Anti-Censorship Alcott, Or How the Author of Little Women Taught Girls to Talk Sex | Stephanie Peebles Tavera

Anti-Censorship Alcott, Or How the Author of Little Women Taught Girls to Talk Sex

by Stephanie Peebles Tavera

Assistant Professor of English, Department of Humanities
Texas A&M University–Central Texas
Paper presented at the MLA 2022 Roundtable: The Biopolitics of Childhood
Washington DC, January 8, 2022
[Please do not cite without permission of the author.]

Our culture has a long history of “challenging” and “banning” books written for a young adult audience simply because those books deal with “sensitive” subjects such as sexuality or race: Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak (1999), Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), Judy Blume’s Forever (1975), Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huck Finn (1884). I mention these books because they are books I regularly teach, they are well-known and therefore recognizable, and they are also on the list of most frequently challenged or banned books in America. Every time the subject of book banning or sex education arises, conservative politicians and their constituents echo a common refrain: Protect the children! And it isn’t just twenty-first century politicians. In 1883, one decade after Anthony Comstock successfully lobbied for the passing of a federal censorship law directed at the suppression of birth control, abortion, erotica, and the reproduction of medical texts about the female body, he wrote a book in defense of his actions titled Traps for the Young.

Anthony Comstock is most (in)famous for his role in passing and enforcing federal censorship law. On March 3, 1873, United States Congress passed the “Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use” (Ch. 258, § 2, 17 Stat. 599) after Comstock deployed the force of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and the Young Men’s Christian Association to lobby for its passing. Comstock himself was appointed “special agent” of the United States Post Office in charge of law enforcement. Because the “Comstock law,” as it was called, gave the US Postal Service and special agent Comstock “broad and vague powers” to “search, seize, and arrest” potential violators, Comstock often used subversive methods such as purchasing black-market erotica to catch publishers, booksellers, medical practitioners, and consumers red-handed, and then prosecute the so-called perpetrators. Texas Right to Life might have thought themselves clever to create a whistleblower website that promotes citizen policing of abortion. But they are merely ripping a page out of Comstock’s playbook—a cliché move at best—and it did not work any better than the original.

The Comstock law was comprehensive. On the one hand, the law was originally directed at prohibiting access to birth control and abortion, not unlike Texas Senate Bill 8, the “Heartbeat Act,” and Texas Senate Bill 4. Comstock law also banned the publication or distribution of “any obscene book, pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, drawing or representation, figure, or image on or of paper and other material.” This list encompassed sexual hygiene, limiting access to medical information and sex education writ large. The many legal challenges to Comstockian censorship effectively demonstrated the law’s impracticality, leading to its slow demise over a forty-year period: Indictments and prosecutions generated media attention, which in turn inspired artists, writers, and dramatists to create more risqué content, Amy Werbel explains in Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock.

But in the wake of hundreds of legal challenges, Comstock successfully engineered shame around the subjects of the female body and sexuality — and we are still contending with the legacy of this emotional engineering in the twenty-first century. Many of the women Comstock prosecuted in court of law chose to commit suicide rather than endure the public shame of trial, including women’s rights activist Ida Croddock and abortionist Madame Restell. Werbel documents the suicides of several young women with whom Comstock had no direct relationship yet his culture of shame adversely affected. These women would rather die than face the public or private shame of admitting premarital sex or pregnancy, or risk commitment to an asylum for masturbation. Unsurprisingly, Comstock publicly responded to these suicides with victim-blaming. 

In Abortion in the American Imagination: Before Life and Choice, 1880-1940, Karen Weingarten parallels the political culture of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century with the political culture of the twenty-first century. After all, political factions — e.g. pro-life versus pro-choice, pro-censorship versus anti-censorship — do not simply arise out of nowhere. Thus, when state representative and candidate for state attorney general Matt Krause proposes a book ban of 850 texts that fall under the broad and poorly-defined umbrella of “critical race theory” and “sexuality,” and Governor Abbott seriously backs the proposal, literary scholars like myself cannot help but point to an American history of censorship for critique. Like his twenty-first-century political counterparts, Comstock justified censorship under the guise of protecting the children against premature exposure to knowledge: “This is a plea for the moral purity of the children,” he proclaims on the opening page of his treatise. Comstock then proceeds with a warning to parents against the dangers of “evil reading,” charging his audience to watch and censor what their children read for fear it might corrupt their minds. Sounds familiar right?

