In Sex Wars the feminist writer Marge Piercy turns her attention to the first wave of women’s rights crusaders—and their opposition. The novel is set primarily between 1868 and 1873, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and others were denouncing gender inequalities and rallying for voting rights.
Stanton is one of the four main characters in Sex Wars and, of the three real ones, the most familiar today. She shares much of her chapters with her friend and sister suffragist Susan B. Anthony—Stanton as the eloquent voice and Anthony the organizer of the suffrage movement. The mother of seven, Stanton conceals her radical thinking behind a jolly, maternal exterior.
Virginia Woodhull conceals neither her opinions nor her behavior. She is the book’s most fascinating character, rising up from nothing, educating, and repeatedly reinventing herself as a spiritualist, free love proponent, publisher, and the first woman to own a stockbroking company and to run for president.
The most affecting story is that of the fictional Freydeh Levin, a Jewish widow who represents immigrant women who want only to survive and support their families. Freydeh is pragmatic enough to know that manufacturing condoms in her tenement kitchen to sell to pharmacies and brothels is a better way out of poverty than most routes available to a young woman of her time. But it’s a risky business for which she ends up in jail when she’s found out by the fourth main character, Anthony Comstock. Comstock, for whom the 1873 Comstock Law outlawing the delivery of “obscene, lewd, or lascivious material” was named, believes God has called him to his quest.
Not surprisingly, Comstock’s character is the least successful of the four. He’s so despicable to Piercy that she can’t create any understanding of him. The female leads come off as admirable, and Piercy’s bias toward their cause spills over into preachiness at times. The book is still worth reading for its insights into those who advocated for women’s rights a century and a half ago. Considering how radical they were for their time, their courage and independent thinking cannot fail to impress.
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