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The current round of culture wars began 1972 when Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist and lawyer, led a successful campaign to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment (“Stop ERA”), thus ending a struggle by progressive feminists that began in 1848 to secure constitutionally guaranteed equality for women. The religious right was further incensed when an all-male Supreme Court rule, in Roe v. Wade (1973), that a woman has a right to terminate her pregnancy.
Today, nearly a half-century later, the religious right has state power, strongly influencing Pres. Trump, his administration, the Republican-controlled Congress and many state/local legislatures. Often forgotten, since the mid-19thcentury, the U.S. has suffered through three culture wars.
The first culture wars took place in the 1840s through 1870s in opposition to the utopian and free-love communities. The second took place betweenthe 1890s and the 1920s, a period in which the U.S. was transformed as a nation. The suffering inflicted during this culture war, especially toward women, has been long forgotten, washed over by a century of depression, war, the consumer revolution and globalization. Nevertheless, it suggests an invaluable historical lesson of a nation in moral crisis, one that Americans need to bear in mind as Trump’s war on those seeking asylum in the U.S. plays out.
During the second culture wars, the U.S. was transformed. Its population nearly doubled, jumping to 106 million from 62 million, reshaping the nation’s demographic character. Some 23 million European immigrants, many of them Catholics and Jews, joined 2 million migrating southern African Americans and whites to recast the cities of the North and West.
This was the period in which black migration culminated in the legendary Harlem Renaissance. However, migration was driven, in part, by punitive Jim Crow laws, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and a series of lynchings, race riots and other violence that swept the nation in the years preceding and following the Great War. This was also the era of the Tuskegee syphilis study, Scopes “monkey trial” and the rise of the“new woman” who earned a wage, wore a shorter skirt, put on lipstick and secured the vote.
In the years before the U.S. entry into World War I, Christian conservatives and other social worthies undertook a campaign against what they considered dangerous “vices,” particularly commercial sex and alcohol consumption. The alleged sexual exploits of prostitutes and “promiscuous” women were identified as the primary cause of the spread of “sexually transmitted infections” (STIs). The period saw tens of thousands of women seized, forced to undergo an invasive (and very imprecise) medical examination, then – if found to have an STI — were tried and imprisoned in a detention center and forced to undergo medical treatment. They were victims of what was known as “the American Plan.”
Many of the nation’s elite (notably John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who bankrolled the program for decades) and anti-sex enforcement operatives (like Eliot Ness, made famous for his war against Al Capone and headed the government’s WW-II anti-STIs campaign) saw STIs as a symptom of the nation’s deepening moral failure. Opposition to sexual wage labor brought together traditionalists and progressives in common cause. Their success was reflected in the passage of the 1910 Mann Act outlawing interstate sex commerce, the closing of “red-light districts” prior to World War I and the passage of the Chamberlain-Kahn Act following the U.S.’s entry into the war.
One of the religious right’s first targets were the so-called red-light districts. (The term “red light” is apparently derived from the early days of prostitution in Kansas City when a railroad brakeman posted a red light outside a whorehouse while he was engaged inside.) These districts were locally-regulated zones of illicit activities, including prostitution, gambling and liquor sales. They operated throughout the country, but the most notorious ones were New Orleans’s Storyville, San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, Denver’s Market Street, Baltimore’s Block, Chicago’s Levee and New York’s Bowery, Five Points and Tenderloin. Conservative zeal led to the closing of approximately 125 districts.
Together, these initiatives restructured commercial “vice,” whether sex, drinking, gambling or drugs, forcing it into underground settings and under the control of organized crime (and corrupt law enforcement).Their effort culminated, first, in the adoption of the 18thAmendment, barring alcohol manufacturing, distribution and sales. It was followed with conservatives and progressive feminists securing the adoption of the 19thAmendment guaranteeing women the right to vote.
The nation’s entry into the Great War permitted local authorities to suspend habeas corpus, effectively denying 4thAmendment protections against illegal search and seizure. Unescorted and single women were seizedin periodic roundups, often on city streets, in public parks or outside soldiers’ camps for simply walking down the street on suspicion of being a prostitute or promiscuous. Some were indeed prostitutes, while others simply teenage girls attracted to the glamor of soldiers going off to war or “charity girls” who had sex in exchange for meals or entertainment.At this historical moment, neither a scientifically valid diagnosis nor a medically approved treatment for SDI was available.
The War Department established a quarantine policy and local authorities implemented it; it was a nationwide witch-hunt. The women and girls seized were designated “domestic enemies,” accused of undermining the war effort. Those seized were presumed guilty and, if found infected, were often given indeterminate sentences. A disproportionate number of those arrested were women of color and working-class women; black women were often kept segregated from white women, jailed in inferior facilities and faced racist attacks and sexual assaults. Incarcerated women protested their painful – and often illegal — imprisonment through hunger strikes, violent riots (including setting fire to their facility) and successful escapes.
Forced sterilization was one of plan’s worst outcomes. Drawing on the findings of the “science” of eugenics, moralists argued that human evolution culminated in the Anglo-Saxon “race.” They believed that all other races lacked the spiritual, mental and physical capabilities of the white man. This belief was shared by the “leading” people of the day, including Rockefeller and Margaret Sanger, as well as many politicians, industrialists, ministers, college professors, scientists and opinion leaders. The first legal state-sanctioned sterilization took place in Indiana in 1907 and approximately 60,000 people were sterilized as biologically inferior humans, including those identified as feeble-minded, promiscuous women and homosexual as well as convicted rapists or criminals.
The second culture wars were epitomized by the American Plan that led to the forced incarceration of an estimated 30,000 women for allegedly having an STI and to the “science” of eugenics that led to the sterilization of 60,000 “inferior” Americans. A century later we are living through a third struggle with Pres. Trump serving as commander-in-chief of a war against sex.
Two critical issues are at the heart of today’s culture wars. First, is procreation a sacred act, something divine? If not, is it a secular intimacy, an act that is personal and private? If a private act, does a woman have a right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy? Second, is the purpose of sexual engagement to fulfill the needs of procreation or the desires of pleasure? A booming $70-plus billion sex industry speaks to how pleasure has gone mainstream, been commercialized.
Traditionalists of fundamentalist religions hold dearly to one of the oldest beliefs, that sex is a sacred act for procreation. It is seen as an act between a man and a woman to assure the survival of a people, let alone the species. But the survival of the species is no longer in doubt and half of marriages end in divorce. Overpopulation, global warming, water scarcity and mass migration are threatening realities. With easily acquired birth control products, sexual pleasure has become an end in itself.
Unfortunately, Trump has about a year-and-a-half left in his first term. The outcomes of the 2018 midterm elections may foretell what happens in 2020. If Trump is reelected and the social crisis – deepening inequality – mounts, one can only wonder if the worst of the third culture wars is yet to come.