A true revolutionary in an age of conformity

It is hard to imagine anyone less fashionable, in every sense, than Andrea Dworkin
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The Independent Online

It is hard to imagine a world without Andrea Dworkin, the American feminist who died last weekend at the shockingly early age of 59. Dworkin was not mainstream in the way of Germaine Greer or Naomi Wolf, and she was mocked at least as often as she was admired. But she was tough and unflinching, cataloguing the worst things men do to women and fitting them into an intellectual framework that instilled courage in her readers, even if they did not agree with her frequently harsh conclusions. For many women, it was enough to know that she existed, that she had survived and deconstructed experiences too dreadful for most of us to contemplate.

It is hard to imagine a world without Andrea Dworkin, the American feminist who died last weekend at the shockingly early age of 59. Dworkin was not mainstream in the way of Germaine Greer or Naomi Wolf, and she was mocked at least as often as she was admired. But she was tough and unflinching, cataloguing the worst things men do to women and fitting them into an intellectual framework that instilled courage in her readers, even if they did not agree with her frequently harsh conclusions. For many women, it was enough to know that she existed, that she had survived and deconstructed experiences too dreadful for most of us to contemplate.

Dworkin was a revolutionary, a position she declared in her first book and which remains essential to understanding why she wrote as unbendingly as she did. "This book is an action, a political action where revolution is the goal. It has no other purpose," she wrote in the introduction to Woman Hating, published in 1974.

Her tool was not calm, reasoned analysis but polemic, leaving little or no room for dissent; in the three decades of writing that followed, she never deviated from her view that "the commitment to ending male dominance as the fundamental psychological, political, and cultural reality of earth-lived life is the fundamental revolutionary commitment". Woman Hating was dedicated to the memory of Emma Goldman and quoted both Virginia Woolf and Rudi Dutschke - prophetically as it turns out, for the passage she chose from Dutschke talked about the revolution as a "long drawn-out process".

For Dworkin it certainly was, and a painful one. Few writers have been so appropriated, misunderstood or caricatured - horribly so in magazines such as Hustler, whom she sued for printing cartoons of her that were both sexually explicit and anti-Semitic. (One of her earliest political statements was her refusal at school to sing "Silent Night" with the other children - an incident she recalled when I interviewed her two decades ago. "I was brought up to be Jewish and I felt it was a real infringement on my religious rights," she said later.)

In a country that enshrines the right to free expression in its constitution, Dworkin alienated some liberals with her uncompromising opposition to pornography and her refusal to make a distinction between porn and erotica. She was read avidly by a small but significant readership when she could get her books into print, inspiring admiration when she couldn't (but went on writing anyway).

Latterly her vulnerability was shockingly exposed by an episode in Paris when she passed out in a hotel room, came round and wrote a harrowing article about her conviction that she had been drugged and raped. Dworkin was deeply hurt by the reaction of some readers, who did not doubt her veracity but wondered whether her injuries could have been caused by a fall.

Dworkin's health was clearly failing, although the extent of her illness was not widely known before her death was announced on Monday. The fact that such a well-known feminist suffered from an eating disorder (she was obese), exposing her to even greater mockery, was difficult for other feminists to deal with, especially when it looked like a defence against intolerable experiences.

Dworkin's history is well known: sexually abused as a child, she was raped several times as an adult, beaten by her first husband and spent years "out on the street ... homeless, poor, sexually traumatised, trading sex for money".

In such circumstances, it is not surprising that she wrote as she did, with the cold fury of a survivor, but her experiences may have also created a darker prism than most of us are accustomed to look through. I remember taking her novel Mercy on holiday one summer and being horrified by its graphically violent sex scenes - at one point I thought of hurling the book into the swimming pool - which made me wonder whether Dworkin was in some way addicted to the very material that repulsed her.

This is not to belittle her as a writer, although I found her non-fiction much more compelling than her novels, or to deny that her arguments "pushed the true agenda to the surface", in Will Self's phrase.

What is certain is that feminists will argue over her legacy for a long time to come, especially since it has been her fate to be best known for things she didn't actually write or say. Dworkin was a polarising figure: she didn't equate all heterosexual sex with rape, although she did claim that "women really do not like intercourse very much" and that "one of the differences between marriage and prostitution is that in marriage you only have to make a deal with one man."

She did believe that battered women have the right to kill their abusers, a view she expressed immediately after O J Simpson was acquitted of his wife's murder and which may be less shocking in Amerika (as she usually styled it), with its institutionalised violence and rhetoric of self-defence, than in Europe.

In that sense, I think of her as a very American writer - an extremist, though on the left of the political spectrum in a country where the right (and the religious right at that) is currently dominant. She was often smarter and more consistent that other radicals, understanding the importance of class and accusing the women's movement, with some justice, of not dealing with this "bread-and-butter issue".

She saw through Bill Clinton's charm to the serial abuser inside at a time when other prominent women were rushing to his defence, an insight she wrapped in characteristic hyperbole: "Suddenly, every time you look at this man you have to think about rape. It's harder to sleep, it's harder to work ... because this man is President."

It is hard to imagine anyone less fashionable, in every sense, than Dworkin; for her enemies, she embodied the lesbian feminist with wild dark hair and in dungarees. The fact that she lived with a gay man for more than three decades and eventually married him, resulting in bizarre accusations that she was anti-lesbian, confirmed both her ability to confound stereotypes and the extent to which she became a screen for other people's fantasies and projections. Her husband, John Stoltenberg, the author of Refusing to be a Man, wrote movingly about their life together in 1994, saying that Dworkin had taught him about the meaning of home.

Dworkin was a true radical in a nation that more often produces anodyne theorists, a fact that is as true of the American women's movement as it is of mainstream politics. She had a mind you could test yourself against, without a shred of sentimentality or self-pity, and I shall miss her presence and her cold, brilliant prose.

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