The Washington Times, January 29, 2006
After 1865, A Novelist’s View How do you like your history? Straight with footnotes or maybe with a dash of literary license? How about shaken-not-stirred and served up as fiction in a mix of historical figures and imagined characters? Had you asked me that last question before I read “Sex Wars,” I’d probably have said thanks but no thanks.
However, having read it – in a serial imitation of a single sitting – I now know that would have been a mistake. I would have missed something special. “Sex Wars” is that rare book that can satisfy lovers of history and lovers of fiction without slipping into the less-desirable category of what used to be called, perjoratively, historical fiction. This book is the genuine article – a ripping yarn that gives you a real feeling of and for the times and the people.
Subtitled “A Novel of the Turbulent Post-Civil War Period,” “Sex Wars” is Ms. Piercy’s 16th novel. She’s also written 16 volumes of poetry (giving her the literary equivalent of basketball’s double-double) plus a miscellany of four other books and a play.
It opens in 1868, flashes briefly back to 1862, picks up again in 1869, and ends about five years later, with a brief coda that provides an early-20th century update for several of the main characters. Along the way, we meet a distinguished main cast that includes, in order of appearance: Victoria Woodhull, Freydeh Levin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Anthony Comstock, with Levin the sole product of the author’s excellent imagination. In addition, Susan B. Anthony, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Horace Greeley, Jay Gould, Jim Fisk and even President U.S. Grant appear in roles that range from large to walk-on.
The action of the novel centers around the reality-based attempts of the main characters to find success and achieve the goals each one has set. And they are very different goals, indeed. Woodhull, a spiritualist and freethinker, especially in regard to sex and marriage, wanted riches and respectability, and got so close that she became the first woman to run for president of the United States before the powers-that-be moved the candle too close to her wings.
Stanton wanted not just the vote so fervently sought by her friend Susan B. Anthony, but a better deal for women across the board. The other Anthony, Comstock, desired nothing so much as to rid America of sin and vice, especially in the area of sex.
Cornelius Vanderbilt, along with Fisk and Gould, wanted, if not all the money in the world, then certainly all of it in this country. The beauty of this action is that (unlike historical events depicted in certain current movies) it is all true. You could, as they say, look it up.
And then there’s Freydeh Levin, who may not in fact have lived but who represents tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of immigrant women who did live and struggle and, in a small percentage of the cases, succeeded by achieving their goals. When we meet her, she is in her late 20s and, already a widow, living with a family of fellow Russian Jews and working full-time in a pharmacy.
“Freydeh got up before dawn as usual. She had a straw mattress in the windowless kitchen, three dollars a week. Freydeh washed quickly in a basin she filled a third full from the bucket hauled up the night before from the pump in the yard behind the tenement. She ate her bread, smoked herring and tea sitting on her cot, and then she was off to the pharmacy, leaving the tiny flat with its eight other inhabitants. She wanted, oh, she wanted, a place of her own. A place of her own: she dreamed of that day and night.”
As dramatic as the events of the period happened to be, and as simple and effective as it would have been simply to relate them in a straight chrono-logical order, Ms. Piercy the storyteller wisely keeps us in suspense as she shifts her focus from one of the principals to another.
How close to Commodore Vanderbilt do Victoria Woodhull and her temptress of a sister dare to get lest he become skittish and deny them further access and financial backing for what would become the first brokerage house owned and operated by females?
Will Anthony Comstock, the professional prude, be able to find financial support for his campaign against the evils of the flesh in person, print and product? And will the men who profess to support the suffragette cause stand up when it’s time to be counted?
As the author makes so very clear in a most effective characterization, Elizabeth Cady Stanton has her doubts. If you know your history, especially your history of the women’s movement circa the late-19th century, you already know the answer, but that doesn’t detract from the pleasure you’ll get reading Marge Piercy’s take on the way it all played out.
The development of those dramas, be they small, medium or large, should be enough to satisfy all but the most literal minded of readers, but what makes the novel – and don’t forget it is a novel – so wonderful is the character and story of Freydeh Levin.
From the moment she comes on stage she has hero written all over her, and she stays in character all through the book, but you never get the feeling that the author is overdoing it, and thus your interest (mine, anyway) never flags.
She adopts and raises not one but two half-feral street urchins of the human variety, and tames them with her love and trust. In many ways, she functions as a near-perfect symbol of the struggle for the same equality that Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony are championing for women through pen and platform.
