he was the beneficiary of oral sex in college in the 1950s, and clinically tracing the progress made in the interim: "The decades since the sixties have done a remarkable job of completing the sexual revolution. This is a generation of astonishing fellators. There's been nothing like them ever before among their class of young women."
If this seems deliberately offensive, it is part of the general urgency, even desperation, that pulses through this book. Roth is running out of time; he must tell you as quickly as possible, he must convince you to change your life. Now, Roth has always considered the sexual revolution in quasi-world-historical terms. "The massive late-sixties assault upon sexual customs," he told an interviewer in 1974,
came nearly twenty years after I myself hit the beach fighting for a foothold on the erotic homeland held in subjugation by the enemy. I sometimes think of my generation of men as the first wave of determined D-day invaders, over whose bloody, wounded carcasses the flower children subsequently stepped ashore to advance triumphantly toward that libidinous Paris we had dreamed of liberating as we inched inland on our bellies, firing into the dark.
This is sweet and funny and light--and wholly innocent, it seems, of the damage done.
There is no such lightness in The Dying Animal. When the same idea (Roth as sexual revolutionary vanguard) resurfaces, it has an embattled quality to it, as if Roth is no longer certain what has happened, or who won. "Look," says Kepesh, in his demotic, direct address:
I'm not of this age. You can see that. You can hear that. I achieved my goal with a blunt instrument. I took a hammer to domestic life and those who stand watch over it. And to [my son]'s life. That I'm still a hammerer should be no surprise. Nor is it a surprise that my insistence makes me a comic figure on the order of the village atheist to you who are of the current age and who haven't had to insist on any of this.
The shift in tone from the interview is remarkable. The confidence is gone; the winds of history are shifting. Not only have the young forgotten their benefactors, they've started to cede the freedoms won for them--"now even gays want to get married," says Kepesh. "I expected more from those guys." And the deflowered order has been replaced by a new form of surveillance, which Kepesh scrupulously documents during a student conference: "we sat side by side at my desk, as directed, with the door wide open to the public corridor, all eight of our limbs, our two contrasting torsos visible to every Big Brother of a passerby." The revolution for which Kepesh fought so ruthlessly has been betrayed.
Which is a well-known habit of revolutions. Roth might have predicted, in fact, that women could not merely come alive as autonomous sexual beings without also developing ways of defending themselves against groping professors. He might even have predicted that this defense would at times grow absurd, that it would seek regimentation not only for physical but for verbal relations, that it would create a vocabulary of misunderstanding so dense it may take the passing of an entire generation before men and women can speak to one another again.
That all this might have been predicted in no way suggests that Roth is wrong to raise his voice in protest. It is striking, indeed, that a writer forever accused of it has now turned himself so vehemently against vulgarity--against the very leveling and coarsening of our conversation. Toward the end of The Dying Animal, Roth's former lover is beset by tragedy: "She began telling me about how foolish all her little anxieties of a few months back now seemed, the worries about work and friends and clothes, and how this had put everything in perspective," says Kepesh, "and I thought, No, nothing puts anything in perspective."
No, because there is no privileged view, no heights from which to look. This is the endpoint of the nihilist's wisdom. And Roth, after a circle of great radius, comes again to look like Tolstoy, like a writer who turns the light of his reason upon all the expressions and conventions by which we thoughtlessly live. How out of place he seems at a time when most fiction, competent as it is, has taken to being demure about its own necessity; when most writers are such professionals. Updike, DeLillo, Pynchon, of his generation, are all at least as talented as Roth; DeLillo is as timely, as ready to philosophize and to use the word "America." But no one is as urgent, as committed to the communication of his particular human truth.
The Dying Animal is not a great work in the way that The Human Stain, American Pastoral, Operation Shylock and, especially, Sabbath's Theater were great works. But it completes the picture--the picture of what a writer can be. Where DeLillo's recent novella, The Body Artist, was remarkable for its departure from his customary mode, The Dying Animal is remarkable for its fealty to the ground Roth has always worked. It cedes nothing, apologizes for nothing; it deepens, thereby, the seriousness of all his previous books.
"Because [sex] is based in your physical being, in the flesh that is born and the flesh that dies," says Kepesh.
