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Against Obscenity: Reform and the Politics of Womanhood in America, 1873-1935 (Reconfiguring American political history)

Leigh Ann Wheeler.
Published by Johns Hopkins Press in 2004

Conventional historical opinion depicts late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century anti-obscenity moral reformers as sanctimonious Puritans who considered sex an unpleasant necessity and open discussions of it loathsome and harmful. Yet this small band of self-righteous prigs exerted a disproportionately large amount of influence over the American public by manipulating the legal system successfully through federal and state legislation to coerce conformity to their antiquated Victorian morality. Certain moral reformers, most notoriously Anthony Comstock and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, functioned as an extra-legal police force to impose their repressive morality upon the public. Fortunately, according to conventional wisdom, the enlightened forces of progress, drawing upon free speech rights, overcame the repressive measures of anti-vice organizations by championing freedom of expression successfully. In Against Obscenity: Reform and the Politics of Womanhood in America, 1873-1935, Leigh Ann Wheeler challenges such conventional historical wisdom directly on several different levels with her fascinating study of the women’s anti-obscenity movement between 1910 and 1935.

According to Wheeler, females wrestled control of the anti-obscenity reform movement out of the hands of males in the early 1910s. Before then, as Wheeler argues in the first chapter, the male-dominated moral reform movement relegated jurisdiction over obscenity to the courts and the postal department, two institutions over which women had little influence. Women, moreover, often were excluded from participating fully in organizations such as Comstock’s anti-vice society, because the prevailing Victorian notions of true womanhood deemed it inappropriate. By 1910, however, women moral reformers had translated perceptions of female maternal expertise and moral superiority into public authority. After this date, women’s clubs and other grassroots voluntary associations played a crucial role in leading the anti-obscenity reform movement and secured deference from men in the entertainment industry. In Chapters two and three, Wheeler ’s analysis focuses upon the activities of the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Women’s Welfare League as illustrative of wider activities. After the Welfare League was unable to pressure the state legislature into passing censorship laws in order to regulate the movie industry, they adopted a cooperative and consumerist strategy. Owners of burlesque theaters and movie cinemas agreed to reduce obscenity in exchange for women’s organizations’ commitment to oppose official censorship as well as public endorsements for their shows and films. The cooperative and consumerist strategy was so successful that when the state of Massachusetts held a referendum in 1922 to determine if the state should adopt movie censorship legislation, Will H. Hays and the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America hired Catheryne Cooke Gilman of the Minnesota Women’s Cooperative Alliance to help them mobilize opposition to the referendum campaign. Gilman, a well-respected women’s club leader with a national reputation, worked with anti-censorship forces to convince voters that voluntary cooperation rather than censorship was the most effective tactic for curbing the popularity of licentious films.

As female anti-obscenity reformers moved onto center stage in the debates over regulating Hollywood movies in the mid-1920s, public disagreements among organized women burst into internecine wars over leadership, strategies, and the true meaning of obscenity. In Chapter four, Wheeler reviews how women’s organizations quickly grew disillusioned with Will Hays’ and the National Board of Review’s efforts to clean up movies. Theater owners never really desired reform but rather wanted to placate reformers. The practice of “block booking,” moreover, required theater owners to show salacious films as well as morally non-objectionable ones. This industry maneuver not only disabled the cooperative and reform strategy but also helped to divide women’s organizations over the best tactic to force Hollywood to improve its films. Consequently, women’s organizations quickly divided over how to respond. Some, like Gilman, favored federal regulation while others maintained the consumerist strategy. The real cause of the female anti-obscenity activists’ failure to restrain Hollywood was Will Hays. The manipulative and politically savvy Hays splintered women’s organizations into competing factions and played one group against the other. With movies siphoning off customers, burlesque theaters increased the amount of nudity appearing in their shows in order to attract more customers. In Chapter five, Wheeler examines local efforts in Minneapolis to pressure burlesque theaters into reducing the amount of flesh revealed on stage. Not surprisingly, burlesque theater owners vigorously opposed female reformers. Yet Wheeler uncovers new and unanticipated sources of opposition to these reform efforts. In the previous generation, female and maternal authority had buttressed women’s reform efforts. But as women’s organizations challenged civic leaders to legislate morality in the late 1920s, burlesque theater owners questioned the masculine reputations of male city council members who supported the female reformers. When civic leaders had their own masculinity questioned, they backed away from any plans to censor burlesque theaters. Even more surprising to female anti-obscenity leaders was the opposition expressed by women who challenged women’s organizations’ claims that they represented morality, womanhood, and childhood. Women’s moral reform organizations, in other words, no longer could claim that they spoke for all women. After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, women reformers had anticipated achieving even more success. But female opposition to the anti-obscenity reformers revealed the limits of enfranchised politics.

