Sunday, May 14, 2006

Sex Wars: A novel of the turbulent post - Civil War period

by Marge Piercy (NY: HarperCollins, 2005)

This book is 411 pages long, but I wished it were longer.

Marge Piercy is perhaps best known for her 1976 novel Woman on the Edge of Time, which provided two alternate futures. She is an extremely prolific writer, with at least 15 published novels, plus poetry, essays, and a memoir called Sleeping with Cats. I see from a biography of her online that she was born in Detroit in 1936, and so on March 31 just past, she turned 70.

I've read several of her works and always admired her eye for the political and the feminist. She tended to long works, and some of them felt a bit hastily drawn, though satisfying nonetheless. But in this new book, she has really outdone herself, with the deft and practiced hand of a Julia Child of fiction, she has made the dialogue, the descriptions, the background information, the political and personal analysis all taste just right.

Sex Wars features a number of important historical characters. There is Susan B. Anthony, as seen through the eyes of her long-time feminist colleague Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Through them we learn a great deal about splits and alliances in the women's rights movement and the former abolitionist movement. Perhaps the most dominant character is Victoria Woodhull, best known for running for President when women still didn't have the vote, and for advocating free love. The story of her rise from a family of rascals through spiritualism and wise investment, to become a stockbroker, publisher, and politico -- and then her fall -- is one I knew little about and found really fascinating. Another character, probably invented but emblematic of her class, is Freydeh, a widowed Jewish immigrant from the Pale, who goes into the business of making condoms at home to support herself and children she takes in, and to bring her family to America. Both Woodhull's and Freydeh's stories take the reader in and out of a variety of brothels, assignation houses, and an abortionist's home, and reveal sexual facts of the period. (In terms of birth control, Woodhull prefers the vinegar-soaked sea sponge.) And finally, we have the villain of the piece, though he is rather humanly portrayed, Joseph Comstock. It was Comstock, supported in large part by the YMCA, who gained vast political and personal power over others in the name of anti-vice -- closing bookstores, arresting sellers and makers of contraceptive devices, getting laws passed against both birth control and abortion. I'll certainly never feel the YMCA is an innocuous place to go swimming again! The descriptions of the prisons where the arrested and convicted were housed is fascinating and chilling. Through Woodhull, we also learn a great deal about the great investors of the day: Cornelius Vanderbilt, James Fisk, and Jay Gould; and about a few journalists including the detestable Horace Greeley. There is also a glimpse of ward politics.

I thank Marge Piercy for making this period of history so accessible, absorbing, and modern-feeling. I laugued out loud when I read that Rutherford B. Hayes stole the Presidential election through vote chicanery in Fl0rida, with the connivance of a Republican-packed Supreme Court. The war on contraception is also making a comeback (see the article "The War on Sex" by Cristina Page and tom Paine in Alternet: ).

I think I'll go back soon and read more of Piercy's works that I've missed, and definitely keep my eye out for her next one.

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