Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Monday, August 1, 2016

Ida Craddock and Free Speech, Sex Education, and Women's Rights

Ida Craddock (1 August 1847-16 October 1902)

A dedicated advocate of sex education, Ida  Craddock is a fascinating figure, one who can be dismissed as something of a crackpot, as the title of one recent biography suggests: Heaven's Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman

Ida Craddock
Yes, she can be labeled a "pseudo scholar." Yes, she claimed to be a priestess of the church of yoga. Yes, she claimed to be married to an angel named Soph. And yes, her mother tried to have her institutionalized.

But this "sexual outlaw," as another recent biographer has described her, is also a figure who demands our respect even more today, when so many twenty-first century crackpots and pseudo scholars are intent not only on controlling women's bodies but also on controlling our sexuality and returning to some imagined nineteenth-century "norm."

Ida Craddock might have been the first woman admitted to the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of the Arts and Sciences--in October 1882 she had passed the university's entrance examinations and was recommended to the University for admission by the college's faculty, but the committee of trustees denied her admission and followed that denial up with "a resolution explicitly prohibiting the admission of women to the College."

Having denied Craddock admission, they decided to create a (separate but equal?) college for women, once they had raised enough funds. But, you guessed it: although the trustees "committed themselves to establishing a college for women at Penn," it took "more than fifty years . . . before the College for Women matriculated its first students."

Despite this disappointment, Craddock went on to publish a textbook on stenograpphy, her Primary Phonography, in 1882 (to see a copy, click here), and found a position teaching stenography at the Quaker Girard College. 

Craddock had been born and educated as a Quaker, but by 1887 she had become a Unitarian and was involved with the Theosophical Society, studying, translating, and unifying mystical literature. She moved to Chicago and immersed herself in sex education, offering marriage and sex counseling to men and women in a clinic she established on Dearborn Street. 

In addition to personal counseling, she offered a course by mail, the "Regeneration and Rejuvenation of Men and Women through the Right use of the Sexual Function." The course cost ten dollars, no small sum, but in return she provided reading material, a questionnaire, and two personal letters of advice and instruction, based on the questions provided by the "student."

She also drew attention by her public defense of Fahreda Mahzar, also known as "Little Egypt," a belly dancer who performed at the "A Street in Cairo" exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Conservative critics wanted to close down the popular performances--Craddock wrote in defense of the dance, describing it as a "religious memorial" that was about "purity and self-control." That description may not have persuaded authorities, but the exhibit stayed open. 

Craddock's follow-up defense of the performance, published in the medical journal Chicago Clinic, drew the attention of Anthony Comstock to Craddock and her work. Comstock was the U.S. Post Office's "special agent" whose job was to enforce federal obscenity statutes.* His pursuit of Craddock would be relentless.

The 1873 law prohibited "obscene, lewd, and lascivious materials" from being sent in the mail. Included under this law was "any article or thing intended for the prevention of conception or the procuring of abortion" and any advertisements for those "articles" or "things."

Although she defended what she called the danse du ventre, Craddock hardly advocated sexual "perversion." In fact, she agreed with many of Comstock's own views of sex and sexuality--she condemned prostitution, masturbation, and, perhaps surprisingly, oral sex, the use of contraceptives, and abortion.

But she differed from Comstock in her view that sex was normal and natural. She did not think sex should be limited to procreative acts, and she believed that women, as well as men, should participate actively in--and should enjoy--sex. 

To educate men and women about her views, she produced a number of privately printed educational tracts to be distributed to her clients, including "Letter to a Prospective Bride" (1897), "Advice to a Bridegroom" (1897), "Right Marital Living" (1899, published in and by the Chicago Clinic), "Spiritual Joys" (1900), describing the tantric sexual technique of "controlled orgasm and sustained thrill," and The Wedding Night (1902), a twenty-four page pamphlet addressed to both women and men, preparing them with frank anatomical descriptions, honest information about sexual positions and orgasm, and a stress on the importance of sexual pleasure.

It was the piece in the Chicago Clinic that spurred Comstock to action. On 27 October 1899, Cradock was indicted in federal court under Postal law 3893, commonly referred to as the Comstock Law. Clarence Darrow posted her bond, and Craddock herself pleaded not guilty to the charge of having published an "obscene, lewd, and lascivious" pamphlet, too obscene, lewd, and lascivious to be entered into the record. (reformer Alice B. Stockham would be charged in 1905 under the same law.)

But after her decision to fight, sensing the way the prosecution would go, Craddock  decided to plead guilty after all, and she received a suspended sentence. Believing that she was "divinely led," Craddock moved to New York--as she wrote, she was determined "to face this wicked and depraved man Comstock in open court and to strike the blow which shall start the overthrow of Comstockism." 

On 5 March 1902 she was again arrested, this time under New York law for having sent a copy of The Wedding Night in the mail. She was sentence to a three-month term served in the Blackwell's Island (now Roosevelt Island) workhouse.

Craddock served her sentence, but as soon as she was released, she was arrested once more, this time under the federal Comstock law. While her defense was in preparation, she wrote to make public the conditions in the Blackwell's Island workhouse. She was found guilty.

Facing a five-year sentence, Ida Craddock committed suicide on 16 October 1902. In a letter to her mother, she wrote: "I maintain my right to die as I have lived, a free woman, not cowed into silence by any other human being." 

For an excellent introduction to Craddock, you may want to check out the website dedicated to her by clicking here. You will find some full texts of her work, as well as two letters she wrote about her decision to commit suicide, the letter to her mother and the "letter to the public," both composed on 16 October, the day of her death.

*For Grace Haley's informative piece on the Comstock Act and the way it is being deployed by forced-birth activists and politicians today, here is a link to the essay, published at Jessica Valenti's Abortion, Every Day.