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The Return of Andrea Dworkin
Martin Duberman’s biography announces a new chapter for an iconic and controversial feminist
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And how about a tease? We will explore sexual harassment charges against Congressman Madison Cawthorne (R-NC) and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday. On Friday, I interview Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol about the peculiar trajectory of the progressive group Indivisible.
Andrea Dworkin, John Stoltenberg, and their dog Gringo, Sugar Loaf Key, Florida, 1976. Copyright © 2021 The Estate of Andrea Dworkin. Used by permission.
Andrea Dworkin is making a comeback. Her work never really went away, of course. She died in 2005, still writing furiously, but with the lively feminist movement that had created her readership mired in academic theory and celebrations of female political and corporate firsts. Yet after many years of being disparaged and maligned, often by other feminists and queer people, #MeToo activism has opened the door to a long-overdue recognition of Dworkin's contributions to how we understand the politics of sex and gender.
Perhaps this says less about Americans' capacity to change their minds and more about the fact that powerful writing eventually succeeds. And it is powerful writing. Dworkin's prose seizes even a hostile reader by the throat and refuses to let go. For example, in "Whores," a chapter of her 1981 book Pornography: Men Possessing Women, Dworkin introduces a material analysis of women's oppression with this trenchant thought: "The metaphysics of male sexual domination is that women are whores." You could teach a whole seminar without exploring that idea entirely, and Dworkin drops a similarly radical observation every couple of pages.
I have always believed that part of the hostility that Dworkin aroused had something to do with a clarity of mind that terrified people who shy away from difficult and dangerous thoughts. Dworkin's critics often characterized theories of sex and gender as reductive or essentialist. In fact, they were extraordinarily complex thoughts distilled to their essence and articulated so clearly that anyone could understand them.
Dworkin's intellect was formed in her struggle to come to terms with a family member's memory of the Holocaust. It was formed by her own early sexual abuse by a stranger in a movie theater. It matured in the crucible of the 1960s anti-war movement, a violent intimate relationship, and an intensive study of pornography. Her ideas about justice were crystalline and urgent. She could not be bullied out of them. And that infuriated the academics who ridiculed her ideas and marginalized her work in women and gender studies programs.
Yet since she died in 2005, slowly but surely, Dworkin has crept back into the conversation. Recently, Johana Fateman and Amy Scholder reintroduced younger readers to an edited collection of Dworkin's work, The Last Days at Hot Slit (MIT Press, 2019). Dworkin is respectfully cited, without the usual disclaimers, by mainstream feminist journalists like Rebecca Traister. Now, Martin Duberman, a skilled chronicler of lesbian and gay life and author of seven previous biographies, gives us the first full account of this controversial intellectual, Andrea Dworkin: The Feminist as Revolutionary (The New Press, 2020).
Born to working-class parents in Camden, New Jersey, Dworkin was a bookish child. She was raised by a chronically ill, demanding mother and a hard-working father who Andrea credited with her early aspiration to be an intellectual. That said, it was a tough childhood. Sylvia Dworkin’s illness caused Andrea and her brother Mark to be cared for by others for long periods. Simultaneously, Harry Dworkin often worked double shifts at the post office, and sometimes a second job, to pay for his wife's medical care and save for his children’s future. Andrea and Mark had decent public school educations and attended Hebrew School. At seventeen, Andrea left home to attend artsy Bennington College, then a women's school, where she studied literature and music and had her first sexual relationship with a woman.
Dworkin wrote extensively and empathetically about her parents, but in ways that minimized her lifelong struggles with them. For example, in the first essay of Our Blood: Prophecies and Discourses on Sexual Politics (1976), she describes Harry Dworkin as a feminist and Sylvia, who supported reproductive freedom, as "proud, strong and honest," a woman whose unhappiness derived from being shoehorned into a role predetermined by patriarchy.
But this summary glosses over a lot, and Dworkin’s struggles with the hyper-critical Sylvia are documented at length in her archive at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard. Sylvia's cruel observations about Andrea's perceived failures occasionally provoked responses whose breathtaking bluntness betray a daughter’s deep wounds. "YOU MUST COME TO KNOW ME AND RESPECT ME AS I AM, NOT AS YOU ARE, NOR AS YOU WANT ME. OTHERWISE WE CAN NEVER TALK HONESTLY," one of these letters lectured Sylvia in all caps.
