Happy Birthday, Robert Ingersoll!

Statue of Robert G. Ingersoll in Glen Oak Park, Peoria, Illinois

Robert G. Ingersoll, orator, lawyer, politician and Civil War veteran often called ‘The Great Agnostic’, was a very famous man in his time but rather forgotten today. He was born on August 11, 1833 and died almost 66 years later. Among other things, he was a vocal and consistent advocate for abolitionism, women’s rights, freethought, and scientific progress. While very liberal and broad-minded, he was a dedicated family man. While his views are as progressive as could be for a person if his time, he was what we might call a square. Besides his unabashed and very public religious skepticism, he lived a life that even Victorian standards would consider altogether decorous and blameless, despite frequent attempts to discredit his views by finding something scandalous to publish about his personal life.

Ingersoll was a great friend of many of the era’s most interesting and influential people including Walt Whitman and Thomas Edison, who made two recordings of his voice with his new invention, the audio recorder.

He was also an admirer and promoter of the memory of Thomas Paine. Though Paine was a founding father of the American cause for independence with his great pamphlet Common Sense and other writings, he had long fallen out of favor in American public memory following the publication of The Age of Reason, his diatribe against religious orthodoxy and superstition, as he perceived it.

Robert Ingersoll in 1868

In the time Ingersoll enjoyed fame as an orator, freethought ideas had become more acceptable as a matter of public discourse. It was still generally unacceptable to be an out-and-out atheist, but even these could become popular speakers if they were eloquent and interesting enough. In fact, they were often considered novel and exciting, and free speech was enjoying one of its heydays in the United States in this period sometimes called The Golden Age of Freethought. This was a time when public speakers provided a very popular form of entertainment. Many of that era’s important thinkers and activists made their living, or much of it, through public speaking: Ingersoll himself, abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass, and feminist, atheist, and civil rights activist Ernestine Rose among them. Rose was also a famous orator in her day, pre-dating Ingersoll by almost a generation but like him, eloquent, witty, and a champion of Paine. She generally spoke only of topics related to her social justice causes, but Ingersoll and Douglass, like many famous orators, spoke on a wide range of topics such as Shakespeare (both men were big fans), science, politics, and much more.

For more about the eloquent and brilliant Ingersoll, please see the links to excellent online sources and to my own writings about Ingersoll below. Last year, I followed the lives and ideas of Robert Ingersoll, Frederick Douglas, and Abraham Lincoln in Peoria, Illinois, where Ingersoll lived and worked for many years; all three men admired and were inspired by one another. It was a most fascinating journey.

By Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy:

Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 1
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 2
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 3

Review: The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, by Susan Jacoby

By others:

Robert G. Ingersoll: American Politician ~ by the editors for Encyclopaedia Britannica

Robert Ingersoll, the ‘Great Agnostic’ ~ by John Kelly for The Washington Post

Robert Ingersoll: Intellectual and Moral Atlas ~ by Tom Malone for The Objective Standard

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) ~ at SecularHumanism.org

That Old-Time Irreligion: ‘The Great Agnostic,’ by Susan Jacoby ~ by Jennifer Michael Hecht for The New York Times’ Sunday Book Review

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 1 Part 1, and a 100 Year Anniversary

Flyer for Sanger Clinic, Brownsville, Brooklyn, image courtesy of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project

Flyer for Sanger Clinic, Brownsville, Brooklyn, image courtesy of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

I start the morning preparing my itinerary for the day as I fortify myself with coffee and the first half of a sandwich.

My first stop is also the furthest east I’ll go this trip, to the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. I take the C train to the Rockaway station, head south on Saratoga, and wander around getting a feel for the neighborhood. It’s predominantly black, solidly working class, with lots of handsome old buildings, mostly well worn with peeling paint. I see lots of mothers and grandparents with strollers and very small children (it’s around noon during work hours), people taking smoke breaks in backdoors, and some very poor and homeless people. Reaching Pitkin’s busy sidewalk, I see shoppers, people going out for lunch, and shop and cafe proprietors in front doorways under brightly colored signs, and I hear many accents and many languages spoken, English, Spanish and French, and many others I don’t recognize. It reminds me of neighborhoods I frequent at home in Oakland. I turn north on Amboy Street, which runs north and south between Pitkin and E. New York Ave.

At 46 Amboy Street, just north of Pitkin, Margaret Sanger opened the United States’ first birth control clinic two days less than 100 years ago today, on Oct 16th, 1916. Though just a  little late for the anniversary, I’m happy to be here at this historic place, humble as it now appears. The clinic was in the tall red brick building to the right of the tan one with the ‘diamond’ pattern on the upper center front of the façade. You’ll find a photo below that shows the clinic as it originally appeared, and here as well.

46 Amboy St, site of Sanger's first birth control clinic

Sanger’s first birth control clinic, given address 46 Amboy St. One thing’s more or less the same: the little pale brick building with the crenelated top still stands next to where the clinic was, as you can see two photos down. The narrower red brick building against and to the left of the larger one, with a sign now identifying it as 42 Amboy, stands on the former clinic site.

46 Amboy St, site of Sanger's first birth control clinic

Another view, angled more like the view in the photo below. The two red brick buildings appear not to be original unless they’ve been changed so much as to be unrecognizable. As you can see from the photo below, there was space between the original clinic building and the tan one, but not so for the current structure. The clapboard building beyond may be original.

