The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age

Farrar. Jul. 2021. 400p. ISBN 9781250174819. $28. HIST
With this first work of nonfiction, novelist Sohn (The Actress) offers a fascinating look at a key historical moment for free speech and women’s rights in the U.S. The man referenced in the book’s title is Anthony Comstock, the architect and chief enforcer of the Comstock Laws, which prosecuted Americans for sending obscene literature and contraceptive information through the mail. The title is a bit of a misnomer, however, as most of the book isn’t about Comstock but rather the courageous women he prosecuted. Subjects include suffragist sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, along with Sara Chase, Emma Goldman, Angela Haywood, and Margaret Sanger—figures who defied the era’s oppressive norms and laws in order to advocate for better lives for women. Sohn draws on their inspiring and tragic stories to illustrate how devastating the Comstock Laws were for American women and for society at large. Drawing on a variety of archival materials, the narrative also includes photographs of the women profiled. It’s an engaging, sensational history, made more so by Sohn’s effective writing.
VERDICT Both entertaining and informative, this volume will appeal to readers interested in feminism, freedom of speech and the press, and U.S. history in general.
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