Despite Sohn’s attention to Craddock’s life and work, the “dynamic and outgoing sex teacher” remains a bit of a mystery. Craddock, who was technically single, identified on her business card as “Mrs. Ida C. Craddock”; she argued that her in-depth knowledge of sexual techniques came from having sex with her secret husband – a ghost named Soph. Spiritism and its outspoken representations of sex aside, Craddock’s views on relationships between women and men were almost fanatically mainstream. Vaginal orgasms were useful because they helped make babies; most divorces were caused by women who did not satisfy their husbands.
Regarding these qualities of his models that we could today qualify as problematic, Sohn is above all cautious; she doesn’t try to hide them, but she doesn’t offer much penetrating insight either. Woodhull, who has taken on multiple lovers and prided herself on being what was called a “varietist” as opposed to a monogamous, lashed out at her rivals in the suffragist movement by threatening to publish their sex stories unless they don’t pay it. When she ran for president in 1872, Frederick Douglass was appointed running mate, but as Sohn writes, “Douglass was never consulted. “
As for Comstock, he became such a hated figure that a homeopathic doctor by the name of Sara Chase advertised a feminine hygiene product she called “the Comstock syringe”. The derision was also not limited to the women he was targeting; in the press, he is increasingly portrayed as ridiculous and totally out of touch with his time. (Below a drawing of a portly Comstock dragging a woman to a judge’s bench, the caption reads: “Your honor, this woman gave birth to a naked child!”) Art historian Amy Werbel posted a solid academic book on Comstock in 2018; The somewhat mystifying Sohn doesn’t mention it anywhere, thus depriving “The Man Who Hated Women” of some revealing (and unforgettable) anecdotes like Comstock who became so widely despised that someone sent him smallpox scabs. by mail.
Some of the thornier complications are relegated to the Sohn epilogue, where she offers capsule summaries of what happened to her models after their encounters with Comstock. Woodhull, for example, moved to England and “rewrote her past”, touting the benefits of monogamy and “denying having been a free lover”. Sanger endorsed the forced sterilization of institutionalized people, what Sohn calls “a dreadful position that nonetheless had the support of the general public.”
Sohn is not wrong, but in her determination to make Sanger a heroine of our time, she ends by affirming a sort of girlboss, flippant and individualistic feminism: “The ultimate duty of a woman, she believed it until. ‘in the end, was not state,’ writes Sohn. “It was for herself.”