Friday, April 4, 2008

Sex Wars

Sex Wars: A Novel Of Gilded Age New York, Marge Piercy. Piercy's novel explores the formative years of feminism through the intersecting lives of four characters. Three of them -- proto-feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, free love advocate Victoria Woodhull, and moralist Anthony Comstock -- were pivotal players in the gender wars of the late 19th Century. The fourth character, the fictional Freydeh Leibowitz, is a young Russian-Jewish widow searching among the tenements for her lost sister while trying to make a life for herself and Sammy, the street urchin who attaches himself to her. Other historical figures come and go, including Cornelius Vanderbilt, Susan B. Anthony, and Henry Ward Beecher. At all times, Piercy demonstrates command of the era, as her characters find themselves involved in everything from unregulated financial shenanigans to the manufacture and selling of condoms.

While Piercy is no F. Scott Fitzgerald as word smith, she paces her story effectively. Her genius lies in making debates over the nuances of 19th Century feminism compelling as fiction, as alive as the rough-and-tumble of tenement life. As a consequence, her characters thrive in the imagination, as does Gilded Age New York as witnessed by them. The fullness of their lives also conquers the light narrative: You're so interested in finding out what they will do next that you don't mind a thin plot. The people and the times are more than enough.

The monstrous Comstock, progenitor of the Religious Right, is perhaps the most memorable character -- a twisted fusion of sexual repression and perversion who takes pleasure in the suicides he causes. Even in his case, though, Piercy plays fair: She shows how Comstocks' disastrous childhood left him with a penchant for control and authority combined with a fear and awe of women.

Woodhull and Canton receive more sympathetic treatment. As a pair, they stand for a femme ideal of intellectual attainment, free thinking, and liberated sexuality. In constrast lies Comstock's notion of the ideal woman: His quiet, compliant, mildly retarded daughter. Better a little slow than too quick, he tells his wife.

Piercy is especially strong on the debates and competing personalities with the feminist movement. She contrasts Stanton's broader vision with Anthony's single-minded dedication to gaining the right to vote, a cause Stanton eventually loses interest in. Who will care about voting when their immediate worry is food for their family, Stanton wonders. We see this perspective embodied in Freydeh, who achieves independence without even thinking about voting and despite running afoul of Comstock.

Stanton and Anthony's complex and conflicting responses to Woodhull also illuminate the differing perspectives of the political and personal. Fascinated by Woodhull's spiritualism and personality, the prim Anthony is nonetheless repelled by Woodhull's frank advocacy of women's sexuality, believing it will slow the progress of the movement. Stanton disagrees. How can anyone claim progress for women if obtaining the vote means behaving the way men want them to? Isn't Woodhull in effect living the dream, doing as she wants and encouraging other women to do the same without worrying about what men think about her? Anthony dominates the movement, though, and when Comstock trains his sights on Woodhull, the suffragists who once embraced her turn away.

The parallels to today are obvious, and Piercy doesn't try to hide them. Comstock not only stands for the religious right in America, he stands for the Taliban. Some women and some societies may have progressed, Piercy reminds us, but women around the world remain oppressed by poverty, ignorance, and religion. And the forces arrayed against them haven't changed much at all.

1000m row

5 sets of:
15 wall balls (16 lb ball at 8' high target)
21 sumo dead lifts (53 lbs kettlebell)
250m row

1 comment:

Renegade Eye said...

I think the semi historical novel format makes the book more interesting, than a straight feminist history book.