Letters from the War Zone: 1976-1989

Another serendipitous find as a result of browsing for books in a physical environment. I stumbled onto this due to its proximity in the Deweys to a different book I was hunting (which ended up looking dull and boring, so I gladly pawed Dworkin’s text from the library shelf). Shamefully I know very little about Dworkin except what she revealed in this book; she hasn’t come up in my search for the essential feminist theory texts, why? For some reason she’s been deemed not as essential as Firestone or Millet. But she’s every bit as persuasive, eloquent, and intellectually curious. The book is a collection of essays and speeches written during this period, only 4 of which were published in mainstream magazines. It seems that Dworkin took to the road and eked out a meager living as a speaker once she encountered difficulty in publishing her work. She’s become best-known for her stance against pornography as inherently violent to women.
Nervous Interview, 1978, is a piece she describes as the most obscure and not published for money. She wrote this as a parody of Norman Mailer’s self-interviews, “none of which made much sense” but all of which were taken seriously. Some excerpts:

Q: Why don’t you give interviews?
A: Because they’re so false. Someone asks a question–very posed and formal, or very fumbling and sincere. Then someone tries to respond in kind. Cult of fame and personality and all that. It’s all wrong.
Q: So why this? Why now?
A: I couldn’t sleep. Very edgy. Nervous nightmares about New York. Going home. Cesspool and paradise. You see, I’ve lived many places. I keep leaving them. I keep returning to New York but I can’t stay put. But that’s what I want most. To stay still. So I’m restless and irritated.
Q: People are surprised when they meet you. That you’re nice.
A: I think that’s strange. Why shouldn’t I be nice?
Q: It’s not a quality that one associates with radical feminists.
A: Well, see, right there, that’s distortion. Radical feminists are always nice. Provoked to the point of madness, but remaining, at heart, nice.

That last bit about radical feminists reminds me of something she writes later, in the terrific Feminism: An Agenda, a speech given in 1983 at Hamilton College in upstate New York:

There is nothing that feminists want more than to become irrelevant. We want the end of the exploitation of women… and so you have to organize an agenda. I don’t have an agenda. My agenda is everything I can think of, everything I think of doing, all the time: movement, movement, physical and intellectual and political confrontations with power.

From the same speech, this is why it’s difficult to have the conversation with people. I forget their underpinnings sometimes.

If you believe that God made women to be submissive and inferior, then there is almost nothing that feminism can say to you about your place in society. A political movement against the will of God does not sound like a very reasonable form of organizing. And in fact frequently a misogynist will say: “Your argument isn’t with me, it’s with God.” And we say: “Well, since you’re created in His image, you’re the best we can do. So stand there and let’s discuss this. You represent Him, you do that all the time anyway.”

More from this speech:

The women’s movement in general, with many exceptions, with many failures, with many imperfections, has been dedicated to that process of finding out which questions to ask and asking those questions.
A lot of the questions are considered unspeakable. They are unspeakable questions. And when they are asked, those who ask them are greeted with extraordinary hostility. I am sure you have experienced something similar whenever you have asked a question that somebody didn’t want asked. Everything that you have been taught about the liberal tradition of education, about the value of books, the beauty of art, the meaning of creativity, is lost, means nothing, unless you retain the independence to ask your own questions, always, throughout your lives.

Someone tried to get me to read a book that just came out, Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy, boldly written by a dude (who gave himself full credit, his attempt is different BECAUSE he’s a man), but I couldn’t get through the hundreds of pages of comparisons to other animals. I was fresh off of Dworkin, who railed against this tactic.

In trying to discuss what rights women should have, many people refer to biology, and they do so in a myriad of ways… people point to primates, fish, they point to anything that moves, anything that is actually alive, anything that they can find. And they tell us that we should infer our rights from the behaviors of whatever they are pointing to. Frequently they point to things that aren’t alive, that are only postulated to have been alive at some previous moment in prehistory. One outstanding example is the cichlid, which is my personal favorite. It is a prehistoric fish – or to be more precise, some men think it was a prehistoric fish. The followers of Konrad Lorenz – and these are scientists, okay? – say that the male cichlid could not mate unless his partner demonstrated awe. Now is this a projection or is this… a fish? Kate Millett wondered in Sexual Politics how a fish demonstrates awe.