by Amy Sohn
Smithsonian Magazine, 10 Best History Books of 2021
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 eponymous law, passed in 1873, penalized the mailing of contraception and obscenity with long sentences and steep fines. The word Comstockery came to connote repression and prudery.
Between 1873 and Comstock’s death in 1915, eight remarkable women were charged with violating state and federal Comstock laws. These “sex radicals” supported contraception, sexual education, gender equality, and women’s right to pleasure. They took on the fearsome 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 virgin sexologist Ida C. Craddock; and the anarchist Emma Goldman. In their willingness to oppose a monomaniac who viewed reproductive rights as a threat to the American family, the sex radicals 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 to control their bodies.
"The novelist Amy Sohn tells Comstock’s story through the lives of eight women—dubbed 'sex radicals' by Sohn—whom Comstock singled out for persecution and prosecution. By any standard, this is a fascinating group of women. Sohn is a vivid writer with an eye for detail, and she is clearly inspired by her subjects’ fervent beliefs and dramatic lives." —Elizabeth Austin, Washington Monthly
"Colorful . . . A bestselling novelist, Ms. Sohn makes clear the depth of her research for her first non-fiction book . . . She is right to highlight the work these women did to define reproductive liberty as an American right, which paved the way for the birth-control pill and Roe v Wade. Comstock has faded into obscurity, but many of the ideas about love, sex and marriage that he resisted are still being debated today." —The Economist
"Fascinating . . . One anecdote that Sohn relates—she has a gift for summoning up such scenes—reminded me vividly of modern-day Internet trolls . . . Purity is in the mind of the beholder, but beware the man who vows to protect yours.” —Margaret Talbot, The New Yorker
About the Author:
Amy Sohn is the author of several 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 fellow at Headlands Center for the Arts, Art Omi, and the Studios at MASS MoCA. A native New Yorker, she lives in Brooklyn with her daughter.