by Andrea Dworkin

Copyright © 1974-76 by Andrea Dworkin.
All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

Feminism, Art, and My Mother Sylvia

[Delivered at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, April 16, 1974.]

I am very happy to be here today. It is no small thing for me to be here. There are many other places I could be. This is not what my mother had planned for me.

I want to tell you something about my mother. Her name is Sylvia. Her father's name is Spiegel. Her husband's name is Dworkin. She is fifty-nine years old, my mother, and just a few months ago she had a serious heart attack. She is recovered now and back on her job. She is a secretary in a high school. She has been a heart patient most of her life, and all of mine. When she was a child she had rheumatic fever. She says that her real trouble began when she was pregnant with my brother Mark and got pneumonia. After that, her life was a misery of illness. After years of debilitating illness—heart failures, toxic reactions to the drugs that kept her alive—she underwent heart surgery, then she suffered a brain clot, a stroke, that robbed her of speech for a long time. She recovered from the heart surgery. She recovered from her stroke, although she still speaks more slowly than she thinks. Then, about eight years ago she had a heart attack. She recovered. Then, a few months ago she had a heart attack. She recovered.

My mother was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, the second oldest of seven children, two boys, five girls. Her parents, Sadie and Edward, who were cousins, came from someplace in Hungary. Her father died before I was born. Her mother is now eighty. There is no way of knowing of course if my mother's heart would have been injured so badly had she been born into a wealthy family. I suspect not, but I do not know. There is also of course no way of knowing if she would have received different medical treatment had she not been a girl. But regardless, it all happened the way it happened, and so she was very ill most of her life. Since she was a girl, no one encouraged her to read books (though she tells me that she used to love to read and does not remember when or why she stopped reading); no one encouraged her to go to college or asked her to consider the problems of the world in which she lived. Because her family was poor, she had to work as soon as she finished high school. She worked as a secretary full-time, and on Saturdays and some evenings she did part-time work as a "salesgirl" in a department store. Then she married my father.

My father was a school teacher and he also worked nights in the post office because he had medical bills to pay. He had to keep my mother alive, and he had two children to support as well. I say along with Joseph Chaikin in The Presence of the Actor: "The medical-economic reality in this country is emblematic of the System which literally chooses who is to survive. I renounce my government for its inequitable economic system."1 Others, I must point out to you, had and have less than we did. Others who were not my mother but who were in her situation did and do die. I too renounce this government because the poor die, and they are not only the victims of heart disease, or kidney disease, or cancer—they are the victims of a system which says a visit to the doctor is $25 and an operation is $5,000.

When I was twelve, my mother emerged from her heart surgery and the stroke that had robbed her of speech. There she was, a mother, standing up and giving orders. We had a very hard time with each other. I didn't know who she was, or what she wanted from me. She didn't know who I was, but she had definite ideas about who I should be. She had, I thought, a silly, almost stupid attitude toward the world. By the time I was twelve I knew that I wanted to be a writer or a lawyer. I had been raised really without a mother, and so certain ideas hadn't reached me. I didn't want to be a wife, and I didn't want to be a mother.

My father had really raised me although I didn't see a lot of him. My father valued books and intellectual dialogue. He was the son of Russian immigrants, and they had wanted him to be a doctor. That was their dream. He was a devoted son and so, even though he wanted to study history, he took a pre-medical course in college. He was too squeamish to go through with it all. Blood made him ill. So after pre-med, he found himself, for almost twenty years, teaching science, which he didn't like, instead of history, which he loved. During the years of doing work he disliked, he made a vow that his children would be educated as fully as possible and, no matter what it took from him, no matter what kind of commitment or work or money, his children would become whatever they wanted. My father made his children his art, and he devoted himself to nurturing those children so that they would become whatever they could become. I don't know why he didn't make a distinction between his girl child and his boy child, but he didn't. I don't know why, from the beginning, he gave me books to read, and talked about all of his ideas with me, and watered every ambition that I had so that those ambitions would live and be nourished and grow—but he did.*

So in our household, my mother was out of the running as an influence. My father, whose great love was history, whose commitment was to education and intellectual dialogue, set the tone and taught both my brother and me that our proper engagement was with the world. He had a whole set of ideas and principles that he taught us, in words, by example. He believed, for instance, in racial equality and integration when those beliefs were seen as absolutely aberrational by all of his neighbors, family, and peers. When I, at the age of fifteen, declared to a family gathering that if I wanted to marry I would marry whomever I wanted, regardless of color, my father's answer before that enraged assembly was that he expected no less. He was a civil libertarian. He believed in unions, and fought hard to unionize teachers—an unpopular notion in those days since teachers wanted to see themselves as professionals. He taught us those principles in the Bill of Rights which are now not thought of very highly by most Amerikans—an absolute commitment to free speech in all its forms, equality before just law, and racial equality.

