It’s the story of an immigrant struggling to survive economically in the big city, a woman running for president, a crusade against pornography and birth control, a decades-long debate on how to achieve political equality for women.
No, it’s not today’s newspaper – it’s a historical novel by Marge Piercy. You might know Piercy from one of her other 16 novels or 17 books of poetry (three of her older novels, Woman on the Edge of Time, Small Changes, and Braided Lives are faves of mine). In Sex Wars, she focuses on the post Civil War period, interweaving the stories of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Victoria Woodhull, and Anthony Comstock, along with a fictional character, Freyda Levin, a Jewish immigrant who becomes a condom manufacturer to support herself and her family.
She makes the most of these spicy characters. Stanton and Anthony are the best known of the bunch, but Piercy gives us new insight into their private lives and friendship. Woodhull – the free-loving spiritualist, stock-broker, and first female presidential candidate – was notorious in her day, and Piercy humanizes her, showing her strength and pragmatism. Anthony Comstock, who gave his name to the Comstock Law that made illegal the distribution of any material he deemed obscene (think birth control information, anatomy textbooks, etc.), is even a somewhat sympathetic – if pathetic – character.
I love watching novelists make historical characters and periods come alive – and the details of the smells, sights, and sounds of 19th century life are powerful. But the fictional character, Freyda, was just as engaging. Freyda’s not the usual immigrant mamaleh, and I loved the juxtaposition of the new American making her way in the Yankee world while retaining her very Jewish flavor.
Though she could have been a bit more subtle, Piercy couldn’t do a better job of showing how deeply rooted the contemporary sex wars are in our nation’s history. So who’s writing the next chapter?