Perhaps Harry and Sylvia were nascent feminists, but the record suggests otherwise, and Duberman—mistakenly, in my view--defers to his subject on this crucial point. I do not doubt that Harry Dworkin was a good father and encouraged his daughter's intellectual life, but the evidence suggests that he was fully complicit in Sylvia's abusive behavior. When Dworkin pushed back against her mother’s cruelty, Harry sided with his wife. In 1965, Dworkin, then a college sophomore, was arrested at an anti-war rally. She sued the city for a compulsory "physical exam" at the Women's House of Detention in which a doctor probed her with a speculum so harshly that she bled for days. Neither parent supported her.
Even more unforgivably, five years later, after Dworkin married the abusive Iwan de Bruin in Amsterdam, both parents watched as he beat her mercilessly on a public street. A policeman intervened, but Dworkin's parents did not. According to Duberman, after Iwan stalked off and they returned to her apartment, Andrea "couldn't stop crying and begged her parents to take her back with them to the States. Sylvia told her that her place was with her husband." Incredibly, they went home without her, leaving her to endure months more of abuse until she was able to pry herself loose.
It was in the months after she left Iwan and before she returned to the United States that Andrea, initially in collaboration with a Dutch friend, Ricki Abrams, found feminism and drafted Woman Hating (E.P. Dutton, 1974). This book launched her career as a writer. It was the same year that she met John Stoltenberg at a political meeting. The two feminists – a gay man and a lesbian- fell in love and formed a lifelong partnership.
Stoltenberg also supported and believed in Dworkin's work, having already embraced feminism himself and launched a study of masculinity that recognized the centrality of sexual violence to American manhood. Indeed, one wonders in a sense whether Stoltenberg was the man that Dworkin imagined her father to have been. Stoltenberg's love, compassion, and admiration for her, his loyalty to and belief in her, was limitless and continues to this day as he works to promote her legacy. Unfortunately, Duberman adds little to our knowledge of their intellectual collaboration or what Stoltenberg did to sustain their life together.
In New York, Dworkin and Stoltenberg became part of a radical feminist movement that offered a context for Andrea's work and also complicated it by situating her in an intellectual world that could be fractious, competitive, and backbiting. Dworkin's writing was less sought after than the work of movement stars like Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, Adrienne Rich, and Susan Brownmiller—or even anti-feminists like Phyllis Schlafly. Commercial publishers wanted books about women's liberation, but perhaps not ones that so firmly equated heterosexual intercourse with violence and oppression. Many feminist outlets also disliked Dworkin's ideas, with some publishing collectives refusing to accept work from women who had published in the "male" media. Such rejections left Dworkin "infuriated," since she then had "no option other than turning to mainstream outlets."
Dworkin's disappointment about the publishing industry is an important theme: at her worst moments, she viewed her difficulties as a form of censorship. One problem was that, although she was a popular speaker on the women's studies circuit, her books sold poorly. When reviewed in major media outlets, they were too often sneered at. Of course, the vast majority of commercial books don't sell well and never have. The small presses that occasionally put out a Dworkin book did not have the resources or clout to promote them appropriately, and many fine books are never reviewed in the mainstream press.
Yet because her writing was Andrea's principal passion, and the only thing other than speaking that she was willing to do for money, the roller coaster ride of intense work, anticipation, and disappointment was emotionally and physically draining. It also left her and Stoltenberg scrambling for income until he began to take regular editing jobs in the 1990s.
Yet paradoxically, even as she struggled to sell books, Dworkin became an ever-more influential voice in radical feminism. In part, this was because the need for money took her on grueling speaking tours. By the mid-1970s, the anti-rape movement and the turn to fighting violence against women in media and pornography made Dworkin a desirable presence on campus, at demonstrations, and at Take Back the Night speak-outs.
