When it comes to Americans’ understanding of sexual privacy and public sexual expression, most of us are effectively members of the American Civil Liberties Union. This is so even for people who carry no card, pay no dues, and—if such a thing were possible—have never even heard of the organization.
That’s the takeaway from How Sex Became a Civil Liberty, Leigh Ann Wheeler’s dense but fascinating account of the ACLU’s wildly successful efforts, since its founding almost 100 years ago, to bring sex under the purview of the Bill of Rights. Wheeler, a Binghamton University historian, could have stuck with a wonky narrative about a long march of law and jurisprudence. Instead, she’s taken what she calls an “empathic” approach. She has combed vast archives, including personal correspondence of the ACLU’s founders and decades of files from the national office and local affiliates.
From these papers she has assembled a story about men and women working through their own sexual passions and contradictions as they shaped a legal and political practice for the entire country. She reveals how activists pushed, slouched, and pushed some more to arm their fellow citizens with sexual rights, even as those rights provoked further conflicts, including among ACLUers themselves.
Wheeler’s story starts in the 1920s, as young, educated men and women flocked to Greenwich Village to partake of a modernist cultural revolution with heady new ideas about the nature and purpose of sex. One of these migrants was Roger Baldwin. As a 12- or 13-year-old in the 1890s, he had been seduced by his family’s Irish servant. He’d spent the next few years having sex with her, learning, as he put it, “everything that was to be known, even how to prevent getting her pregnant.”
In the Village, Baldwin met Madeleine Zabriskie Doty, who had spent her youth wondering if she was physically attracted to women rather than men. By the 1920s, she was in love with Baldwin. The couple wed in the new style, sans ring or vows. And Baldwin founded the ACLU.