I adored my father, but I had no sympathy for my mother. I knew that she was physically brave—my father told me so over and over—but I didn't see her as any Herculean hero. No woman ever had been, as far as I knew. Her mind was uninteresting. She seemed small and provincial. I remember that once, in the middle of a terrible argument, she said to me in a stony tone of voice: You think I'm stupid. I denied it then, but I know today that she was right. And indeed, what else could one think of a person whose only concern was that I clean up my room, or wear certain clothes, or comb my hair another way. I had, certainly, great reason to think that she was stupid, and horrible, and petty, and contemptible even: Edward Albee, Philip Wylie, and that great male artist Sigmund Freud told me so. Mothers, it seemed to me, were the most expendable of people—no one had a good opinion of them, certainly not the great writers of the past, certainly not the exciting writers of the present. And so, though this woman, my mother, whether present or absent, was the center of my life in so many inexplicable, powerful unchartable ways, I experienced her only as an ignorant irritant, someone without grace or passion or wisdom. When I married in 1969 I felt free—free of my mother, her prejudices, her ignorant demands.

I tell you all of this because this story has, possibly for the first time in history, a rather happier resolution than one might expect.

Do you remember that in Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls Maria is asked about her lovemaking with Robert, did the earth move? For me, too, in my life, the earth has sometimes moved. The first time it moved I was ten. I was going to Hebrew school, but it was closed, a day of mourning for the six million slaughtered by the Nazis. So I went to see my cousin who lived nearby. She was shaking, crying, screaming, vomiting. She told me that it was April, and in April her youngest sister had been killed in front of her, another sister's infant had died a terrible death, their heads had been shaved—let me just say that she told me what had happened to her in a Nazi concentration camp. She said that every April she remembered in nightmare and terror what had happened to her that month so many years before, and that every April she shook, cried, screamed, and vomited. The earth moved for me then.

The second time the earth moved for me was when I was eighteen and spent four days in the Women's House of Detention in New York City. I had been arrested in a demonstration against the Indochina genocide. I spent four days and four nights in the filth and terror of that jail. While there two doctors gave me a brutal internal examination. I hemorrhaged for fifteen days after that. The earth moved for me then.

The third time the earth moved for me was when I became a feminist. It wasn't on a particular day, or through one experience. It had to do with that afternoon when I was ten and my cousin put the grief of her life into my hands; it had to do with that women's jail, and three years of marriage that began in friendship and ended in despair. It happened sometime after I left my husband, when I was living in poverty and great emotional distress. It happened slowly, little by little. A week after I left my ex-husband I started my book, the book which is now called Woman Hating. I wanted to find out what had happened to me in my marriage and in the thousand and one instances of daily life where it seemed I was being treated like a subhuman. I felt that I was deeply masochistic, but that my masochism was not personal—each woman I knew lived out deep masochism. I wanted to find out why. I knew that I hadn't been taught that masochism by my father, and that my mother had not been my immediate teacher. So I began in what seemed the only apparent place—with Story of O, a book that had moved me profoundly. From that beginning I looked at other pornography, fairy tales, one thousand years of Chinese footbinding, and the slaughter of nine million witches. I learned something about the nature of the world which had been hidden from me before—I saw a systematic despisal of women that permeated every institution of society, every cultural organ, every expression of human being. And I saw that I was a woman, a person who met that systematic despisal on every street corner, in every living room, in every human interchange. Because I became a woman who knew that she was a woman, that is, because I became a feminist, I began to speak with women for the first time in my life, and one of the women I began to speak with was my mother. I came to her life through the long dark tunnel of my own. I began to see who she was as I began to see the world that had formed her. I came to her no longer pitying the poverty of her intellect, but astounded by the quality of her intelligence. I came to her no longer convinced of her stupidity and triviality, but astonished by the quality of her strength. I came to her, no longer self-righteous and superior, but as a sister, another woman whose life, but for the grace of a feminist father and the new common struggle of my feminist sisters, would have repeated hers—and when I say "repeated hers" I mean, been predetermined as hers was predetermined. I came to her, no longer ashamed of what she lacked, but deeply proud of what she had achieved—indeed, I came to recognize that my mother was proud, strong, and honest. By the time I was twenty-six I had seen enough of the world and its troubles to know that pride, strength, and integrity were virtues to honor. And because I addressed her in a new way she came to meet me, and now, whatever our difficulties, and they are not so many, she is my mother, and I am her daughter, and we are sisters.

