Reading this past week reminds me of my favorite Yogi Berra quote: “It’s like deja vu all over again.”
After more than two years of obsessively thinking about a pandemic and the vaccines associated with it, I suddenly remembered being a 6-year-old girl waiting for a vaccine against another pandemic, all because of reading Polio: An American Story by David Oshinski. If the mention of this book also gives you a sense of déjà vu, it might be because Joe Bernt reviewed the book in this column earlier this year.
I’m reading “Polio” because it will be discussed by members of Cannon Beach Reads via Zoom, at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, August 17. Lila Wickham, who has spent many years as a public health nurse, will lead the discussion.
Oshinsky, who is currently director of the division of medical humanities at NYU School of Medicine and a professor in NYU’s history department, won the Pulitzer Prize in history for the book in 2006. It describes the panic caused by poliomyelitis and chronicles the competition between Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin to develop a vaccine. In the process, Oshinsky explains how the response to the polio outbreak has changed government involvement in vaccine testing and licensing.
If you would like to participate in the “polio” discussion or just sit down, contact Joe Bernt at [email protected] for the Zoom link. Cannon Beach Reads is open to everyone. New participants are always welcome.
I taught women’s studies in a past life, so I expected to get a “done” reaction when I read a recent addition to the library, “The Man Who Hated Women: Sex , Censorship and Civil Liberties in the Golden Age”, by Amy Sohn. I was pleasantly surprised, however, because Sohn brings up figures that have tended to be overlooked by historians and offers a new perspective on issues that are still debated today.
The man who hates women in the title of the book is Anthony Comstock, whose name appears on the 1873 law which, until 1957, limited the type of information that could be sent by American post office.
Sohn, a novelist and former journalist, paints a fascinating picture of Comstock, but what I found even more compelling were Sohn’s portrayals of sometimes flamboyant, often eccentric, and always courageous women who risked fines, jail and sometimes their very lives to fight the law. and Comstock itself.
Because the postal system was the primary vehicle for sharing information in 1873, the Comstock Act proved a very effective method of censorship in a turbulent America.
The economy was in depression. Young men and women were leaving the purity of rural America for the temptations of city life. Young women aspired to careers rather than marriage. Immigration was on the rise and radical ideas like free love, anarchism, Marxism and women’s suffrage were in the air. Leaders of polite society have sought ways to combat these dangerous tendencies and ideas. Enter Anthony Comstock.
Comstock, a devout and puritanical farm boy from Connecticut who came to New York to seek work, was horrified by the “immorality” he encountered in the big city. In the face of temptation himself, he came to believe that the only way to maintain a moral population was to keep people – especially impressionable young men and all women – away from lewd and lewd information. , obscenity being defined very broadly.
Embracing Victorian ideas about women, Comstock believed that the only proper roles for women were as pure, obedient wives and mothers in need of protection from any information having to do with sex.
Comstock saw the potential of using the post to restrict information and responded eagerly when leaders of the YMCA movement recruited him to lead the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and to lobby Congress to what would become the Comstock Act of 1873.
The Comstock Act made it illegal to send obscene or lewd material, which the law expanded to include information and devices related to reproduction and contraception. Comstock was appointed as a postal inspector with the power to issue search warrants and arrest those caught sending suspicious material.
He turned out to be a zealous worker, who for four decades led his own reign of terror. Using pseudonyms, he wrote to the unsuspecting targets of his investigations, asking them to send him information, then expressed his joy when they were sentenced to hard labor and heavy fines if they complied.
Comstock faced resistance from several women whom Sohn calls “sex radicals.” According to Sohn, although these women made significant contributions to the fight for civil liberties, they were ignored in stories written about feminism or women’s health or the progressive movement because they were a bit too colorful or too sex-oriented or too outside the mainstream. thinking.
Sohn uses her storytelling skills to create captivating sketches of, among others, stockbroker and early presidential candidate Victoria Woodhull; homeopathic practitioner Sara B. Chase; free love supporter Angela Heywood; anarchist and labor organizer Emma Goldman; and birth control advocate Margaret Sanger.
These women refused to be silenced by the Comstock Act, repeatedly, and sometimes happily, sending books, articles and magazines that championed women’s rights in marriage and in society, provided explicit information on contraception and criticized Comstock for making no distinction between obscene material mailed by coal peddlers and vital medical information provided by physicians.
The resulting high-profile and often authoritarian trials of these sex radicals attracted media attention, which helped shift public opinion and, ultimately, judicial decisions. Sohn argues that the actions of these sexual radicals paved the way for many of the freedoms we now enjoy, and she argues that the stories of these women are especially relevant now because the freedoms they fought for are still being contested. So, I guess it’s still déjà vu after all.
“The Man Who Hated Women” was one of Smithsonian Magazine’s “10 Best History Books of 2021.”