Say "free love," "birth control," and "feminism," and most Americans will immediately respond: "the'60s!" In Marge Piercy's new novel, Sex Wars: A Novel of the Turbulent Post-Civil War Period, that's still the right answer, give or take 100 years.
The title would have been apt for many of the Massachusetts-based author's 15 previous novels, since Piercy always has been concerned with how perceptions of gender shape women's lives.
That topic is also central to the characters of "Sex Wars," many of whom come direct from the history books: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, founders of the American women's rights movement, and Victoria Woodhull, a spiritualist who ran for president and became the first female stockbroker in the United States.
Holding up the standard for the other side is Anthony Comstock, a former ribbon seller who was on a crusade to stamp out pornography and "obscene objects" - including fine art, literature, all forms of birth control, and feminism.
Rounding out the cast is a fictional Jewish immigrant, Freydeh, who becomes a condom manufacturer to support herself and her adopted children.
As her story opens, Freydeh discovers that her young sister, Shaineh, has emigrated to New York and vanished, leaving Freydeh to search for her in brothels and sweatshops. Shaineh, with her tale of woe, becomes the embodiment of the legal helplessness of US women at that time.
The obviousness of the literary device doesn't take away from the sense of urgency, though, and the stakes in the 19th-century gender wars are such that even those who roll their eyes today at "feminists" are likely to be gripped.
As with Piercy's World War II novel, "Gone to Soldiers," her characters take turns in the fictional spotlight - although real-life character Woodhull winds up shanghaiing the novel through charm and sheer force of personality. Freydeh, with her hardworking pragmatism and generous nature, runs a creditable second, and readers also will likely enjoy Stanton, whose "Mrs. Santa Claus face" disguises the heart of a radical.
Piercy's biggest misstep is to try to write as Comstock, a man for whom she feels such repugnance that's she's unable to successfully get inside his head. He remains a paper monster, warped by his fundamentalist Christian upbringing. (Religious readers whose feelings are easily hurt might want to skip Piercy's novels - religion is almost always viewed in a dim light. Even the stalwart Anthony, a Quaker, gets no more than some chilly respect.)
Piercy pounds home Comstock's creepy devoutness to such an extent that, early on, I thought she was going to turn him into a serial killer. Not that any of the men - with the exception of Freydeh's staunchly loyal son, whom we don't meet as an adult - come across particularly well.
Throughout the novel, but especially in Comstock's sections, Piercy shows an unfortunate lack of trust in her readers, repeating herself over and over.
Take Comstock's affection for his slow-witted adopted daughter, which Piercy views through the lens of his repression of women."There's nothing wrong with a girl being too slow. Too fast is the problem," says Comstock, as he and his wife agree that they have the ideal child. "She was a fine little woman, silent, well-behaved, eager to please. She was perfect."
Even little Adele would have gotten the point after the fifth such recitation.
Despite these flaws, "Sex Wars," is an enjoyable book - usually entertaining and, in its best sections, engrossing.
In Woodhull and Freydeh, Piercy has created fascinating portraits of women determined to live on their own terms. As the freewheeling Gilded Age gives way to a growing conservatism that traps both women, observant readers will notice obvious parallels to our own time.
Freydeh is too stubborn to give up. Plus, her goals always were more modest. Unlike the other women, she wasn't trying to transform the world, just feed her family. But there's a real sadness as Woodhull, after bruising encounters with Comstock, trades her independent idealism for what Cady Stanton considers the dirtiest of virtues: respectability.
"Respectable women wanted to be 'good.' Until women ceased worrying about respectability, they would never seize their freedom," Cady Stanton comments at the end of her life.
That never stopped her from exploiting her reputation as an ideal wife and mother for her cause.
"Just being up there on the platform, she was a living refutation of the caricature of a feminist as a skinny woman in trousers with beard and cigar. The mother of seven children, she was plump and jolly with wit and warmth.... in spite of the hardships ... she was enjoying herself."
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.