Andrea Dworkin: The Feminist as Revolutionary is an admiral treatise on Dworkin’s life and work, including unusually rare glimpses of intimate moments.
Of all the luminaries that graced second-wave feminisms, Andrea Dworkin was certainly one of the most verbally abused and perhaps the most misunderstood. In some ways, she was also most brave—despite Robin Morgan’s sweet pet name for her as “cream puff” and her personal horror of bugs.
From childhood to deathbed, Martin Duberman’s new biography of Andrea Dworkin gives her justice: Her life’s work, her lived experience, and the feminists and foes who attacked her are carefully stitched together in historical context and granular detail through letters, publications and the sympathetic voice of Duberman. Andrea Dworkin: The Feminist as Revolutionary is an admiral treatise on Dworkin’s life and work, including unusually rare glimpses of intimate moments.
Dworkin’s two main targeted causes were fighting violence against women and violent pornography that subjugated women for profit, although she also worked to understand the Jewish heritage: from the Holocaust to the Kibbutz to the militarization of Israel, particularly as acted out against Israeli and Palestinian women within the broader fight between the two peoples.
In twelve chapters, Dworkin’s work and life unfolds in her own words: letters where she kept both the letter she received, the copy of the letter she wrote, and her own writing. Her understanding of the Holocaust began in Hebrew school in Camden, N.J., and was further cemented into her thoughts when she witnessed an aunt, in a private moment, revealing the anguish she had suffered in the Holocaust.
Bennington College honed Dworkin’s political sensibilities for female equality and a pacifist social order, and strengthened her writing abilities. Her acute sense of fairness and empathy guided her through the political spectrum via her own experiences, despite her horrified response to those experiences. She wrote, “I was equally afraid of everything, so that nothing held a special terror and no action that interested me was too dangerous” (p. 16).
When she returned to the states from Europe where she had lived in abject terror as a battered wife and prostitute, it was the mid-seventies—the women’s movement had taken off. Dworkin’s accrued understanding of the sex industry and the anger her personal experience had stirred propelled her into the sex wars where she went up against notable feminists. Dworkin and attorney Catherine MacKinnon championed a policy that would allow women, children, and trans men abused by the sex industry to sue for damages.
Duberman explains, “The basic concept was that pornography was a sex discriminatory practice that violated women’s civil rights through coercion, trafficking, and other sex-based violations” (p. 173). Dworkin’s fight against pornography continued off and on for at least a decade from the early 80s to the late 90s.
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Condemned by many including the male left, Larry Flynt of Hustler magazine (whom Dworkin sued) and prominent feminists, including Adrienne Rich and Dorothy Allison, Dworkin continued writing, promoting her books, and her political commitment to the anti-pornography movement. She was often marching and yelling through the bullhorn: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, pornography has got to go!” (p. 202).
Even as she vigorously rejected the contempt hurled at her during this time period, events and insults took their toll. Duberman sums up this time in her life eloquently:
Her anger alone propelled her from place to place. At age 42, with five substantial books behind her, Andrea had become increasingly well-known, thanks to a trail of brutal, demeaning reviews, more as a figure of derision than esteem.
On one level, she had faith in the originality and acuity of her work and was able to ascribe some of the belligerent derision which had greeted it to its innovative nature. But no one is that immune to persistent mockery; besides, despite all her public bravado, she’d carried with her from childhood the constant and torturous aspersions cast on her character by a distraught and ill mother. As she acknowledged to herself early in the year, ‘I have never felt so little confidence in myself or in my chosen way of life. It’s gotten to me.’Andrea Dworkin: The Feminist as Revolutionary (pgs. 220 – 221)
Ahead of her time in the gender question—although words and conception then were different than today’s—Dworkin was thankful for a loving relationship and eventual marriage with a gay feminist man, John Stoltenberg, also a political writer. Stoltenberg is, as Duberman and Dworkin discussed early on in 1974 at the feminist/gay alliance, a “Revolutionary Effeminist,” a term for men more female than male.
Duberman notes, “Back then she’d also been way ahead of the cultural curve in insisting that there were not two genders but rather many, predicting that ‘we will discover cross-sexed phenomena in proportion to our ability to see them’” (p. 161). Their sexual relationship included Stoltenberg continuing to have sex with men, as long as no one was brought home, Dworkin noted. They would later count themselves lucky to have dodged the bullet of the AIDS pandemic with sighs of relief.
In the early 2000s, during the first real vacation Dworkin allowed herself—a trip to Paris, a date rape drug was slipped into a cordial she was having in the hotel courtyard, and she was violently raped. Among the questions people had at the time, the worst response was the scurrilous one: ‘Who would rape her?’ The faulty notion that no one would rape a “fat harridan” (as she had been described) was finally put to rest by the #MeToo Movement during the past few years. The #MeToo chorus dignified and lifted up Dworkin’s powerful writing about women’s bodies being violated like conquered territory.
Andrea Dworkin died an early death in her fifties. Duberman’s poignant words best tell the story:
On April 8, 2005, Andrea, retiring for the night, complained of feeling unwell. The next morning, when John went into her bedroom to check on her, she didn’t seem to be breathing but was still warm. He tried to rouse her, but she was unresponsive. At some point during the night, an autopsy would later reveal, Andrea had died of acute myocarditis—heart inflammation. The shock was all the more profound because of late all signs had been pointing upward. John was desolate, unable for months to put his feelings down on paper.Andrea Dworkin: The Feminist as Revolutionary (p. 285)
Of the many writings Dworkin left behind, most revolutionary were the writings of her life story itself. Having lived and fought for the things she believed in, she has left a legacy of work about people who live on the margins, herself included. From sex-work and rape, to being a lesbian loving a feminist man, to being disabled and a motherless orphan, Dworkin smashed through the barriers before her as only the most radical revolutionary feminist would, and Duberman has given this to her: her due.
Andrea Dworkin: The Feminist as Revolutionary by Martin Duberman is available now.
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