Photograph shows women and men sitting with baby carriages in front of the Sanger Clinic, LOC

Women and children sitting with baby carriages in front of the Sanger Clinic, with the white curtains in the windows. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Before opening this clinic, Sanger had trained and worked as a nurse for many years among the poorest and most oppressed Americans, the immigrant and minority working class and poor. Originally a Socialist radical, Sanger came to realize that Marxists, philanthropists, and charity workers alike were making the same essential mistake. Since they failed to identify the root cause of human misery in the slums, the crowded tenements, and the factory floors, all of their well-intended efforts to help were failing and sure to continue to fail. Sanger came to feel this way about her own nursing, which addressed the effects and not the cause, so she turned her efforts to where she believed she could do the most good: birth control activism.

Margaret Sanger as a nursing student around 1900, by Boyce Photographer, White Plains, courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College

Margaret Sanger as a nursing student around 1900, by Boyce Photographer, White Plains, courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College

As a nurse, Sanger cared for poor women broken down in health and mind by laboring all night and caring for children all day, often pregnant all the while, often miscarrying, and the infant mortality rates were very high. So were death rates for the mothers, be it from childbirth, diseases secondary to exhaustion and malnutrition, and worst of all, from self-inflicted abortions. The mothers who resorted to the latter were desperate: they had often already watched other children die, or suffer every day from hunger, or forced into the factories or other labor at a very young age in the struggle to survive.

Though there were plenty of organizations trying to help these families, governmental and charitable, they could not keep up since the need was so great and increasing every day. Industrialization, Sanger recognized, encouraged rapid population growth by the ever-increasing demand for more labor and more future customers. And the workers responded to the social pressure by producing more children in hopes that their offspring could help the family by going out to work. But those hopes were often in vain since the population growth always kept up with or surpassed the need for laborers, constantly driving down wages. And so the cycle continued: immiseration through near-starvation wages, families barely keeping up with the cost of feeding themselves if at all, and children deprived of an education and of health as factory and other hard work often left children stunted, with malformed and weak bones and muscles, and often injured by machinery and chemicals.

Sanger thought: instead of trying vainly to keep up with the spiraling misery caused by this cycle, why not get at the root of it? After all, as the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If women were empowered to decide whether to have children, and only as many as their health and financial circumstances would allow, all this misery could be prevented in the first place since parents could adequately care for the children they did have, mother’s bodies would no longer be broken down by constant pregnancy, infants and mothers would more likely survive childbirth, overcrowding and its accompanying epidemics would be mitigated or even disappear, and a reduced labor force would force employers to compete for workers, driving wages up. And as we’ve seen over the decades, high population growth is strongly correlated with endemic poverty, high infant and mother mortality rates, women’s rights abuses, and high income inequality.

But people will never stop having sex, as Sanger pointed out. Sex is just too powerful a force in human nature. Our need for love, for affection, for physical pleasure and release, are too powerful to be squelched, and in fact, shouldn’t be. Love and the need for physical connection are positive things, indeed, two of the best things in human nature. Birth control, thought Sanger, was the answer.

I’ll be exploring Sanger’s ideas on these and other topics in more detail in upcoming essays, stay tuned. In the meantime, the Margaret Sanger Papers Project has a wealth of articles and original works by Sanger available online, and I’ve relied on them more than on any other single resource for my own project. (See below for the links). Thank you so much to the good people at the MSPP, I very much appreciate what you do!

Photobombed in Brownsville, Brooklyn, NY

Photobombed in Brownsville, Brooklyn, NY

Street with handsome row houses on Bergen Street, Brownsville, Brooklyn, NYC

Tree lined street with attractive row houses on Bergen Street, Brownsville, Brooklyn, NYC

Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, near the Rockaway station, 2016 Amy Cools

Street scene at the Rockaway station entrance near the northern edge of the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY

Hipster Gourmet Deli in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Amy Cools 2016.

Hipster Gourmet Deli in Brownsville, Brooklyn. I took this photo on the way to Amboy St, after my laughter subsided enough to take a picture.

I head back to the station, on the way stopping to photograph some scenes in the neighborhood, including an especially pretty row of houses on Bergen Street as a young man photobombs my pic with a laugh and a smile. On the train back, I eat the now rather smashed second half of my egg salad sandwich and write my notes. I transfer a couple of times and head north to Grand Central Station…. To be continued

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and Inspiration:

Alter, Charlotte. ‘How Planned Parenthood Changed Everything‘. Time.com, Oct. 14, 2016

Chesler, Ellen. ‘Was Planned Parenthood’s Founder Racist?Salon.com, Wed, Nov 2, 2011

Child Labor in U.S. History‘. From the Child Labor Public Education Project by the University of Iowa Labor Center

Demographics and Poverty‘, Center for Global Development.

Jacobs, Emma. ‘Margaret Sanger Clinic (former): the First Birth Control Clinic in the United States‘. From Places That Matter

Margaret Sanger Papers Project by New York University.

Regan, Margaret. ‘Margaret Sanger: Tucson’s Irish Rebel.Tucson Weekly, Mar 11, 2004.

Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Free online version courtesy of Project Gutenberg, 2008, 2013.