Only [during sex] are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself. It's not the sex that's the corruption--it's the rest. Sex isn't just friction and shallow fun. Sex is also the revenge on death. Don't forget death. Don't ever forget it. Yes, sex too is limited in its power. I know very well how limited. But tell me, what power is greater?
You could answer (virtuous reader), as you have answered Roth so many times before, that art, and its promise of eternity, is greater; or politics, and its promise of justice, is greater; or religion, and its promise of spiritual peace, is more powerful. You could answer Roth thus, but one of you would have to be lying.
They were kidnapped on the street, or summoned to the village square, or lured from home with false promises of work, to be forced into the Japanese military's far-flung, highly organized system of sexual slavery throughout its occupied territories in the 1930s and 1940s. Of some 200,000 so-called comfort women only a quarter survived their ordeal; many of those died soon after of injuries, disease, madness, suicide. For years the ones who remained were silent, living marginal lives. But beginning in 1991, first one, then a trickle, then hundreds of middle-aged and elderly women from Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines and other former Japanese possessions came forward demanding that the Japanese government acknowledge its responsibility, apologize and make reparations. Despite a vigorous campaign of international protest, with mass demonstrations in Korea and Taiwan, Japan has hung tough: In 1995 Prime Minister Tomiichi Muayama offered "profound"--but unofficial--apologies and set up a small fund to help the women, to be financed on a voluntary basis by business; this past March, the Hiroshima high court overturned a modest award to three Korean women. As if official foot-dragging weren't demeaning enough, a popular comic-book history of Japan alleges that the comfort women were volunteers, and ultraright-wing nationalists have produced middle-school textbooks, approved for use in classrooms, that omit any mention of the government's role in the comfort-woman program.
Frustrated in Japan, the comfort women have now turned to the US Court of Appeals for the Washington, DC, Circuit. Under the 212-year-old Alien Tort Claims Act, foreigners may sue one another in US courts for human rights violations; the women are also relying on a law against sexual trafficking passed last year by Congress. In mid-May, however, the State Department asked the Justice Department to file a brief expressing its sympathies with the women's sufferings but urging that the case be dismissed as lacking jurisdiction: Japan has sovereign immunity, under which nations agree to overlook each other's wrongdoings, and moreover, treaties between it and the United States put finis to claims arising from the war.
In other words, it's all right to seize girls and women and put them in rape camps--aka "comfort stations"--for the amusement of soldiers far from home, as long as it's part of official military policy. War is hell, as the trustees of the New School noted in their letter absolving their president, Bob Kerrey, of the killing of as many as twenty-one Vietnamese women and children. If it's OK to murder civilians, how wrong can it be to rape and enslave them?
"The Administration's position is particularly terrible and irresponsible when you consider the evolution of attitudes toward wartime rape over the last ten years," says Elizabeth Cronise, who with Michael Hausfeld is arguing the comfort women's case. Indeed, sexual violence in war has typically been regarded as the inevitable concomitant of battle, part of the spoils of war, maybe even, for the evolutionary-psychology minded, the point of it: Think of the rape of the Sabine women or the plot of the Iliad, which is precipitated by a fight between Achilles and Agamemnon over possession of the captured Trojan girls Chryseis and Briseis, although my wonderful old Greek professor Howard Porter didn't quite put it like that. It was only this past February that an international tribunal brought charges solely for war crimes of sexual violence, when three Bosnian Serbs were convicted in The Hague of organizing and participating in the rape, torture and sexual enslavement of Muslim women.
But even by these ghastly standards, the case of the comfort women stands out for the degree of planning and organization the Japanese military employed. Noting, for example, that subject populations tended to resent the rape of local women, authorities typically shipped the women far from home; although the women saw little or no money, "comfort stations" were set up as brothels with ethnically graduated fees, from Japanese women at the top to Chinese women at the bottom. The system was not, strictly speaking, a wartime phenomenon: It began in 1932, with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, and continued after the war's end. In fact, according to Yoshimi Yoshiaki, whose Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War II (Columbia) is crucial reading, the Japanese military authorities set up comfort stations for the conquering American troops. As Cronise points out, even if the United States has closed the books on Japan's wartime atrocities, it could still side with the comfort women on the grounds that many of them were enslaved during peacetime.
