Our Bodies, Ourselves

(From The Book Jacket)
Reviewed by Lauren Belfer
Sunday, December 18, 2005


A Novel of the Turbulent Post-Civil War Period

by Marge Piercy

Morrow. 411 pp. $24.95

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 sances 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. Piercy's male characters, alas, don't stand a chance. Virtually all are brutal exploiters, charming rogues, outright misogynists or weak, judgmental fools, good for little except the sexual fulfillment of women -- and it's a rare man who achieves that height. Brothel madams, fine businesswomen all, recognize and harness men's failings. "There's no love in men," one says. "But there certainly is profit."

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.

But for all Piercy's skill at evoking a passionate time, Sex Wars reads more like vivid biography and social history than like a novel. The profusion of historical detail eventually overwhelms the characters. Too often Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony speak in stilted dialogue to recap pivotal events in the women's rights movement that surely they, as the primary organizers and participants, already know about. When Freydeh's sister becomes lost in the dark underside of New York, Freydeh's search for her becomes merely an extended opportunity for Piercy to explore still more neighborhoods of the city.

The ability of fiction to elucidate the moral and emotional conflicts of individuals is oddly missing from S ex Wars, subsumed in a rush of facts, in an attachment to chronology rather than reflection and insight. 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.

Lauren Belfer is the author of the novel "City Of Light."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company