But this is not a simple tale of history repeating itself. In my forthcoming book (P)rescription Narratives: Feminist Medical Fiction and the Failure of American Censorship (Edinburgh UP, 2022), I discuss a group of women writers of medical fiction who rewrite cultural narratives of shame injuring the female body in the wake of censorship under Comstock law. Louisa May Alcott was among the first of these women writers. Alcott presents her challenge in a bold way in Eight Cousins, or The Aunt-Hill (1875): under the guise of young adult fiction that not only adopts a thirteen-year-old female orphan as its protagonist but also is written to an audience of girls and young women. This is the very population Comstock and his ilk consider most vulnerable to “evil reading.” In The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century, Kyla Schuller describes a hierarchy of impressibility operating during the long nineteenth century that scientists used to classify the vulnerability and stability of subjects. Women were considered more impressible than men because they readily absorb the feelings of others and are liable to displace them. Yet another familiar tale, no? Women become an unstable force — a kind of ticking time bomb — who are susceptible to sentimentality and hysteria. A tale which we have transcribed into the cultural narrative of premenstrual syndrome, or “PMS,” as an apology for or dismissal of women’s emotionality in the twenty-first century.

Following this logic, young adults were considered even more impressible than women due to their lack of mature development and any kind of consumable text could stir up feelings that negatively influence a young woman’s behavior. When Comstock law inevitably came under review in federal court, judicial interpretation leaned heavily upon the evolutionary law of impressibility, or what Schuller calls “the biopolitics of feeling.” In United States v. Bennett (1879), a landmark ruling that upheld Comstock law and created the Hicklin test as a measure of impressibility, Judge Samuel Blatchford specifically highlights “the young and the inexperienced,” or children and young women, as in need of protection. If it sounds as though medical science and legal practice were in bed with each other, well it should. Because they were. Medico-legal discourse essentially identified young women the most impressible — and therefore, vulnerable — subject at risk of corruption by external forces like novels.

Alcott calls bullshit on this logic in Eight Cousins. She flagrantly rescripts the medico-legal discourse of impressibility, imagining all bodies as equally vulnerable regardless of gender or sex: “I intend to know what kills me if I can,” Rose declares in her justification for studying physiology under the watchful eyes of her uncle, Dr. Alec Campbell. Alcott prescribes environmental medicine as a cornerstone of her feminist health program, or what I call “crip medicine” in (P)rescription Narratives. Crip medicine refers to an alternative method of prevention and healing that reclaims the concept of disability as a superpower rather than a weakness and takes narrative seriously as responsible for creating the conditions of health and wellness. A recent article in The Atlantic similarly imagines puberty as a superpower, a philosophy Alcott would not only agree with but also promotes in Eight Cousins. Alcott outlines a kind of wellness program for young women that emphasizes physical exercise, “plenty of sun” and “fresh air,” and a hearty diet. Rose learns how to care for herself. She uses natural remedies for curing illness such as cordial for respiratory conditions or sleeping with herb pillows to heal insomnia. She swims, rides horseback, plays football, eats oatmeal, and avoids coffee.

