Abstract

The United States Congress passed the first national obscenity law in 1873, largely due to the lobbying of Anthony Comstock. The passage of the Comstock Law marked a historically new federal involvement in fighting vice. It vastly accelerated censorship by enlarging the category of "obscene literature" to include all printed matter, and, for the first time, made it a crime to circulate information about contraception or abortion. At the center of the controversy that ultimately led to the passage of the Comstock Law--and typically missing from modern accounts--was a Spiritualist feminist, Victoria Woodhull. The author argues that the tangle of Spiritualist affinities, as well as the ghostly logic of Spiritualism itself, provides a means to follow the phantom-like fears around obscenity, publicness, gender, and sexuality at the inception of national obscenity regulation. Restoring Spiritualism to the history of censorship illuminates the complicated workings of this formative moral panic, one which may be termed America's first "sex war."

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 8-29
Launched on MUSE
2000-07-01
Open Access
No
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