Yvonne Roberts: Wrong and wild, just as we required

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The Independent Online

When Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, was murdering and mutilating women, graffiti appeared that read, "Not mad, not bad, but male." Andrea Dworkin, the American feminist writer and polemicist, who died last week, aged 58, would have approved .

In the so-called war between the sexes, she took no hostages. She advocated that paedophiles and rapists should be shot. If women slept with men, by choice, according to Dworkin, they had been conquered. If they tried to change a man, they only increased the risk of exploitation. If they lived happily with a husband, they perpetuated the patriarchy and the domination of females. Small wonder that thousands of women said, even without sight of her, "Whatever Dworkin is - I'm definitely not."

She infantilised her own sex and demonised men to a ridiculous extent. But, Dworkin had passion. She was a genius at propaganda. She knew that no matter how outrageous a statement, if it held a germ of truth, if it resonated, however weakly, with the humiliation or hurt pride of an individual, it would force even the most lethargic to react - whether for or against her.

She forced people to think - and in an era of mass inertia, that, in itself, is a minor miracle. She re-awoke in her readers a sense of vigilance - even in those appalled by her perspective. In the early Eighties, with the lawyer Catharine MacKinnon, she proposed a civil ordinance which would allow women to sue if they believed that they had been damaged by pornography. It had the potential for censorship on a scale warmly welcomed by the moral right. It also overlooked the fact that, even then, one of the biggest causes of the growth in the porn market was the increase in female consumers.

The ordinance defined pornography as, "the sexually explicit subordination of women graphically depicted whether in picture or in words". This sums up much of the content of men's magazines and acres of advertising today. Except that now, unlike the Eighties, the women are far more complicit, daft enough to strip off in the name of "liberation".

Dworkin was abused when young and raped and beaten when older. She was married to a violent man. She worked as a prostitute. Her own sense of powerlessness in the face of these personal experiences perhaps manifested itself in her mammoth size.

I interviewed her twice in the Nineties. She was powerfully eloquent but it seemed to me that her weight (and the dungarees), far from being a symbol of feminist defiance, as some of her obituary writers have claimed, were just as strong an example of self-hating as the Botox and breast-enhanced bimbo, devoid of self-esteem.

What Dworkin ignored was that just as surely as women were - and are - conditioned to see themselves as "the other", second best to males - men too are moulded by expectations and circumstance. She saw them all as irredeemably destructive, predatory and rapacious - a dangerous view much-loved by right-wing judges when excusing sexually violent male behaviour because - after provocation - they had supposedly been overcome by lust.

Dworkin believed that pornography was central to creating and maintaining the inequality of the sexes. Rubbish. Central is the devaluation of all things associated with what it allegedly means to be female, including the burden of caring - in order that men traditionally accept, in turn, the narrowest of definitions of what it means to be a "real" man - emotionally locked down and destined to become cannon-fodder on the battle fields and labour fodder as the sole breadwinners. In a hierarchy of persecution, men suffer less but they still suffer. The aim should be social transformation of both men and women and an end to the excesses of the consumer-mad, profit-orientated society in which they are both captives - not the bloodshed and gender apartheid that Dworkin favoured.

In the flesh, she was a soft-voiced, charming woman who, perhaps, lacked the resilience which has rescued so many others of her sex, also scarred by violence. She will be remembered as a catalyst: the necessary extremist who provoked others into making a stand.