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The Man Who Hated Women

Sex, Censorship, and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age

by Amy Sohn

The Man Who Hated Women by Amy Sohn X
The Man Who Hated Women by Amy Sohn
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jul 2021, 400 pages

    Jul 2022, 400 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rose Rankin
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About this Book

Book Summary

The New York Times–bestselling author Amy Sohn presents a narrative history of Anthony Comstock, anti-vice activist and U.S. Postal Inspector, and the remarkable women who opposed his war on women's rights at the turn of the twentieth century.

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.


It was the summer of 1893, and Ida C. Craddock was in the Cairo Street Theatre at the Chicago World's Fair, watching the belly dancers. There were about twelve of them, all in their late teens to early twenties, and as each one performed, the others sat behind her on divans to watch. Musicians played drums, woodwinds, and strings. The Algerian and Egyptian dancers wore ornamented headdresses, tiny cymbals on their fingers, knee-length peasant skirts, fringed epaulets, hip belts with vertical fabric flaps, and long beaded necklaces. Black stockings covered their legs. They had white muslin drawers to the knees, and high-heeled slippers. Their skirts' waistbands, shaped like coiled snakes, rose only to their hips, and their netted silk undervests were semitransparent. Spectators could see their navels—as shocking as a camel ride, another attraction at the World's Fair. American women were never seen in public without corsets, much less with their abdomens ...

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Sohn recounts the larger-than-life characters Comstock battled, painting a vivid picture of Gilded Age America. There were the activists and questionable grifters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, sisters who spoke and advocated for women's rights including suffrage and sexual equality; Angela and Ezra Heywood, dedicated spouses who promoted free love principles; and Ann Lohman, a New York City abortionist knows as Madame Restell. These stories of the women and men who advocated for social change and, eventually, sexual liberation are long overdue, but Sohn is right to discuss frankly how many of them espoused scientifically bunk ideas of eugenics...continued

Full Review (852 words).

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(Reviewed by Rose Rankin).

Media Reviews

Bookpage (starred review)
Engrossing...Amy Sohn vividly brings to life the activists who opposed Comstock's efforts...Sohn places these mostly forgotten 'sex radicals' at the center of the history of the women's rights movement. That this battle continues in our own time makes The Man Who Hated Women all the more important and enlightening.

Wall Street Journal
With The Man Who Hated Women, [Sohn] makes a very successful transition to feminist historian. There is irony but little humor in her compelling, well-researched exploration of these pioneers, who faced jail time because they promoted contraception, gender equality, sexual education and a woman's right to sexual pleasure...Sohn has successfully resurrected [Ida Craddock] and her radical sisters.

New York Times
Aside from offering a few perfunctory biographical details, Sohn mostly depicts Comstock as a nuisance or a cartoon villain — a pathetically obsessed figure who pops up now and again to make life horrendously difficult for the people he pursued...The Man Who Hated Women gestures at a gripping narrative and a profound argument while ultimately falling short of either.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Throughout this immensely readable history, Sohn fashions sympathetic narratives of these women's lives and underscores their invaluable sacrifices for a vital cause. Many readers will be appalled to learn that literature about birth control was once considered obscene. Stellar research in women's history, especially crucial due to recent threats to abortion rights across the country.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Novelist Sohn delivers an engrossing account of U.S. post office special agent Anthony Comstock's anti-vice crusade and the women who opposed it...Blending colorful details of life at the turn of the 20th century with sharp insights into just how revolutionary these new ideas were, this fascinating history deserves a wide readership.

Library Journal
[A]n engaging, sensational history, made more so by Sohn's effective writing. 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.

Author Blurb Abbott Kahler, New York Times–bestselling author (as Karen Abbott) of The Ghosts of Eden Park
The Man Who Hated Women is a gripping, eye-opening history of feminist 'sex radicals' who envisioned better sex and access to birth control as tools for women's empowerment and equality. Their antagonist, Anthony Comstock, may remind readers of a modern-day monomaniacal misogynist. With the war over reproductive rights raging nearly a hundred and fifty years after the Comstock Law, Amy Sohn's vivid storytelling is all too relevant today.

Author Blurb Daniel Immerwahr, author of How to Hide an Empire
Enthralling. At the turn of the twentieth century, a group of law-defying, free-loving, pleasure-seeking radicals put it all on the line for sexual freedoms we now take for granted. Amy Sohn vividly captures their lives, and that of the violently priggish governmental agent who tried to shut it all down.

Author Blurb Matthew Goodman, New York Times–bestselling author of Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World
In this vibrant, thrilling history, Amy Sohn has brought to life a group of radical women who daringly fought for birth control, sex education, and female suffrage―and while they were at it, forever changed Americans' understanding of women's bodies and their pleasure. Meticulously researched and beautifully written, Sohn's accounts are by turns poignant, enraging, hilarious, and eye-opening. These courageous women were an inspiration for their age―and are for ours as well.

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Beyond the Book

Margaret Sanger and the Founding of Planned Parenthood

Exterior of Planned Parenthood clinic with sign that says Care. No Matter WhatIn 1916 in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood, three women opened a clinic providing information about birth control. Despite the fact that birth control has existed in various forms for millennia, at the time it was illegal to share such information, and within 10 days the clinic was shut down and the three women — Margaret Sanger, Ethel Byrne and Fania Mindell — were arrested. This marked the beginning but not the end of challenges to the existence of the women's health clinics eventually knows as Planned Parenthood.

Charged with violating the 1873 Comstock Act that prohibited disseminating contraception or even information explaining birth control, Sanger and her fellow activists and nurses reopened the clinic anyway only to be ...

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