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Speech is a form of power. Sara Blakeslee Chase was a little known sex radical who was trained in homeopathic medicine and touted the benefits of voluntary motherhood, or small families. After her lectures she often sold contraceptive syringes.


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And the Illinois physician Dr. Alice B. During the latter, men practiced male continence, or coitus reservatus, which Oneida founder John Humphrey Noyes considered more pleasurable, contraceptive, and generally healthy for men, as semen loss was thought to provoke anxiety. Most free lovers, however, did not believe in complex marriage as practiced by the Oneidans.

Instead, they advocated for looser divorce laws and self-generated marriage contracts.

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Less concerned with free sex than with equal rights, free lovers supported the idea of egalitarian marriage, with fair division of work, and consensual, sometimes non-procreative sex. The movement, which had taken off in the s, grew out of abolitionist principles: women were not to be enslaved by men, the church, or the government. From its inception, free love was closely linked with Spiritualism—the idea that living people could commune with the dead.

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As for sexuality, Spiritualists believed that a man and woman could have a spiritual affinity for each other, an attraction based on complementary auras. To free lovers, this bond was superior to the marital bond. As they had in their rural communities, they wanted to protect young men from temptation in the city, guiding them to lead pious lives among pious women. Interestingly, social purists social being a euphemism for sexual aligned with free lovers on certain issues.

Both opposed the sexual double standard, which held that women were expected to be faithful but men were not, though the one side proposed male fidelity and the other polyandry as the solution.

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Once Craddock returned to Philadelphia after seeing the belly dance, she felt inspired to write an essay in its defense. She sent it to the World, where it was published as part of a roundup of commentary on the dance. Comstock was too sensitive in the matter, he and the good old ladies who were so shocked. They might have seen worse dances on a Saturday night in New York, dances where real evil is meant. She was writing as a representative not of dance or Catholicism, but of phallic worship. Popular with European religious scholars, this area of scholarship examined the use of priapic symbols in world religions.

If husband and wife moved their hips like belly dancers during sex, and orgasmed spiritually, they would have heightened pleasure and fewer unwanted babies. The Cairo Street Theatre was the first place where the marriage reformer and special agent would cross paths, but not the last. Their confrontations would span another nine years. The Quaker-educated, Philadelphia-born Craddock and the Congregationalist, Connecticut-born Comstock, only thirteen years apart in age, represented two poles of the rapidly changing American identity: woman and man, modernist and traditionalist, urban and rural, feminist and guardian of the family.

That summer in the White City, they may have sat in the Cairo Street Theatre for the same performance and not known it.

How anthony comstock, enemy to women of the gilded age, attempted to ban contraception

He would go on to circle her in three other states. Their dance would end in bloodshed, and only one would survive. Craddock was one of many women who challenged the Comstock laws in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth. New ideas about money, class, gender, and sex were circulating after the Civil War.

Women, who were disproportionately harmed by poverty, unwanted parenthood, lack of employment, and low wages, could only stand to gain by challenging the status quo. Could, and should, motherhood be chosen? Was a wife obligated to have sex whenever her husband wanted? Were women to accept serial infidelity on the part of their men, including infidelity with prostitutes? Could they decide when to make love, and when not to? Could they work outside of the home? And if they did, should they be paid the same as men?

The women who fought the Comstock laws could be categorized as sex reformers, though this book will use the term sex radicals to avoid confusion with more Puritan-minded reform efforts. Alongside Craddock, they included the suffragist, broker, publisher, and presidential candidate Victoria C. Sara B. Chase; the anarchist and labor organizer Emma Goldman; and the birth control activist Margaret Sanger, whose friend Otto Bobsein coined the phrase birth control in her Manhattan apartment in Their more mainstream male peers did not always support them, often distancing themselves from their frank speech and bold writing, while conservative suffragists were terrified by their edgy ideas about sex.

