Dworkin’s Heartbreak

“A lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has its boots on.”
- Donald Rumsfeld

Having never been classically trained in feminism I was painfully unaware of many feminist hall-of-famers until recently. In fact, I remembered this embarrassing detail a few days ago: I didn’t know who Gloria Steinem was until she showed up in an episode of The L Word. So, needless to say, it was only a few years ago that I first heard someone say Andrea Dworkin’s name.

Initially, all I noted was that mention of her name invoked dramatic reactions – mainly of the negative persuasion. A couple months ago during a small feminist gathering I attended someone declared something to the effect of “the world would be a better place had she not been born.”

With these kinds of reactions from the feminist community itself it may not be surprising that none of Dworkin’s 11 published non-fiction books made the recent Ms Magazine list of top 100 feminist non-fiction books of all time. It would be hard to argue that Dworkin was simply unknown to the magazine or its readers considering Ms. Magazine founder, and a peer of Dworkin’s, Gloria Steinem has said of her: “She is, I always thought, our Old Testament prophet raging in the hills, telling the truth.” Considering her prominence (regardless of how one feels of her specific politics) in the movement―it is a striking omission.

So why the hate on? When I was trying to figure this out it seemed like the big ones were that Dworkin was credited was saying things like “all sex with men is rape” and “all men are rapists.” Unbeknownst to me, most of the people who repeated these phrases had not actually read any of her work or speeches. Neither had I.

When I found out she had a memoir I thought it the perfect opportunity to take a closer look. The first thing that struck me about Heartbreak was its readability. It has some welcoming wide margins and double spacing. The second thing was that it reminded of Assata Shakur’s memoir. Which maybe seems like a strange comparison. A year apart in age both activists were in New York City during the same time period of civil rights and anti-war movements. Dworkin, throughout much of her life had very little money but she reported to have routinely donated to the Black Panther youth and literacy programs (programs Assasta Shakur was heavily involved with). Both were avid readers and self educators – critical of the huge gaps in the public education system. Dworkin read all the works of Darwin and most of Marx and Freud before she finished high school. Most striking for me was a similar sensation in their writing – the two books felt more like a two-way conversation than a telling. Both asked many questions of the reader and I often felt like I was talking with them.

“I have been asked, politely and not so politely, why I am myself. This is an accounting any woman will be called on to give if she asserts her will.”  - Andrea Dworkin

Heartbreak isn’t a political manifesto. If you’re interested in dissecting her analysis this isn’t the place to turn. It is the place to turn to give one a fuller picture of the woman most feared and ridiculed in the feminist movement.

My top 4 moments in the book:

  • In grade 6 she refused to sing Silent Night with her class because she decided she liked the idea of the separation of church and state. This was also when she learned to be critical of the way adults manipulate and lie to children, “I recognized that there were a lot of ways of lying, and pretending that Christmas and Easter were secular holidays was a big lie, not a small one.”
  • She took writing very seriously and spent years on her poetry. She obviously thought constantly about how to best articulate stories and arguments. She writes, “Can one write for the dispossessed, the marginalized, the tortured? Is there a kind of genius that can make a story as real as a tree or an idea as inevitable as taking the next breath?”
  • In 1992 eco-feminist Petra Kelly was shot and killed by her partner (who then killed himself). Dworkin attended the memorial with many other activists and was disgusted by the speakers who almost exclusively spoke of her partner’s devotion to pacifism and only mentioned Kelly in passing. “I couldn’t believe nothing had changed―peace, peace, peace, love, love, love; they did not understand nor would they even consider that a man murdered a woman.”  This, of course, would not be the first or last time that a feminist was awe struck by misogyny within the progressive left.
  • There are many more instances in the book when her perception of a moment of injustice feels spot on. Near the end of the book she has this one, “A few nights ago I heard the husband of a close friend on television discussing antirape policies that he opposes at the university. He said that he was willing to concede that rape did take place. How white of you, I thought bitterly, and then I realized that his statement was a definition of ‘white’ in motion―not even ‘white male’ but white in a country built on white ownership of blacks and white genocide of reds and white-indentured servitude of Asians and women, including white women, and brown migrant labour. He thought maybe 3 percent of women in the United States had been raped, whereas the best research shows a quarter to a third. The male interviewer agreed with the percentage pulled out of thin air: It sounded right to both of them, and neither of them felt required to fund a study or read the already existing research material. Their authority was behind their number, and in the United States authority is white.”