Sanger, Margaret. Woman and the New Race, 1920. Free online version courtesy of W. W. Norton & CompanyOakland Tribune Article about Margaret Sanger's NY clinic, Oct 21, 1916 evening edition

New Podcast Episode: Frederick Douglass Rochester NY Sites, Day 2

Douglass scholarship articles and posters, Dr. David Anderson's office, Nazareth College Rochester, 2016 Amy CoolsListen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Tenth day, Tuesday March 29th

I begin my day with an early visit to Dr. David Anderson, a Frederick Douglass scholar, visiting professor at Nazareth College, founding member of Blackstorytelling League, and an all around delightful and fascinating man! He is kind enough to grant me an interview of an hour or so, which ends up turning into a much longer conversation than that.

Among many other things too numerous to describe in full here (I’ll bring more details of our talk into the discussion of my subsequent discoveries), we talk about the Douglass family as a whole, and especially, Frederick Douglass’ wife Anna…. Read the written account here:

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Is Feminism Passe? No! Cries A Distinct Lack of Statuary

Many say that the idea of ‘feminism’ is outmoded: it smacks of reverse sexism, and the women’s rights movement has pretty much accomplished its goals anyway, at least in the free world.

Why flog a dead horse, ladies?

In my last travel blog series, following in the footsteps of great thinkers who changed the world, I explored New York City. I found statue after statue, monument after monument, portrait after portrait, of important men in American history: there were Lincolns, Jeffersons, Clintons, and Hamiltons galore, and speaking of horses, a multitude of Washingtons, often astride one. Yet search as I might, in this city that birthed and nurtured so many of the greatest American intellectual and reform movements, I was hard pressed to find such tributes to their female counterparts. Wait! there’s one: Eleanor Roosevelt, great humanitarian… and oh yes, wife and cousin to two American presidents.

Of course, Eleanor should be honored with this beautiful monument for the great things she did. But would she have been if it weren’t for the famous men in her life? Hmmm. It’s not that statues, monuments, and other public works of honorary art are necessary to show how important anyone’s achievements are, so long as we remember them and pass on their ideas. But they do provide a window into the values and interests of the people. Initiatives, petitions, and referendums are submitted, committees form, public collections are taken up, and wealthy people grant commissions to create these public works.

In short, these monuments go up when enough people care enough to publicly show how much they care.

So how can it be that great women like Mary Wollstonecraft, Ernestine Rose, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Margaret Sanger are commemorated so modestly or so seldom? (A little plaque or a sign on a street corner here, a dusty little cabinet display there.) When their efforts, arguably, liberated more people than anyone else? After all, women make up more than half of the human race, and prior to their life’s work, most women in the world lived almost completely under the subjugation of men, most with restricted education, all denied the full range of rights and opportunities accorded to men.

I feel a free woman, myself, in most ways. I read, think, work, play, procreate (or not!), travel, dress, and so forth, as I decide for myself. Thanks, brilliant, fearless, principled women of history! But their work is not done so long as great women are not honored equally as great men, and working women as much as working men, and women who need health care as much as men need health care, and so on.

Is feminism over? I’ll believe it when I see it. In marble, granite, brass… or in the office of the President of the United States. Maybe then.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton Sites, Part 1

To start my journey, I set out from where I’m staying, in Manhattan near where Chelsea and Flatiron neighborhoods meet, bound for the Lower East Side. That’s where newly married Ernestine and William Rose made their first home in New York City, at 484 Grand St near Willett, near the Williamsburg Bridge. The house is no longer standing, nor are any other nearby buildings from their time, except for the synagogue behind where it probably stood.

In fact, as I visited places associated with their lives over the course of four days, I found not a single building still standing that I could be sure Ernestine or Elizabeth set foot in. As I was to learn more throughout the course of my trip, New York has systematically pulled down and rebuilt itself over and over again through the centuries, with its restless culture of self-reinvention, innovation, and progress, until a movement in the 1960’s arose and reminded New York that its history was important too. But that’s another (fascinating) story, which I’ll return to later.

Despite the lack of extant sites, seeking them out led to me to discover not only more about the lives and times of Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but more about how they influenced others, more about other people doing great work for the same or related causes, and more about New York City’s history. I also learned more about other movements, not only political and ideological but of people: migrations of those seeking better opportunities for themselves and their children when their homeland had less to offer. In visiting this first site, for example, I stumbled upon a treasure trove of fascinating parallels between the builders and inhabitants of the current structures, and the lives and philosophies of Ernestine and Elizabeth.

Henry Street Settlement and Playhouse, Lilian Wald Site, New York City, 2014 Amy Cools

The Abron Arts Center, adjacent to the Harry De Jur playhouse now stands near the probable original site of the Roses’ first New York home. The Center is one of the buildings that comprise the Henry Street Settlement, founded by Lillian Wald. She, like Ernestine Rose herself, was a human rights activist of Jewish descent. She was also a dedicated and tireless humanitarian: Henry Street Settlement provides health care and educational and recreational services for underserved communities.

