You won’t know her name. You won’t have read her thirteen books, and you may not have heard that she and Catharine MacKinnon spearheaded a controversial attempt in the late 80’s to persuade the Federal Government to label pornography a violation of women’s rights and so a crime. And no one, so far, in the many, many editorials about the sexual predators being exposed at all levels of our society, has asked about the link between violence against women and pornography.
Andrea Dworkin did. It saddens me that her great literary and political work—she insisted that all art is political—is forgotten today. Yet this is the woman Gloria Steinem called feminism’s “Old Testament prophet.”
Like all prophets, she was loud. And she was big, enormous in her overalls. A review of her last book, a novel called Mercy, published by Four Walls Eight Windows in 1991 (I doubt if it would be published today) opines, “While Andrea’s high-pitched voice is at first hard to take, its vehemence and candor built to a convincing indictment of a society that tolerates violence against women.”
And that was 1991.
Mercy challenges its reader on many levels. The narrator’s name is Andrea, but it is not autobiographical in the usual sense although it explodes from descriptions of the childhood sexual abuse she suffered at age nine. And it is bold. The first sentence of “Not Andrea: Prologue” announces, “Now I have come into my own as a woman of letters. I am a committed feminist, of course. I admit to a cool, elegant intellect with a clear superiority over the ape-like men who write.”
Oh no! Put that book down before it burns your fingers!
In her elegance and her authority, she makes use of certain male writers; she was born on the street in Camden, New Jersey, where Walt Whitman was born, and at one point, the disintegrating Andrea of Mercy clings to that one fact in the holocaust of abuse that is destroying her. She quotes John Paul Sartre as claiming, “We were never as free as under the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, first of all the right to speak; we were insulted every day, and had to keep silent.” As a result, “Every word we uttered had the value of a declaration of rights… every gesture we made was a commitment.”
Sound familiar? The great advantage we are gaining from enduring this age of suppression—internal and external—is that there are no unimportant words, no expression in a medium that is not political.
In an interview when Mercy was published, Andrea explained that she came from a poor family with political convictions and that writing about poverty, and from poverty, was essential. One of our great losses, as a society, in the decades since writers have been able to make a living, is that there is so little written about or from poverty. Only writers—and very few women writers—with some other established form of income can devote themselves to the craft and art of the written word.
Andrea would have loathed that, with eloquence. She would also have understood why for many women writers, fighting war came before championing women. She explained that she spent most of her adult life fighting the Vietnam war; only when the 1970’s women’s movement brought books and allies who explained the political meaning of the violence she was suffering did she move into her true calling. As she described it, “I would say ‘But this doesn’t have to do with what’s important; what’s important is what’s happening in Vietnam, in the American South.’ I could be sitting there battered and bleeding and I would say, ‘But this isn’t important.’ I think for many women it was an absolute revelation and transformation to start taking the status of women seriously. Mercy is about things happening to women that they couldn’t conceptualize because there wasn’t a political vocabulary.”
A reason never mentioned when people ask aloud or silently why it takes some women decades to come forward with their stories of abuse (and the longer the time of silence, the more discredited their stories are.) Today when the political vocabulary Andrea helped to develop in the 70’s has largely disappeared, it is nearly impossible to speak of violence except in the subjective terms that seem to lessen its importance—reducing it to “Poor little me.”
But the impressive change we are now undertaking—and must guard constantly or it, too, will disappear—has brought about a public dialogue I never expected to witness. The November 26 edition of The New York Times ran four powerful opinion pieces about women: Jill Filipovic’s “The Bad News on ‘Good’ Girls”, Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller’s “First Raped, Then Prosecuted”, Frank Bruni’s “Ivanka, Louise, And the Little People” and, most astonishingly, Stephen Marche’s “The Unexamined Brutality of the Male Libido.” (His book, The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth about Men and Women in the Twenty-first Century may be worth reading.)
In his essay, Marche quotes Andrea’s 1976 statement that “the only sex between a man and a woman that could be undertaken without violence was sex with a flaccid penis.” She wrote, “I think men will have to give up their precious erections.”
Maybe they already have. One of the whispered worries most mature women hear is that their men “can’t get it up”—previously an unmentionable source of dismay. There may be another way of looking at it.
Blend into that Andrea’s 31 year marriage with John Stoltenberg; they both identified themselves as gay. Meeting as young people in Greenwich village after they both left an anti-war protest because the language was sexist, they began a relationship that lasted until her death. Interviewed at that time, John said, with tears, that the goal of his life had been “to make sure that her life’s work is done.”
And it was done: published, criticized, discussed—and then, of course, forgotten. Maybe she was just too big—obese, really. And she would wear those overalls.