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ANDREA DWORKIN by Martin Duberman Kirkus Star


The Feminist as Revolutionary

by Martin Duberman

Pub Date: Sept. 8th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-62097-585-5
Publisher: The New Press

Veteran biographer and gay rights activist Duberman assesses the life and thought of the combative radical feminist.

Andrea Dworkin (1946-2005) was among the most controversial figures in the second-wave feminist movement, caricatured by her critics as a man-hating lesbian who believed all heterosexual sex was rape. Duberman, who knew her personally, paints a much more nuanced picture, pointing out that Dworkin lived for 40 years in a nonexclusive, occasionally sexual relationship with a devoted male partner and that she was ahead of her time in seeing gender as a social construct that denied the fluidity of human sexual behavior. His account of Dworkin’s childhood and youth depicts a precocious rebel with a deep commitment to social justice and a theatrical, confrontational personality that brooked no compromise or evasions. When she was subjected to a brutal and humiliating vaginal exam after being arrested at a sit-in protesting the Vietnam War, 18-year-old Dworkin wrote to every newspaper in New York City describing her ordeal and the conditions at the Women’s House of Detention. It was the beginning of her lifelong battle to make the world face the fact that women were routinely mistreated and abused, culminating in her famous crusade against pornography. Duberman persuasively argues that Dworkin’s position was misunderstood as a call for censorship when in fact what she advocated was the right of women who had been harmed by pornography to sue its purveyors—and their obligation to prove their case in court. Her response to free-speech absolutists gives a good sense of both her belligerence and her searching intelligence: “People have no idea how middle-classed and privileged their liberal First Amendment stuff is—how power and money determine who can speak in this society.” These words resonate even more strongly today, and Duberman notes that after years of opprobrium, there is now “a modicum of acknowledgment of Andrea’s insistent bravery, her mesmerizing public voice, her generosity of spirit.”

A sympathetic, cleareyed portrait that gives Dworkin her due without smoothing over her rough edges.