In both Ernestine Rose and Lilian Wald’s days, the Lower East Side was crowded with immigrants who, lacking opportunities in their native countries, flocked to New York City’s factories to seek jobs and a chance at a better life. From the early 1800’s onwards, NYC was an industrial powerhouse, with many of its entrepreneurs and investors amassing great wealth, while the greater number suffered the worst effects of an industrial city before the age of  reform and regulation: overcrowding, disease, grinding poverty, and crime. Between the time Ernestine and Lilian arrived in the lower east side, conditions had become quite dire; Henry Street Settlement was founded as a solution to many of these social problems. No doubt, Ernestine, a radical egalitarian and human rights advocate, would have approved of the building that stood on the site of her old home, and of its founder’s mission.

(Note: in visiting another Ernestine Rose site the next day, coincidentally, I had the opportunity to learn more about H.S.S. and its founder, Lilian Wald. Stay tuned!)

Behind the Abron Arts Center and the probable site of the first Rose home, there’s also a synagogue and Jewish education center (the Daniel Potkorony Building). The Bialystoker Synagogue, built as a Christian church in 1826, predates the Rose’s moving there in 1837 by 11 years, so she would have been familiar with the building. Of course, I have no way of knowing one way or the other definitively, but since the Roses, especially Ernestine, were eempahically non-religious, it’s improbable that they would have visited the church much, unless it was the site of social events unrelated to worship.

Bialystoker Synagogue, coincidentally or not, was organized by Polish Jews in 1865, who purchased the former church as its new and permanent home. Ernestine was a Polish Jew by birth, and while she was quite open about the fact that she rejected the religion of her youth, she also very much identified with many aspects of her Jewish heritage. Her excellent education was, at least in large part, a result of her father’s being a rabbi and her consequent desire to learn ancient Hebrew, history, and the arts of theological and textual discussion. She also defended the Jewish community vigorously when they became the target of anti-Semitic attacks in the Boston Investigator newspaper (Dorress-Worters pp 42-44, 311-333). The synagogue also operated as a stop on the Underground Railroad; Ernestine was an ardent and committed abolitionist. Another coincidence, perhaps!
Right across the street, on the same side of Grand as the Rose house would have stood, and across Willett, stands the Cooperative Village. Built by trade unions, the Village and its sister establishments were designed to improve living conditions for its working class, lower income inhabitants by including gardens, sunlight in all apartments, attractive design, good views, and other amenities, as well as being reasonably priced and, best of all, democratically run, with each tenant getting an equal vote regardless of the property value of any given unit.
Rose was a dedicated Owenite, so I suspect she would have heartily approved of such an establishment. Robert Owen, her inspiration and mentor, was a social reformer who believed that shared goals in work, daily life and politics would ennoble the human mind and rid the human race of the hatred, violence and ignorance that results from the selfish pursuit of personal wealth. While Owen’s philosophy may appear, today, to be based on an overly optimistic unrealistic idealism (he believed that human nature was mostly or entirely good, and it was people’s surroundings which could support and inspire them in their good traits, or could cause them to fall into bad habits, become greedy or selfish, commit crimes, etc), he derived it from his personal experiences working in the horrific mill and factory conditions in mills in early Industrial England. (Observations of the miserable living and working conditions of industrial workers would later inspired Engels and Marx.) His New Lanark community was a resounding success for many years: its mill was profitable and its workers and their families comfortably housed and well fed, their children educated, and their surroundings, already in a lovely river valley, clean and beautified by gardens.
Despite my best efforts, I could find no plaque or anything else marking the site of the original Rose home. Yet, I felt I had found something better: in searching for the site, I learned that within just a few city blocks from that site, many others had lived and worked to accomplish the same excellent goals that Ernestine had pursued in her time there: the freedom of enslaved people, the improvement of the lives of working people, community-building for Polish Jews and other immigrant people.
Next, I head over towards Park Row and City Hall Park.
9 Fran kfort Street no longer exists either. It’s located somewhere underneath or alongside the place where the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge now rests, across from Pace University. Ernestine and William Rose owned a perfume and silversmith / jewelry shop there, called ‘Fancy and Perfumery’. Their rooms over the shop was their second home in New York City.
William was an accomplished jewelry maker and fine-metal worker, and while Ernestine had supported herself for many years up to that time and her perfume inventions contributed significantly to the family income, he was happy to help finance her public speaking and human rights work over the next few decades.
Here’s where the Brooklyn Bridge ends, where Frankfort ends and Park Row begins. 9 Frankfort would have been near the intersection of those two streets.
The last site I visit today is 37 Park Row, where
On January 8, 1868, in a room on the fourth floor of 37 Park Row in downtown Manhattan, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton published the first issue of Revolution, a newspaper dedicated to advancing the cause of women’s suffrage, among other social reform issues. Although the newspaper survived in its original form for just slightly over two years, it helped gain public exposure for the women’s suffrage movement and for Anthony and Stanton, two of the movement’s most influential leaders‘. (Scanlon, pp. 1)

Elizabeth and Susan established their own feminist newspaper, The Revolution, after the split in the women’s rights movement over the 15th Amendment, which extended the right to vote to men of all races while, for the first time, specifically excluding women as it used the word ‘male’. Because they felt betrayed by the majority of the men, and many of the women, in the movement for giving up the fight for universal suffrage so easily (as they saw it), Elizabeth and Susan felt that the movement must now be run exclusively by women, for women, in order to retain the revolutionary spirit and singleness of purpose necessary to accomplish their key goal. Every contributor to the paper was a woman, as well as every single employee of the paper.

