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The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, & Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age
By Amy Sohn
“If Anthony Comstock were alive today, he’d burn this book and imprison the author, the publisher, the printer, and the reader.” - Kate Manning
Anthony Comstock, special agent to the U.S. Post Office, was one of the most important men in the lives of nineteenth-century women. His infamous law, passed in 1873, penalized the mailing of contraceptives and obscene materials with steep fines and long sentences. The word Comstockery came to connote repression and prudery.
Between 1853 and Comstock’s death in 1915, eight remarkable women were charged with violating state and federal Comstock laws. These “sex radicals” supported contraception, sex education for women, gender equality, and women’s right to pleasure. They took on the feared censor in explicit, personal writing, seeking to redefine work, family, marriage, and love for a bold new era. In The Man Who Hated Women, Amy Sohn tells the overlooked story of their valiant attempts to fight Comstock in court and in the press. They were publishers, writers, and doctors, and they included the first woman presidential candidate, Victoria C. Woodhull; the sexologist, Ida C. Craddock; and the anarchist, Emma Goldman. In their willingness to oppose Comstock who viewed reproductive rights as a threat to the American family, these women paved the way for second-wave feminism. Risking imprisonment and death, they redefined birth control access as a civil liberty.
The Man Who Hated Women brings these women’s stories to vivid life, recounting their personal and romantic travails alongside their political battles. Without them, there would be no Pill, no Planned Parenthood, no Roe v. Wade. This is the forgotten history of the women who waged war for the right to control their bodies.
This book is particularly timely as once again women are having to defend their right to control their own bodies. The Comstock era revealed the danger that ensues when a virulent, well-funded, highly connected, determined group gains access to political power and will stop at nothing to keep it. Reproductive rights, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press are again under assault. Wombs are still a battleground because of what they represent. Who owns women’s bodies? Who should decide their fate? What are the economic costs of unwanted motherhood? How does childbearing impact women’s ability to make and sustain a living? And what does it mean for men? Reproductive freedom has never been about reproduction alone. It is about labor, power, economics, and opportunity.
Amy Sohn is the author of five novels including Prospect Park West and Motherland. A former columnist at New York magazine, she has also written for Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, The Nation, and The New York Times. She has been a writing resident at Headlands Center for the Arts, Art Omi, and the Studios at MASS MoCA. A native New Yorker, she lives in Brooklyn with her daughters.