"The government's position is technically defensible," says Widney Brown, advocacy director for women's rights at Human Rights Watch. "What's not defensible is the Department of Justice's giving as a reason that it doesn't want to jeopardize relations with Japan." Incredibly, the Justice Department is arguing just that, along with the further self-interested point that a ruling in favor of the comfort women would open the United States to human rights lawsuits in other countries. (Remember that the United States has sabotaged the International Criminal Court.) Says Brown, "It shows a failure to understand the significance of the comfort women case as a major step in the development of human rights for women. After all, their case could have been brought up in the Far East tribunal right after World War II, but it wasn't. This is a major chance to move beyond that. You could even argue that the view of women as property--if not of one man, then another--was what prevented sexual slavery from being seen as a war crime until now."
The US lawsuit may well be the comfort women's last chance. Now in their 70s and 80s, most will soon be dead, and since few married or had children, there won't be many descendants to continue the fight for reparations. By stonewalling, the Japanese government will have won. And the Bush Administration will have helped it. All that's missing is the call for healing and mutual forgiveness.
Once in a while you come across a book that is so original, so persuasive, so meticulously researched and documented that it overrides some of your most taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs. Devices and Desires is such a work. The author, Andrea Tone, associate professor of history at Georgia Tech, belongs to a small band of new historians who are reassessing the lives of nineteenth-century women through attention to their personal (and I do mean very personal) health aids. An earlier example would be Rachel Maines's The Technology of Orgasm, published by Johns Hopkins in 1999, which describes and illustrates the 1880s-style vibrators that doctors freely used in their offices--and women in their homes--for relief of pelvic congestion and the female "hysteria" associated with it.
Devices and Desires opens in 1873 when, through the machinations of Anthony Comstock--star agent for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV)--Congress unexpectedly voted to make contraceptives illegal. Many Americans disapproved, and when the news reached Ireland, George Bernard Shaw coined the word "Comstockery," which, he predicted, would become "the world's standing joke at the expense of the United States."
It may be that talk of the new law made contraception known to some folks who had never heard of it before. It may be that, as with Eve's forbidden fruit, the ban made pregnancy prevention seem more alluring or naughty--or more fun. Then too, the "bootleg" business environment that ensued was relatively welcoming to entrepreneurial immigrants, smart single mothers with families to support and other ambitious "outsiders." "As with condoms," Tone observes, "creating diaphragms was easy and inexpensive, an ideal venture for those with little money and a penchant for risk." In any case the business of contraception flourished in the Comstock era, embracing scores of diverse devices and spermicides for women and men. Hundreds if not thousands of small entrepreneurs and distributors profited, as did as an impressive handful of industrial giants, including the arch-hypocrite Samuel Colgate, millionaire heir to the New Jersey-based soap firm, who served as president of Comstock's NYSSV while openly promoting Vaseline to "destroy spermatozoa, without injury to the uterus or vagina."
Other well-established companies that made, distributed and freely advertised contraceptives--ranging from intrauterine devices (IUDs) to vaginal pessaries (appliances intended to support the uterus that could also prevent the passage of sperm), and from douching syringes, suppositories and foaming tablets to sponges and male caps--included some still familiar names: B.F. Goodrich, Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Goodyear. "The B.F. Goodrich Company," notes Tone, "manufactured three soft-rubber IUDs--one pear- and two donut-shaped, each available in five sizes--and twelve hard-rubber models. Two of the latter models were one-size-fits-all rings." Physicians were leading players in the commercialization of mass-produced IUDs--constructed from rubber, metal, ivory and even wood--although some models were promoted for do-it-yourself insertion.
Tone's exhaustive research led her--like an ace detective or shoe-leather crime reporter--through an eight-year coast-to-coast investigation of Post Office Department records, Federal Trade Commission transcripts (some with decaying diaphragms and condoms glued to the pages), American Medical Association (AMA) Health Fraud Archives, records of the NYSSV, credit reports from nineteenth-century Dun and Co. collections, patents, love letters, arrest records, trial records, advertisements and trade catalogues--as well as "entrapment" letters, some drafted by Comstock himself. (He or another agent would pose as being in desperate need of birth control, get the goods and make the arrest.) Established companies, Tone discovered, run by "honest, brave men" who supported Comstock and NYSSV, were never targets for such treatment, which was reserved for smaller entrepreneurs--especially immigrants ("sly" Jews) and women ("old she villains").
