Authors: Andrea Dworkin

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American feminist and social critic

September 26, 1946

Camden, New Jersey

April 9, 2005

Washington, DC

Identity: Gay or bisexual

Biography

Andrea Dworkin was a radical feminist writer and activist, best known for her opposition to pornography. Although she was an author of fiction about victimized women, Dworkin was best known for her controversial nonfiction. Dworkin declared that her writing was intended to expose the nastier side of male/female relationships: pornography, spousal abuse, and rape. Born in 1946 to Harry Dworkin, a guidance counselor, and Sylvia Spiegel, a secretary, she grew up aware that there were issues in life that needed to be addressed: She described herself as the kind of person who, at eight or nine, would refuse to sing “Silent Night” in public school because to do so would deny her Jewish faith. Even as a child she believed that writing could change minds.

At the age of eighteen Dworkin was awakened to women’s powerlessness. Arrested during an antiwar protest in 1965, she was confined for four days to the Women’s House of Detention, where she was brutalized as part of the standard inmate routine. After her release, she suffered from a vaginal hemorrhage for two weeks. Careless internal examination, authoritarian disrespect, and bullying left her emotionally scarred as well, but Dworkin insisted on publicly confronting the system that allowed a woman to be sexually humiliated in such a fashion. Her growing awareness of the role polarity of sex in American culture led her to write Woman Hating in 1974. The book graphically depicts the sexual abuse of women, examines the historical and psychological position of the woman within society, and presents such issues as female masochism, rape, “white slavery,” and the execution of witches during the Middle Ages. To Dworkin, women are victims of their gender and desperately need to separate themselves from traditional sex roles.

Dworkin had first-hand experience of the victimization of women, as she was married for three years to a Dutch anarchist who beat her. Because the only people who helped her to escape this abuse were feminists, Dworkin became increasingly concerned about the silent majority of women who simply allow victimization to occur. In Right-Wing Women (1983) she theorized that it is the fear of male violence, more than anything else, that coerces women into accepting rigid, predetermined sexual roles. Dworkin warned that the protection that such women find in accepting the social order is minimal and comes at the price of sexual subservience to a male-dominated world.

Unlike many feminist leaders, Dworkin never asserted the absolute equality of men and women. To do so, she maintained, would merely equate women with their oppressors. Instead she called for revolutionary action at the most personal level of an individual’s life and asked for a reexamination of the concepts “male” and “female.” Certainly Dworkin herself tried to emphasize her own rejection of traditional values. She worked as a waitress and as a factory worker and prefered the comfort of dungarees and t-shirts to makeup and dresses. When a reviewer from the London Times Review of Books commented on Dworkin’s appearance during an analysis of Intercourse, Dworkin responded that she hoped the interviewer wouldn’t “burn his Balzac” because he found certain writers in his library to be sexually unappealing. When a female author is overweight or unattractive, Dworkin observed, she is subjected to the kinds of personal attacks that male writers never experience.

Intercourse is itself a book about personal attacks, defining sexual congress as a means of physiologically making a woman inferior, a pushing and thrusting that continues until a woman gives up and gives in—what is termed “sexual surrender” in the male lexicon. Even her readers who agreed that pornography portrays women as sexual objects often shied away from her dramatic statement that all intercourse, even when performed out of a mutual desire for pleasure, is the instrument of male oppression and that heterosexuality is necessarily exploitative because of the typical dominant role of the male.

Dworkin herself, in contrast with her written polemics, seemed less confrontational in person; she claimed to be “deeply responsive” to men who care about women and women’s rights, and she allowed that respectful heterosexual expression could occur—when men could give up their erections and make love to women as lesbians do. Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981) and Letters from a War Zone (1989) both presented the dangers inherent in considering pornography as free speech; Dworkin believed that men use pornography to justify their treatment of women in real life.

Life and Death (1997) collected essays and speeches on a variety of topics, while Scapegoat (2000) expanded Dworkin’s focus to the subject of Jews as both oppressed and oppressors in the Holocaust and in the contemporary state of Israel. Published in 2002, Dworkin’s autobiography was titled, Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant.

Dworkin did more than provide arguments against the subjugation of women in society. Her novels Ice and Fire (1986) and Mercy (1991) graphically depicted the lives of young women in society. Ice and Fire presents the story of a disillusioned young woman who becomes involved in drugs and prostitution. Mercy concerns a young woman who, unable to verbalize her anger, beats up male tramps at night. Although both novels present a bleak vision of women’s lives, they seem to express the hope that transcendence is possible if even one reader is moved by such passionate language and conviction.

Dworkin died in 2005 of acute myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, at the age of fifty-eight.

Author Works Nonfiction: Woman Hating, 1974 Our Blood: Prophecies and Discourses on Sexual Politics, 1976 Pornography: Men Possessing Women, 1981 Right-Wing Women: The Politics of Domesticated Females, 1983 The Reasons Why: Essays on the New Civil Rights Law Recognizing Pornography as Sex Discrimination, 1985 (with Catharine A. MacKinnon) Intercourse, 1987 Pornography and Civil Rights: A New Day for Women’s Equality, 1988 (with Catharine A. MacKinnon) Letters from a War Zone: Writings, 1976–1989, 1989 In Harm's Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings, 1997 (with Catharine A. MacKinnon) Life and Death: Unapologetic Writings on the Continuing War Against Women, 1997 Scapegoat: The Jews, Israel, and Women’s Liberation, 2000 Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant, 2002 Long Fiction: Morning Hair, 1967 Ice and Fire, 1986 Mercy, 1990 Short Fiction: The New Woman’s Broken Heart, 1980 Poetry: Child, 1966 Bibliography Allen, Amy. “Pornography and Power.” Journal of Social Philosophy 32 (Winter, 2001): 512-531. Claims that Dworkin and Catharine A. MacKinnon’s conceptualization of power is inadequate. Blakely, Mary Kay. “Is One Woman’s Sexuality Another Woman’s Pornography?” Ms. 13 (April, 1985): 37-38. Dworkin, Andrea. Letter to The New York Times Book Review, May 3, 1992, 15-16. Eberly, Rosa A. Citizen Critics: Literary Public Spheres. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. Contains a chapter on Dworkin’s novel Mercy. Green, Karen. “De Sade, de Beauvoir, and Dworkin.” Australian Feminist Studies 15 (March, 2000): 69-81. Contrasts Simone de Beauvoir and Dworkin in an attempt to identify constructive feminism. Jenefsky, Cindy. Without Apology: Andrea Dworkin’s Art and Politics. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998. The first book-length study of Dworkin’s works as both writer and social critic. O’Driscoll, Sally. “Andrea Dworkin: Guilt Without Sex.” The Village Voice, July 15-21, 1981. An objective essay. Presents the most radical side of Dworkin’s writings: her views on pornography and sexual politics. Pagnaterro, Marisa Anne. “The Importance of Andrea Dworkin’s Mercy: Mitigating Circumstances and Narrative Jurisprudence.” Frontiers 19, no. 1 (1998): 147-166. Extensive review of Dworkin’s novel, providing much contextual information. Palczewski, Catherine Helen. “Contesting Pornography: Terministic Catharsis and Definitional Argument.” Argumentation and Advocacy 38 (Summer, 2001): 1-16. Critique of Dworkin and MacKinnon’s views on pornography.

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