Andrea Dworkin, who died in her sleep at her Washington, D.C., home Saturday night at age 58, was the uncompromising crusader against pornography and violence toward women, whose vituperative writings helped to polarize feminism while casting her in an unattractive light as the woman who said sex was rape.
That Dworkin said no such thing did not faze her legion of critics, who picked up on the author's strong suspicion of sex as expressive of male violence. Following the publication of her first book, "Women Hating" (1974), sex, violence, and power would be part of the ground on which a generation or more of feminists would wage their battles, thanks to Dworkin.
She was also perhaps the greatest solipsist of the women's movement. Dworkin's sexual politics (as a fellow pioneer, Kate Millet, termed them) emerged directly from her accounts of being violated as a child, raped as a teenager, beaten as a wife, and assaulted as a streetwalker. A prolific essayist and poet, Dworkin also wrote novels concerning a sexually brutalized young woman from New Jersey.
Dworkin made headlines in 1980 for collaborating with legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon on behalf of Linda Lovelace, star of "Deep Throat," whose civil rights they were convinced had been violated. Dworkin and Ms. MacKinnon later collaborated on legislation based on the notion that pornography constituted a form of sex discrimination. Women could thus sue for damages.
"In every century, there are a handful of writers who help the human race to evolve," the feminist leader Gloria Steinem said in a statement distributed by Dworkin's agent yesterday. "Andrea is one of them."
Dworkin was raised in Camden and Delaware Township (now Cherry Hill), N.J., in a leftist-leaning working-class family; her father was a guidance counselor, her mother a secretary. Dworkin credited her Jewish heritage, including relatives who were Holocaust survivors, for making her aware of human suffering and sexism. Her militancy she credited to repeated readings of Ernesto "Che" Guevara's "Guerilla Warfare." She characterized her first experience of oppression as the result, in elementary school, of her refusal to sing Christmas carols, which led to anti-Semitic graffiti and official punishment. It was the first of many formative travails that marked her adolescence and young adulthood.
In 1965, while a freshman at Bennington College, Dworkin was arrested at an anti-war demonstration at the United Nations. Lacking the $500 for bail, she was incarcerated at the Women's House of Detention. Her indignant protests against the cavity search and the facility's conditions were covered by New York newspapers and television. Shortly after, the antiquated jail was closed.
After graduating from Bennington, Dworkin went to live in the Netherlands, where she married a man she variously described as a "flower child" and "anarchist," but more appositely as a habitual wife-beater who "thought I belonged to him, inside out." She escaped from him after four years. She also credited her time in Europe for helping her to grow as a writer.
Returning to America in the early 1970s, Dworkin failed to make a conventional living - "I was too naive to know that hack writing is the only paying game in town" - and turned instead to prostitution.
Again and again, in interviews, essays, memoirs, and anywhere she could find a sympathetic publisher, Dworkin told the stories of her sexual victimization. In 1992, in an 1,800-word letter to the editor to the New York Times Review of Books, Dworkin wrote, "And so for 20 years now I have been looking for the words to say what I know."
By then, it would be difficult to guess which words had eluded her. She followed "Women Hating" with a book of essays and speeches, "Our Blood: Prophecies and Discourses in Sexual Politics" (1976). In short order, she published a collection of stories, "The New Woman's Broken Heart," the major tract "Pornography: Men Possessing Women," as well as "Right Wing Women" (1983), an explanation of what might possess some women to register as Republicans, and her most notorious work, "Intercourse" (1987), which finally brought Dworkin to popular consciousness. In one iconic statement, she held that intercourse "is the pure, sterile, formal expression of men's contempt for women." The gloom was not much relieved by her semiautobiographical first novel, "Ice and Fire," published the same year.
Dworkin had already worked with Ms. MacKinnon on the Linda Lovelace case, and in 1983 they co-taught a class on pornography at the University of Minnesota. Soon they drafted anti-pornography legislation and embarked on a campaign that brought them into alliances with such conservatives such as Phyllis Schlafly. Dworkin testified before the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography and a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee. They were vilified by free-speech advocates, and the president of the ACLU condemned "the MacDworkinites' pornocentrism."
Dworkin blamed her First Amendment foes for her increasing trouble in finding publishers in America. In England she was still quite popular. There, "Scapegoat: The Jews, Israel, and Women's Liberation" was first published. A work of several years' gestation, it plowed many familiar fields to yield the conclusion that Zionism had turned Israel into a society of wife beaters who feminized the Palestinians in order to oppress them violently.
Increasingly pushed to the side in mainstream American feminism, Dworkin could deliver the odd zinger when provoked. "It will probably bring the FBI to my door, but I think that Hillary should shoot Bill and then President Gore should pardon her," she wrote in early 1998, at the height of the Lewinsky affair.
Often in ill-health, perhaps be cause of her obesity (she was often estimated to weigh more than 300 pounds), Dworkin appeared to suffer a breakdown in 2000, when in extremely murky circumstances she alleged that she had been raped in a hotel during a tour of Europe. She won few supporters when it was disclosed that she had never reported the incident to authorities, and she later wrote that even her husband abandoned her emotionally. "Now a year has passed and sometimes he's with me in his heart and sometimes he's not," she wrote.
That Dworkin, a lesbian, had a husband at all shocked many, but theirs was an unconventional relationship. She sometimes described her husband, the writer and editor John Stoltenberg, as a "nongenital man." He is the author of two books, "Refusing to Be a Man" (1990) and "The End of Manhood" (1993). Nevertheless, it was a conventional enough relationship that when he was named managing editor of AARP The Magazine in 2004, she accompanied him to Washington, D.C. "Who can explain how anyone recognizes that they have fallen in love and that life apart is simply unthinkable?" he once wrote of her. For all her vituperation, interviewers and friends commented on Dworkin's sweetness in person.
In 2002, she published "Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant." Reviewers noted that she had not lost her way with invective, and she settled scores with everyone from her ninth-grade English teacher to Allen Ginsberg, with whom she once supposedly had the following exchange: "He said, 'The right wants to put me in jail.' I said, 'Yes, they're very sentimental; I'd kill you.' "
Susie Bright, the essayist, filmmaker, and authority on pornography, recalled Dworkin's influence yesterday on her Web log: "She was the one who got us looking at porn with a critical eye, she made you feel like you could just stomp into the adult bookstore and seize everything for inspection and a bonfire. The funny thing that happened on the way to the X-Rated Sex Palace was that some of us came to different conclusions than Miss Dworkin."
Andrea Rita Dworkin
Born September 26, 1946, in Camden, N.J.; died April 9 at her home in Washington, D.C., of unknown causes; survived by her husband, John Stoltenberg.