Rose blossoms into a “little Amazon” in rejection of popular nineteenth-century medical treatises like Edward H. Clarke’s Sex in Education, or a Fair Chance for Girls, which explicitly blamed the “appearance of Amazonian coarseness,” or physical fitness among girls, for reproductive dysfunction. Her performance of physical fitness is meant to inspire Alcott’s readers — other young women — to model Rose in direct defiance of Comstock law. Alcott teaches readers environmental medicine, dropping medical information throughout the pages of the novel: “‘[T]here are 600,000,000 air cells in one pair of lungs,’” Rose reports to Aunt Myra after her first physiology lesson, “‘so you see what quantities of air we must have’” for proper functioning of the human body. Alcott’s emphasis on the respiratory system over the reproductive system eschews biological determinism and makes a plea for ungendered medical practice as she properly deploys medical terminology (like “alveoli”) and describes their function in an accessible way to her audience (as “little doors” that “open and close” to let in “oxygen”). In fact, there is this great moment when Uncle Alec dramatically throws away Rose’s corset in a manner that prefigures — or, for twenty-first century readers, recalls – 1970s feminists who threw their bras in trashcans as a form of protest against patriarchal control. And he cites medical knowledge in his anti-corset speech.

Just like Rose successfully navigates what was likely a difficult conversation for nineteenth-century audiences on puberty and sexual health, contemporary children and young adults are mature enough to grapple with difficult subjects whether of sexuality or racism. Our society has already exposed contemporary children and young adults to worse trauma in the form of school shootings, depression, and suicidal ideation. If the Parkland Town Hall reveals anything about this generation, it’s that they can navigate difficult conversations better than our politicians. To suggest otherwise is to not only promote a cultural narrative of youth vulnerability but to further engineer youth vulnerability. Said differently: If we believe that children and young adults are not mature enough to engage in difficult conversations about sexuality and race, then that is only true because we have failed to prepare them to engage in those difficult conversations. It’s the adults that need to grow up, not the children — and Louisa May Alcott knew that way back in 1875.

Alcott wasn’t alone in writing a counternarrative of the female body against a medico-legal discourse that shames women into “their place.” Rebecca Harding Davis defends the female physician as public sexual hygiene educator in Kitty’s Choice: A Story of Berrytown (1873). Annie Nathan Meyer and Charlotte Perkins Gilman offer readers a basic sex education in the wake of the syphilis epidemic in Helen Brent M.D. (1892) and The Crux (1911), respectively. And Frances Ellen Watkins Harper contends with anti-black “know-your-place” aggression in Iola Leroy (1892) by promoting Black communal nursing in the traumatic aftermath of slavery and the Civil War. But Alcott is the only one who challenges the cultural narrative of youth vulnerability by inviting an audience of children and young adults into conversations about the female body and sexual health and wellness. That shouldn’t surprise us. Anyone who has read or watched Little Women (1868) has likely caught onto Alcott’s commentary on menstruation. Even rule-follower Meg performs a subtle kind of feminism that resists the patriarchy through radical domesticity. Eight Cousins simply presents an Alcott-ian biopolitics that is less subtle, more brazen, and definitely fed up. Censorship won’t stop her.

It won’t stop contemporary writers either. In an interview with author Jo Knowles, whose young adult novels ended up on Matt Krause’s list of 850 books to be banned in the state of Texas, reporter Mitch Wertlieb asks a leading question about the free publicity generated by Krause’s stunt: “[T]here’s all the attention that this story has generated — in a way, [does it] help bring more curiosity to a potential young reader who might like to check out one of your books? I mean, could this — in a way that the Texas school districts did not intend — actually increase your readership?” And, of course, the answer is yes. Censorship fails its goal of silence. But it successfully engineers shame.  Even though the “Little Comstock laws” were largely repealed following the case of Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), every time a politician drudges up a state or federal bill to suppress, challenge or ban a work of literature they are allowing the legacy of Comstockian censorship to continue in the present. This rhetorical act of invoking silence for the sake of “protecting the children” is not really about the children at all. The kids are alright. It’s the (adult) politicians, school administrators, and parents who are uncomfortable with their emotional experience of these sensitive subjects.

Instead of taking the time to walk with children through these sensitive subjects — to do the hard work of helping kids navigate difficult conversations with compassion — we avoid the subject, sweep our emotions under the rug, and displace our discomfort on the shoulders of this generation’s children and young adults. And that is the true danger from which we should be “protecting the children.” It’s time to listen to Louisa. And maybe go read Eight Cousins to “know what kills” us as a nation — lack of knowledge, censorship, avoidance of conversation — and how to heal. 


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