37 Park Row also no longer exists; I write my search notes in the Starbucks at 38 Park Row, across from City Hall Park. The street sign on the corner of the park dedicated to these ladies is directly across the street, and since it’s the corresponding even number across, the sign probably stands near or at the actual site where the newspaper was published. Here’s an illustration from 1868, which shows the original buildings comprising Printing House Square, where so many of New York’s major periodicals were produced:

Thus ends my first day following in Ernestine and Elizabeth’s footsteps in New York City.

To be continued…


Sources and Inspiration:

‘Bialystoker Synagogue: History’. http://www.bialystoker.org/history.htm

Brawarsky, Sandee. ‘Safe Havens on the Freedom Line.’ New York Times. January 19, 2001. 


Burns, Ken. Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Documentary film (1999, November 7). 


Cooperative Village: History. (website) http://coopvillage.coop/history.php

Dorress-Worters, Paula. Mistress of Herself: Speeches and Letters of Ernestine Rose, Early Women’s Rights Leader. The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2008


Elizabeth Cady Stanton. (2014, November 4). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Cady_Stanton


Elizabeth Cady Stanton Dies At Her Home.’ On This Day, New York Times. Oct 7th, 1902.



Ernestine Rose. (2014, July 7). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.


Freedman, Janet. ‘Ernestine Rose.’ Jewish Women’s Archive. 

Henry Street Settlement, website. 


Kolmerten, Carol. The American Life of Ernestine L. Rose. Syracuse, N.Y., 1999. 


Lillian Wald. (2014, September 28). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. (2014, October 8). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia
‘Robert Owen’ and ‘New Lanark: An Introduction’. Undiscovered Scotland: The Ultimate Online Guide
Scanlon, Breanne. ‘Revolution, the Feminist Periodical’. Place Matters.


Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Josyn Gage. History of Woman Suffrage, volumes 1 and 2. Rochester, N.Y., 1881 and 1887 


Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton: A Brief History

With my first day of discovery under my belt, I’ll start by telling you a little about the two wonderful women who are the inspirations for and subjects of my project, in case you’re encountering them here for the first time.

Ernestine Rose was a Polish, immigrant, feminist, abolitionist, public-speaking, socialist, atheist Jewish woman. Unless she had happened to be black, she had nearly as many cards stacked against her chances of leading a successful and happy life in her time as one person could have. To a person like myself and I suspect like you, dear reader, such a list of attributes today indicate her utter awesomeness! Anyway, Rose did manage to make a career for herself in which she was widely admired and financially stable, even sometimes well off, regardless of the fact that she was such a controversial figure. That’s because she had the good fortune to receive a very good education, she was an inspiring and gifted public speaker, she had a lot of energy and a strong work ethic, (despite her frequent struggles with ill health), she such displayed fearlessness and integrity in her convictions, and it didn’t hurt that she was very attractive, especially by the standards of her day.

Ernestine, born in 1810, was the daughter of a rabbi, and was well read and precocious at a young age. For example: she convinced her father to teach her to read the Torah in its original language so that she could discuss and debate the meaning of the actual text with him. When she was a young woman, she escaped an arranged marriage by appealing to the Polish civil court (rather than the local Jewish court as was customary) and decided to make the most of her life by leaving her segregated, anti-Semitic native city. She went from Berlin, where she learned German and invented the perfumes and a room-scenting device that helped support the family, to London, where she met her dearly-loved, fellow liberal-progressive husband William Rose, and finally to the United States, where she and her husband soon opened up a ‘fancy’ shop selling her perfumes and his silversmithing creations, and where she threw herself whole-heartedly into public speaking, writing, and organizing in support of women’s rights, abolition, separation of church and state, and other human rights causes. Her public speaking was as controversial as her unorthodox beliefs, since at that time it was considered immodest and unwomanly, limited to men only; but it was her open and unapologetic atheism that was most controversial, and most unusual. She lived and worked in the United States, based in New York City, from 1836 to 1869, when she moved to England to (mostly) rest and retire from public life when her health began to give out for good.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, born five years after Ernestine in central New York State, was as fearless and tireless in her activism as she was in motherhood. Like Ernestine, she was an outspoken and unapologetic feminist, abolitionist, and freethinker. After a thorough formal education, somewhat unusual for women in her time, she married at age 25 (leaving out the ‘obedience’ vow, since she viewed marriage as a partnership between two consenting, rational adults, rather than a hierarchical power arrangement) and raised seven children.
She wrote prodigiously, and since giving birth to and raising so many children kept her too busy for frequent travel and public speaking, she worked closely with Lucrecia Mott, another founding feminist, and entered into a longtime collaboration with a fellow feminist, Susan B. Anthony. While the two were very different in so many many ways (Elizabeth was fiery and impolitic in expressing her opinions, Susan was more tactful; Elizabeth was a skilled writer and orator but less skilled organizer, while Susan was the opposite; Elizabeth was an outspoken critic of religion and the Bible, Susan, like Lucretia, was a Quaker), they were extremely attached to one another, and their often opposing strengths made them probably the single most effective and influential team in feminist history. (Side note: if you are interested in the history of human rights and progressive activism in the United States, you may be struck by the prevalence of Quakers among their ranks. While there were many Quaker sects, they tended to hold radical beliefs for their day: they were egalitarian, pro-education, anti-war, and encouraged critical discussion and examination in matters of religion.)
With Lucretia’s, Susan’s, and others’ help, especially while she was still home bound with her young children, Elizabeth conceived of and put together numerous meetings and organizations, including the first women’s rights conference at Seneca Falls in 1848, numerous abolitionist and temperance events, the American Equal Rights Association, the International Women’s Council, and many more. She wrote the Woman’s Bible, A Declaration of Sentiments (modeled on the Declaration of Independence), Solitude of Self (often considered her greatest speech), History of Woman Suffrage (with others), and much more. She was the first woman to run for Congress, wrote and was the primary impetus behind the passage of the first federal bill protecting women’s property to pass into law (following Ernestine, who has campaigned for it earlier), and annually campaigned, unsuccessfully, for suffrage for women. (Though she lived a very long life, she did not live to see this victory achieved.) Like Ernestine, she was a rare outspoken critic of religion, and considered all of them anti-woman, especially the three religions of the Bible. She worked up to the day she died in 1902 (on October 27th, the date I flew in to NYC.)