You asked me to talk about feminism and art, is there a feminist art, and if so, what is it. For however long writers have written, until today, there has been masculinist art—art that serves men in a world made by men. That art has degraded women. It has, almost without exception, characterized us as maimed beings, impoverished sensibilities, trivial people with trivial concerns. It has, almost without exception, been saturated with a misogyny so profound, a misogyny that was in fact its world view, that almost all of us, until today, have thought, that is what the world is, that is how women are.

I ask myself, what did I learn from all those books I read as I was growing up? Did I learn anything real or true about women? Did I learn anything real or true about centuries of women and what they lived? Did those books illuminate my life, or life itself, in any useful, or profound, or generous, or rich, or textured, or real way? I do not think so. I think that that art, those books, would have robbed me of my life as the world they served robbed my mother of hers.

Theodore Roethke, a great poet we are told, a poet of the male condition I would insist, wrote:

Two of the charges most frequently levelled against poetry by women are lack of range—in subject matter, in emotional tone—and lack of a sense of humor. And one could, in individual instances among writers of real talent, add other aesthetic and moral shortcomings: the spinning-out; the embroidering of trivial themes; a concern with the mere surfaces of life—that special province of the feminine talent in prose—hiding from the real agonies of the spirit; refusing to face up to what existence is; lyric or religious posturing; running between the boudoir and the altar, stamping a tiny foot against God; or lapsing into a sententiousness that implies the author has re-invented integrity; carrying on excessively about Fate, about time; lamenting the lot of woman . . . and so on.2

What characterizes masculinist art, and the men who make it, is misogyny—and in the face of that misogyny, someone had better reinvent integrity.

They, the masculinists, have told us that they write about the human condition, that their themes are the great themes—love, death, heroism, suffering, history itself. They have told us that our themes—love, death, heroism, suffering, history itself—are trivial because we are, by our very nature, trivial.

I renounce masculinist art. It is not art which illuminates the human condition—it illuminates only, and to men's final and everlasting shame, the masculinist world—and as we look around us, that world is not one to be proud of. Masculinist art, the art of centuries of men, is not universal, or the final explication of what being in the world is. It is, in the end, descriptive only of a world in which women are subjugated, submissive, enslaved, robbed of full becoming, distinguished only by carnality, demeaned. I say, my life is not trivial; my sensibility is not trivial; my struggle is not trivial. Nor was my mother's, or her mother's before her. I renounce those who hate women, who have contempt for women, who ridicule and demean women, and when I do, I renounce most of the art, masculinist art, ever made.

As feminists, we inhabit the world in a new way. We see the world in a new way. We threaten to turn it upside down and inside out. We intend to change it so totally that someday the texts of masculinist writers will be anthropological curiosities. What was that Mailer talking about, our descendants will ask, should they come upon his work in some obscure archive. And they will wonder—bewildered, sad—at the masculinist glorification of war; the masculinist mystifications around killing, maiming, violence, and pain; the tortured masks of phallic heroism; the vain arrogance of phallic supremacy; the impoverished renderings of mothers and daughters, and so of life itself. They will ask, did those people really believe in those gods?

Feminist art is not some tiny creek running off the great river of real art. It is not some crack in an otherwise flawless .stone. It is, quite spectacularly I think, art which is not based on the subjugation of one half of the species. It is art which will take the great human themes—love, death, heroism, suffering, history itself—and render them fully human. It may also, though perhaps our imaginations are so mutilated now that we are incapable even of the ambition, introduce a new theme, one as great and as rich as those others—should we call it "joy"?

We cannot imagine a world in which women are not experienced as trivial and contemptible, in which women are not demeaned, abused, exploited, raped, diminished before we are even born—and so we cannot know what kind of art will be made in that new world. Our work, which does full honor to those centuries of sisters who went before us, is to midwife that new world into being. It will be left to our children and their children to live in it.

Go to "Lesbian Pride."

"Feminism, Art, and My Mother Sylvia." Copyright © 1974, 1976 by Andrea Dworkin. All rights reserved. First published in Social Policy, May/June 1975.