Feminist pioneers in the US


Sex Wars
By Marge Piercy
Piatkus, 2005
411 pages, $32.95 (pb)


It is the last decades of the 19th century in the US and women are stirring. Elizabeth Cady Stanton lectures and writes on the right of women to vote. Her companion, Susan B. Anthony, drives the committee engines of the women's suffrage movement. Victoria Woodhull practices and preaches free love and becomes the first woman to run for US president. Freydeh Leibowitz, the fictional protagonist in Sex Wars, learns how to vulcanise rubber to make condoms for birth control.

Early US feminism is the theme of Marge Piercy's latest novel, in which the prominent pioneers make their stand against a backdrop of unwanted pregnancies, high infant and maternal mortality, slavish piecework in the home-sweatshop, rampant prostitution and "choking domesticity".

Victoria and Tennessee Woodhull are poor sisters, forced by their family into the "spiritualist" business which, however, enables the young women to secure the patronage of the "robber baron" Cornelius Vanderbilt (and his $100 million), a well-paying customer for the "channelled" voices of his dead son and mother.

Victoria Woodhull, however, feels that she is destined to channel not just the spirit of the departed, but voices for a new world, "a new world of freedom for women". Women in seances spoke to her "of beatings, of abuse, of cruelty and neglect". Woodhull was a "sponge who absorbed their pain and sorrow" but when she has power, she resolves, she will change their troubled lives. For she, too, knew what it was "to grow up ignorant of her own body, exploited as a child, forced into sex without her consent, yoked with a drunkard in a travesty of love, to bear a child alone in a tenement and almost bleed to death".

Woodhull is a breaker of taboos, whether against women speaking in public or seeking sex purely for pleasure, whether entering business (she was the first female stockbroker) or politics (running for US president, to force the male candidates to address women's issues).

Like Woodhull, the financially independent but working-class friendly Stanton discovers the liberation of unshackling herself from convention and domesticity, and from a husband now "shopworn with bad political compromises" on women's suffrage. She, too, hits the lecture circuit and connects with the concerns of women beyond just suffrage to include the long and ancient list of discriminations in marriage, divorce, jobs, and birth control.

On contraception, Leibowitz (a fictional, but composite historical character) puts Woodhull and Stanton's words into practice. Having fled poverty and pogroms in Russia, the free-thinker and socialist establishes a family condom-making enterprise with her adopted street kids whilst searching for her sister, whose fate she fears will mirror that of other newly arrived immigrant girls who are reached out to only by "madams and pimps and proprietors of sweatshops".

These women's efforts to make a difference in righting wrongs against women do not go unnoticed by "God's bulldog", Anthony Comstock, whose wealthy supporters in the Young Men's Christian Association cheer on the crusading zealotry of their champion against "merchants of vice" (Sunday pubs, sellers of pornography and contraception), abortionists and women rebelling against their subjugation.

In particular, it would please Comstock's backers and "the Lord" to use the new anti-obscenity laws he successfully lobbied for in Washington, to put away Woodhull, a "free luster" who hangs out with communists and atheists. As the Washington-appointed secretary of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and with his revolver, handcuffs and special powers of arrest, Comstock sets out on the trail of "the notorious Woodhull", bringing the novel to its politically dramatic climax and historical fallout.

Piercy's rich and interwoven stories of real and fictional characters, each of quite distinct personality and individuality, are compellingly drawn, with veracity and insight, on a canvas vivid with the smells and sounds, the hopes and despairs, of New York's streets, brothels and overcrowded tenements. Piercy's early feminists succumb to and rise above their human and political frailties — the personal splits and reconciliations, ideological rifts and compromise, political progress and frustration, electric anger and reviving laughter of women making their own history.

Sex Wars is a stimulating novel of ideas and ideals, keenly attuned to the fissures of class, race and religion, which fractured the women's movement into radical and conservative wings. Although the historical detail can, at times, divert the novel from literature into social history, Piercy largely achieves an adroit integration of history, politics and literature from a quality artist and feminist fully engaged in the battles waged for the rights of women by women who dared, were punished for it, and ultimately prevailed.

From Green Left Weekly, July 5, 2006.
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