I can’t come here as a friend, even though I might very much want to.” These are the words of Andrea Dworkin, addressing an anti-sexist men’s organisation in 1983, in her acclaimed speech I Want a 24-Hour Truce in Which There Is No Rape. “The power exercised by men, day to day, in life is power that is institutionalised. It is protected by law. It is protected by religion and religious practice. It is protected by universities, which are strongholds of male supremacy. It is protected by a police force. It is protected by those whom Shelley called “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”: the poets, the artists. Against that power, we have silence.”
Dworkin, who died of heart failure in 2005 at the age of 58, was one of the world’s most notorious radical feminists. She wrote 14 books, the most famous of which was Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981). Now her work is being revisited in Last Days at Hot Slit, a new collection of her writing.
Many of the articles written about her claimed Dworkin personified hate. The media often said she hated men, hated sex, hated sexual freedom and absolutely hated the left. In 1998, a writer in the London Review of Books saw fit to give his view on her appearance (“overweight and ugly”) and how her “frustration” at not having enough sex “has turned her into a man-hater”. Another wrote after her death that Dworkin was a “sad ghost” that feminism needs to exorcise and that she was “insane”.
I knew the real Dworkin, and our decade-long friendship taught me far more about love than hate. “I keep the stories of the women in my heart,” she would tell me when I asked how she did the work she did and stayed sane. “They urge me on, and keep me focused on what needs to be done.”
She was motivated by an innate desire to rid the world of pain and oppression. Had more of us listened to Dworkin during her decades of activism, and taken her work more seriously, more women would have signed up to an uncompromising feminism, as opposed to the fun kind, the sloganeering sort you read on high-street T-shirts, that is all about individual “girl power” and being able to wear trousers, rather than a collective movement to emancipate all women from the tyranny of oppression.
We met in 1996. I was one of the organisers of an international conference on violence against women, and Dworkin was a keynote speaker. We hit it off immediately, as we had a similar sense of humour and a number of friends in common. A group of conference speakers went to dinner on the first night and we were raucously discussing our various wishlists of ways to end patriarchy. “Did you notice that we were ‘ladies’ when we came in, ‘guys’ when our order was taken,” said Dworkin the following morning, “and probably banned for life by the time we left?”
In the early 1970s, Dworkin spoke of her own experiences of sexual abuse and violence at a time when few did. And in today’s climate of #MeToo revelations, we can see how far ahead of her time she was. “In the 1980s and 1990s, reading Dworkin became, for many, a discomfiting and exhilarating collegiate rite of passage,” reads a recent piece in the New York Times. “Her writing is a strident and raw look at the systemic bias affecting the everyday experiences of women.”
Dworkin’s 1983 book, Right-Wing Women, could have been about how Trump came to power. Although I doubt she would have been so quick to lay the bulk of the blame for Trump’s election on white women, her razor-sharp analysis of why so many women are attracted to a politics that despises their rights is more relevant today than ever. Her central theory is that the right exploits women’s fear and offers us a chivalrous protection. It reassures us that we do not need to change the status quo, but accept it, and take whatever access to power is available to us. Dworkin despaired at what has come to be known as “lean-in feminism” which focuses on the ability of individual, privileged women to climb to the top, and always said that until women at the “bottom of the pile” were liberated, none of us could be.