Even so, many of those arrested were let off or punished lightly, while the entrapping agents and prosecutors ran the risk of being scolded and humiliated by judges and juries who doubted the advisability, and constitutionality, of such far-reaching Congressional interference into personal matters. Over time, what Tone calls a "zone of tolerance" was created to buffer the flourishing contraceptives trade and its practitioners. In fact, Shaw's prediction that Comstockery would become a "standing joke" was soon realized here in the United States, even, it would seem, in Congress itself.
The hugely ambitious Comstock Act, however, was hardly about contraceptives alone. It stated:
No obscene, lewd or lascivious book, pamphlet, picture, paper, print or other publication of an indecent character, or any article or thing designed to be intended for the prevention of conception or the inducing of abortion, nor any article or thing intended or adapted for any indecent or immoral use or nature, nor any written or printed card, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement or notice of any kind giving information, directly or indirectly, where, or how, or of whom, or by what means either of the things mentioned may be obtained or made...shall be carried in the mail.
You do the math. A small army of Post Office inspectors (known as special agents) were required to enforce such an effort. But Congress refused to drum up a serious budget for the measure when Comstock went into effect and made light of the ambitious national program by raising the number of inspectors--nationwide--from fifty-nine to only sixty-three. Looking at the postal arrest figures from May 1875 through April 1876, Tone counted a total of 410 apprehensions, of which only twenty-seven were for violations of the Comstock law.
Nonetheless, in later generations we took it for granted that from passage of the Comstock Act until the post-World War I rise of Margaret Sanger, the average American had little or no access to what we now call "family planning" (a term, Tone informs us, suggested in the 1960s by Malcolm X--"because Negroes [are] more willing to plan than to be controlled"). And while it's true that some of the contraceptives available at the time were ineffective, dangerous or both, others, including condoms, cervical caps (apt to be euphemistically advertised as pessaries in the Comstock era), diaphragms, sponges and some spermicides were often pretty good and relatively inexpensive. Tone notes that in this sea of alternatives many determined wives and husbands doubled, tripled or quadrupled on protection. Given this environment, it's not surprising that after 1880 the national fertility rates for both white and black women declined rapidly, reaching an all-time low in 1940--twenty years before Enovid, the first birth-control pill, came to market and only three years after the AMA's 1937 resolution to "endorse" contraception and recommend it for inclusion in the standard medical school curriculum.
Between 1880 and 1940 the average fertility rate of whites dropped from 4.4 children per woman to 2.1. For blacks it dropped from 7.5 children to 3. Given these incontrovertible facts--a flourishing contraceptives industry paired with a steady decline in births--how could we have come to believe otherwise, that our great and great-great grandmothers were, so to speak, up the fertility creek without a paddle?
Some of the historical distortion must be attributed to the work of Margaret Sanger, who originally dreamed of female empowerment through woman-oriented contraceptive technologies. She viewed birth control as a woman's right and responsibility, and wrote in 1922 that "the question of bearing and rearing children is the concern of the mother and potential mother.... No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body." Condoms "compromised this objective by placing women's procreative destiny in men's hands." Until her death in 1966 Sanger promoted the manufacture first of diaphragms and later the pill, never quite answering objections from other feminists--in the 1920s and again in the 1960s--that this transferred power over women's bodies to doctors who were overwhelmingly (in the case of gynecologists, 97 percent) male. Sanger came to believe so strongly in medically controlled contraception that in a 1952 letter she stated that her greatest achievement had been "to keep the movement strictly and sanely under medical auspices."
