Ms Dworkin came from Jewish heritage, although home life was not orthodox. Both parents were politically left-leaning, and her mother supported women’s reproductive rights throughout Ms Dworkin’s childhood, an acknowledged influence on her own beliefs. She attended both Hebrew and Sunday school as a child and was known for questioning and probing belief systems rather than having religious faith. She was a well-behaved, intelligent and inquisitive child.
At the age of 9 Ms Dworkin was sexually abuse by a stranger in a cinema; her family did not provide the support and understanding she felt necessary to recovery, although did believe her. This experience proved formative in her development of gender theories and in her writing.
Ms Dworkin attended Bennington College, Vermont, USA, a women’s college which became co-educational in 1969, one year after she graduated with a degree in Literature. During college, she became involved in demonstrations against the Vietnam War and was arrested. Whilst incarcerated she was subjected to several invasive, violent internal examinations and her testimony after release helped lead to the closure of the Greenwich, New York detention centre in which she was held. Ms Dworkin moved to Greece for a short while to write, before returning to Bennington to graduate.
Ms Dworkin moved to Amsterdam, Holland, and married Cornelius Dirk de Bruin. Mr de Bruin was abusive towards Ms Dworkin, with pornography formed part of the emotional and physical abuse. The experience led her to become involved in anti-domestic violence campaigns when she left the marriage in 1971. She found herself forced into prostitution to survive as Mr de Bruin would trace her to wherever she stayed, making escape impossible through legitimate employment. She lived with friends or in shelters, and occasionally slept rough.
Ricki Abrams, a feminist with whom it was intended she was to collaborate on a book, helped in Ms Dworkin’s escape and introduced her to the radical feminist ideology with which she became synonymous. Ms Abrams did not finish the collaboration and Ms Dworkin solely authored “Woman Hating” upon returning to New York, which was to be her first successful work.
Ms Dworkin became involved in campaigns against Apartheid, in demonstrations for lesbian rights, and her immersion in radical feminist theory and activism grew. In 1974 she met John Stoltenburg, who became her second husband in 1998 and who was her companion for over 30 years. Both identified as gay causing confusion for the mainstream media. Both were criticised by those who had strict criteria for what marriage and opposite-gender relationships should mean, but both would simply stated they loved each other and were life-partners.
Ms Dworkin’s writing explored the male patriarchal systemic subjugation of women, with particular emphasis on sexuality and relationships. Ms Dworkin is most well-known for campaigning against pornography. In 1983 she drafted an anti-pornography ordinance with Catharine A. MacKinnon that was passed in Minneapolis, and which stated that pornography was a form of sexual discrimination. This legislation had been requested by Minneapolis to address the failed lawsuit brought on behalf of Linda Lovelace by Ms Dworkin and Ms MacKinnon, which failed because there was no law in place to protect abused workers in the pornographic industry. An adapted draft was later adopted in Indiana, but both drafts were rescinded as being unconstitutional. Neither draft directly addressed the abuse of sex-workers which was the original catalyst for the request, and the drafts were criticised for being too vague in intent.
Ms Dworkin’s work concentrated heavily on critiques of the heterosexual relationship and she faced much criticism based purely on her gender. This criticism strengthened her argument, as it derived directly from the patriarchal sexism she was writing about. The quote most often attributed to her, that “all sex is rape”, was never uttered by her. However, her all-encompassing anti-pornography stance continues to be criticised as being too broad and not encompassing the variety of pornography or the existence of feminist pornography. Her views became more extreme as she grew older, and in “Intercourse” (1987) she stated that it is impossible to have heterosexual sex which is not coercive on the female in a patriarchal society; this viewpoint continues to be controversial within feminism.
At every stage of her career Ms Dworkin received explicit physical threats from those who opposed her views, almost all sexual in nature. In 1999 she wrote of being drugged and raped in a hotel, an experience which left her reliant on medication to sleep.
Ms Dworkin died on 9th April 2005 aged 58. Depicted as a humourless harridan by opponents, to those who knew her she was kind and witty and a respected intellectual. She remains one of the more controversial figures in feminism. She proved an inspiration to many, not least her aunt Ms Speigel who felt that “Because (Ms Dworkin) could do what she could do, her actions gave me permission to do what I could do --- push the boundaries, tell the stories, go beyond what's really supposed to be okay.”
Woman Hating (1974)
Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1979)
Right-Wing Women (1983)
Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant (2002)
Ice and Fire (1987)
FOTW No.67 by Kayla Calkin, “This is What a Feminist Looks Like Facebook” group:
Blog by Tina Price-Johnson