Now that we have a brief history of those great women fresh in our minds, let’s follow in their footsteps!

Shortly to follow: an account of my first day in New York City. visiting sites associated with their lives here…..

Sources and Inspiration:
Dorress-Worters, Paula. Mistress of Herself: Speeches and Letters of Ernestine Rose, Early Women’s Rights Leader. The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2008
Elizabeth Cady Stanton. (2014, November 4). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:33, November 5, 2014, from  http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Cady_Stanton
‘Elizabeth Cady Stanton Dies At Her Home’, On This Day, New York Times, Oct 7th, 1902. http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/1112.html
Ernestine Rose. (2014, July 7). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:34, November 5, 2014, from http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernestine_Rose
Freedman, Janet. ‘Ernestine Rose.’ Jewish Women’s Archive  http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/rose-ernestine
Kolmerten, Carol. The American Life of Ernestine L. Rose. Syracuse, N.Y., 1999.  http://books.google.com/books?id=0JkRzTh7QUsC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_atb#v=onepage&q&f=false
‘New Lanark: An Introduction’. Undiscovered Scotland: The Ultimate Online Guide. http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/lanark/newlanark/
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Josyn Gage. History of Woman Suffrage, volumes 1 and 2. Rochester, N.Y., 1881,1887


Recently, I read a post on Facebook where my cousin’s wife woefully reported that my cousin’s new anti-pornography site had to be taken down due to a huge negative reaction (though he received much support as well). The site is (was?) called ‘Her Name’, and it’s a forum where you assign a name (first name only) to a woman whose dignity had been affronted through pornography: women you know, women you’ve seen but not met, and so on. By naming these women, their humanity, their individual worth is re-affirmed, and all are reminded that each woman a life and a story beyond the simple object of gratification that pornography portrays them as.

That was what I was able to gather from the description of the website and from  my cousin’s wife’s post. But I didn’t find many details of why many objected strongly to the website, in the blog review and discussion of ‘Her Name’ I found on Patheos, nor on Facebook. Nor was I able to discern clear arguments in support of the claim that women are, in fact, dehumanized or injured in other ways by pornography.

Here’s what I gathered about the nature of the angry comments: by providing a forum to name these women, my cousin was (inadvertently, I believe) also creating a handy tool for ideologues to shame women taking part in pornography, or to ‘out’ women who want to keep their porn careers private. And here’s what I gathered from the discussion overall: pornography is bad, especially for women, period.

I’m glad that my cousin feels passionately about the issue insofar as he is concerned with promoting the dignity and freedom of women. And I’m glad that he’s taking part in the public discussion that we should all continue to have about pornography. It’s such a complicated subject, to which the blog reviewer doesn’t do justice: she offers no arguments to support her assertion that porn dehumanizes women. She simply claims that it’s a tool of the devil to destroy souls by denying their existence without explanation as to why or how.

Another thing: the overall characterization of porn, on the site and the blog post, was almost exclusively about the victimization of women, yet both sexes are involved in its production as well as the consumption, to one degree or another. I presume that the assumption is that men are making most or all of the decisions, and the women are all victims and dupes. I have serious doubts about both of these claims, if they really are such. Be that the case, let’s keep in mind that while I offer primarily offer women as examples in the discussion here for consistency’s sake in comparing the arguments, most of the points made apply to all sexes involved.

Based on his replies to the blog review comments, my cousin’s objections also appear to be based primarily on his religious beliefs: lust is sinful, tempting another to lust is sinful, sexual intercourse outside of marriage is sinful, and so on. These claims will have little meaning for those not adherents to particular dogmas. Yet we can infer broader points from what he has to say. For one, the anonymity and secrecy surrounding pornography, of the actors and the viewers, indicate that shame, an instinctive reaction to pornography, indicates there’s something wrong with it. Secondly, porn, by its very nature, dehumanizes the participants by reducing them to a collection of parts that have no purpose other than to gratify sexual desire. And thirdly, supporting the sexual gratification market that is porn, also supports awful practices as sex slavery and rape by validating the general idea that it’s okay to view some women, or all women, as nothing but objects of lust.