This was an about-face from her earlier position. In her extraordinary 1915 pamphlet, Family Limitation, a home guide to contraception, Sanger, as Tone explains, "envisioned a world of grassroots birth control where women from all walks of life could use contraceptives without reliance on doctors, a populist approach she would soon abandon." Family Limitation discussed douches, condoms and cervical caps. (The essential difference between a pessary or cap and a diaphragm is that the generally thimble-shaped caps fit over the cervix by suction and are less likely to be displaced. The diaphragm, however, more or less divides the vagina vertically into two compartments, protecting the cervix from the arena where sperm is deposited. Both methods can benefit from outside help with fitting and correct technique, but the cap has a better record of over-the-counter success, and was long distributed by this means in France, England and the United States.) Sanger ultimately recommended caps, which she felt could be most easily and discreetly used and controlled by women. She distributed 100,000 copies of her pamphlet, imploring women to learn how to insert caps into their own bodies and then to "teach each other" how to as well.
When Sanger and her sister Ethel opened their first clinic in 1916 they instructed women, eight at a time, on how to use over-the-counter (OTC) contraceptives, including condoms, suppositories and rubber pessaries. When police, inevitably, raided the clinic, they found boxes of Mizpah pessaries. An effective OTC contraceptive, this flexible rubber cap was sold by druggists and mail-order vendors for the alleged purpose of treating such medical conditions as a displaced (or prolapsed) uterus. But as Tone writes: "Family Limitation got Sanger into more trouble. In 1915, she found herself back in Europe dodging American law while continuing her contraceptive education.... The trip across the Atlantic was risky. War had broken out." Back home, her husband, William Sanger, had his own problems. And as fate would have it, so did Anthony Comstock. William Sanger had been arrested by Comstock for distributing Family Limitation. And Comstock, who caught a cold in the courtroom during the trial, died soon after of pneumonia.
After her divorce from William, Margaret admitted she was looking for "a widower with money." James Noah Henry Slee, twenty years her senior, was "a well-heeled member of Manhattan's business elite...part of the same establishment Sanger had vilified in her younger, more radical years." They married in 1922 and with his backing, Tone explains,
Sanger embarked on a new chapter of her career, one that distanced the birth control movement from its radical origins and placed it on a more conservative path.... She recognized...that medical science enjoyed increasing prestige and political clout...she sought birth control allies through an ideology that trumpeted women's health over their civil liberties and cast doctors, not patients, as agents of contraceptive choice.
Sanger switched her preference to the diaphragm, particularly the Holland-Rantos brand, which sold exclusively to doctors. (This company, established in 1925, was funded by none other than Mr. Margaret Sanger, James Noah Henry Slee.) Sanger next prevailed on her besotted bridegroom to hire a distinguished, high-salaried doctor to promote their new company:
1925 is to be the big year for the break in birth control...the medical profession will take up the work...I shall feel that I have made my contribution to the cause and...I can withdraw from full-time activity.... If I am able to accomplish this victory...I shall bless my adorable husband, JNH Slee, and retire with him to the garden of love.
Sanger did not retire. In the following years she worked ceaselessly toward her goal of getting the AMA to endorse birth control. Her "signature" story, often bringing audiences to tears, concerned Sadie Sachs, a young immigrant mother of three, married to Jake, a truck driver. When Sadie begged a doctor to give her birth control he cruelly retorted, "Tell Jake to sleep on the roof." Sadie later died of septicemia following a self-induced abortion. Sanger was now in the business of helping the public forget that some of the widely available OTC methods worked very well for many people. As Tone points out, if Sadie could afford a physician visit, she could surely afford the far lower price of a contraceptive.
In addition to the move toward medicalization, our collective memory may have been dealt a brainwashing by panic-driven "eugenicists." As Sanger moved up socially she supported birth control for some elitist reasons, such as "the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives." But this was mild compared with the phobic reasoning of some of our greatest national leaders, who also feared the newcomers from Europe. Falling birthrates among our native born and the widespread immigration of foreigners from southern and eastern Europe (over 23 million people arrived on America's shores between 1880 and 1920) led Teddy Roosevelt to warn in 1912 that if middle-class American women used fertility control it "means racial death." In 1927 Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, our great champion of civil liberties, stunned many of his admirers when, in Buck v. Bell, he agreed to uphold a Virginia eugenics statute legalizing the coerced sterilization of "socially inadequate persons." Carrie Buck, the plaintiff, was young, single and white, the "daughter of an imbecile," the mother of an "illegitimate feeble minded child." Holmes agreed to the cutting of Buck's fallopian tubes, proclaiming, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." Tone adds that during the Nuremberg trials following World War II, accused Nazi war criminals cited Buck v. Bell to justify the forced sterilization of some 2 million Germans.
