Andrea Dworkin is making a comeback. Her work never really went away, but she died in 2005, still writing furiously, but with the lively feminist movement that had created her readership mired in either academic theory or 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 ability of powerful writing to succeed eventually. 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 violent 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 is creeping 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). More significantly, 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 biography of this controversial intellectual, Andrea Dworkin: The Feminist as Revolutionary (The New Press, 2020).
Read the rest of this review at The Mudsill (v. 1 no. 1, January 1, 2021): scroll down to the final essay, and then go back and read everyone else!