The Portland Tribune
Battle of the sexes makes for lively tale
There’s no shortage of spice in account of feminism’s first wave
By ERIC BARTELS Issue date: Tue, Dec 6, 2005
In her newest novel, Marge Piercy conjoins feminism and history, subjects that can lend themselves to humorlessness and stuffy pedantry.
But Piercy goes right for the naughty bits.
“I’m not a historian, I’m a novelist,” she says. “I get into the characters.”
It isn’t that the 69-year-old Piercy can’t move about with authority in bygone worlds. In previous books, her chosen milieus have included everything from the French Revolution to World War II.
But even setting her 16th novel, “Sex Wars,” in 19th-century America doesn’t keep Piercy from getting to the juicy stuff. And fast.
Her heroine, who turns out to be real-life feminist and suffragette Victoria Woodhull, teams up with a full-bodied sister at the outset, plotting to bend multimillionaire industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt to her will.
Visiting him in his New York office, the women promise the gruff but grieving tycoon help in communicating with his dead mother, as well as their own brand of physical “healing.”
The cleavage is flashing by page 10, and the reader is assured that bodices will be ripped in short order.
Behind the pages of the bawdy tale lies the guiding passion of the author and poet: a lifelong devotion to women’s issues. She seems to relish the idea of women advancing themselves by any means necessary.
“I came out of poverty,” says the Detroit-born Piercy, whose mother quit school in the 10th grade to work as a chambermaid. “I have a different view.”
Piercy, who will be in Portland on Thursday for a reading and book signing, made one thing clear in a phone conversation last week: She feels the United States owes a great debt to pioneering women who courageously chose economic empowerment over polite conformity.
She says the post-Civil War America in which “Sex Wars” is set was a place where corporate greed was on the rise and politicians were often corrupt, yet moralists trained their sights on the sins of the working classes.
“There’s so much it has in common with our own time,” she says. “Contraception, abortion, election fraud, censorship, Christianity. Those were all the hot issues at the time.”
Some of it, she says, was in response to a Victorian-era America that was far less “starched” than one imagines.
“Virginity was highly prized by the upper classes,” says Piercy, who lives in Cape Cod, Mass. “But you could also see ads in The New York Times for abortion and prostitution. The West was settled by cowboys and whores.”
In seeking a protagonist for “Sex Wars,” Piercy bypassed the better-known Susan B. Anthony for Woodhull and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, charismatic agitators whose more radical and outspoken beliefs earned them many detractors.
“I had always been interested in Elizabeth Cady Stanton,” Piercy says. “She was a much more interesting character than Susan B. Anthony. She was interested in more than suffrage.”
Woodhull, along with her sister, Tennie, became the first female stockbrokers on Wall Street. She would run against incumbent Ulysses S. Grant for the presidency in 1872, the first woman to do so.
“The women of the first wave were often very passionate,” Piercy says.
Language may jar reader
Piercy occasionally runs afoul of critics, who have taken her to task for populating historic settings with characters and behaviors that don’t square with the period.
The reader may stumble over it in “Sex Wars.” As the sisters prepare to court Vanderbilt, Victoria says: “He’ll only give us five minutes. So if we can’t hook him in five, we’re out the door.”
Did people really talk like that in 1868?
In any case, the book is good fun, and Piercy unearths some colorful, underreported history. She says men of the period increasingly took to sporting life — gambling, that is — that included boxing, cockfighting and even rat fighting.
Once rubber could be vulcanized, many immigrant women of the period earned a living making condoms at home.
“You had the wealthy getting alarmed,” Piercy says. “They were worried that their sons were going to become too interested in pleasure. Protestant denominations were extremely militant at that time.”
It was amid this atmosphere that women’s issues began to enter the public discussion, even if none of the movement’s most prominent leaders would live to see their efforts rewarded.
Things are better, but …
Speaking from her Cape Cod home, Piercy seems anything but embittered by a half century of social activism. She says women have made obvious advances: in education, in sports, in health care, to name a few. But the fight is hardly over.
“Health care for women has improved in some areas,” she says. “It’s improved for women with means.
“I see progress. But anytime that you move forward, those who don’t want you to move forward push back. At the moment, we’re in a state of regression.”
Piercy says American society doesn’t conspire against women alone.
“I see the gap between rich and poor growing. The pay in our society has no relationship to the importance of the work. I see corporations with no nationality. They’re not American. They have no loyalty whatsoever. I think a lot of other people are starting to get disgruntled.”
She offers no quarter to moralists who would ignore such issues in favor of saving sinners from their prurient ways, in 1868 or now:
“All the fundamentalists in the world have more in common with each other than they do with ordinary people. They’re all nuts.”