Here in the United States, the eugenics and population control movements promoted--and continue to promote--the need to develop contraceptives that take prescription (and often removal) out of the woman's hands. For example, in interviews with 686 low-income users of Norplant--a hormonal contraceptive, intended to last for five years, that consists of six matchstick-sized capsules implanted in a woman's arm--researchers at Columbia University's Center for Population and Family Health learned that 40 percent anticipated or experienced "cost barriers" that could impede the removal of Norplant. They urge that family-planning clinics "follow a policy of Norplant removal on demand, regardless of the patient's ability to pay." Some feminists charge that the effectiveness of OTC methods (carefully used) is still downplayed in quasi-official figures, a dangerous public health mistake in this age of galloping STDs.
Meanwhile, the effectiveness of doctor-controlled methods has been exaggerated, as the FDA has acknowledged. Previously, it gave out "ideal" figures for oral-contraceptive effectiveness, in contrast to discouraging clinic "use" figures for barrier methods. In the new round of product labeling this has been partially corrected; actual-use figures for the Pill are placed in a truthful range of 92-95 percent, not at the falsely optimistic 99 percent-plus.
Devices and Desires is replete with riveting histories of women and men who labored--legally and illegally--in the ever-challenging arena of conception control, from the Comstock era through today, and includes portraits of the men who developed Enovid, the first pill, as well as those behind the notorious IUD, the Dalkon shield. Those who read this fascinating book will have a far keener and more credible sense of what has happened and where we are now. Most women are still unsatisfied with their contraceptive choices, and as Tone concludes,
It is ironic that in a post-Roe v. Wade world that celebrates reproductive choice, the most frequently used contraceptive in the country--by a wide-margin--is female sterilization. In a very real sense Americans are still waiting for the heralded "second contraceptive revolution" to arrive.... In the absence of universal health care or prescription drug coverage, one way out of the contraceptive conundrum may be the development of more affordable over-the-counter methods, which would increase men's and women's options without tethering contraceptives to the medical marketplace from which millions are excluded.... Today to meet the needs of women and men who lack sufficient resources, we must supplement reliable medical methods with inexpensive over-the-counter options.
In the 1960s, the introduction of the Pill, revival of the ever-treacherous IUD and "stealth sterilization" of welfare moms--whose tubes were tied, without permission, after giving birth--placed contraception still more firmly in doctors' hands. In the parlance of that decade the "greasy kid stuff," including condoms, was left in the dust. Because of overpopulation fears, the new technologies enjoyed a diplomatic immunity--at women's expense. At an annual meeting of medical school deans, Nobel laureate Dr. Frederick Robbins declared, "The dangers of overpopulation are so great that we may have to use certain techniques of conception control that may entail considerable risk to the individual woman." Original Pills contained 150 micrograms of estrogen; today we know that 20 suffices. Millions of women served as guinea pigs for high-dose pills and IUDs, and thousands died. In 1970, at Senate hearings, Dr. Louis Hellman, chairman of the FDA advisory committee that twice declared the Pill safe, admitted that in his equation of benefit versus risk he "put population first, before benefits to the individual woman's health."
As women demanded to "take our bodies back" from deceitful doctors, the spirit of Comstock rose up again. In 1973 Our Bodies, Ourselves, Ellen Frankfort's Vaginal Politics and my book Free and Female were banned in Cleveland and Washington, DC. In 1979 shipments of cervical caps that independent women's self-help clinics imported from England were seized by FDA agents. Senator Ted Kennedy helped to get the caps released, but the FDA restricted their use to "investigational device" (ludicrous--the same caps had been in continuous use in England for a century), thus subverting the grassroots revival of the cap. Who can say who put the FDA up to this, but perhaps some future Andrea Tone-type women's history sleuth will get to the bottom of it.
