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A Welcome Buzz Saw in the Sex War

Vivian Gornick's latest book, "The Solitude of Self: Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton," will be published in the fall by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

All great social movements produce emblematic figures that range from the intellectually respectable to the dangerously suspect. American feminism has had more than its share of all of them.

The first great wave, the one that began in the middle of the 19th century, aroused advocacy in women as widely divided on the social and temperamental spectrum as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Victoria Woodhull -- the former a philosophically minded, upper-class matron, the latter a bold and beautiful spiritualist, all too familiar with the other side of the law. (In her time, Woodhull was accused of practicing prostitution as well as financial fraud.) Then, in the last generation of suffragists we had Carrie Chapman Catt (a political deal-maker as skilled as Lyndon Johnson) and Alice Paul, a no-holds-barred radical who chained herself to the White House gates, denounced Woodrow Wilson as a tyrant, went to jail repeatedly and, within the movement, was both worshiped as a saint and reviled as a bully.

All of these women -- from the social mainstream to the psychological edge -- had a burning passion for women’s rights and a raging animus against the domination of the male sex. Each would gladly have seen the world become scorched earth before she accepted political inequality as an immutable condition of life.

During the second great wave of feminism, in the 1970s, the ante was considerably upped in the radical crazies department. Although we produced iconic figures as familiar as the liberal powerhouse Betty Friedan and the reassuringly glamorous Gloria Steinem, we also had a huge number of middle-class women suddenly speaking a kind of wild woman language that sprang directly from what came to be called “the politics of one’s own hurt feelings.” This language had a visionary extremity about it that was immensely exciting for many of us. It was thrilling, suddenly, to throw all caution and politesse to the winds and speak our deepest feelings, without restraint or qualification, so that the world, at last, might know us as we knew ourselves.

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Among us were a pair of brilliantly self-styled marginals -- Valerie Solanas and Andrea Dworkin -- who outdid everyone in the wild woman department. They went further than any of us dared to go. They thought the unthinkable (“Men are a biological abortion”), said the unsayable (“All intercourse is rape”). They were the street fighters of the movement, closer in style and action to Abbie Hoffman than to the center of the movement. In the case of Solanas (who wrote the amazing “SCUM Manifesto” and also shot Andy Warhol) we did have a piece of derangement on our hands. But Dworkin -- who died last week at the age of 58 -- was something else again.

For many in the feminist movement, Dworkin was, as Katha Pollitt put it, our waking nightmare: a “fat, hairy, makeup-scorning, unkempt lesbian” whose image the anti-feminist right exploited to the hilt. And for many others (myself included) her anti-pornography stance was both outrageous and abhorrent. But I remember a time when the sound of Andrea Dworkin’s voice -- saying things like “love is an institution of oppression,” “marriage is rape,” “men are the enemy” -- was like a welcome buzz saw, cutting through to the raw truth of unfiltered emotion. “Yeah-h-h,” I said to myself, a grinning piece of nastiness spreading itself across my eminently respectable face. “That’s right. It is. They are. To the barricades.”

Of course, that was all Dworkin said because that was all she knew how to say -- and as she went on saying it, year after year in book after book, the sound of her voice became not only wearisome but stupefying. Yet, in her moment, she was as necessary to the feminist movement as have been its distinguished liberals, moderates and radicals -- all of whom have made their special contributions, whether it be eloquent analysis, passionate organization or shocking plain-speak.

Dworkin was our excess -- our inspired nihilist, our emblematic man-hater, everything that wouldn’t fly not only in Peoria but in New York as well -- and those who shrink from excess do not understand the requirements of a great social movement. In the end, it is the excess that forces the surge of liberal action that, ultimately, achieves only moderate change.

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Andrea Dworkin may only be a footnote in the history of contemporary feminism, but her place in it is assured.


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