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Andrea Dworkin, Renaissance Woman


In The eXile, a Vice-like and now defunct magazine from the days when anyone knew who Matt Taibbi was, the poet and self-styled war nerd John Dolan once referred to Andrea Dworkin as the only American feminist who believed “you’d actually have to live out the philosophy.” Most feminists who came of age in the sexual revolution, Dolan insinuated, engaged in a little performative college lesbianism for “street cred,” then defected to the “cool dudes.” Dworkin didn’t do this, but she also didn’t live out her vocally avowed lesbianism. Her thirty-one-year relationship with her husband, John Stoltenberg, was continent. Stoltenberg maintained relationships with men throughout the marriage, but Dworkin refused dalliances with women, feeling like she wasn’t good enough to have them. What is one to make of this? Dolan comes close to the truth when he concludes

Dworkin didn’t know a thing about her audience. Didn’t know they were talking career and fun when she was talking sacrifice, martyrdom. It’s no accident her heroine was Joan of Arc. Dworkin was a Catholic without knowing it, an old-time Catholic who never suspected it of herself.

One could not read her first book, Woman Hating, from 1974 and draw this conclusion. It is an ill-informed screed against medieval Christianity, replete with lurid descriptions of what Dworkin calls “the Dark Ages,” meaning the first sixteen centuries after Christ, characterized, she says, primarily by the burning of witches. It proposes that an apocryphal bishop “whose favorite concubine was his own daughter by a nun of Épinal” was the norm in the medieval Church. Nearly half the book is taken up by a fantastical account of a vast counterconspiracy of witches, whose membership included almost all medieval women, which preserved pre-Christian paganism intact until the final persecutions of early modernity. The Malleus Maleficarum, a papally condemned text which Dworkin imaginatively believes to have been the official “Constitution” of the early modern Church, could not have painted a more absurd picture. Dworkin puts the final touches on the fantasy by describing, and endorsing, sacraments of group sex and infant cannibalism every Witches’ Sabbath. 

Raised in secular Jewish bohemia and extensively read in nineteenth-century French and twentieth-century American literature, yet never having encountered a book more religious in nature than Plato’s Symposium, Dworkin’s mistake was to believe that there was a better sexual liberation out there. Parroting the post-Freudian theory of the soixante-huitards, she even closed Woman Hating with the assertion that the “destruction of the incest taboo is essential to the development of cooperative human community.” She soon learned from this mistake. In 2002 she described a primary-school teacher who raped and exploited her till she walked out to sea, hoping to drown. “I became antisuicide,” Dworkin wrote. “It took me longer—far too long—to become antipedophilic.” One turning point was a youthful obsession with Allen Ginsberg, who became an early mentor. Dworkin followed her idol like a puppy, begging him to shine his intellectual light on her, until she realized that his membership in the North American Man/Boy Love Association was no abstract political statement but a concrete expression of his desire to rape children. After she began to share this realization with their social circle, Ginsberg followed her as assiduously as she had him, harassing her in the hope that she’d shut up. “When he died,” she wrote, “he stopped.” 

By Intercourse, published in 1983, Dworkin had grown out of her naïve belief in the other, untainted sexual revolution. One of the only references to the possibility of intercourse without domination is embedded in Dworkin’s paraphrase of Saint Augustine, that “honest sinner and honest utopian,” who proposed that Adam and Eve had “intercourse based on harmony, not lust.” This is also her utopia, and she now knew (but didn’t want to admit) that the Fall had indeed foreclosed it. Intercourse puts the problem in the title, and there are only two possible responses to it: chapter six, “Virginity,” and chapter seven, “Occupation/Collaboration.” Of the two, virginity is the superior state. Most of chapter six is about Saint Joan of Arc, who achieved “freedom from the real meaning of being female” in the purity of her soldiering. “She saw angels and was visited by saints,” two saints in particular, Catherine of Alexandria and Margaret of Antioch. Dworkin sees fit to tell the story of each saint in her own right. Both were summoned before pagan rulers, the Emperor Maxentius and the governor Olybrius, who offered them the position of official mistress if only they would renounce their faith. They refused and were tortured to death. In the Middle Ages, no longer the “Dark Ages” in Dworkin’s parlance:

The narrative details were so familiar that an evil and stupid person was even referred to, in the common parlance, as an “Olybrius.” Women were named after these saints and celebrated name days. These saints were figures of mass adoration in stories of adventure, romance, and heroism. There was an elaborate and epic imagery in the churches to communicate visually the drama and scale of their bravery and martyrdom.