Meanwhile, one of my hopes for Tone's extraordinary book is that it might encourage many people--men as well as women--to reconsider the barrier methods, respect them more and possibly learn to enjoy them, as some say they do. In contrast to the steady decline of teenage pregnancy, the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases in young adults is increasing at a truly alarming rate. For example, estimates are that 46 percent of female college students are now infected with human papilloma virus (HPV), which can cause both genital warts and cervical cancer. Are student health services reliably advising their clients of this? My informants say no.
Enslave your girls and women, harbor anti-US terrorists, destroy
every vestige of civilization in your homeland, and the Bush
Administration will embrace you. All that matters is that you line up as
an ally in the drug war, the only international cause that this nation
still takes seriously.
That's the message sent with the recent gift of $43 million to the
Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, the most virulent anti-American violators
of human rights in the world today. The gift, announced last Thursday by
Secretary of State Colin Powell, in addition to other recent aid, makes
the United States the main sponsor of the Taliban and rewards that "rogue regime"
for declaring that opium growing is against the will of God. So, too, by
the Taliban's estimation, are most human activities, but it's the ban on
drugs that catches this administration's attention.
Never mind that Osama bin Laden still operates the leading
anti-American terror operation from his base in Afghanistan, from which,
among other crimes, he launched two bloody attacks on American embassies
in Africa in 1998.
Sadly, the Bush Administration is cozying up to the Taliban regime at
a time when the United Nations, at US insistence, imposes sanctions on
Afghanistan because the Kabul government will not turn over Bin Laden.
The war on drugs has become our own fanatics' obsession and easily
trumps all other concerns. How else could we come to reward the Taliban,
who has subjected the female half of the Afghan population to a continual
reign of terror in a country once considered enlightened in its treatment
At no point in modern history have women and girls been more
systematically abused than in Afghanistan where, in the name of madness
masquerading as Islam, the government in Kabul obliterates their
fundamental human rights. Women may not appear in public without being
covered from head to toe with the oppressive shroud called the
burkha , and they may not leave the house without being accompanied by
a male family member. They've not been permitted to attend school or be
treated by male doctors, yet women have been banned from practicing
medicine or any profession for that matter.
The lot of males is better if they blindly accept the laws of an
extreme religious theocracy that prescribes strict rules governing all
behavior, from a ban on shaving to what crops may be grown. It is this
last power that has captured the enthusiasm of the Bush White House.
The Taliban fanatics, economically and diplomatically isolated, are at
the breaking point, and so, in return for a pittance of legitimacy and
cash from the Bush Administration, they have been willing to appear to
reverse themselves on the growing of opium. That a totalitarian country
can effectively crack down on its farmers is not surprising. But it is
grotesque for a US official, James P. Callahan, director of the State
Department's Asian anti-drug program, to describe the Taliban's special
methods in the language of representative democracy: "The Taliban used a
system of consensus-building," Callahan said after a visit with the
Taliban, adding that the Taliban justified the ban on drugs "in very
Of course, Callahan also reported, those who didn't obey the
theocratic edict would be sent to prison.
In a country where those who break minor rules are simply beaten on
the spot by religious police and others are stoned to death, it's
understandable that the government's "religious" argument might be
compelling. Even if it means, as Callahan concedes, that most of the
farmers who grew the poppies will now confront starvation. That's because
the Afghan economy has been ruined by the religious extremism of the
Taliban, making the attraction of opium as a previously tolerated quick
cash crop overwhelming.
For that reason, the opium ban will not last unless the United States is
willing to pour far larger amounts of money into underwriting the Afghan
As the Drug Enforcement Administration's Steven Casteel admitted, "The
bad side of the ban is that it's bringing their country--or certain
regions of their country--to economic ruin." Nor did he hold out much
hope for Afghan farmers growing other crops such as wheat, which require
a vast infrastructure to supply water and fertilizer that no longer
exists in that devastated country. There's little doubt that the Taliban
will turn once again to the easily taxed cash crop of opium in order to
stay in power.
The Taliban may suddenly be the dream regime of our own war drug war
zealots, but in the end this alliance will prove a costly failure. Our
long sad history of signing up dictators in the war on drugs demonstrates
the futility of building a foreign policy on a domestic obsession.
The recent New York Times front-page headline "Scientists Say Gay Change Is Possible" left me somewhat bemused.