Seeing that today, March 3, is the anniversary of the passing of the Comstock Act in 1873, I thought it appropriate to review a book about one of the victims of the Comstock Act, Ida C. Craddock (1857-1902).
First, a word of explanation. In the aftermath of the Second Great Awakening and the Civil War, American sexual mores became truly Victorian: people did everything, but you couldn’t talk or write about sex at all. Some people, such as Anthony Comstock (1844 – 1915) set themselves up as moral censors of sexual matters in American society. Comstock was the founder of the New York Society for Suppression of Vice. Seeking a larger role, he managed to get Congress to pass a law making it illegal to send anything “obscene” through the mail, and got himself appointed a Federal postal agent, giving him the authority to pursue and destroy “obscene” material nationwide, so long as someone, somewhere, had tried to send it through the mails. Now Comstock’s definition of “obscene” was very broad. Anything with sexual content was liable to meet his disapproval, even medical texts and sexual advice to married couples. And he made a particular point of suppressing any and all forms of birth control.
Ida Craddock was a woman of her times who would appear bizarrely out of place in our own, partly because she was a very unusual person, partly because she embodied a combination of values that did come together for some people circa 1900, but seem oddly out of joint now. Ida was a spiritualist and a sex reformer who was probably celibate, apart from having orgasmic sex with a ghost. And although she was a sex reformer, she thought sex should be confined to heterosexual intercourse in marriage. No oral sex, no non-intercourse stimulation of the clitoris, and certainly no homosexuality.
Schmidt’s problem in presenting Craddock’s life in his book, Heaven’s Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman (2010) is similar to Stewart Kansa’s in presenting Marjorie Cameron’s life, which I discussed some time ago. There isn’t much historical evidence about significant parts of Ida’s life, partly because much of her published work was destroyed thanks to Comstock and his supporters, and many of her private papers were destroyed by her mother after her death. Schmidt being a historian, his way of addressing this problem is to try to place Ida Craddock in the context of her times, explaining how her attitudes reflected developments in her time and culture. It’s a superior approach, because it puts Craddock in context. But in the process, Schmidt tends to exaggerate Craddock’s importance. Despite how often she was “ahead of her time,” it’s placing undue importance on her to suggest that how our treatment of sexual issues has changed depended greatly on her. She failed repeatedly in challenging Comstock, and the court cases and changing attitudes that finally altereded our views of obscenity would happen decades later. Craddock is definitely a woman out of her time.
And yet she’s part of her time. Like many nineteenth-century reformers, she wanted to find a way to combine carnal sex with spiritual love. For her, the answer was a heterosexual marriage of two partners who both physically and spiritually stimulated each other. Holy sex! Her big splash was to defend belly-dancing as exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, the Columbian Exposition. She then began an active practice as a sex therapist, whether through direct counseling, publications, or through religious services(!). Twice she had to flee to England to avoid having her mother toss her into an insane asylum, which actually happened once. And confronted with a lengthy prison sentence after violating the Comstock Act, Craddock chose to commit suicide instead.
To explain Craddock’s significance as a forerunner of more liberated sexual attitudes, while still putting her in the context of her times, Schmidt treats each major theme in her writings and life separately. It’s not a bad strategy, but because most of what we know about all these aspects of her life come mostly from the last decade of her life, the reader is apt to become confused by the chronology. I can’t fault Schmidt too heavily for this — he was constrained by the evidence that has survived.
Despite what Schmidt says, I would regard Craddock as a marginal figure. I think the greatest value of this book is demonstrating cultural change: showing how attitudes that would seem impossible to combine today could be reasonably combined a century ago. Unfortunately, the people who should be learning this lesson are the least likely to read this book. The book’s other audience will be those who want to know more about spiritual eccentrics and forerunners of sexually liberated attitudes. For them, it will be an amusing read.