The man who hated women: sex, censorship, and civil liberties in the gilded age

Some sex radicals focused on the terrors of unwanted pregnancy, some on the inverse relationship between terror and pleasure. What could enlightened, free-loving men do to help women enjoy sex? Was it possible that contraceptive practices such as male continence could increase joy for women by extending the act?

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The sex radicals believed it was not fair for men to have orgasms when women did not, or for men to rape their wives or any other women. They thought sex should be loving, bonded, and sensual. Mutuality would lead to respect, equality, and reasonably sized families.

The idea of contraception, then as now, was not only about the body. It was about pleasure: How could a woman enjoy sex when she lived in terror of pregnancy and life-threatening childbirth? It was women who took responsibility for the raising of children; additional babies were harder on the mothers than the fathers. What makes the Comstock women all the more remarkable is that they did their agitating, writing, and speaking out against him at a time when women did not have the right to vote though Comstock was appointed and could not be voted out of his position.

In court, their fates were decided by men; women were not appointed to judgeships until and could not serve on federal juries until Angela and Ezra Heywood were abolitionists before they came to their free love ideas. Woodhull, Heywood, and Craddock identified as Spiritualists, claiming they could communicate with the dead.

The Heywoods agitated for fair wages and civil, nonreligious marriages in their widely read journal, The Word, and at conventions of the New England Free Love League. At the time of their arrests for Comstock law violations, the women were as young as twenty-seven and as old as sixty-five. None took reproduction lightly; one had an intellectually disabled son. Woodhull lived with present and former husbands and children; Craddock, alone; Lohman, with her adult grandchildren.

Goldman, who inspired tens of thousands with her rousing speeches, was in a decadelong dysfunctional relationship with her philandering manager.

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Facing down Comstock, postal inspectors, and Vice Society agents, the women were unafraid and willing to be imprisoned for their cause. Nearly all were impoverished and could not afford their legal fees. The fact that several were past middle age when Comstock pursued them—and still they fought—shows their resilience. It is no coincidence that nearly all were writers. They were products of a rich period of radical publishing, when the nationally read journals where their names appeared enjoyed wide circulation.

Nothing Comstock tried—arresting them multiple times; illegally baiting them with so-called test letters that tricked them into breaking the law; harassing them; searching their homes; menacing them in the courtroom—could deter them. Yet the sex radicals are not as well-known as the suffragists Susan B. Many were outcasts because they were outspoken about sex. They believed in plain speech, using terms such as vagina, penis, semen, and clitoris. They arrived at their views through direct experience with rape, child marriage, alcoholic partners, and poverty, and they used autobiography to advance their political views.

They made the personal political. Though four of them were nurses or health practitioners, they lacked the medical clout of the twentieth-century sex pioneers Dr. Alfred Kinsey or Dr. William Masters. Many were self-taught or educated outside of the traditional medical colleges and societies that were founded by, and for, men. Their writing was explicit and detailed, in an era when men found libidinous women alternately terrifying or titillating, but rarely enlightening. Goldman located the necessity for birth control in the context of economic oppression, while Sanger moved away from such a class-based justification in order to broaden its appeal.

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Sanger believed in, and popularized, the idea that women were different from men, and could coalesce to fight for what they deserved as a group, as a gender. If anything, they could be accused of being too idealistic about sex—they elevated it, believing in its power to unite man and woman. If marriage were reconceptualized as a romantic institution, entered into on the basis of love instead of money, it could yield greater liberty for women.

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Though most were not scientists, they had an earnest, scientific view of sex. Energy was exchanged.

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Currents went back and forth. Many free lovers viewed sex as an exchange of electric or magnetic forces—dubbed magnetation. Nudity could increase intimacy. If only women could be in charge of sex! If men listened to women, families would be stronger; if reasonable people married reasonably, there would be fewer unwanted children.

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Or it is perhaps more accurate to say that Comstock, in various reincarnations, is still alive today.


As late as , the American legal system was not hospitable to the idea of birth control.