Now that Saint Joan, who wore men’s clothing only because she refused to be raped, has also been raised to the altars, secular scholars wish to discredit her. Her defiance and defense of her purity are “trivialized as a sexual kink, more style than substance, at most an interesting wrinkle in a psychosexual tragedy of a girl who wanted to be a boy and came to a bad end.” For this Dworkin will not stand. Joan died defending her virginity. Dworkin does not mean the literal preservation of the hymen, which, she guesses, Joan probably lost riding horses, and she also does not mean escaping penetration by a man. Unlike most Catholic historians, Dworkin speculates that Joan was raped at the end. Like all Catholics, Dworkin knows that a virgin who has been raped is still a virgin. But Joan died for the only right that matters, the right not to be degraded by the world. By this stage in her writing career, Dworkin is mature and self-aware enough to understand that her elevation of the holy virgo/virago smells of incense. Saint Ambrose, she admits, wrote that a faithful woman “progresses to perfect manhood, to the measure of adulthood of Christ,” and indeed Dworkin cannot describe Joan’s virtue in anything but masculine terms. Saint Joan “incarnated virtue in its original meaning: strength or manliness.” On one level, Dworkin may believe that she is referring to the Maid’s martial prowess. But what about when, as Dworkin tells us, Saint Catherine won debates against the fifty best pagan orators in Alexandria? What about when Saint Margaret crushed the devil under her foot twice, once when he appeared as a dragon and once as a man? Might not all God’s virgins be as exceptional as Joan? 

In some ways, Dworkin reminds us, these women had it easier than those who chose the “easy” route of occupation or collaboration: in other words, marriage. Sophia Tolstoy had to live with a husband, Count Leo, who thought sex was “horrid, shameful, and painful” but forced it on her even when she begged him to stop, otherwise ignoring her, not even helping out with their thirteen children. He wrote a novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, about a man who likewise finds intercourse repulsive, believing that he can escape it by killing his wife, which he does. Only then is he struck with the realization that his wife had been a person like himself. Perhaps Dworkin correctly intuited that for the utopian-millenarian Tolstoy this was the secret truth of marriage. It is certainly the truth of marriage for Dworkin. 

Intercourse is full of bad husbands, mostly literary but some historical. A rabbi’s wife in an Isaac Bashevis Singer story puts aside an ascetic, sexless husband only to discover that her new husband hosts orgies in their home. The wife of a Don DeLillo protagonist is compelled to read him pornography aloud. Legislators in Florida refuse to criminalize marital rape. Sometimes the women are complicit. A character in Tennessee Williams’s play The Rose Tattoo fantasizes about getting a tattoo to match that of her wayward husband’s mistress, and after his death mourns their lovemaking with a passion that spills over into religious fanaticism. Stella wants Stanley’s “animal passion” and pays for it. This false consciousness of wanting men and men’s sex, whether marital or extramarital, leads a parade of women, from Emma Bovary to Lucy Westenra, to their doom. As Dworkin puts it in Our Blood, marriage is founded on rapine, in the sense of abduction, and also on rape, but this is all the more true of medieval courtly love, and of all other kinds of adultery. Dworkin may not have said that all sex was rape, but concrete examples of a sexual alternative disappear from her writing one by one. Pedophilia having been first abandoned as a dead end, then having reappeared as the worst and most hideous sin in the male repertoire, sodomy between men emerges in Intercourse as a viable out. The word “lesbian” does not appear. 

Marriage founded on rape? This is redolent of evolutionary psychology or of Freud’s primal horde. If Christianity permits us to imagine cavemen dragging their brides from the parental cave by their hair, this is not the most archaic state of man. Adam and Eve were already tranquilly, beatifically married when they disobeyed God. Adam only started giving Eve a hard time after their expulsion from Eden. “Thou shalt be under thy husband’s power,” God advises Eve, “and he shall have dominion over thee.” Adam is sentenced to “labor and toil,” and both are made mortal. Although marriage is the most archaic state of man, it is not, in Christianity, his final state. Christ in the Gospel informs us that in heaven and on the restored earth the saints will have no truck with marriage. Marriage is a contingent necessity of life on earth, but those who sacrifice it to live as virgins, men and women, are living portents of the kingdom of the saints. Married women must serve out the sentence of Eve, but nuns receive a taste of terrestrial heaven. If this were all Christianity had to say about marriage, one could be forgiven for labeling Dworkin a crypto-Christian thinker, perhaps a nun with no mercy for the sinners outside the grille. But Christ’s incarnation and death for our sins also changed the nature of marriage. Man and woman were given back a little of their prelapsarian friendship and equality. Although virginity was the surer path, and sexless or Josephite marriage was recommended, a married man who loved his wife as Christ loved the Church might find his way to heaven. Dworkin never found a way to articulate the possibility of male self-sacrifice, which is why she only found her way into half a Josephite marriage, one in which she lived without sex but her husband did not. She did not sacrifice all friendship in marriage. Although her husband was unfaithful, he carries on her anti-pornography work today. 