I must confess I’ve always been a little leery of contemporary authors putting words into the mouths of historical figures without something like a diary or an autobiography to back it up. But, in what has to be a tribute to Marge Piercy’s skill as a writer and her care in using her acknowledged sources, that never bothered me in the least. In fact, I wonder what she could do with, say, the 1920s in America.
The title may be “Sex Wars” (and, yes, that may have influenced my decision to read the book, though not as much as the author’s reputation), but it’s sex in the sense of being male or female, not in the sense that made Anthony Comstock so crazy.
What you end up with after reading this powerful book is the feeling that the women conducted themselves much better than the men, and far more honorably. Hmmm. Could that be historically accurate?
The Boston Globe, December 22, 2005
Watching sex and society collide after the Civil War
The post-Civil War era in America was a time of great divisions, and nowhere were these more exaggerated than in New York City. Economic opportunities abounded, yet a vast chasm persisted between the few very rich and the many who were destitute. In the fast-growing metropolis, wealthy residents were busy building mansions in the untamed areas around Central Park, well away from the downtown tenements crowded with immigrants.
Debates raged over whether white women should gain the vote before free black men. The family was ”adored in public,” yet Manhattan hosted countless brothels whose clientele included as many married men as single ones. A woman’s place was in the home, yet thousands of women toiled in sweatshops, in conditions that shortened their lives.
As in any era, new technology brought promise and problems. The ticker-tape machine and Teletype fueled the growth of Wall Street brokerage houses. The camera helped develop a burgeoning pornography industry.
This is the harsh and enthralling world of Marge Piercy’s ”Sex Wars,” a resonant tale of public and private lives during a time of staggering societal shifts.
To women of a certain age, 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. Her considerable literary catalog includes 15 other novels, 16 books of poetry, and a memoir.
”Sex Wars” encompasses nearly 40 years of tinderbox topics. In the style of Piercy’s 1988 bestseller, ”Gone to Soldiers,” this novel blends four story lines into one large saga. Three of the four main characters are historical figures, and real events shape the intertwined stories.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton is the famous wife, mother, and tireless women’s rights activist. Her life is an oft-told tale, but Piercy goes beyond the familiar to reveal Stanton at home, in her multilayered relationship with her husband, her joy in her children, and the decades-long conversation that was her deep friendship with fellow activist Susan B. Anthony.
Victoria Woodhull is the free-love advocate who also earned a comfortable income as a spiritualist. Viewed from today’s vantage point, her seances to connect families with deceased relatives might seem comical, but Piercy highlights how common it was to lose loved ones to disease or work accidents. Many people, rich and poor, sought ways to contact those who had departed all too soon.
Woodhull’s philosophies on open marriage sound like they could be from the 1960s rather than the 1860s. But the 1960s had no one like Anthony Comstock, who waged a one-man campaign against moral depravity.Piercy deftly shows Comstock’s development from private citizen outraged at the many lewd dance halls and pornographic bookstores to unstoppable government official who viewed any information about the human body as indecent. In 1873, the Comstock Law was passed, making illegal the distribution or advertisement of any birth control, pornographic material, and many kinds of medical information.
Piercy infuses ”Sex Wars” with an impressive amount of period details. They’re everywhere without being overwhelming, just as in real life: the roles of servants in the middle class; the aromas, and odors, of big-city streets; public bathhouses where you could wash, fully clothed, in a roped-off section of the river; and the dramatic 19th-century Manhattan skyline.
The one primary character that is fictional seems at least as authentic as the historical ones. Freydeh Levin is a young widowed Russian immigrant who leaves a starvation-wages job to start her own business: manufacturing condoms. In the changing social climate of the nation, this kind of venture brings prosperity and peril.
This is a big American story. It feels most American in its dissension, in its struggles, and in its ultimately hopeful tone. ”Sex Wars” shows, in the way a deeply felt tale can, the roots of the battles we still fight today.
The New York Times Book Review, January 1, 2006
An Editor’s Choice Selection
Piercy’s 16th novel weaves together the real-life stories of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Victoria Woodhull and Anthony Comstock to create a vibrant portrait of post-Civil War America. While Stanton and Susan B. Anthony agitate for women’s suffrage, Woodhull becomes the first woman to run for president and Comstock wages a fundamentalist holy war against sexual expression of any kind. Full of historical trivia (Cornelius Vanderbilt could barely read; in the 1870’s, the legal age of consent in New York was 10), the novel’s chapters rotate among the characters until the various story lines converge with an operatic intensity. Piercy has chosen a fascinating period to explore, and as her narrative leaps between the social tiers it becomes clear just how brutally hard life was for all but the wealthiest Americans. Occasionally, the action is slowed by chunks of not entirely digested research, but Piercy works hard to make her characters come alive – and succeeds. Still, it’s a fictitious character who captures the reader’s imagination: a determined young Jewish immigrant from Russia who goes into the homemade condom business.
