In SEX WARS we meet amazing powerful women who are fighting for women’s rights in the late 19th century, as well as those fighting just as hard to deny them those rights. Many of the characters are real including Anthony Comstock, whose Comstock Law made it illegal to send ‘obscene’ material through the post, including contraceptive information, Victoria Woodhull, spiritualist, suffragette, proponent of free love and first woman to stand for President, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who campaigned for woman to have the vote as well as for reform of the property laws, women’s economic rights and birth control, the abortionist Madam Ann Restell, and Lucretia Mott, women’s rights and abolitionist activist. We also learn how the women doing daily battle with poverty to care for their families have done just as much to progress sexual equality as the high-profile campaigners remembered by history. Their story is represented by Freydeh, a fictional but larger than life Jewish woman, newly arrived from Russia and who is determined to build a new life step by painstaking step, ambitious for her family and surrogate family, and willing to adapt in order to survive, and ultimately thrive, on New York’s tough streets. The paths of all these characters cross from time to time as the story unfolds but what really binds them is Marge Piercy’s understanding of the sacrifices people make to follow their passions, be they political, religious or economic. She also vividly portrays the extent to which misogyny, domesticity, poverty and so-called morality conspire to try to prevent women taking control of their own lives. Not being able to vote is only the tip of the iceberg. Nineteenth century American women have no rights to see their children if they seek divorce, cannot own property in their own name, have no workplace rights and have to endure the double standards that mean they are arrested for prostitution whilst the men buying sex usually get off scott free and mean they are ostracised for having affairs for which men are admired and applauded. This one paragraph from the novel illustrates how inequality is a matter of life and death:
I had a letter today about a young girl in Philadelphia, an English immigrant who went into domestic service. Her employer forced himself on her, then turned her int the street when she was expecting. She had her baby in an unheated garret, alone, and the baby died. She was close to starvation and had puerperal fever, but she has been tried for murder by a jury of men and is to be hanged. The judge outright said at sentencing the was making an example of her to scare other women.
As someone whose childhood was peppered with unheard protests about having to do the dishes whilst my brother didn’t and whose job brings me into regular contact with appalling data about sexual violence, the gender pay gap and women’s continued lack of representation my verdict is this: a powerful novel about a war still being fought.