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Over my shoulder #8: Susan Brownmiller’s In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 18 years ago, in 2006, on the World Wide Web.

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from Susan Brownmiller’s In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, which I’ve been re-reading in parts recently, as a source for WikiPedia contributions on Andrea Dworkin and a new entry on Women Against Pornography. I mention, off to one side, that things are often more complicated than they seem, and that this is relevant to one of the most frequent questions that Roderick and I most frequently get on our qualified defense of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, and our passing comments about anti-pornography radical feminism, in our paper on libertarian feminism.

Brownmiller has been discussing the fights over municipal anti-pornography civil rights ordinances authored by Dworkin and MacKinnon in 1983-1984.

Andrea mailed me a copy of the ordinance on December 29, the day before it passed by one vote in the city council. I hadn’t even known that she and MacKinnon were in Minneapolis and working on legislation, but on reading the bill I quickly concluded that it was unworkable–full of overblown rhetoric, overly broad and vague intentions, tricky and convoluted legal locutions. Any court in the land, I believed, would find it unconstitutional, an observation I offered in my usual blunt manner when Andrea called a few days later to get my endorsement.

I assured her I would not go public with my negative opinion. I still cared tremendously about the issue, and for all its flaws, I figured the ordinance might be a valuable consciousness-raiser and organizing tool. In a bad lapse of political judgment, I failed to perceive how it would polarize an already divided feminist community by providing an even better organizing tool for the opposition. Not that what I thought mattered at that point. I had ceded leadership in antipornography work to those willing to carry it forward when I’d retreated to finish my book on femininity, just then reaching bookstores after a very long haul.

Few people noticed my absence from the national list of ordinance supporters. Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, Phyllis Chesler, and the new leadership of Women Against Pornography had already sent Dworkin and MacKinnon their glowing commendations. I thought it was fucking brilliant, Robin Morgan remembers, just brilliant the way they circumvented the criminal statutes and obscenity codes identified with the right wing, and took a new path through the concept of harm and civil rights discrimination. Robin, coiner of the slogan Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice, did not se any constitutional problem. If I had, she concedes, I doubt that it would have affected my position.

The ordinance was vetoed within days of its passage by Mayor Donald Fraser, who maintained that the city did not have the financial resources to defend the law’s constitutionality in court. Seven months later it came up before the council again, with minor modifications. This time around, pornography was defined only as a contributory factor, not central to the subordination of women. Dorchen Leidholdt flew to Minneapolis to help with a petition drive. Upon her return, she persuaded Women Against Pornography to contribute a few thousand dollars from its dwindling treasury to the effort.

The switch from a plucky, inventive campaign to educate the public about pornography’s dangers to the promotion of new legislation was a huge change in direction for WAP, although given the times, it was probably inevitable. Mehrhof and Alexander, the last of WAP’s original full-time organizers, had already resigned, needing a more reliable weekly paycheck than antipornography work could offer. Increasingly frustrated, the remaining activists had lost their faith in the powers of hand-cranked slide shows and hastily organized protest demonstrations to curb a phenomenal growth industry which was taking advantage of the latest technologies (pre-Internet) to create a multibillion dollar X-rated home video market, Dial-a-Porn, and public-access television channels.

Although WAP backed the ordinance, other antiporn groups were not so sanguine about it. In Washington, political scientist Janet Gornick recalls, the ordinance split her group, Feminists Against Pornography, right down the middle, and ultimately she resigned. We were black and white, lesbian and straight, and almost every one of us had been a victim of sexual violence, says Gornick, whose own activism had started six years earlier, after she was stabbed on the street, dragged twenty feet, and raped a block away from the Harvard campus in a crime that was never solved. FAP was doing very daring direct-action things in addition to the usual slide shows and Take Back the Nights, she relates. We were waging a small war against the Fourteenth Street porn strip north of the White House. But the minute I heard about Minneapolis, I knew it was a strategic catastrophe. It broke my heart. Before then we’d always maintained that we wern’t for new legislation, that we weren’t trying to ban anything. Some of our younger members just couldn’t comprehend that very committed feminists–our elders, our leaders, who were pulling us along by their rhetoric–could make such a big mistake that would lead the movement astray.

… The decision to ally herself with FACT and against the ordinance had come only after some tortured soul-searching by [Adrienne] Rich, whose previous expressions of faith in Andrea Dworkin had attributed to her leadership the greatest depth and grasp. In a special statement for off our backs, optimistically titled We Don’t Have to Come Apart over Pornography, the activist poet wrote, I am less sure than Dworkin and MacKinnon that this is a time when further powers of suppression should be turned over to the State. The lawyer and writer Wendy Kaminer, another early WAP member, went public with her opposition to the ordinance a year or so later.

–Susan Brownmiller, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution (1999). 319-322.

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