The author of novels such as Motherland and Prospect Park West offers a narrative history about Anthony Comstock, the U.S. Postal Inspector who tried to root out "obscenity" by cracking down on female activists seeking to raise awareness about sex, contraception, and women's bodily autonomy.
Ms. 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 ... Of the eight women Ms. Sohn spotlights, the sexologist Ida C. Craddock gets the most attention ... After her death, Craddock was quickly forgotten, but Ms. Sohn has successfully resurrected her and her radical sisters.
... fascinating ... Sohn’s book is not a biography, and that’s all to the good ... Comstock’s targets who feature in Sohn’s book are...like the outsider artists of activism, creating their own unschooled, florid, and enraptured works of protest. Reading Sohn, I grew quite fond of them ... Taken together, these tales of the unexpected also offer a fresh angle on the history of American free-speech activism. Many of us think of it as beginning with the founding of the A.C.L.U., in 1920, and its defense of political radicals hounded under the Espionage and Sedition Acts, not with dreamy, self-taught sexologists expounding on the delights of the body ... the language [Comstock] used to describe...the women he sought to arrest and imprison, was revealing. One anecdote that Sohn relates—she has a gift for summoning up such scenes—reminded me vividly of modern-day Internet trolls.
By any standard, this is a fascinating group of women. Sohn is a vivid writer with an eye for detail, and she is clearly inspired by her subjects’ fervent beliefs and dramatic lives ... Sohn clearly revels in the double-sided shock value of the stories she tells, detailing both the audaciously explicit sexual advocacy of her heroines and Comstock’s ham-fisted retaliations. But her book would have been more powerful if she had pared down some of the lengthy (if spicy) details and instead offered readers a broader vision of the political landscape in which Comstock flourished for so long ... the lesson we should take from this book is that, in the American political world, no battle is ever permanently lost nor permanently won.