Those who subscribe to the ideas of the growing sex-positive movement, however, would not recognize this wholly negative portrayal of pornography. Sexuality, they say, is not only natural, but as valuable a characteristic of the human personality as reason or creativity. It originates from the best parts of human nature: empathy, sympathy, cooperation, our rich emotionality, the urge to create new life. It’s one of the most exciting ways that humans can bring each other joy, and unite in one of the most emotionally intense, intimate ways that we can. In short, sex is beautiful, and the ways in which we enjoy it can be, and should be, as variable as is the range of human personality itself. It’s precisely because of patriarchy and religion, in fact, that human sexuality has been shamed, perverted, twisted, and portrayed as ugly and exploitative in all contexts outside of the confines of male-dominated monogamy. That type of sex-negative religious view, in turn, is a regrettable inheritance from our evolutionary ancestors, who felt the need to exert control of women’s sexuality in the competition to successfully procreate with limited resources. When religion and patriarchy lose their influence, sexuality can again be freely expressed in all its joy and beauty, and the religiously-imposed shame will melt away. After all, as Mark Twain says, ‘Nature knows no indecencies; man invents them.’ 

Pornography, then, in this view, is to sexuality as academia and the scientific community are to intelligence, and sculpture and novels are to creativity: an expression of our sexual nature. There’s bad pornography, and good pornography, just as there are harmful scientific theories such as eugenics, and clunky, tacky, poorly written novels such as ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and ‘Naked Came the Stranger’, and lousy art such as Dan Lacey’s pancake and unicorn paintings (though hilarious!)

So why is sex the one part of the human nature whose expression and gratification we consider most taboo even as it’s most alluring? Why single it out this way? We don’t consider gratifying hunger and thirst as shameful, nor other needs and desires such as art, music, or intellectual stimulation. What is it about sex that engaging in it, and portraying it, is considered dehumanizing in all but the very narrow context of marriage, when it’s such a very human thing for all to do and to desire? Why is considered so good and yet so bad? 

Let’s explore the problem of treating sex differently than other aspects of human nature by considering a rather extreme example. I read an opinion piece the other day about Somaly Mam and her apparently now-dubious credentials as an advocate against sex trafficking. The author makes what I think is an excellent point: Mam would ‘liberate’ sex-workers only to place them in what many might call ‘honest’ work: jobs in the apparel industry, where in Cambodia, as in many other places where sex-trafficking is a big problem, it’s a free-for-all. There are few to no human rights protections or regulations, and the women work long, back-breaking hours for little pay in awful conditions. It’s that, or starve, so there’s no real choice for most of these women. So what makes the sweatshop job more ‘dignified’? In both cases, the women have little to no autonomy, and are treated with contempt (perhaps, one might argue, more so in the sweatshop job, since the woman is not even considered a ‘possession’, and therefore of some personal value to the owner!) Is it the only the fact that it’s there’s sex involved that makes the latter condition of miserable servitude somehow better than the former? We would probably hear many on the anti-pornography side of the argument say that, of course, both are examples of terrible behavior of the slavers and of the sweatshop owners, but I would wager that they would not be impassioned advocates of labor unions, minimum wage laws, and regulations as they might be anti-sex-work activists.

The porn industry does not, for the most part, resemble the terrible practice of sex slavery, so considering them side by side is only useful insofar as it helps us recognize our own often inconsistent attitudes about sex and respect for our fellow human beings. So let’s return to a less dramatic example, where autonomy is not in question. Does the dehumanization lie in portraying a woman in such a way as to present only one aspect of her nature for the satisfaction of the audience, in this case her sexuality? How about when she is ‘reduced’ to another aspect of her person, say her physical appearance? Let’s take the example of a model for fine art, or for fashion photography. She is chosen because she is beautiful (or interesting-looking, for fits the chosen profile, or whatever), and is paid to stay still while the artist captures the outward appearance of her body, and is dismissed when the work is complete. Is she dehumanized then? How about any interaction in which a human being is only considered in the light of the narrow role they play in the other’s life in that moment, the waiter, the conversationalist at the bar, the cashier, the barista, the taxi driver, the person who makes the clothes one buys, the arms dealer? They are anonymous, or will be except during that particular transaction, and they will never be seen again. Are they dehumanized too? Why is it that interacting with another person in only their role as a sexual being more dehumanizig than interacting with them only insofar as they play a different role?

One may reply, that sex is deeply intimate and meaningful, where a painting a portrait is not (necessarily, anyway), nor is ordering food or coffee or buying stuff, nor chatting up a stranger at a bar. But why must sex always be intimate and meaningful? Just as conversation can be intimate and meaningful, it can also be casual, or meaningful but not lasting (that fascinating, intelligent fellow traveler on an overnight flight who shared the best stories and ideas you ever heard which stayed for you for life, while you never see them again), or baby talk that the infant will not remember, or part of the larger conversation a committed pair have over their shared lifetime. Yet all of those types of communication are an important part of a full life. So it goes with all other parts and products of human nature. Just because it can be deeply intimate and meaningful and long-lasting, doesn’t mean it has to be; there’s room for simple, easy, non-committed encounters as well, isn’t there?

Again, what’s so special about sex?