In 1977, Dworkin, Steinem, Brownmiller, and Rich organized an ad in the New York Times that proclaimed the formation of a Women's Anti-Defamation League to fight pornography and media violence, a precursor to Women Against Pornography (WAP). Pornography, recently freed from prosecution as obscenity by series of Supreme Court decisions was proliferating and becoming fashionable. Although the ad affirmed First Amendment values, it argued that something else was at stake too: pornography, they argued, threatened women's "physical safety and emotional well-being."
Dworkin was a signer but not by nature a joiner or an organizer. Even though Pornography: Men Possessing Women became an influential text for the feminist anti-pornography movement, and Dworkin urged her fellow activists to protest the infamous Barnard Conference on sexuality in 1982, she kept her distance from WAP. Unpaid organizing was something for which she had neither the time, the financial resources, the temperament, nor the energy.
Her role, in a sense, was to be a compelling and persuasive speaker and writer. Dworkin was frequently on the debate stage, as her thinking crystallized around the idea that pornography was the primary instrument for gender subordination. By 1983, after she and legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon introduced a model legislative ordinance to the Minneapolis city council that would permit anyone harmed by pornography to file a civil suit, Dworkin became well-known outside feminism, too, as politically mixed and conservative groups around the country tried to implement similar measures.
She traveled tirelessly to support these efforts, but at a cost. Attacks on Dworkin escalated. They came from feminists and from the ACLU, who protested that the model ordinance would promote censorship. They came from gay men, who viewed banning explicit materials as an attack on their sexual liberation. And, of course, they came from pornographers, who not only published ugly, demeaning cartoons of its authors, but also helped to fund the lawsuits that ultimately sidelined the model ordinance.
Sadly, the anti-pornography struggle also accelerated attacks on what Dworkin cared about most, her writing. By 1988, as Duberman notes, after five books, Dworkin was "increasingly well-known, thanks to a trail of brutal, demeaning reviews, more as a figure of derision than esteem." Intercourse, a theoretical argument about the penetrative act that defined heterosexuality, was published in England that year and was for a short time on the London Sunday Times bestseller list. But otherwise, Dworkin increasingly struggled to find publishers with the clout to market her books. It surely did not help her appeal to the next generation of feminist readers that, in 1991, the ACLU gratuitously labeled Dworkin "Bigot of the year."
Not surprisingly, as her health and reputation declined in the 1990s, Dworkin receded from view. The radical feminism of her youth gave way to a new generation of women who, often without reading her, perceived Dworkin as antithetical to the sexual freedoms they hoped to enjoy in a nation where questions of gender equality were said to be settled. Dworkin found it challenging to travel, and, although she continued to write, she struggled to find publishers willing to distribute and promote her work.
In 1999, a solo trip to Paris intended to give her a break ended in Dworkin’s assertion that she had been drugged and raped by a hotel staff member. Incredibly, her account of this trauma was seized upon by others to discredit her further. This required discounting what everyone who knew Dworkin or understood her work knew: she was a person of great moral conviction who believed that living an ethical life demanded complete honesty.
Duberman’s account will be crucial to those discovering Dworkin's life and work for the first time. It is less useful for those looking for a book that raises or answers critical questions about her. Huge chunks of text are devoted to direct quotes from Dworkin's letters. As someone who believed that her publishing difficulties and the noxious reviews of her work were an almost deliberate attempt to silence her, she would have appreciated these inclusions, as well as Duberman’s reluctance to intrude on the narrative.
Nevertheless, it means that, inevitably, much of the book is narrated from Dworkin's perspective. This is a shame because she was a lively correspondent and a good friend, and the sources are there. Views from feminists within and outside her circle – Barbara Deming, Karla Jay, Steinem, Rich, and Brownmiller, among others—would have helped readers understand the complexities of Dworkin's political imagination and the breadth of her world.
As I indicated earlier, I also wish that Duberman had dug more deeply into Dworkin's relationship with both of her parents. Since I have also worked in the Dworkin archives, Duberman's account strengthens a view I have held for some time: Dworkin put more effort into her relationship with Harry and Sylvia than they did. True, they often gave her money when she needed it. But Sylvia's criticism of her daughter was relentless, and Harry did nothing about it: leaving Andrea in Amsterdam when they knew Iwan was beating her was, to my mind, unforgivable.
