By Jennifer Szalai, July 12, 2021
“The Man Who Hated Women,” the arresting title of Amy Sohn’s new book, would have been more fitting if the book were truly about the man who hated women. But Sohn’s narrative is less about Anthony Comstock — the self-styled moral crusader and chief architect of the Comstock Act of 1873, which made it a federal offense to send “obscene, lewd or lascivious” material through the mail — than it is about the targets of his hatred, the women themselves.
Aside from offering a few perfunctory biographical details, Sohn mostly depicts Comstock as a nuisance or a cartoon villain — a pathetically obsessed figure who pops up now and again to make life horrendously difficult for the people he pursued. She earnestly pronounces him “the man who did more to curtail women’s rights than anyone else in American history.” More than anyone? Is she sure about that?
Sohn, the author of several dishy novels and a former columnist about sex and relationships for New York Press and New York magazine, doesn’t try to present Comstock as anything more complicated than a self-satisfied prig; nor does she sufficiently parse some of the more troubling beliefs of the women she calls “sex radicals.” As she explains in her conclusion, in which she takes a swipe at “victim-oriented feminism,” Sohn intended this book to drive home a point.