The Hartford Courant, December 25, 2005
Sex Wars Dives Deeply into the Past
A successful historical novelist should be able to create characters whose cultural codes of conduct and way of life differ markedly from the norms of the contemporary world while at the same time illuminating the similar struggles people have faced throughout the ages. Marge Piercy is, unquestionably, a master of historical fiction.
In her 16th novel, “Sex Wars,” Piercy re-creates the Gilded Age in New York City, bringing to life the most influential activists of the period.
Victoria Woodhull is a beautiful spiritualist with a knack for the stock market who decides to run for president. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony are financially and intellectually independent women campaigning to give women the right to vote. Anthony Comstock is leading a zealous, one-man crusade against pornography, prostitution and abortions. Cornelius Vanderbilt and his business rivals pressure corrupt politicians to adjust the gold standard in order to further expand their fortunes.
In recounting the rise and falls of these larger-than-life figures, Piercy imagines all were motivated, primarily, by their sexuality and passions.
Piercy also creates an exceptional character, Freydeh, a Russian Jew who arrives on the streets of New York City seeking a better life, but instead, in short order, loses her husband and unborn child. Still, she makes the most of her situation, adopting a little boy from the streets and starting a business that sells prophylactics. When she gets word that her sister has traveled to New York and been forced into prostitution somewhere in the city, Freydeh sets out to save her.
With Freydeh, Piercy offers us a view of the immigrant experience that adds a different perspective to the city shared by the famous historical characters.
While the history Piercy draws on is well-documented, and though she is not the first novelist to recount how the lives of many of these illustrious characters overlapped, by delving deep into the psyches of such wildly divergent individuals, she gives the material fresh life.
Even readers already very familiar with post-Civil War politics, economics and society will gain a new and different view of the past. Piercy focuses her lens close-up on her characters and picks up bright background hues as well.
The landscape of “Sex Wars” is rich with fascinating historical details woven seamlessly into the various narratives. Freydeh and other New Yorkers bathe in the East River, paying pennies for a towel and a few minutes to wash. In the story of Samuel Tilden’s disappearance from public life after losing to Rutherford Hayes in an election that hinged on Florida and had to be decided by the electoral commission, the reality of history repeating itself is uncanny.
Readers from Connecticut may be particularly interested to learn that the women’s rights convention of 1870 was planned in Hartford with the hope that New York City and Boston factions would be reconciled. It seems that we have long been a meeting ground for followers of competing teams.
Through storylines in “Sex Wars” that remain closely tied to the past, Piercy’s deep respect for historical accuracy is revealed, though her novel loses some momentum when she fails to imagine how her disparate characters might have collided in a more combustive climax. But while plot and narrative drive are not this novel’s strongest suits, “Sex Wars” succeeds remarkably in bringing history textbook characters to fully realized, fiery and memorable life.
The Washington Post Book World, December 18, 2005
Feisty Liberated Women Clash with a Religious Bigot in Gilded Age New York
Amid the controversy surrounding the apparent trend of well-educated young women opting for motherhood over careers, the hard-won battles for women’s equality fought by previous generations are easily forgotten. Marge Piercy’s fascinating and only too relevant novel about post-Civil War America portrays women’s rights crusader Elizabeth Cady Stanton maturing in an era when if a married woman “earned or inherited any money, it was [her husband’s]. Men owned their children. . . A woman’s body belonged to her husband, no matter how brutal or syphilitic he might be. If a woman was raped, it was her disgrace. . . . Few jobs were open to women — mostly domestic service, teaching children and prostitution.” Women did not have the right to vote, and abortion was illegal, although practiced from necessity in a netherworld of fear.