For the last half-dozen paragraphs, I’ve offered arguments and counter-examples from the sex-positive perspective against the anti-pornography view I (admittedly briefly) summarized at the outset. (Since I outlined only those arguments I could muster that have a broader-than-religious applicatio, it was necessarily relatively brief). Intellectually, I sympathize with the latter, since they not only harmonize best with a naturalistic philosophy most informed with verifiable evidence, but are more consistent with the values of autonomy and liberty. Yet anti-pornography advocates makes some valuable points, too, as we shall see.  

Thus far, we’ve considered arguments in favor of anti-pornography and pro-pornography (or at least anti-anti-pornography) ideas. But how do they play out in real life? Is pornography really as nasty, destructive, and shameful as some say, or as pro-human, life-affirming, nature-celebrating as others say? What does porn really look like out there, and what is its actual effect?

Here’s where I think the anti-pornographers have a point: much of the actual, mainstream pornography doesn’t seem to celebrate the same degree of respect for autonomy, diversity, and positive-body-image values that the sex-positive community has. Mainstream porn seems to chew women (and men) up and spit them out in the same way as Hollywood and the tabloids do (and these days, even Fox News and CNN!). The only people that are considered sexy enough to be featured are the hard-bodied, perfectly evenly tanned, straight and/or blonde haired, fake-white-teeth, heavily made up, simultaneously tiny-waisted and big-titted (or -cocked) stars of Barbie and Ken’s dreams. If you want to be a porn star and aren’t born with this set of attributes, under the knife and chemicals you go! There is porn made for people with other body types who wish to act in it, but as of yet, it’s generally of the boutique, Good Vibrations variety (G.V. is like Whole Foods, for the socially-conscious and horny). As of now, the body-positive attitudes celebrated in those wonderful You-Tube manifestos have not yet influenced the mainstream porn industry, just as they have not influenced Hollywood or news outlets.

I wish the porn industry overall actually looked more like the sex-positive activists’ vision, I really do! One day it may, when people grow tired of the monotony of seeing people of a only very few body types represented. Real-girl-next-door, all-natural, widows, Wallendorf Venuses, seniors, divorcees with empty nest syndrome, all of these may one day be represented as widely, and more personally, in mainstream porn as they are in people’s actual day to day fantasies and moments of curiosity. But I doubt it will happen anytime soon, if beauty magazine covers and increasing rates of plastic surgery are any indication. When it comes to body-shaming, it seems the narrow conception of beauty that informs mainstream pornography, as in all those other aforementioned public arenas: the only beauty that is celebrated is of such a rare type, and so many slice and paint themselves to artificially achieve it, that most women and girls are left to feel self-conscious and in some way not valued, since most don’t look like that standard. So they binge and purge, cut and paste, and smash themselves into ill-fitting clothing and tottering shoes.

Yet it’s not all bad news with mainstream pornography. When women are supposedly more dehumanized than ever through its unprecedented consumption as well as its extreme appearance standards, it’s also the era of unprecedented levels of legal protection of pornography actors, and of moral attitudes against the their oppression, in all categories of sex work. State by state, country by country, developed nations are instituting health regulations, labor unions, and laws that protect sex workers from the disease, exploitation, coercion, and violence that plagued them as long as sex work as existed (as the ‘oldest profession’, that’s a long time!). Sex workers, from pornography actors to prostitutes, need to worry less and less that they will be further victimized by the police or by the courts when they report crimes done against them, and sex trafficking, sex with minors, pimping, and other crimes of coercion (and patriarchy!) are less and less morally and legally acceptable than the sex-for-pay itself. 

So on the whole, I find must side with the sex-positive community in the matter of pornography. Their arguments, as I interpret them, are not only more logically consistent with what we observe in human nature and behavior, but are better aligned with what we actually see happening when it comes to protecting and caring for women and everyone else in porn. But we must keep in mind the nastier elements that are still very characteristic of the market overall, that I think my cousin and some others in the discussion recognized. There is a significant level of disrespect for our fellow human beings in the industry at large, and we must keep up the good fight against all manner of body-shaming, violence, exploitation, and coercion that are still endemic in porn.

P.S. It may seem odd that, throughout this post, I never refer to my cousin and his wife by their names, though they made their names public in the blog post discussion. My purpose is (somewhat smart-alecky, my apologies if my little joke offends!) to illustrate the point: perhaps it’s best to let people make their names public when and if they want to, when it comes to such a still-delicate subject. While it’s true that many porn actors have published their names, it’s often with the understanding that the only people likely to notice are in the porn-making and porn-watching communities, not likely to be seen by grandmas and co-workers who may not understand or agree with their choices due to the stigma that remains. The choice should be left to the porn actors publish their names more widely; it’s up to the rest of us to make the public sphere a more welcome, less harmful place to do so.


Sources and inspiration:

– Thanks to my cousin and his wife for starting such a fascinating and complex discussion of pornography in the context of naming versus anonymity, which brings to bear so many important and practical issues: human nature, sexuality, morality, the meaning of dignity, autonomy, and so much more

– My husband Bryan, whose intelligent conversation inspired and informed this piece throughout, besides being the most beautiful and sexy man I’ve ever had the pleasure to behold both naked and clothed.

– My sister Therese and my dear buddy Kristin, who also offered valuable insights, and patiently put up with my pestering them with counterexamples and devil’s-advocacy

– Dan Savage http://www.savagelovecast.com/

– Greta Christina http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/

– All whose work I linked to throughout the article