A panoramic novel that pits the fledgling women’s-rights movement of the 19th century against a growing conservative religious movement.
Among the historical figures whose lives Piercy (The Third Child, 2003, etc.) intertwines, the most familiar are Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The unmarried, all-business Anthony pales as a character next to Stanton, who juggles her domestic and political responsibilities with joie de vivre. Like Stanton, Freydeh, the primary fictional character, is working for the rights of women. A widowed and penniless Jewish immigrant, Freydeh goes into business making condoms to survive. She raises a family and becomes a real-estate owner despite a year in prison, where she was sent by hellfire-and-brimstone protestant Anthony Comstock as punishment for selling condoms. Most compelling here is Victoria Woodhull, who with her younger sister Tennie, Cornelius Vanderbilt’s lover, begins the first women’s brokerage house and campaigns for president with Frederick Douglass as her running mate. Coming from a family of scam artists, Victoria wants material wealth and power, but she is also a sensualist, a sincere spiritualist and an idealist who knows how to be a loyal friend, a passionate lover, a devoted mother. Comstock’s legal case against Woodhull (for sending obscene material through the mail) results in her financial and political ruin. Woodhull subsequently creates a new life for herself and her family in England.
Piercy’s writing lacks elegance and her characters’ interactions often feel forced, but she paints the politics of the post–Civil War era in broad, bright strokes.