This engrossing new history of American women’s fight to gain autonomy over their sexuality and reproductive choices has a somewhat misleading title: The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age. While Anthony Comstock, the “anti-vice” crusader and U.S. postal inspector, was without a doubt a man who hated women, his story is ultimately less significant than those of the brave women who stood up to him at the dawn of the 20th century.
Comstock’s drive to root out and destroy materials that he considered pornographic led to the passing of the Comstock Act in 1873, which made it illegal to mail “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” materials through the U.S. Postal Service. In his role as postal inspector, and inspired by a mania for “purity,” he defined pamphlets and books about contraception and family planning as “obscene” and subsequently hounded, prosecuted and even drove to suicide people who disseminated such information.
Bestselling author Amy Sohn vividly brings to life the activists who opposed Comstock’s efforts in The Man Who Hated Women. Suffragist Victoria C. Woodhull, free love advocate Angela Heywood, spiritualist Ida C. Craddock, abortionist Madame Restell, anarchist Emma Goldman and birth control defender Margaret Sanger are just a few who doggedly fought against the Comstock laws in order to bring information about sex and birth control to American women at the turn of the century.
Sohn has unearthed a wealth of vivid historic detail about these women’s resistance to Comstock’s censorship. Dr. Sara Chase, for example, not only sued Comstock for damaging her medical practice but named the vaginal syringe she sold to women for contraceptive douching the “Comstock syringe.” Craddock, who believed that sex was a deeply spiritual act, fought for the rights of Egyptian belly dancers to perform the “hoochie-coochie.”
Sohn places these mostly forgotten “sex radicals” at the center of the history of the women’s rights movement. That this battle continues in our own time makes The Man Who Hated Women all the more important and enlightening.