The answer to the question: Me, kind of.
Last night, Montgomery College’s Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus hosted the feminist writer Marge Piercy. She discussed her novel Sex Wars: A Novel of the Turbulent Post-Civil War Period. Piercy is a known entity in the feminist literary movement, and she definitely has a following. Her book The Moon is Always Female is considered a feminist classic. When she entered the lecture hall at the Cafritz building she demanded to know who would be running her slide show, and then she sat back and watched professors set up her lectern and microphone. After the thank-yous and introductions were made, Piercy stood at the front of the room and said one word, “Down!” The lights were lowered and her slide-show and speech began.
She gave an interesting lecture on the history of post-Civil War New York City — tossing her typed sheets over her shoulder after she’d read each page — and illustrated in words and pictures the people and landscape of the era. There were no bridges then, so ferries and boats brought people to and from Manhattan island. There were no traffic laws, so frequently there were fights in the streets that led to crippled horses. There were no garbage collectors, so pigs were allowed to roam the city to eat the refuse. And of course, there were no indoor toilets, so people used privies in the alleys behind their tenement buildings. In short, Piercy said, New York City stank.
Prostitutes, businessmen, and thousands upon thousands of homeless children roamed Manhattan in the late 1800’s. These are the people that make up the cast of characters in Piercy’s historical novel, which centers around real life early feminists Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin. The two were ahead of their time, believing in women’s rights, contraception, and sexual freedom. In the opening chapter, Victoria lies to her lover Charlie about her husband who is coming to town. She says they’ll have to pretend Charlie is interested in Tennessee, a lie she really didn’t have to tell. “If she told the truth, that she and James believed in free love, her lack of sexual interest might hurt Charlie’s feelings” (4). This is the first of many interesting twists to these characters. Tennessee would later woo the millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Victoria would become the first woman to run for president (with former slave Frederick Douglass as her running mate). The two would later start a newspaper that published stories on women’s issues as well as the first English translation of Marx’s Communist Manifesto.
The women also advocated for women’s rights with the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott. Meanwhile, they had to deal with the story’s villain, Anthony Comstock, who worked tirelessly against lewdness. He prosecuted anyone suspected of distributing pornography and the advertising of contraceptives and other obscene materials. The story also weaves in a young Jewish immigrant woman who adopts some of the city’s homeless children and supports them by making and selling condoms, an actual trade of the time.
The story definitely sounds intriguing and adds truth to the saying: reality is stranger than fiction. Piercy has done a lot of research — reading speeches, documents, and diaries — in order to recreate the scenes for us. In her lecture, she told us details about women’s clothing — corsets and petticoats that weighed up to 30 pounds — that were impossible to sit in. She highlighted the crowded, impoverished conditions of an early New York City, and painted a lively picture of early feminists working for change.
I began by saying I was a afraid of Marge Piercy, which is a rare experience for someone like me who is always surrounded by strong women. Piercy’s no-nonsense style — she addressed late-comers and asked about someone’s ringing phone! — was intimidating. At the end of her lecture, all her notes were strewn about the floor. One of my colleagues scurried around Piercy’s feet to collect them, while Piercy shouted for her husband who had stepped out. During the question and answer period, when a community guest in the audience thanked her for her feminist work, she said, “What else is there to do?” Such is the direct, no-frills character of genius, I suppose.