Fighting for Her Life

Andrea Dworkin, 1980s
Estate of Andrea Dworkin
Andrea Dworkin, 1980s

Andrea Dworkin found feminism in 1971, while she was on the run from her violent ex-husband, sleeping on friends’ floors and moving frequently to evade his stalking. She had married at twenty-two, to a fellow New Left countercultural activist from the Netherlands, and moved to Amsterdam to live with him. Soon after they married he began beating her. The first incident seemed like it must have been some kind of mistake. Domestic violence had not been a part of Dworkin’s childhood, and she knew nothing about it. “At the time, so far as I knew, I was the only person this had ever happened to,” Dworkin writes in a haunting 1995 essay called “My Life as a Writer.” After two and a half years of beatings, rape, and other physical attacks, she fled for good. A friend helped her find new places to stay along the way: houseboats, an abandoned mansion, a hippie commune on a farm outside Amsterdam. “In one emergency, [after] my husband had broken into where I was living, had beaten me and threatened to kill me, I spent three weeks sleeping in a movie theater that was empty most of the time.”

Dworkin’s friend brought her some recent books coming out of the American radical feminist movement: Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, and the anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful. Dworkin, who had left the US in 1968, had not heard of them. Like many in the New Left, she resisted their arguments at first: “Oppression meant the US in Vietnam, or apartheid in South Africa, or legal segregation in the US. Even though I had been tortured and was fighting for my life, I could not see women, or myself as a woman, as having political significance.” But there was one aspect of her recent experience that eventually made her receptive to the arguments:

I had been told by everyone I asked for help the many times I tried to escape—strangers and friends—that he would not be hitting me if I didn’t like it or want it. I rejected this outright. Even back then, the experience of being battered was recognizably impersonal to me. Maybe I was the only person in the world this had ever happened to, but I knew it had nothing to do with me as an individual.

Her intuition that the violence was impersonal opened the door to a feminist reading of domestic battery (and its tacit social acceptance) as a heavily gendered phenomenon, one of several kinds of violence that help maintain women’s social, legal, and financial subordination to men. Having seen the feminists’ point, Dworkin became severely disillusioned with the Left for its slowness to recognize female subordination as an injustice. While still on the run from her husband, she began to research and…

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