If Dworkin was not quite a medieval Christian, whether a millenarian heretic or a monastic chauvinist, what was she? My answer is that she was a Renaissance Christian, not yet a Protestant but humanist, someone very much like Juan Luis Vives, one of Europe’s pioneers of education for lay women. Born in Valencia in 1493, Vives’s family was ethnically Jewish, and several of his family members were tried and convicted of relapsing into the ancestral faith, including Vives’s own father, who was executed when Vives was young. Vives left mainland Spain at the age of seventeen, establishing himself as a professor at Louvain in the Southern Netherlands, which were, however, Spanish possessions and still fervently Catholic. Vives was a Catholic all his life and an outspoken critic of Luther. He was a friend of Catherine of Aragon, Europe’s first female ambassador before she became Queen of England, and the head tutor of her daughter, the future Queen Mary I. During his time in England, Vives established the humanities curriculum of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and submitted recommendations to the crown for further university reform. The college still honors his memory, although it scrubs away that of his faith. He remained in England until 1527, when Henry VIII first imprisoned, then expelled him for campaigning against the royal divorce. He spent the rest of his life publishing pedagogy handbooks, Catholic apologetics, political tracts pleading for greater state assistance to the urban poor, and essays in biblical philology. He died in Flanders in 1540, about half a decade after his greatest friends, Erasmus and Saint Thomas More. 

Queen Catherine wanted the best humanist education for her daughter and picked Vives less as a fellow Spaniard than as one of the most illustrious living representatives of the new learning. Like Erasmus and More, Vives wished to reintroduce Plato into a European academy he thought was overstuffed with scholastic followers of Aristotle. All three believed, like Plato, that women were as ready learners as men, and that virtue and education were synonymous. (This was not the normal view, but neither was it as exceptional as those who share the early Dworkin’s delusions about the Middle Ages might imagine.) Female monasticism was on the decline in the sixteenth century. While reforms had begun in the male orders, the convents lagged behind. The great Spanish reformer Saint Teresa of Avila was an eight-year-old girl when Vives published his Education of a Christian Woman in 1523. Such Female Latin authors such as Saint Hildegard of Bingen, let alone Catherine of Alexandria and other orators, were receding into distant memory. On the other hand, education for the upper-class laity was broadening and deepening. Although medieval monarchs were not illiterate and often composed poetry in the vernacular, humanism raised expectations for what a royal education should look like. Henry VIII, as a young king, was known as a great Catholic apologist in his own right, famously publishing the Assertio Septem Sacramentorum, a response to Luther’s charges against the papacy, in 1521. But neither Erasmus nor Vives was convinced that women’s learning could equal or rival that of men until they met the extraordinary daughters of Thomas More, classicists and translators in their own right thanks to the painstaking efforts of their father. Vives was fresh from a visit to the More household when he began to compose the Education of a Christian Woman, admitting freely that the experience had broadened his idea of the ideal female curriculum, admitting rhetoric and oratory despite an inclination to prefer silence in women. 

The Education of a Christian Woman was dedicated to Princess Mary, then seven years old. Its contradictions are numerous. Its pedagogy is obviously for laywomen (successive chapters are dedicated to maidens, wives, and widows) and nuns are scarcely mentioned, but occasionally Vives will remember to extol the superior merits of virginity. Humanist commitments frequently lead Vives into an unquestioning acceptance of classical and otherwise pre-Christian misogyny. Its praise of female suicide, such as that of the raped Lucretia or the sati of Indian widows, is barely qualified and never by an explanation of its status as an unspeakable sin in Christianity. Erasmus, whose own satire was notoriously Rabelaisian on the woman question, read the Education and told Vives to tone down the misogyny. What would Vives’s wife think about all this? Vives was unable to accept the criticism, and the mutual admiration society never recovered. Yet the Education is nonetheless a pioneering work of pedagogy and a polemic in favor of universal female education. Every educated woman, Vives writes, will be virtuous, because education is education in principles. A handful of Greek courtesans do not make a counterexample, and their education was anyway shallow. Sappho was truly educated, but she was not promiscuous with men or women: her affairs are sensationalist fabrications. The Sibyls, priestesses of Apollo and Juno (the best of a bad lot of gods), and the Vestals were all educated virgins. Even a misogynist like Martial could recommend Sulpicia’s book against male adultery to his men friends. While men will respect a chaste woman more than an unchaste woman, the difference is even more pronounced with a virgin. Even the worst of men respect a virgin. The Greek gods, Vives writes in a moment of relative clarity on the ancients, would have made ghastly people. Yet even they respected the virgin scholar Minerva and called the virgin Cybele their great mother. 