Piercy is the author of 16 previous novels, including the World War II epic Gone to Soldiers , many volumes of poetry and essays and a memoir, Sleeping with Cats . In Sex Wars , she focuses on three real women — Stanton, fellow suffragist Susan B. Anthony and Victoria Woodhull, a spiritualist, stockbroker and the first woman to run for president — who are determined to forge their own destinies. They are matched by Anthony Comstock, an anti-pornography, anti-abortion and anti-birth control zealot. Filling a panoramic canvas, Piercy portrays the tumultuous Gilded Age, its vast extremes of wealth and poverty, social upheaval and rampant hypocrisy. “These were times when the family was adored in public,” muses Stanton, “when every preacher and public official and journalist praised fidelity and chastity and then in private did his best to escape the first and destroy the second.” Into this heady mix, Piercy adds a fictional protagonist, Freydeh, a feisty, widowed Russian-Jewish immigrant committed to creating a better life for her family.
Piercy has a gift for conjuring the texture of an historical era. Amid a chaos of languages, races and nationalities, the reader walks with Piercy’s characters along New York City streets “paved with dirty ice stained with horse urine.” Freydeh yearns to buy eggs “packed in bran” instead of the “cheaper ones, packed in brine.” In upper-class brothels, the prostitutes who listen to their customers’ unguarded talk pick up stock tips. Even the séances attended by a decrepit Cornelius Vanderbilt are believably rendered. Piercy’s unwavering eye is equally acute in fifth-floor walk-ups and Fifth Avenue mansions. When Freydeh enters the profitable business of condom manufacturing, Piercy treats the reader to an abundance of information on this seldom-scrutinized industry.
Sex Wars presents a female-centric world and includes graphic sex scenes from the woman’s point of view. Ironically enough for a novel exalting the triumphs and desires of women, the most psychologically astute portrait is of the abhorrent Comstock. As Piercy delineates the obsessions that drive his intolerance, mapping his progression from an ambitious salesman of women’s notions to a religious bigot (and exploring the role of the YMCA in promoting his work), he becomes, against all odds, a complex and tragic figure: His biological daughter dies young, his adopted daughter is euphemistically called “slow,” and his wife retreats into herself while Comstock finds refuge within the sheltering, imprisoning confines of his prejudices. Piercy also shows the suffering that his tyranny inflicts on the impoverished. “Comstock likes to cause trouble to those who can’t defend themselves, but he doesn’t go against those who have more power than he does,” explains a brothel madam whose business has escaped Comstock’s cudgel because a police chief protects her. Those without official protection, like Freydeh, serve prison terms when they accidentally fall into his net.
Nonetheless, the novel remains an object lesson for our day: Sex Wars ends with the 1915 court battle between Comstock and birth-control proponent Margaret Sanger. Sanger won that battle, but when she opened a birth control clinic in Brooklyn the following year, the police intervened and Sanger served one month in prison — yet another skirmish in the unending fight for women’s equality.
The Portland Oregonian, December 4 2005
I magine an America where scandal creates a media frenzy, feminists are vilified as man-haters, the Christian right calls all the shots, political groups are rife with infighting and the presidential election is decided in the Supreme Court. It isn’t today; it’s 1872.
Back in that day, women didn’t have the right to vote and were considered their husbands’ chattel property. But that didn’t stop many of them from making their own livings and changing the world. “Sex Wars: A Novel of the Turbulent Post-Civil War Period,” by prolific author and poet Marge Piercy, follows the lives of four New York denizens in the years after the Civil War. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Victoria Woodhull and Anthony Comstock are real historical figures who made an impact on that society’s culture. Freydeh Levin, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, is a fictional character based upon the experiences of many young women of the time.
In “Sex Wars,” Piercy examines the social, political and emotional battles that women in the late 1800s faced. Stanton, a Seneca Falls, N.Y., housewife, spearheads the woman’s rights movement with her friend, Susan B. Anthony. Woodhull pulls herself up by her garter straps, out of a horrible family life and disastrous marriage, to become New York’s first woman stockbroker and the first woman to run for president. But as hard as women work to survive and thrive, many are thwarted by religious fanatic Comstock, who believes women should be kept at home, meek and mild. He makes it his life’s mission to eliminate the evils of vice, pornography, prostitution, abortion, contraception and other “crimes against the family.”
Perhaps the most compelling character is Levin, the widowed immigrant who starts her own condom manufacturing business in her tenement kitchen. Levin’s optimism and compassion guide her through the filthy streets of lower Manhattan as she searches for her missing sister, takes in orphaned guttersnipes and sends money back to Russia so the rest of her family can join her. It is a typical American Dream story with a twist — Levin is doing it for herself.
