‘The Man Who Hated Women’ Is Mostly About the Women He Hated

“The Man Who Hated Women,” the arresting title of Amy Sohn’s new e book, would have been extra becoming if the e book had been actually about the man who hated girls. But Sohn’s narrative is much less about Anthony Comstock — the self-styled ethical crusader and chief architect of the Comstock Act of 1873, which made it a federal offense to ship “obscene, lewd or lascivious” materials via the mail — than it’s about the targets of his hatred, the girls themselves.

Aside from providing a number of perfunctory biographical particulars, Sohn largely depicts Comstock as a nuisance or a cartoon villain — a pathetically obsessed determine who pops up from time to time to make life horrendously tough for the folks he pursued. She earnestly pronounces him “the man who did more to curtail women’s rights than anyone else in American history.” More than anybody? Is she positive about that?

Sohn, the creator of a number of dishy novels and a former columnist about intercourse and relationships for New York Press and New York journal, doesn’t attempt to current Comstock as something extra difficult than a self-satisfied prig; nor does she sufficiently parse a few of the extra troubling beliefs of the girls she calls “sex radicals.” As she explains in her conclusion, wherein she takes a swipe at “victim-oriented feminism,” Sohn meant this e book to drive house some extent.

“Greater historical awareness of the sex radicals can make them provocative role models for women emboldened by today’s #MeToo movement and outraged by the 21st-century rise of nativist, sexist demagogues who want to turn back the clock to the Comstock era,” she writes. The mixture of the overstated (“turn back the clock”) and underdrawn (“greater historical awareness”) displays the awkwardness of this e book: “The Man Who Hated Women” gestures at a gripping narrative and a profound argument whereas finally falling wanting both.

Those “provocative role models” embody the stockbroker, suffragist and presidential candidate Victoria C. Woodhull; her sister Tennessee Claflin; the sexologist Ida C. Craddock; the anarchist Emma Goldman; and the contraception activist Margaret Sanger. They violated the Comstock regulation by dishing out details about intercourse or contraception or offering precise contraceptive units. Some of the girls in Sohn’s e book had been free lovers; a number of of them had been spiritualists. Almost all of them had been advocates of hereditarianism and eugenics. Craddock insisted that giving girls management over copy would make for a extra harmonious social order, as a result of youngsters who had been needed by their mother and father had been “superior” to these “who are the result of accident or of lust.”

The e book begins at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, with Craddock watching a blinding belly-dancing efficiency at the Cairo Street Theater. Where Craddock noticed a elegant manifestation of phallic worship, an ode to “self-controlled pleasure,” Sohn writes, Comstock would recall that he solely noticed “the most shameless exhibition of depravity.”

Amy Sohn, whose new e book is “The Man Who Hated Women.”Credit…Craig LaCourt

Ever since he had efficiently lobbied for the Comstock Act 20 years earlier than, he had been serving as a particular agent for the U.S. Postal Service. He appeared to take pleasure in this federal extension of his powers; he had began out as a puritanical vigilante — a dry-goods store clerk in New York City who took it upon himself to conduct pornography raids — earlier than he obtained official sanction as a secretary for the Y.M.C.A.-created New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

Comstock’s try to shut down the “Oriental dances” at the World’s Fair didn’t succeed, however he continued to pursue his different targets with a monomaniacal zeal, and drove quite a lot of them to suicide, together with Craddock herself. (When, earlier in his profession, Comstock was instructed that he had apprehensive a number of publishers to literal dying, he was chillingly unrepentant: “Be that as it may, I am sure the world is better without them.”)

Despite the consideration Sohn lavishes on Craddock’s life and work, the “vibrant, comely sex teacher” stays a little bit of a thriller. Craddock, who was technically single, recognized herself on her enterprise card as “Mrs. Ida C. Craddock”; she maintained that her in-depth information of sexual strategies got here from the intercourse she had together with her secret husband — a ghost named Soph. Aside from the spiritualism and her frank depictions of intercourse, Craddock’s views on relations between ladies and men had been virtually fanatically conventional. Vaginal orgasms had been helpful as a result of they helped make infants; most divorces had been attributable to wives failing to fulfill their husbands.

About these qualities of her position fashions that as we speak we’d name problematic, Sohn is usually circumspect; she doesn’t attempt to conceal them, however she doesn’t supply a lot by the use of penetrating perception both. Woodhull, who took a number of lovers and prided herself on being what was generally known as a “varietist” versus a monogamist, lashed out at her rivals in the suffragist motion by threatening to publish their sexual histories until they paid her. When she ran for president in 1872, Frederick Douglass was named as her working mate, however as Sohn writes, “Douglass was never consulted.”

As for Comstock, he grew to become such a hated determine homeopathic doctor named Sara Chase marketed a female hygiene product she known as “the Comstock Syringe.” Nor was the derision restricted to the girls he focused; in the press he was more and more depicted as ridiculous and wholly out of contact with the occasions. (Under one cartoon of a portly Comstock dragging a lady earlier than a choose’s bench, the caption reads: “Your honor, this woman gave birth to a naked child!”) The artwork historian Amy Werbel revealed a strong tutorial e book about Comstock in 2018; Sohn, considerably mystifyingly, doesn’t point out it anyplace, thereby depriving “The Man Who Hated Women” of sure telling (and unforgettable) anecdotes like Comstock turning into so extensively despised that somebody despatched him smallpox scabs in the mail.

Some of the knottiest issues get relegated to Sohn’s epilogue, the place she affords capsule summaries of what occurred to her position fashions after their encounters with Comstock. Woodhull, for example, moved to England and “rewrote her past,” extolling the advantages of monogamy and “denying that she had been a free lover.” Sanger endorsed the pressured sterilization of institutionalized folks, what Sohn calls “an appalling position that nonetheless had mainstream support.”

Sohn isn’t mistaken, however in her willpower to flatten Sanger right into a hero for our occasions, she ends by affirming a sort of girlboss feminism, unapologetically glib and individualistic: “A woman’s ultimate duty, she believed until the end, was not to the state,” Sohn writes. “It was to herself.”