Despite the attention Sohn lavishes on Craddock’s life and work, the “vibrant, comely sex teacher” remains a bit of a mystery. Craddock, who was technically single, identified herself on her business card as “Mrs. Ida C. Craddock”; she maintained that her in-depth knowledge of sexual techniques came from the sex she had with her secret husband — a ghost named Soph. Aside from the spiritualism and her frank depictions of sex, Craddock’s views on relations between women and men were almost fanatically traditional. Vaginal orgasms were useful because they helped make babies; most divorces were caused by wives failing to satisfy their husbands.
About those qualities of her role models that today we might call problematic, Sohn is mostly circumspect; she doesn’t try to hide them, but she doesn’t offer much by way of penetrating insight either. Woodhull, who took multiple lovers and prided herself on being what was known as a “varietist” as opposed to a monogamist, lashed out at her rivals in the suffragist movement by threatening to publish their sexual histories unless they paid her. When she ran for president in 1872, Frederick Douglass was named as her running mate, but as Sohn writes, “Douglass was never consulted.”
As for Comstock, he became such a hated figure that a homeopathic physician named Sara Chase advertised a feminine hygiene product she called “the Comstock Syringe.” Nor was the derision limited to the women he targeted; in the press he was increasingly depicted as ridiculous and wholly out of touch with the times. (Under one cartoon of a portly Comstock dragging a woman before a judge’s bench, the caption reads: “Your honor, this woman gave birth to a naked child!”) The art historian Amy Werbel published a solid academic book about Comstock in 2018; Sohn, somewhat mystifyingly, doesn’t mention it anywhere, thereby depriving “The Man Who Hated Women” of certain telling (and unforgettable) anecdotes like Comstock becoming so widely despised that someone sent him smallpox scabs in the mail.
Some of the knottiest complications get relegated to Sohn’s epilogue, where she offers capsule summaries of what happened to her role models after their encounters with Comstock. Woodhull, for instance, moved to England and “rewrote her past,” extolling the benefits of monogamy and “denying that she had been a free lover.” Sanger endorsed the forced sterilization of institutionalized people, what Sohn calls “an appalling position that nonetheless had mainstream support.”
Sohn isn’t wrong, but in her determination to flatten Sanger into a hero for our times, she ends by affirming a kind of girlboss feminism, unapologetically glib and individualistic: “A woman’s ultimate duty, she believed until the end, was not to the state,” Sohn writes. “It was to herself.”