Charges of being divisive to “the movement” have historically been used to silence women of colour, lesbians, queers, trans, and disability justice activists. Not to mention women in general within the progressive left. This is something that’s going on now in parts of the Occupy movement. I’m not going to say that you’re splintering the movement by reading up on Dworkin and critiquing her analysis. But, if you do find yourself hating her and wishing she’d never been born I suggest that you read this book. She was radical, and critique is important, but blanket hatred uncesscarily nullifies her valuable contributions.

The only other Andrea Dworkin I have read is her 1983 speech, “I want a Twenty-Four-Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape.” This challenging and fiery speech was delivered to a room full of 500 men.  If nothing else the woman deserves our respect.  And, maybe the boots of truth will have a chance to catch up.

Follow Ellie Gordon-Moershel: @EllieGordonMoe

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12 Comments on “Dworkin’s Heartbreak”

  • Omnia Vanitas

    So sick of the baseless Dworkin hate. It’s a grim day indeed when the self-serving hatred of the privileged class is unthinkingly accepted by the oppressed class, against one of their most courageous and revolutionary front-liners.

  • martin dufresne

    Please check out Nikki Craft’s “Andrea Dworkin On-Line Library” for key excerpts of her non-fiction, fiction, Op-Eds, interviews, avec audio recordings!

  • Goddess, I haven’t read Dworkin’s words in so long that I forgot how wonderful they are. Thank you, Ellie, for taking the time to write this review and reminding me that I have some wonderful re-reading to do! ;)

  • ned

    Most people with negative feelings about Andrea Dworkin have never read her writing, and in fact just base their emotional reactions on out-of-context quotes presented in ways intended to paint her as a misandrist with mental health issues. If people actually bothered to read her they would realize that she was none of those things. In fact I think the group that may actually benefit from reading her most, both emotionally and morally, is men.

  • ned

    By the way, I’m not some kind of uncritical devotee of Dworkin/MacKinnon. There are areas where I think their thought could use some nuancing and updating, and sometimes I feel Dworkin, being more of an activist than an academic, uses a language or uses a tone that isn’t suitable for all audiences and likely to alienate lots of people. But these are pretty superficial issues, and I think the core of what they were saying was and is pretty solid and has stood the test of time. What I’d like to see more radical feminists doing is building on what Dworkin/MacKinnon’s legacy using the best empirical and theoretical tools we have available to us today in the social sciences and philosophy.

    And since I’m mentioning building on the Dworkin/MacKinnon legacy, I’d like to plug Rae Langton’s book of essays, “Sexual Solipsism: Philosophical Essays on Pornography and Objectification” (Oxford University Press, 2009), which strengthens the links between Dworkin and MacKinnon’s thought and uncontroversial liberal ideas. (There is another one by Abigail Levin as well, “The Cost of Free Speech”.) I find that a lot of truly amazing things are happening in academia but they are quite esoteric and unfortunately do not reach mainstream audiences, not even activist circles.

  • I never read or even heard of Dworkin until recently.. Someone on my blog accused radfems of claiming all sex as rape and I saw Dworkin’s name brought up by other women. I definitely understand what you mean when you say you had no clue who people were.. That is my feeling as a self taught feminist.. I still have a lot to learn.

  • dworkins “intercourse” changed the game for me, but everything she has ever written needs to be read, if only because she was such a gifted and deliberate writer. all of us could learn from her, if only how to write more effectively. no joke. she was a force. and the hatred of her is so gutless. it really is. absolutely gutless, and intellectually dishonest.

  • marv wheale

    I was first introduced to Andrea’s writings in a gender studies class back in the middle nineties. She and Catharine MacKinnon turned me upside down and inside out. My whole identity was transfigured from ignorance to light. I will never forget her glory nor her unyielding equality love for women and men. Dare I say she was and is divine revelation.

  • David Duriesmith

    I recently read Heartbreak on a plane trip over to a conference on GBV. What spoke to me more than anything else in the book is her incredible sense of hope throughout. Especially as a male Dworkin’s always fills me with the sense that one day a meaningful, ethical and egalitarian form of sexuality may exist between men and women.

  • thebewilderness

    Just in case you care, that quote, “A lie can make it around the world before the truth gets its boots on.” is Mark Twain, not Rummy.

    • Ellie

      I got the quote from a text book which quoted Rumsfeld using it in a speech in 2006 – but it looks like it’s a well used quote by speech writers. Just seems so apt coming out of Rumsfeld’s mouth.

  • Katie

    She was brilliant and so was her work! So unbelievably courageous; poignant and to the point! We should cherish her memory, and by we I mean everybody collectively.

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