Sex Wars: The Writing Of

Marge Piercy on the Writing of Sex Wars:

“I was attracted to the era after the Civil War because I found it had so many of the same divisions and conflicts as our own time. The role of women in the public sphere and in the family, the degree to which free sexual expression was valuable, permissible, tolerated or condemned, whether Church and State should continue to be separated or whether Christianity should be the official religion, as opposed to all the other religions found in the States – these are all deep divisions in our own time as they were then.

As a woman active in the Second Wave of feminism, I was curious about the important figures in the First Wave. The standard figure is Susan B. Anthony, spinster, plain woman with her hair pulled back in a tight no-nonsense bun. Did she really represent the women active at that time? In the Second Wave, we had a huge variety of women from the puritanical to the libertarian, and I suspected that as also true of the First Wave. Every generation tends to think they invented sex, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. I wanted to know if the Victorian period in American politics was really as staid as we imagine. And of course it wasn’t – not even slightly.

Those who wanted censorship and legal penalties to control or abolish free sexual expression were responding to an abundance of pornography, visual and written, to sex shows, to nudity on the stage, to the huge numbers of prostitutes everywhere, and also to the free love, free thought movements. The sex radicals terrified those who considered sex evil in itself. The standard attack then, as now, centered on the possible corruption of children and young people. Thus I saw Anthony Comstock, whose laws are still on the books and invoked against the internet as an icon of control and repression, and Victoria Woodhull as the opposite icon, representing everything he feared and hated. Their actual confrontation I thought emblematic of the conflicts of that time and in some ways, our own. It as an era in which “old time religion” was strong and so was nostalgia for what was imagined to be the good old days of small town and village America; at the same time various groups were demanding equality, working people were beginning to organize, vast fortunes were being made overnight in an unregulated stock market as well as in the founding of corporations, while people starved in the streets. Great contrasts, enormous conflict and the clash of ideologies and values.

I knew it would be difficult for me to enter the mind of Anthony Comstock, but I worked very hard to understand him and the way he saw the world. In the end, I enjoyed trying to recreate him.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the immigrant woman Freydeh were the easiest for me to enter. I admired Elizabeth ’s intellect, courage and zest for life. Her multifaceted life – both in the domestic, the social and the political and intellectual realms – enlivened my research on her. Freydeh is in part drawn from my own female relatives and their strength, persistence and inventiveness. That immigrant women, that Jewish immigrants, went into the kitchen business of making condoms was something I only learned about in my research.

Victoria Woodhull represented a different kind of challenge. I had to study her carefully in order to determine in my own mind to what degree she believed in the spirits and in her own mediumistic abilities, to what degree she was a mouthpiece for others’ ideas and to what degree she operated independently. Having had a mother who claimed to be telepathic and who read palms with great success probably helped me enter Victoria and create her as a viable character.

All of these characters, including Comstock, fascinated me and I hoped would intrigue readers. They were all strong and striking people.

Doing the research on the period confirmed my suspicions of its relevance to American society today. As usual, I did far more research than I could use in the novel, but I think it all helped me to create on paper that period in all its complexity, novelty and conflict. Parallels that intrigued me included debates about sexual freedom, the role of women in public and private life, debates about censorship and whether the fear that children might view writing, art or entertainment intended for adults that would damage them irreparably was justified or was sufficient reason to ban such adult content. There were similar debates about immigration and whether immigrants from certain countries were dangerous or might contaminate the body politic. There were deep social and political divisions that played out in the media of the time, in elections, in violence in the streets. There were fierce differences of opinion on how much religion, particularly Christianity, should control public and private life. There were strong differences of opinion on contraception and abortion—widely practiced but often officially and publicly condemned.

The gap between the very rich and the poor was widening, as it is today, and the poor were blamed for being poor, poverty being considered a moral failing – as there is more than a hint of in current rhetoric. So I was drawn to this turbulent period, not a mirror for our own, but one in which many of the same forces were contending and many of the same ideologies were clashing.”

At universities around the country Marge Piercy delivers a highly praised Power Point presentation about the novel and this amazing period of American history. Click here if you’re interested in booking an event: piercy events.

Read the First Chapter of Sex Wars

Some of the many characters and events in Sex Wars Power Point Presentation:


Victoria Woodhull

Anthony Comstock

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Tennessee Claflin
(Victoria’s Sister)

Madame Restell
(notorious abortionist
to NYC high society)

Some scenes from
Sex Wars:

The crush of Immigrants arriving at Castle Island, New York City

Homeless children sleeping
in the Lower East Side streets

One of the ‘French Postcards’
that drove vice crusader Anthony Comstock to raid book stores

Fashionably dressed prostitutes
surrounded by “sporting men,”
a sub-culture dedicated to whoring,
gambling and booze.

A directory of brothels for “sporting men” listing the names and addresses of NYC madames, the features and peculiarities of their establishments.

‘The Tombs,’ the dreaded New York City prison where Victoria and Tennie did time.