The Man Who Hated Women, by Amy Sohn

I have to agree with other reviewers that the title of Amy Sohn’s whirlwind recounting of Anthony Comstock and his eponymous laws, The Man Who Hated Women, is misleading. This book is much more about the women Comstock targeted than about the bewhiskered busybody himself. For those who aren’t familiar, Comstock crusaded against vice in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. To Comstock, “vice” encompassed pornography, contraception, abortion, free love—basically, anything written or said about people doing things with their naughty bits. Leveraging his position as the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Comstock was able to convince Congress to appoint him as an inspector with the Postal Service. This position and a growing body of laws allowed Comstock to prosecute men and women who dared to challenge mores about sex and reproduction. Because of Comstock, Sohn argues, we Americans are still decades behind the rest of the world when it comes to reproductive rights. I have to agree.

Sohn includes brief biographical information about Comstock—much less than I would expect from a book supposedly about the man. Sohn uses Comstock’s arrest book and his few surviving letters, as well as contemporary newspaper articles and court records, as her biographical sources. I would’ve thought this would be enough to work with. Sohn is able to pull plenty of illustrative quotes from these documents. Because of this, I was often surprised when Sohn would speculate about how often Comstock masturbated without any evidence whatsoever as a way to, I don’t know, point out Comstock’s hypocrisy? Internal conflict about sex? Either way, we learn little about what drove Comstock to so relentlessly pursue people he saw as criminals that he is responsible for at least two suicides (Ann Trow Lohman and Ida C. Craddock).

Sohn is on firmer (and much more interesting) ground when she turns her attention to a series of women Comstock targeted during his decades working for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and the U.S. Postal Service. She profiles Victoria Woodhull, Lohman, Craddock, Margaret Sanger, and Emma Goldman, among others. Where Comstock remains a somewhat murky (if fulminating and Puritanical) presence, Sohn outdoes herself in bringing these women to life. Her chapters on Woodhull and Craddock are especially detailed. (In Craddock’s case, this might be because the woman had some genuinely odd beliefs, not least of which was her firm conviction that she was married to a ghost.) Through these biographical sketches, Sohn is able to explore growing movements to provide contraception to American women, to challenge traditional ideas of marriage, and the push-and-pull over free speech and suppressed speech. Sohn also dips into Spiritualism, free love, and the long history of trying to legally define obscenity.

The Man Who Hated Women is a frustrating read. While frequently interesting, many sections of this book were a whirlwind of names, laws, and philosophies. This is definitely the sort of book you would want to read as an ebook so that you could quickly look things up. Because of the broad range of the book, Sohn’s theses never quite gelled for me. I don’t think Comstock hated women, for one. I think he was just terrified of and appalled by sex. I think if Sohn had focused more on fewer people, this book would have been a lot more effective.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

1897 cartoon about Anthony Comstock. Caption reads: “When Anthony Comstock shall have his way.”

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