Feminist Icons Revisited: New Biographies of Adrienne Rich and Andrea Dworkin Show Them in Their Full Complexity

Adrienne Rich and Andrea Dworkin were two of the leading writer-activists of second-wave feminism. But they were far more than polemicists.

Jessica Max Stein Jan 18, 2021

Two recent biographies of prominent writer-activists Adrienne Rich and Andrea Dworkin are a study in contrast in how to tell the story of a life. However, both books do a good job in reminding readers that though their respective subjects may be simplistically perceived as mere polemicists, as well as posited at opposite ends of second-wave feminism, both women are in fact far more complex and allied than that. 

Interestingly, both prominent feminists initially hewed closely to convention. Born in Baltimore in 1929, Rich quickly achieved mainstream literary success. She was just 22, a senior at Radcliffe College, when W. H. Auden chose her first book for the Yale Younger Poets prize. At 24 she married Alfred Haskell Conrad, a Harvard economist, bearing three sons by age 30.

Similarly, Dworkin, born in Camden NJ in 1946, was only 22 when she entered into a physically abusive marriage to Dutch anarchist Cornelius Dirk de Bruin. What’s more, both women were very close to their fathers, who fostered their intellectual development, and estranged from their mothers.

Of the two books, Martin Duberman’s biography is far more sympathetic to its subject. Readers can understand Dworkin’s motivations and feelings even while not necessarily agreeing with her views or methods. Simply put, Dworkin became such a strong foe of “woman-hating” – the title of her first and arguably most well-known book, with which she sprang onto the political scene in 1974 – because misogyny devastated her life. She was repeatedly traumatized at the hands of men, barely recovered from one incident before the next. Besides the abusive husband, she was subjected to a brutally invasive vaginal exam at 18 in New York’s Women’s House of Detention after being arrested protesting the Vietnam War, and sexually assaulted on multiple occasions throughout her life, from childhood molestations to being slipped a date-rape drug at 53. She never really healed from the trauma; her life partner John Stoltenberg said that if he woke her unexpectedly, her immediate instinct was to perceive even him as a threat.

Yet despite having plenty of good reason to be a “man-hater”, as she was stereotyped by everyone from her fellow feminists to Playboy magazine, Duberman emphasizes that Dworkin saw not just the worst but the best of men, and that her opposition to sexism contained an understanding of how it kept both men and women from achieving their full human potential. Indeed, besides being close to her father, Dworkin was partnered with Stoltenberg (a fellow queer) for three decades until her death. 

Despite having plenty of good reason to be a “man-hater,” Dworkin saw not just the worst but the best of men.

Despite their fame as lesbian separatists, both women actually had great affection and attraction for the men in their lives, and their lesbianism was in part a political choice. Rich left her husband shortly before his 1970 suicide, having affairs with a juicy roster of characters including June Jordan, Susan Sontag, and her therapist, Lilly Engler, for whom she wrote the famous sequence Twenty-One Love Poems, one of the book’s most unexpected revelations. Rich did rebuff the advances of poet-activist Audre Lorde; sadly Hilary Holladay only glances upon their close friendship, along with Rich’s involvement in the women’s community. A similar veil is drawn over Rich’s 36-year relationship with fellow writer Michelle Cliff, which lasted until her death. (Cliff died just four years after Rich, despite being 18 years her junior, of liver failure related to her longtime drinking.) 

Dworkin’s book featuring a Rich quote of praise.

Dworkin and Rich’s lives intersected in the anti-pornography movement of the early 1980s. While Rich was a vocal member of Women Against Pornography, alongside such feminist luminaries as Susan Brownmiller, Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem, Dworkin arguably remains the movement’s most prominent face. After her 1981 book Pornography: Men Possessing Women, in which she implicates porn as a major factor in violence against women, Dworkin and attorney Catharine MacKinnon drafted a municipal ordinance that passed in some cities and was rejected by others that would allow women to sue for the harm porn had caused them – receiving serious backlash from other segments of the feminist movement, who were concerned that the ordinance could all too easily be used by the religious right against women and queers. Duberman stresses that censorship was never Dworkin’s intent, but what came to be called the feminist “sex wars” were on. (The measure was ultimately overturned by an appeals court as unconstitutional.)

The anti-pornography battle of the 1980s put Dworkin and Rich on opposite sides of a heated battle.

In 1985, a new group, the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force (FACT), submitted a “friend of the court” brief objecting to the ordinance, signed by a who’s who of lesbian writers that included Barbara Smith, Rita Mae Brown, Kate Millett, Joan Nestle – and Rich. Dworkin and others in the anti-porn movement saw this as a huge betrayal on Rich’s part, as if she were “switching sides”.  

  In hindsight, this sense of betrayal seems like hairsplitting infighting between women who had much more grounds for allegiance against a common enemy than actual opposition with each other. More realistically, Rich was reading the room. The anti-porn movement was receding; as technology (particularly the VCR) made pornography more easily accessible as well as more private, opposing it seemed like energy better spent elsewhere. What’s more, Rich was increasingly taking an intersectional view of feminism, and FACT was an explicitly multi-racial coalition while the anti-porn movement was merely single-issue.  

Despite this “split”, Rich and Dworkin continued to have much in common. Late in life, both explored their relationships with Judaism, coming to terms with it as the first “Other” identity that undergirded much of their activism. What’s more, both women were prodigious writers despite struggling with crippling forms of arthritis (osteo for Dworkin, rheumatoid for Rich). Dworkin’s health and weight struggles contributed to her early death from myocarditis at 58. Fortunately Duberman does justice to Dworkin’s legacy, honoring her as a surprisingly sympathetic figure, not only as an intellectual who wrote 10 books of political theory, but a literary artist who also wrote three novels and a book of poems.  

If only Rich were so honored. Hillary Holladay respects Rich’s sterling reputation as a literary giant, whose body of work (a dozen books of poems and six of essays) won everything from the National Book Award to her famously rejected National Medal of Arts from the Clinton administration. However, Holliday’s startlingly mean-spirited biography is studded with odd barbs and inappropriate judgments. This may relate to Holladay’s egregious overreliance on Rich’s sister Cynthia, from whom Rich was estranged, as a source. For instance, Holladay accuses Rich of being “ungrateful” for resigning from a teaching position in order to write; calls her “cold” for discussing her sons’ privilege; and when Rich writes a detailed letter to friends helping her after spinal surgery, characterizes her as a “martyr and boss” demanding “maid service”. Holladay even has Rich’s neighbors report on what they saw and heard from their adjoining yards, like a tabloid journalist picking through Rich’s garbage. Rich died at home at 82, at the end of a long and illustrious life that deserves a more respectful biography than this. 

Andrea Dworkin: The Feminist as Revolutionary 
Martin Duberman
New Press, 2019

The Power of Adrienne Rich: A Biography
Hilary Holladay
Penguin Random House, 2020

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