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Obituary: Andrea Dworkin, wrong target

Andrea Dworkin died last month. Dworkin was seen by most as an intransigent, man-hating radical feminist. She wrote extensively about male violence, drawing upon her own experiences.

Dworkin had a very traumatic life. She suffered anti-Semitism and sexual abuse from a very young age. Then, after decades as a feminist writer and lecturer she was drugged and raped in 1999. She spent the last few years of her life in a deep depression related to that rape.

Dworkin emerged as a feminist thinker in the 1970s, publishing her first book, Woman Hating, in 1974. At the time the women’s movement was in debate over theory, strategy and tactics. The early women’s movement was involved with the radical civil rights movement, the fight against the war in Vietnam and – in the UK – key struggles of working class women for equal rights.

As it grew, the movement became engrossed in debates that centred on the relationship of feminism to the working class movement, and the linked question of the role of men in the oppression, and consequently the liberation of women.

On the one hand were the socialist feminists, influenced by working class movements and linked to the left parties. They argued that the origin of women’s oppression was intimately linked with the emergence of private property and hence class society. Under capitalism they argued women’s oppression was closely tied to the exploitation of the working class.

As a result, they argued that the women’s movement must link up with workers’ struggles, particularly those of working class women. Their weakness was that they failed to understand the interdependence of class exploitation and women’s oppression, and tended to see two parallel spheres of struggle rather than an integrated fight for socialism and women’s liberation.

Opposed to the socialist feminists were the radicals, Dworkin included, who regarded women’s oppression as the most fundamental social oppression, upon which all other injustice was based. This led to the strategy of seeking women’s emancipation through separation from men, often linked to a political lesbianism – an outlook that argued that any contact with men was tantamount to collaborating with the enemy.

Dworkin came to be one of the major figures on this wing of feminism, although she was not one of its key theoreticians. Rather, her books – notably Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1979) and Intercourse (1987) – are polemics against men and the system that oppresses women.

Unlike some radical feminists, including the “revolutionary” feminists, she did not try in her books to develop a coherent theory of the underlying class or patriarchal social relations that anchor women’s oppression throughout the ages; instead she focused almost entirely on one form in which the oppression of women is made manifest – sexual violence.

For Dworkin women are oppressed by sexual violence. She is often quoted as saying that all intercourse is rape, a claim she denies. She argued that heterosexual intercourse is “the pure, sterile, formal expression of men’s contempt for women”. Even more clearly, “intercourse remains a means, or the means, of physiologically making a woman inferior: communicating to her, cell by cell, her own inferior status… pushing and thrusting until she gives in.”

She denied that this amounts to saying that all sex is rape; she argues that all sex that involves any force is rape, and that much “romantic” sex is in fact forced penetration of women.

This understanding of the role of sexual intercourse in women’s subjugation leads to her next major argument, namely that pornography is propaganda for rape. “Pornography is a celebration of rape and injury to women; it’s a kind of union for rapists, a way of legitimising rape and formalising male supremacy in our society.” Indeed for Dworkin, pornography is the most fundamental factor in women’s oppression.

The other major part of Dworkin’s picture is prostitution, which she saw as violence, a systematic way of defiling women in a form of a factory of exploitation. At the same time, marriage contrasts with prostitution in that it involves reproduction, and is seen as a form of “farming”, a fertile place for men to grow their seeds.

Her model of women’s oppression, links pornography, prostitution and crimes against women – “Each has to be understood as intrinsically part of the condition of women – pornography being what women are, prostitution being what women do, the circle of crimes being what women are for.”

Together with academic Catherine MacKinnon, Dworkin drafted and promoted a law to make pornography a form of sexual discrimination, and allow civil action against people who made, sold or distributed it. In this she allied herself with the right wing conservatives. She campaigned against organisations seeking civil rights for sex workers. She was also a defender of the Israeli state, and in one of her later works Scapegoat: the Jews, Israel and Women’s Liberation (2000) suggested that women might follow the Israeli model by forming a separate state.

Dworkin was a provocative advocate of an extreme radical feminism that emerged out of the women’s movement. While she resisted the liberal feminism that limited itself to the fight to get more women as corporate executives, she also routinely allied herself with some very reactionary forces that, while opposing pornography, opposed equal rights for working class women.

She failed to understand the role of capitalism in dividing society by class, gender and nationality. She was, in essence, an idealist. She failed to grapple with the social and historical roots of women’s oppression in class exploitation but looked only at the surface expression of extremes of that oppression. She turned materialism on its head, and placed an ideological issue, pornography, at the base.

Women’s oppression is rooted in the family, in their role as child rearers and domestic slaves; their second-class status in the paid labour force reflects and reinforces this. Socialising the responsibilities for child rearing and household work is the lasting route out of this confinement, but this in turn requires unity with working class men to overthrow the capitalist society that depends upon it. Only socialism can truly liberate women.

The bourgeoisie like to portray Dworkin as a revolutionary. “Ms Dworkin writes like a Trotsky of the sex war… full of power and energy,” said one commentator. She was not. She may have written with passion, but her polemic targeted the wrong enemy. By turning all her fire on expressions rather than causes of women’s oppression, she helped miseducate a generation of radical women.

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