Eventually, all these lives intersect when the so-called “Comstock Laws” criminalize writing about woman’s rights and providing contraception — among many other offenses. Piercy presents a fascinating, street-level view of American history through feminist-colored glasses. Though “Sex Wars” is a novel, it is well-researched and crammed with tasty tidbits about the culture of the day, such as how to vulcanize rubber or make a living as a spiritualist or get tight with Cornelius Vanderbilt.
The men in “Sex Wars” range from brutes and louts to pro-woman’s rights freethinkers. Vanderbilt, for example, supports Woodhull’s brokerage business yet feels his own daughters aren’t capable of handling any inheritance. There are many men who champion the suffragist movement, but the reality for most single women in New York City is either working in poverty and squalor or prostitution. But with luck and the help of a few good men, the woman’s rights movement inches forward.
Piercy is adept at tying the threads of these lives together. She also stays true to her theme of regeneration and the forward movement of political and social cycles. Despite the historical base and tragic undertones, the novel is entertaining, enlightening and balanced with humor. “Sex Wars” successfully proves that in the battle of the sexes, it all comes down to the individual warrior. As Freydeh tells her newly arrived family, ” ‘Here everybody can start over and over again, and nobody need know about the shame. This is a hard place. But if you’re strong, you can do well, you can set up your children to do even better.’ “
Imagine an America where anyone can reinvent one’s self, every day is a fresh start and one person has the power to start a revolution. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Romatic Times BOOKCLUB, December, 2005
Though Piercy’s novel of the turbulent days following the Civil War centers on Russian immigrant Freydeh, a young widow earning a meager income by making reliable condoms, much of the novel revolves around actual events and the powerful historical persons who shaped the history of America. Piercy recreates this world through the lives of such larger-than-life figures as Victoria Woodhull, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Cornelius Vanderbilt [who] swirl around her heroine, who searches for her sister on the teeming streets of New York. This allows Piercy to examine the changing mores of society and the roles of men, women, minorities and sexuality in the decade that shaped “the war of the sexes.” Piercy is magnificent at putting together seemingly disparate pieces of history and blending them into a novel that has contemporary significance.
Publishers Weekly, Sept 5 2005
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. Piercy (Gone to Soldiers) powerfully dramatizes the early feminists’ zeal and the high stakes of the gender wars it set in motion, and offers a wealth of period detail, including tips on using an outdoor latrine when living in a fifth-floor walk-up and the cost to bathe (fully dressed, no soap) in the East River. Most poignant among the invented characters is Freydeh Leibowitz, a young Russian-Jewish widow, who, far from the scandalous headlines and saloon gossip of the times, makes a living for herself and her adopted children, penny by penny, as a manufacturer of reliable condoms. Stylistically, the narration and dialogue don’t wow, but the people, their ways of living and the ways they are marked by sex certainly do.
Booklist, Sept 1 2005
The title Sex Wars sounds like Star Wars, and although Piercy s latest is set on Earth, it does illuminate a strange and treacherous world: the Gilded Age in New York City . Piercy s great theme is always the battle between the sexes and the hardships misogyny imposes on women. 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. Piercy so vividly imagines the minds of the historical figures she fictionalizes that it is almost like visiting different planets to go from Comstock s neurotic psyche to the inner realm of the brilliantly scheming and sensual Victoria Woodhull, a beautiful medium who becomes the first woman stockbroker and a women s rights advocate. Piercy s portrayals of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony are strikingly affectionate and funny, and the imaginary Freydeh Levin, a strong and giving Russian Jewish immigrant, is equally compelling as she goes into business manufacturing condoms. Triumphantly candid in its approach to sexuality, this is a message novel in the best possible sense, spectacularly engrossing and truly moving.
Library Journal, Oct 15 2005
In 1868, thousands of immigrants streamed into New York City in search of the American dream and instead found crushing poverty. Among this influx is recently widowed Freydeh, a Russian Jewish girl who must learn how to survive and finance her family’s passage to the United States by herself. As an immigrant, Freydeh is barred from respectable trades and forced to juggle several
abysmal jobs. While toiling away, she learns that one of her sisters is already in the city and seemingly lost. Woven into Freydeh’s story of survival is the real-life fight for women’s rights, with cameos by historical figures like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Poet, novelist, and essayist Piercy (Gone to Soldiers) deftly weaves both story lines into a novel that will please historical fiction fans. It coincides with the 85th anniversary of the passage of 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, and this will likely boost interest. Recommended
for all public libraries.