Not content with enticing women into virginity, Vives proceeds to scare it into them. A huge list of historical honor killings follows. An Athenian governor had an unchaste daughter torn to pieces by a mad horse. Pontius Aufedanius killed his daughter for allowing a slave to pimp her. A centurion killed his daughter simply because he had learned of the decemvir’s plans to rape her. In medieval Spain, a set of brothers waited until their sister had given birth to her illegitimate child, then stabbed her to death. Vives recalls from his own childhood an incident in which three village girls strangled a fourth when they caught her engaged in public sex. Lucretia committed her own honor killing, although Vives finally remembers to warn against imitating her:

History is full of such examples, as is the common experience of life. It is not to be marveled at that such things are done by parents and close friends and that feelings of affection are suddenly changed into the most violent hatred, since these young women themselves, victims of a detestable and savage love, casting away all filial piety from their hearts, have shown hatred for their parents, siblings, even their children, not merely friends and relatives.

The victims of honor killings brought it on themselves. No woman who has illicit sex with a man can ever be safe. It is the ultimate antisocial act. Vives is not secular enough to believe that male adultery is forgivable or does not exist, as his classical models mostly did. He praises Job’s resolve in remaining faithful to a verbally abusive wife. But women always pay the price. Even if women succeed in evading their family members’ supervision or obtaining their complicity, men often kill their girlfriends and mistresses. The marginal, uncertain status of the women makes such crimes far more common than uxoricide. 

Although virgins are the best role models for all women, a chaste married woman will enjoy similar respect in the eyes of the world. But women should not marry because it is the received and respectable thing to do. No woman should ever marry an abusive man. Some women do this because they are themselves gamblers and drunkards and attracted to similar personalities, but frequently women marry a wanton because they pass through life in a dissociative state and cannot imagine anyone being admirable or worthy of love. Both situations Vives forcefully condemns. A woman who marries a man who abuses her may as well marry an animal. The same goes for criminals. If he had heard Lana Del Rey singing about her addiction to elderly, bemulleted crack dealers, Vives would have brought her to trial for bestiality. (So would Dworkin.) Nor should women tolerate abuse from any other man. The response to sexual harassment should always be to leave the room. There is no guarantee in marriage, however prudently chosen. Sometimes a woman will marry a sociopath unawares. Justina, the most virtuous and eligible woman in Rome, was the victim of an arranged marriage to such a man. He killed her on her wedding night in a fit of senseless rage at her beauty. Marriage may prove disappointing even if the husband is not morally deficient. Vives relates at length the story of his in-laws, Clara Cervent and Bernard Valdaura. Bernard was sick all his life (Vives appears to take a sort of glee in describing the graphic turn for the worse his condition took when he caught the pox on top of the chronic illnesses) and Clara took it upon herself to nurse him, although she brought to the household many servants to whom she could have delegated the work. It took Bernard decades to die.

