Ten years after Andrea Dworkin’s death, her sheer courage and hatred for men who hate women continue to inspire.
I first became friends with Andrea Dworkin in 1996. We both attended a week-long international conference in Brighton on violence against women, where Andrea was one of the keynote speakers. I had seen her speak before at feminist events, but we had never exchanged a word. The crowds that surrounded her after any public event would have put all but the shamelessly sycophantic off approaching her.
Andrea died 10 years ago this week. She had become famous in the early 1980s for the ordinance that she and the legal scholar Catherine McKinnon had drafted for Minneapolis, recognising pornography as sex discrimination and a violation of women’s civil rights. Women involved in pornography were called to testify from all over the United States. It was an inventive use of civil law; rather than banning or censoring pornography, it would have enabled victims of the porn industry to claim damages and recognition for the harm it caused.
But to me, her finest and most radical work was the book Andrea wrote aged just 27, Woman Hating (1974). The first line reads: “This book is an action, a political action where revolution is the goal.” In Woman Hating, Dworkin describes and theorises all manner of men’s abuse and oppression of women and girls.
When Andrea and I eventually met in Brighton, we instantly connected. I hadn’t necessarily agreed with all that she wrote, and was not particularly enamoured of her slightly evangelical public speaking style, but I nonetheless loved her from the outset. Andrea’s wicked, dry humour, unwavering integrity and shy vulnerability combined to make her utterly compelling. There was something intoxicating about getting to know a woman who had been vilified as a man-hating misery but who was, in fact, a warm, open-minded intellectual.
Over the next eight years, Andrea and I wrote and spoke regularly and met up whenever we happened to be in the same country. In late 1998, she sent me the manuscript of a book she had been working on for eight years.
I devoured it, gasping in wonder at the beautiful prose, and the brilliance of its reasoning. Andrea considered it fate that she had cited my partner Harriet’s cousin Robert Wistrich, an expert on the Holocaust, throughout the book, well before she knew us.
I did not hear from Andrea for much of 1999 until I received a 10-page handwritten fax in July that year. The writing started out neat and tidy, but by the end was almost unreadable. The first line broke my heart.
“Dear Julie. You have not heard from me because in May the unthinkable happened. While I was on vacation in Paris I was drugged and raped. I do not think I can bear this.”
Andrea was never the same again. Her health suffered; the last time we met, in September 2004, she had lost a huge amount of weight as a result of having a gastric band fitted in an attempt to deal with her dangerous obesity.
But during that September visit, Andrea was in good spirits and we talked of reviving the feminist anti-pornography movement in Europe which was, we feared, dying a death. “The libertarians are winning this war Julie,” Andrea said as we sat in her hotel room, drinking the bitter espresso that enabled her to keep awake through the day (Andrea was notoriously nocturnal). “If we give up now, younger generations of women will be told porn is good for them, and they will believe it.”
That same week, an interview I had conducted with Andrea was published in the Guardian. Although Andrea could be high-maintenance, insisting on special security measures when she spoke at conferences or other public venues (her life had been threatened more than once), there was no monstrous ego to deal with, and nothing of the spoilt, pampered middle-class feminist we Brits had come to dread in our north American sisters.
Andrea’s writing and speaking has many legacies, but perhaps the key lesson she taught us was how to conduct ourselves during battle.
There can be no doubt that the feminist fight against men’s sexual, domestic and cultural violence towards women and girls is a bloody and dangerous war. But Andrea never forgot her manners or her humanity in the trenches. It may be a cliche, but Andrea was fuelled not by hatred of her enemy – male supremacy – but of love for the idea of a new world in which sexual sadism was obsolete.
Andrea reminded us that men occupy a sex class which is handed power at birth, and that there is nothing “natural” about male dominance or female submission. In many ways, despite the several knocks she took, Andrea was the most optimistic feminist I ever met.
When the pornographers took their revenge on Andrea, publishing a very nasty, sexually explicit cartoon parody of her, she sued, but lost. Despite finding herself painted as a national hate figure, accused of attempting to dismantle the precious First Amendment, Andrea never gave up appearing in public, or engaging with individuals who fundamentally disagreed with her.
In today’s world of keyboard warrior activism, Andrea’s life should be a reminder to feminists, and other activists, that nothing compares to meeting and talking to people with whom you wish to find common ground.
There was no compromise with Andrea, but she would never refuse to debate a point with anyone, so long as they were on the side of social justice. “There is no point me sitting down with a child rapist or pornographer,” she told me in our 2004 interview, “because in order to achieve their aims, they are required to hurt us.”
But with feminists from all sides of the debate, Andrea would patiently and respectfully listen, before addressing them in her breathless, quiet voice. No matter how tired she became, Andrea would never leave a discussion until some bottom line had been agreed upon.
Andrea’s heart had been ripped to shreds during a lifetime of abuse – beginning when she was raped in a cinema aged nine, before being brutally internally examined while in custody years later, and then experiencing domestic violence at the hands of her first husband, which led her into prostitution. But never did she forget her place in the women’s liberation movement. Andrea healed her wounds by listening to the stories of other survivors, despite the pain that could cause, in order to remember how high the stakes are in this struggle. I will never forget a phone conversation with Andrea where she spoke of how some feminists in the United States and Britain had publicly expressed doubt about whether or not the rape in Paris had actually happened, including one well-known campaigner against child abuse who asked, “Who would want to rape Andrea?”
“My hatred is precious,” she once said to me. “I don’t want to waste it on those who are colluding in their own oppression. My hatred is geared towards the men that put that crap in their heads, and the ones doing the raping.”
Without Andrea Dworkin, generations of feminists would be wilfully ignorant about the meaning and effect of pornography, as well as how to overcome a desire for male approval in order to tell the truth about women’s lives. That is not all that today’s feminists could learn from Andrea.
There is the respect she had for the human rights defenders who came before her, and her loyalty to other women in the struggle who were attacked by those antagonistic to our aims and beliefs. There was her sheer courage, in never backing down or renouncing her principles because it would make life easier or pay dividends; that was a defining characteristic of Andrea, as was daring to hate the men who hated women.
One thing is certain. Unless you knew Andrea, either personally, or by being involved in the same political causes as her, pretty much everything you think you know about her will be wrong. It is sadly the case that many feminists today are too scared to upset the applecart. Andrea never was. – Guardian News & Media