Wanted! Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) for crimes against women and nonbinary people in 2024

๐ŸŒฑ Old Men & Old Laws Shrinking Womenโ€™s Freedoms Today

Part II: Old Laws Trap US in Patriarchy

Sam Chavez
Sam Chavez

Table of Contents

๐Ÿค“ Bite-Sized: The Comstock Act, passed in 1873, is being resurrected to regulate abortion in the mail and regulate our access to information and medicine.

In Case You Missed It: A Reluctant Electorate & The State of Abortion

What You Can Expect
๐Ÿค  Comstock, Abortion, & Project 2025
๐ŸŒฑ Slow Change as Radical
๐ŸŒฑ Tribal Climate Resilience
๐ŸŒฑ Instagram's New Political Filters
๐Ÿ’ฉ The Enshitification of the Internet Explained

History's patterns are always fascinating. Whenever I encounter a particularly abhorrent period in U.S. history, there is always a creepy dude making society-wide decisions that he has no business making. Today it is a creepy dude with an orange complexion and wig plus his pals in robes, but he is not the first.

Enter Anthony Comstock, a rotund gentleman with bushy muttonchops and a deep affection for his rural Christian mother. He stumbled into post-Civil War New York City with $3.45 in his pocket and deep puritanical beliefs. This proved to be too much for Greenwich Village where erotica, saloons, prostitution, and dirty bookstores were plentiful. In his view, young men were coming from rural America and being lured "to waste their time and money and imperil their health and character." He was able to channel his horror into work when the YMCA took him under their wing. The Young Men Christian Association, at the time, was run by wealthy men in the city (think Morgan of the J.P. variety) who wanted to see Christian values cemented in the U.S. (sound familiar?!). Comstock's deep revulsion to sex, women, and erotica was a helpful tool to enact their agenda. Comstock led the Committee of Obscene Literature before being appointed as U.S. Postal Inspector in 1873 and created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

Wait...why are we talking about this old guy from the Top Hat days? If you can believe it, the law he helped pass in 1873, the Comstock Act, is being resurrected from the grave to harm women and gender-nonconforming people today.

Most of the research for today's newsletter is from the book 'The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age' by Amy Sohn.

The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, and Civil Libโ€ฆ
Author Amy Sohn presents a narrative history of Anthonyโ€ฆ

The Comstock Act

The Comstock Act is a sweeping obscenity law that bars selling anything considered "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" as well as distributing "papers," or literature, through the mail. These laws gave the post office broad powers to fine and arrest anyone who they consider breaking the law. And Anthony Comstock took every advantage of the law that he could. In the first twenty years, the Comstock Act was responsible for the arrest of 2,000 people, 100,000+ fines, 100,00 sex toys or contraceptives, and 4,000 boxes of abortion medication. The prudishness, control, and repression of the law have suppressed women's rights, and sexual liberation, and kept the U.S. more puritanical for over a century.

The story of how the law was passed is just as bad as its consequences. The Comstock Act was passed in the middle of the night without a quorum. We have no record of the Senate vote, but the law was signed by President Grant on March 3, 1873. To celebrate their victory, one Congressman praised the law saying "The purity and beauty of womanhood has been no protection from the insults of this trade." The classic creepy dude playbook to tie repressive laws to the purity of womanhood and claim they are the real champions of women, not the...you know...women themselves.

So to recap, the law that became the most harmful law for progressive thought until Joseph McCarthy said "Hold my beer" was snuck through Congress without majority support. Another story of how progressive thought is squashed in the U.S. by fearful men who know their views are unpopular, but force their agenda anyway.

Why Is This Relevant Today?

Despite many attempts to repeal the law while Comstock was still alive, the law became dormant and unused once he fell from grace in the early 20th century and the country became more progressive.

Now a few skeletons are attempting to bring back this old law and use the right-wing Supreme Court to restrict and control women's autonomy, or frankly, anyone who's not a rich white man. Their plan, which is painstakingly laid out in their Project 2025 plans for a Trump presidency, would ban the sending of any medications, equipment, or information about abortion in the mail. That includes abortion pills (which the right interestingly calls 'chemical abortions' to sow fear despite it being safer than Tylenol) for anyone who needs them. Yes, even in blue states! Californians and New Yorkers won't be protected if they enact their agenda.

But it goes way beyond abortion pills. It also includes the medical instruments that doctors use for abortions. So pretty much any hospital or clinic that is shipping supplies in the mail. The law itself is incredibly broad and open to interpretation by MAGA judges to ban information and supplies for abortion as well as gender-affirming care, contraception, women's health, and so much more. They can use one old law, the Comstock Act, to completely ban all abortions and not only take us back to the 1950s coat-hanger days but even further back to when women had no political representation or social capital.