These are also the kinds of stories which fill up Dworkin’s 1983 Right-Wing Women. Marabel Morgan (of The Total Woman, Total Joy, and The Total Woman Cookbook fame) is castigated for an “awful, silly, terrible book in which she claims that women must exist for their husbands, do sex and be sex for their husbands.” Even Vives never went that far. Although the passage’s placement in Education gives it the taste of an afterthought, Vives does insist that the very best married women, like Mary before them, convinced their husbands to forego marital sex entirely. The ones who leave uncooperative husbands to join convents (one of the only real mentions of nuns in the book) receive even higher praise. In Right-Wing Women, Dworkin finds intimations of domestic violence, rationalized away, in Anita Bryant’s memoirs. Married men file out to watch a snuff film in which a young South American woman is disemboweled. Norman Mailer, himself married, writes that all women want to be murdered. Depressed housewives are drugged to the gills and their husbands often find their attenuated state of consciousness sexy. Marriage is servitude to a man, and Protestant quislings like Morgan and Bryant are the only ones honest enough to admit it. Likewise, Vives takes the biblical warning that a married woman will serve her husband more than she can serve Christ as normative rather than descriptive. Even going to daily Mass can constitute an abdication of spousal duty. Better to pray at home. The sexualized, unremitting obedience Dworkin identifies in Protestant marriage manuals is absent from Vives’s Education. The general rule of female obedience is applied, then riddled with exceptions and qualifications. A dim-witted husband must be led to obey like a child. Initial wifely obedience builds trust, which can lead to reciprocal husbandly obedience, as happened in the case of Themistocles, who came to obey his wife Archippa “in practically everything.” Themistocles was the most powerful man in Athens, but Archippa, a right-wing woman Dworkin would have hated, was the brains behind the operation. 

Although she never became comfortable with bourgeois marriage, by the ’80s it widely pointed out that Dworkin was writing the right-wing paeans to virginity that she thought she hated. Her testimony before the Reagan-era Meese Commission on pornography made the alliance with the Christian right official, and her support for Linda Lovelace’s decision to go public about her abuse incidentally midwived the latter’s return to Jesus. As early as 1983, Dworkin was aware of her image, sarcastically calling sex-positive feminists “too deep, too radical, too taboo for conventional, conforming, ladylike, virginal me.” She didn’t really buy that image of herself, and Dorothy Fortenberry of La Croix International hit on the reason when she wrote about Dworkin’s lifelong disappointment “that she did not, could not” live like Rimbaud and Baudelaire “because she was a woman.” Dworkin imprisoned herself in bohemia all her life; her books are full of reference points likely to be familiar and agreeable to bohemians. Dworkin wanted all her life to be a famous bohemian male, like Norman Mailer or Jim Morrison, and even if presented with Christ or St. Francis of Assissi as role models might not have found them exciting enough. Few male saints waged war as readily as Joan of Arc.

It would be wrong, however, to see Dworkin purely as a relic of Sixties boomerdom, an equal and opposite reaction to the soixante-huitard scumbags who started a worldwide movement because the killjoys running Paris Nanterre University wouldn’t let them into the women’s dorms. It would be the same mistake as dismissing Vives as another Renaissance humanist drunk on classical misogyny, although many such men existed. Both writers lived through eras, the Renaissance and the American counterculture, when it was fashionable to wallow in sin, and both did so with gusto, rhetorically if not actually. Anyone who has read Pascal or Dante will recognize the pattern. The author descends gleefully into the chaos at the bottom of the slippery slope onto which a person can be pushed by just one peccadillo, showing off the brave new world awaiting all rulebreakers until long after the reader starts begging for mercy. Mercy is mostly foreclosed. When the author comes up for air, it is usually to showcase instances of extraordinary virtue or to plead with God Himself. Repentant sinners like St. Augustine or St. Pelagia get edged out. The wages of sin is death, and death does not dilly-dally. An odor of Jansenism hangs around this model of the world, and we must affirm against it that forgiveness does exist and that we must find it also in ourselves. Not every woman who has extramarital sex will be murdered by her lover before she can repent. But many such women will be murdered. (So will many virgins.) What distinguishes Dworkin and Vives from Tolstoy and Flaubert, who show, not without considerable sadism, that one sin can end a woman’s life, is that the Anti-Sex League does come up for air. Dworkin and Vives were Platonists without being utopians, deeply invested in the power of education to change the world by rescuing us, male and female alike, from the prevailing bestial state. More than wanting to fight, Dworkin wanted to know. She refused to be one of those “proud, pro-sex, liberated Cosmo intellectuals” because she wanted to be a real intellectual, even if it also meant joining the ranks of the “Lesbian-Feminist-Vegetarians for Jesus.” Vives wanted women to be real intellectuals too. He could imagine nothing more terrible than living with a wife he did not respect (though this may have been his own fate). Why can’t they all be like the More girls? Dworkin would have agreed. In her memoir, she reflected, echoing Saint Augustine, on the unreality of evil. “All the worst immoralities are but one,” she wrote, “a single sin of human nothingness and stupidity.” God, conversely, represented for her the plenitude of knowledge. “I think the best gift on dying,” she wrote, “would be if God gave one that second between life and death in which to know everything all at once, all that one ever wanted to know.” Let us pray that it was granted.

Monica Costa teaches college in the South.

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