The sixth chapter explores the efforts of various women’s organizations to promote sex education. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Wheeler ’s careful analysis reveals that many women’s organizations that supported censorship also favored sex education, including the distribution of Mary Ware Dennett’s pamphlet, The Sex Side of Life, as an antidote to juvenile sex delinquency. The seventh chapter reviews the demise of women’s anti-obscenity reform organizations in the early 1930s. When the National Industrial Recovery Act moved to resuscitate a crippled movie industry, many women’s organizations hoped that federal legislation would follow. But Will Hays dodged regulations successfully by creating a new self-regulating code for the movie industry. With women’s organizations fractured and battling among themselves, as the eighth chapter describes, the Legion of Decency stepped into the power vacuum. This Catholic organization was able to achieve what women’s organizations could not. With its classification system, backed up by threats of boycott, it pushed Hollywood to clean up its films. Despite the fact that the emergence of the Legion of Decency meant the revival of Victorian paternalism, women’s organizations welcomed the leadership of Catholic men. In the conclusion, Wheeler explores the intended and unintended consequences ofthe female anti-obscenity movement. While women reformers hoped to improve the moral character of burlesque shows and Hollywood movies, their focus upon the impact of obscenity on children unwittingly did little to curb the unfettered adult entertainment industry. According to Wheeler, the popularity of the adult bookstores and websites indicates that female anti-obscenity activists stifled arguments against such material unintentionally and inadvertently helped to loosen restrictions on amusements reserved for adults. Free speech activists, in short, triumphed over female anti-obscenity reformers. This victory, Wheeler suggests, is illustrated nicely by certain feminists, such as Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, who argue that women cannot have access to explicit sex education material without accepting explicit sex magazines.

Wheeler has written a fine study that expands our understanding of the role of women in early twentieth-century anti-obscenity activity. Her rich analysis, however, at points may overlook the role that religion played in shaping the moral reform movement. For instance, in her discussion of the debates over the morality of Dennett’s pamphlet, The Sex Side of Life, that raged between Gilman and Canon William Sheafe Chase, head of the International Reform Federation, Wheeler may mute the Victorian Protestant rationale fueling his convictions that Dennett’s frank discussion of sexuality could have unleashed powerful desires for sexual pleasure in sinful men. Although such Protestant rationales for censorship were not necessarily inseparable from concerns about gender roles, they did provide another warrant for anti-obscenity activity. Likewise, when the Women’s Cooperative Alliance launched asex education campaign in 1920-1922 that canvassed every household in Minneapolis, it is difficult to imagine that Protestant fundamentalists or Roman Catholics did not object to the social workers’ goals. Finally, Wheeler ’s contention that women wrestled control of the anti-obscenity movement from male-dominated organizations is not entirely convincing. While the death of the controversial Anthony Comstock of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice proved to be a setback for the organization, Comstock’s successor, John Sumner, hardly abandoned efforts to suppress the spread of licentious literature as the repeated prosecutions of Samuel Roth, for instance, indicate. Likewise, the New England Watch and Ward Society remained an active force in the region throughout the 1920s. Nevertheless, Wheeler is certainly correct in her portrayal of the emergence of women’s organizations as a vital force in anti-obscenity suppression, especially in the area of movie theaters, after 1915. Perhaps a more accurate description would suggest that old-line, male-dominated moral reform organizations continued to pursue suppression through established means – the legislature and courthouse – while women’s organizations attacked obscenity along the lines that Wheeler demonstrates.

These criticisms should not detract from the very substantial contribution that Wheeler makes to women’s history and the history of early twentieth-century moral reform politics. Wheeler has recovered the significant role that women’s organizations played in anti-obscenity activity. As such, her study provides a much-needed corrective to conventional historical portrayals of early twentieth-century moral reform as an exclusively male activity. Wheeler ’s engaging study, which draws upon a wealth of neglected sources, including the personal papers and records of numerous women’s organizations, untangles a number of relevant issues surrounding women’s anti-obscenity activity. Her examination of sex education and the moral hygiene movement in the 1920s reveals that many anti-obscenity reformers did not oppose the most progressive forms of sex education. Likewise, the volume sheds new light on the impact of the Nineteenth Amendment on women’s political activities in the 1920s and early 1930s. The study also underscores the manipulative tactics and incredible political savvy that Will Hays employed in thwarting federal regulation of the movie industry.

By attending to the intellectual, cultural, and political context of the early 20th century, Wheeler does an outstanding job of contextualizing women’s anti-obscenity activity. She does not allow her commitment to free speech rights dictate her analysis of female anti-obscenity reformers. Wheeler argues convincingly that all but a few radical libertarians invoked the First Amendment in discussions over obscenity. Consequently, Wheeler ’s study avoids the whiggish interpretation of history that portrays female moral reform activity as a manifestation of Victorian repression that was overcome gradually by the democratic forces of toleration. Instead, she explains early twentieth-century female moral reformers on their own terms and in their own context. As such, Wheeler ’s outstanding study not only provides a much-needed corrective to conventional historical studies of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century anti-obscenity activists but also provides a fine example of how contemporary questions can inspire historians’ examination of the past without dictating the answers they find.

Cite this article
P. C. Kemeny, “Against Obscenity: Reform and the Politics of Womanhood in America, 1873-1935”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 38:4 , 482-485

P. C. Kemeny

Grove City College
Biblical and Religious Studies, Grove City College