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  • Where Else but Greenwich Village? Love, Lust, and the Emergence of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Sexual Rights Agenda, 1920–1931
  • Leigh Ann Wheeler (bio)

And where else [but Greenwich Village] could the Unitary Household have been founded in 1859 (the first free-love community in the country), or, for that matter, the American Civil Liberties Union?

—Ross Wetzsteon, Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910–1960

“The performance was thoroughly vulgar and indecent,” the report began, “as most burlesque shows ordinarily are. While women wore tights . . . other parts of the body were naked, suggestive dancing was frequent, sexual jokes were common, all the usual stunt appeals to sex interest and feelings were there.” The disapproving tone and graphic description of this account echoes those compiled by early twentieth-century moral reformers.1 This one, though, was produced in 1931 by the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Roger Baldwin, who sent it to Boston’s commissioner of licenses.2 Why would the director of the ACLU criticize a burlesque show to a license commissioner?

Historians of the ACLU might not find this anecdote surprising enough to question it, because they have assumed that the organization’s founders were, as two prominent scholars have put it, “extremely puritanical” and [End Page 60] even “squeamish about sex.”3 To the extent that scholars have considered related issues, they have wondered why the ACLU’s first leaders did not readily treat issues of sexuality as issues of civil liberties—especially given the ACLU’s central role, in more recent decades, in making civil liberties of sexual expression and reproductive freedom. Why, scholars have asked, did the ACLU come so late to the defense of rights related to sexuality? In addition to claims about the founders’ conservative sexual values, some have argued that the young ACLU’s preoccupation with the day’s pressing political issues—interwar repression of radicals and organized labor—distracted it from sexual matters. Others suggest that religious, political, and ideological divisions within the ACLU discouraged leaders from trying to address such sensitive issues as those regarding sexuality. Still others surmise that ACLU leaders’ experiences in Progressive Era reform might have discouraged them from recognizing sexual expression as an individual right.4 Explanations have varied, but scholars agree that leaders of the early ACLU did not consider sexual issues relevant to their civil liberties agenda.

This article reframes the topic in new ways. First, it is focused on the ACLU’s early involvement with issues of sexuality. Second, by using new material that goes beyond public records, it explores people as well as policy, motivation as well as result, the private as well as the public, individuals as well as the organization, and women as well as men. A very different story emerges. Indeed, early leaders of the ACLU did defend people who violated restrictions on sexual expression and behavior in the 1920s and 1930s—birth control activists, nudists, and individuals who ran afoul of the day’s obscenity laws—less, at least in the beginning, by taking cases to court than by engaging in direct action, negotiating with public officials, and providing legal advice to defendants.5 This approach raises new questions: Why did early ACLU leaders—who had created their organization to defend opponents of war, capitalism, and fascism—begin to treat sexual expression as a civil liberty in the 1920s? What roles did women as activists play in these decisions? How did the dynamics of gender shape this major transformation in legal thought and practice—the identification of sexual freedom as a civil liberty? [End Page 61]

The Greenwich Village Left and the Early ACLU

Though the ACLU was officially founded in 1920, its roots stretch back to the start of World War I, after war broke out in Europe but before the United States entered the conflict. A group of Progressive reformers, pacifists, and other opponents of the war created the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM) in 1914 with the goal of protesting compulsory military training, conscription, and other efforts to prepare for war. The AUAM collapsed when reformers disagreed over how to respond to the United States’ declaration...


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pp. 60-92
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