โ€œDobbs was never self-limiting to abortionโ€”it was a save-the-date card for the religious rightโ€™s plan to come for the rest of our reproductive freedoms.โ€œ

And they can all do this through one of my favorite public utilities, the US Postal Service. Remember when we were trying to press President Biden to get rid of Lewis DeJoy as Postmaster General? He's still there.

It's About More than Abortion

Another piece of the Comstock Act that is going underreported is its ability to suppress information as well as medications or medical equipment. It feels ominous that the right wing is attempting to control the mail at the same time as they are consolidating social media and tech companies.

Comstock called the U.S. mail "the greatest thoroughfare of communication leading up into all our homes, schools, and colleges. It is the most powerful agent, to assist this nefarious business, because it goes everywhere and is secret" - The Man Who Hated Women

Wait until he hears about social media and the internet! It is not a coincidence that the conversations on Capital Hill about the TikTok legislation are about selling to a U.S. company rather than outright banning it. They have seen how successful Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter has been and are keen on replicating that with the most successful app on the planet. TikTok might not be the most pressing issue for Congress, but we must be clear about the ripple effects and bad intentions. I'll of course caveat that there are of course plenty of other reasons to be concerned about TikTok and we really just need social media regulations.

Next week we're wrapping up our Women's History Month series to discuss the canaries in the coal mine and how we can use past activists to lead by example.

Enjoy this article? Subscribe for the full series. This writing is part of a monthly series to help navigate ๐Ÿงญ social change activism in today's uncertain world.

Getting to the roots - evaluating the news with a social change lens
  • ๐Ÿ“š Slow Change Can Be Radical Change - Rebecca Solnit has a great reflection on what it takes to create change.
    • ๐Ÿค“ The Root ๐ŸŒฑ - โ€œBecause the job is not to know; itโ€™s to become.โ€ Change takes time and it starts within each of us.
  • ๐Ÿ“š Funding Tribal Climate Resilience - The Biden administrationโ€™s Department of the Interior announced that it will fund 146 tribal climate resilience projects worth $120 million
    • ๐Ÿค“ The Root ๐ŸŒฑ - Deb Holland keeps delivering as the first indigenous Interior Secretary! This yearโ€™s election is also about keeping people like Deb Holland in government.
  • ๐Ÿ“š The Billionaire Turning Texas Into a Christian Theocracy - Ever wonder why Texas is way more conservative than its voters? Tim Dunn and over $10 million in donations in 2 years have a lot to do with it.
    • ๐Ÿค“ The Root ๐ŸŒฑ - โ€œIt was not a thumb on the scaleโ€”it was flat extortion.โ€ Texas deserves to be a democracy. Next year we could pass democracy reform if we work hard to volunteer and vote this year!
  • ๐ŸŽฌ Is Your IG Content Set to Limited? - Instagram (and Threads) quietly added a filter to limit political content for all users. Have you checked your settings?
    • ๐Ÿค“ The Root ๐ŸŒฑ - Congressโ€™ TikTok ban feels like an attempt to limit free speech and suppress information to the public. Meta and Twitter arenโ€™t great in US billionaire hands.

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About the roots of change agency โ€” Navigating heart-first activism & storytelling. We explore the ๐ŸŒฑ roots of our world to support organizations and activists ๐Ÿฅต avoid burnout and ๐Ÿ“š tell empathetic stories that cultivate connections that ๐ŸŒ empower โœŠ๐Ÿฝ social change. Donate to support our work.

Next Up

๐ŸŒฑ Abortion, IVF, & Comstock | Believe the Canary in the Coal Mine
Part III: The State of Abortion & Freedom
๐ŸŒฑ๐Ÿšฎ Defeating Patriarchy๐Ÿ‘จโ€๐Ÿ‘ฉโ€๐Ÿ‘งโ€๐Ÿ‘ฆ for activists & heart-first humans ๐ŸŒฑ๐Ÿ—ผ๐Ÿ—ž: Newsletter

Sam Chavez

Sam is a writer, strategist, and curious human. She founded the roots of change agency in 2020. Sam is a queer, white, LatinX activist whoโ€™s passionate about a livable planet & equitable societies.


Navigating heart-first activism & storytelling. We explore the ๐ŸŒฑ roots of our world to support communicators, organizations, and activists ๐Ÿฅต to avoid burnout and ๐Ÿ“š tell empathetic stories that cultivate connections that ๐ŸŒ empower โœŠ๐Ÿฝ social change.

Learn more about the Roots of Change Agency.