SEX WARS by Marge Piercy ( Piatkus 411 pp. £18.99)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
We need to sympathize with the mistakes of the past to recognize and avoid them. Discussing them in an extended essay is a dry-as-dust procedure which exludes that part of your audience which wants to be entertained - yet to cast your argument as fiction is to risk either losing your point in entertaining incident, or to produce something so schematized and tied to fact and argument that it is only fiction at all by grace of publishing category. If Marge Piercy's new novel is disappointing from a woman with such excellent polemical fictions as 'Vida' and 'Body of Glass' to her name, it is perhaps because she feels the points she is making to be of unusual urgency.
The defeat of 'first wave' feminism in the late Nineteenth Century had many causes, and Piercy sees modern versions of all of them threatening the feminism of our own day. Responsible upper- class women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony never felt the urgency of the struggle for sexual freedom, and carped at the rackety behaviour that was the downside of Victoria Woodhull's charisma. Social purity movements like those spearheaded by Anthony Comstock were aimed at the heart of feminism as much as at particular freedoms like abortion and contraception. Solidarity with other women, even in behaviour you find disturbing, is not a negotiable luxury.
Piercy dramatizes all of this by taking us into the lives of Susan, Elizabeth and Victoria, and that of a working-class immigrant woman Freydah who goes to jail for making condoms; she also underlines her point by showing Comstock as a fanatic of a kind we know well in our own time. There are many fine and poignant scenes here - but the book is weighed down by the extensive factual research. Piercy's vivid imaginative compassion even for the cold-hearted Susan Anthony ultimately becomes stifling in its description of forgotten debates and the reasons for positions that seemed good ideas at the time. A book which concentrated on Freydah, and on Victoria Woodhull (whom Piercy actually likes without straining herself) would not have been as fair- minded, but might have been both more lively and a more effective polemic.
Piercy's title makes clear that this is a text with contemporary application and that the breakdown of women's solidarity it portrays has a modern equivalent. For those of us who were involved at the time, the 'Sex Wars' were the division of feminism over radical feminist disapproval of a catalogue of sexual explorations - bisexuality, SM lesbianism and so on - by other feminist women. Now that the few practical gains of feminism are under such threat from resurgent religious mania, it becomes ever clearer that the vicious leg-breaking tone of those debates was something we could not afford. Piercy is capable of writing with far more passion than she does here about these issues, whether in the 1870s or our own time;'Sex Wars' is a disappointing novel because we really needed it to be a better one.
It would have been nice had the Indy found space for my author note that I was a founder member of Feminists Against Censorship, but I think where I am coming from breathes from every line.