Sex Wars – A Novel of Gilded Age New York

A Novel of the Turbulent Post-Civil War Period


In the tradition of her bestselling World War II epic Gone to Soldiers, Marge Piercy once again re-creates a turbulent period in American history and explores changing attitudes in a land of sacrifice, suffering, promise, and reward.


“This is a big American story…harsh and enthralling. Marge Piercy is not just an author, she’s a cultural touchstone. Few writers in modern memory have sustained her passion, and skill, for creating stories of consequence… ”Sex Wars,” a resonant tale of public and private lives during a time of staggering societal shifts.”
The Boston Globe


“Any novel that starts out by tweaking men for not knowing how to find a lover’s clitoris gets my rapt attention. And sustains it throughout in this spirited romp through the Gilded Age, with some of the era’s most colorful and accomplished characters. Here are the riveting stories of brilliant feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, capitalist moneybags Cornelius Vanderbilt, notorious free lover Victoria Woodhull, and her nemesis, the one-man traveling vice squad Anthony Comstock. This is an historical novel of important events and currents in our history—yet one in which the bracing similarities between that scandalous era and our own are never far from the surface.”
—Alix Kates Shulman


“This rich novel set in post–Civil War New York stars a true-life cast of characters that includes Victoria Woodhull, the spiritualist turned first woman to run for the U.S. presidency; passionate suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton; the aged Cornelius Vanderbilt, who sits atop a $100-million fortune as he tries to make contact with his dead son; and Anthony Comstock, a crusading moralist who dedicates his life to outlawing pornography and “obscene objects made of rubber.” As they each vie for different kinds of sex-based power, the consequences of their actions echo from the halls of Congress to Manhattan ‘s back alleys.”
―Publishers Weekly (starred review)


” Triumphantly candid in its approach to sexuality, this is a message novel in the best possible sense, spectacularly engrossing and truly moving…In this mesmerizing, sexy, and forthright historical novel, she portrays heroic women determined to control every aspect of their lives, from birth control to finances. Piercy homes in on Cornelius Vanderbilt throwing his money and weight around as the first great wave of European immigrants arrives; savvy businesswomen make their fortunes running bordellos and performing abortions; the women s rights movement coalesces, and Anthony Comstock launches his fanatically censorious crusade.”


“A panoramic novel that pits the fledgling women’s-rights movement of the 19th century against a growing conservative religious movement [and] paints the politics of the post–Civil War era in broad, bright strokes.”
―Kirkus Reviews




Post-Civil War New York City is the battleground of the American dream: an era of vast fortunes and crushing poverty — an era surprisingly like our own, in which some of the most infamous characters in American history collide over the issues of sexuality, censorship, women’s rights, and privacy.


In a sprawling fictionalized history written in the epic style of Piercy’s critically acclaimed Gone to Soldiers, Sex Wars unfolds through the alternating viewpoints of Victoria Woodhull, notorious advocate of sexual freedom and candidate for President of the United States; Anthony Comstock, feared morals crusader who fought to eliminate sexual expression; the free thinking suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton; and Freydeh, a spirited young Jewish woman from Russia who takes up condom-making to support herself and her unconventional family.


We also meet Susan B. Anthony, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Madame Restell, Jay Gould, Big Jim Fisk, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Ward Beecher, Frederick Douglas, Horace Greeley, Ulysses S. Grant, and many lesser known, but no less passionate soldiers on the battlegrounds of American political history.


Marge Piercy on the writing of Sex Wars, and the Power Point Presentation


Read the First Chapter of Sex Wars