Another unexplored theme is the lasting effects of these beatings, which sometimes left Andrea unconscious after Iwan punched her in the face and banged her head against floors and walls. As is true for many domestic violence victims, they made her dissociative, indecisive, and unable to rescue herself for far too long. For many years, Dworkin downplayed these experiences, partly out of fear that Iwan could find her and hurt her again. Gradually, she began to write about them, sometimes as fiction: book by book, more details emerged over time.
Duberman describes this violence in moving, graphic detail for the first time. It is a granular view of domestic terror that Dworkin herself never fully expressed, except in her fiction and writing about other women. But it seems reasonable to presume that this experience physically changed her. Given what we now know about PTSD and the lasting effects of repeated blows to the head, we can speculate that the violence altered her brain; that her body and heart were forever weakened by the furious bursts of adrenaline that accompany intense fear.
The lively, adventurous teenager who left Camden to attend an artsy women's college; the woman who sued the New York City after being raped with a speculum and then struck out alone to live on Crete and write poetry; the woman who went to Amsterdam, again alone, as an independent journalist–-that woman, when she was still quite young, became depressive, fearful, and able to sleep only during the day. Subsequently, Dworkin grew layers of flesh that protected her from further physical harm.
But the harm that had already been done was life-changing. As Duberman writes, Stoltenberg "vividly remembers that even years after they'd been living together, if he happened to enter Andrea's bedroom while she was asleep, she sometimes awakened and yelled in terror, thinking he was Iwan (both men were blonde and tall.)" By 1999, Dworkin was taking up to twelve pills every day to fight chronic insomnia.
Speaking about these things should not reaffirm a stereotype concocted by Dworkin's enemies: that she was bitter and enraged, a person unacquainted with and insensitive to sexual pleasure. By her own admission, she was a person who had been badly hurt. But Duberman provides plenty of evidence that Dworkin delighted in sex, even adding a description of how she and Stoltenberg made love. Duberman also notes several times that Dworkin was kind, gentle, funny, and well-liked: my own research affirms this. Yet by driving the narrative with Dworkin's letters, most written in heated moments or interpersonal struggles, Duberman will leave many readers mystified as to why she was well-loved and admired by so many people.
During her lifetime, Dworkin's work was "mostly treated with cruel derision and mockery," Duberman concludes. But "Safely dead, the acclaim consistently denied her during her life time was showered on her grave." This is slightly misleading. The people who had always loved and supported Dworkin never abandoned her, and that included the thousands of women whose stories of sexual abuse she had patiently listened to for decades. Indeed, many of Dworkin’s peers—Brownmiller, Steinem, and Robin Morgan—had been treated just as disparagingly by other radical feminists. They, too, were attacked in print by the corporate pornographers that those who defeated the model ordinance propped up.
But what is also true is that the stories Dworkin told – of male power reinforced by sexual violence, of the refusal to hear women's stories, about why violence against women taught us something about all violence– did outlive her. This biography enhances their impact. Young feminists are returning to Dworkin's work with fresh eyes today. We can only hope that Duberman's work becomes a gateway for more young feminists, men, and women, to return to Dworkin's sense of hope that women and men could co-exist and thrive in genuine equality.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Their most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). A version of this essay originally appeared in The Mudsill, 1:1 (January 1, 2021).
What I’m writing:
“The revenge of the `liberal tears,'” Alternet, February 24, 2021.
What I’m listening to:
Bayard Rustin biographer John D’Emilio was interviewed by NPR about “The Man Behind the March.” (February 25, 2021)
What I’m Reading:
Emily Rutherford on the dilemmas of queer history in England. (Emily’s Newsletter, February 27, 2021)
Media scholar Sherry Turkle has written a memoir, reviewed by Casey Schwartz. (New York Times, February 26, 2021)
Roxy Szal on what is behind the Neera Tanden Twitter debate: “We Have Her Back: Opposition to Neera Tanden Reflects Sexist, Racist Double Standard.” (Ms. Magazine, February 25, 2021)
As African Americans suffer disproportionately from the coronavirus, Black women are bearing the brunt of it, according to a new poll done by CNBC and Acorns Invest in You. (Michelle Fox and Sharon Epperson, February 25, 2021)