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The 'Unprintable Life' Of A Civil Liberties Martyr

Before Alfred Kinsey and Gloria Steinem, there was Ida Craddock. Craddock was a scholar, women's rights advocate and, by today's standards, a sexologist who in 1902 wrote how-to guides on sex.

The guides were not well-received at the time, however. Her work was considered filth by many, says Harvard professor Leigh Eric Schmidt, author of Heaven's Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock. One of those critics was Anthony Comstock, a man who would become a sort of watchdog for obscenity in Victorian America.

"Comstock lobbied Congress in the early 1870s to create an anti-obscenity law, Schmidt tells NPR's Guy Raz, "and finally, he succeeds in 1873."

The law became known as "the Comstock law," and he used it to his own advantage as he decided what was and wasn't obscene. Comstock was even made the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

"He has an incredible success rate by the time he's really taking on Craddock in 1902," says Schmidt. "He's had 2,000-plus convictions. He doesn't lose that many cases. He's after anything that he thinks contains obscenity that might corrupt American innocence, so he casts as broad a net as he can."

That net included Craddock. Comstock charged her with breaking the anti-obscenity law on both state and federal levels, because she used the post office to mail her sex guides. Craddock soon found herself making headlines as she stood trial in federal court.

"Here is someone who is claiming her right to freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and Comstock has thrown her in jail. And so her stock is rising as a civil liberties figure," Schmidt says.

Craddock would eventually come to be regarded as an important figure in the feminist and civil liberties movements, but ultimately, it would be as a martyr. The night before her final sentencing, fearing the worst, Craddock killed herself.

"She thought her only option at that point was suicide," Schmidt says. "That that was the only way she was going to die a free woman."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff