Susan Brownmiller 1935-
American nonfiction writer and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Brownmiller's career through 2001.
One of the first politically active feminists at the onset of the women's liberation movement during the late 1960s, Brownmiller is best known as the author of Against Our Will (1975), which analyzes the use of rape by men from antiquity through the modern era as a tool of oppression against women. In this bestselling work, Brownmiller provoked widespread controversy at the time with her famous assertion that rape “is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear” (italics in original). Brownmiller has courted controversy to a lesser degree with her other works, which continue to pose arguments that question cultural assumptions about gender in terms of power. An outspoken feminist, Brownmiller is widely recognized for her seminal role in promulgating the principles of the women's liberation movement in particular and feminism in general.
The daughter of a salesperson at Macy's department store and a secretary at the Empire State Building, Brownmiller was born February 15, 1935, in Brooklyn, New York. She attended Cornell University on scholarships from 1952 to 1955 and later studied at the Jefferson School of Social Sciences without completing degree requirements at either institution. After working a string of odd jobs during the late 1950s, including a stint as a theatrical actress, Brownmiller held a series of editorial and research positions during the early 1960s with various periodicals, ranging from the Coronet and the Albany Report to Newsweek and Village Voice. Meanwhile, Brownmiller joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and participated in its civil rights demonstrations, most notably during Freedom Summer in 1964 when activists went to the Deep South to register disenfranchised African Americans to vote. In 1965, Brownmiller joined the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) as a staff writer, but she signed on the next year as a network news writer for the American Broadcast Company (ABC) where she remained until 1968 when she parlayed her growing interest in women's rights into dual careers as freelance journalist and political activist. That year, she co-founded the New York Radical Feminists, who organized public protests and sit-ins advocating equal rights for women, including a demonstration at the offices of Ladies' Home Journal opposing its representation of women. In 1969 Brownmiller wrote a feature story for the New York Times on Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress. Brownmiller adapted this article into her first book-length publication, Shirley Chisholm (1970), a biography for young readers. In 1971 Brownmiller helped to organize a “Speak-Out on Rape,” and the speech she delivered at the rally became the basis for Against Our Will. The subsequent controversy and notoriety that followed its publication brought Brownmiller to national prominence as a leading feminist. She was named one of Time magazine's twelve Women of the Year in 1975 and appeared on numerous television talk shows. In 1979 Brownmiller helped to organize the national lobbying group Women Against Pornography, clarifying her views in the widely anthologized essay “Let's Put Pornography Back in the Closet” (1979). Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Brownmiller continued to engage women's issues as a lecturer and writer, sporadically publishing books on feminist themes, including Femininity (1984) and Waverly Place (1989), her first novel. In 1992, Brownmiller toured Vietnam on assignment for Travel & Leisure magazine and recorded her impressions of the country and its people in Seeing Vietnam (1994). Her memoirs of significant events during the women's liberation movement, In Our Time, appeared in 1999.
A seminal text of American feminism, Against Our Will provides an overview of myriad ways that rape has been used by men throughout history to subjugate women. The thesis of this work proposes that rape is not a sexual act but an act of aggression determined by anatomical difference and used to assert men's dominance over women and women's subservience to men. Supported by research in diverse fields ranging from history, literature, and myth to sociology, psychology, and law, Against Our Will traces the history of rape in human society, documenting the politics of rape in times of war, outlining the evolution of American rape laws, and discussing such topics as interracial rape, homosexual rape, and child molestation. Less confrontational than Brownmiller's first work, Femininity analyzes culturally determined Western definitions of “feminine” standards, detailing such characteristics as body, voice, hair, skin, clothes, movement, emotion, and ambition. In addition, this work also explores the extent to which many women adhere to those ideals, arguing that they restrict the scope of and limit the opportunities in real women's lives. Taking its cue from the headlines of the late 1980s, Waverly Place is a fictional account of the real-life murder of six-year-old Lisa Steinberg in New York's Greenwich Village where Brownmiller lived at the time. The novel recounts events in the stormy and abusive relationship between Hedda Nussbaum and her longtime domestic partner, attorney Joel Steinberg, that led to his trial for the beating death of his illegally adopted daughter, Lisa. Seeing Vietnam is a photographic and textual record of Brownmiller's 1992 tour of Vietnam that blends historical information about the Vietnam War with her impressions of how the country has fared nearly twenty years after the war ended. Part history and part memoirs, In Our Time traces the rise and spread of the women's liberation movement in the United States during the late 1960s and 1970s based on Brownmiller's personal recollections of significant events, interviews with other eyewitnesses, and extensive archival research.
Upon its publication, Against Our Will instantly made Brownmiller a literary celebrity but it also prompted controversy. The bestselling work was named a featured selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club and one of the ten outstanding books of 1975 by the New York Times Book Review. Some critics have praised the book for its extensive research, lucid argument, and groundbreaking perspective on a formerly taboo subject, with many hailing its refined treatment of criminal aspects and legal implications of rape. Feminists, activists, and lobbyists have embraced its central idea that rape is a tool of patriarchal power rather than a mere sexual act. However, other commentators have objected that the thesis of Against Our Will is simplistic; they have questioned whether the physical capacity to commit or threaten rape alone accrues power to men. Brownmiller's other theoretical work, Femininity, has yielded a similar mixed response among reviewers. While some critics have found the work's insights on feminine ideals and female conformity accurate, others have opined that it neglects the perspectives of women of color and disregards similar impediments that men encounter with unrealistic masculine ideals. Most critics have concurred that Waverly Place is poorly conceived as a novel, with the majority of complaints centering on character motivation in relation to theme. Many reviewers have also questioned the purpose and ethics of Brownmiller's decision to fictionalize a well-publicized and graphically detailed media event. Generally unimpressed with Seeing Vietnam, commentators have noted that Brownmiller missed an opportunity to make observations from her usual feminist perspective. However, she has redeemed herself in the eyes of most critics with In Our Time, which many reviewers have praised as an important contribution to feminist history, although a few have judged it little more than gossip about the infighting among major participants within the women's movement.
Shirley Chisholm: A Biography (biography) 1970
Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (criticism) 1975
Femininity (criticism) 1984
Waverly Place (novel) 1989
Seeing Vietnam: Encounters of the Road and Heart (travel essay) 1994
In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution (memoirs) 1999
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SOURCE: McCauley, Michael F. Review of Against Our Will, by Susan Brownmiller. Commonweal 102, no. 19 (5 December 1975): 602–03.
[In the following excerpt, McCauley praises Against Our Will for addressing a timely issue that concerns everyone.]
Four years ago when journalist Susan Brownmiller began writing Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, she often encountered embarrassment concerning rape and rape victims. For the most part this attitude has changed due, largely, to the women's movement and the staggering projection that half a million women will be raped this year. In this compelling, unflinching account of Ms. Brownmiller's confrontation of her own fears and intellectual defenses she details her conversion from the typical liberal stance to a disarming realization of her own vulnerability. Backed-up by carefully-selected, well-documented research encompassing psychoanalysis, sociology, criminology, law and history, Against Our Will explores current discriminatory rape laws that are still obscured by medieval codes, traditional sexist prejudices and sheer fantasy. Ms. Brownmiller exposes a widespread, unspoken tenet of male-dominated society which virtually denies the fact of force, suggesting that “all women want to be raped,” thus doubly violating the victims by adding to the actual physical assault the psychological trauma of being accused of...
(The entire section is 238 words.)
SOURCE: Tindall, Gillian. “Sexist Appeal.” New Statesman 90, no. 2334 (12 December 1975): 761.
[In the following review, Tindall argues that Against Our Will is thoughtful, informative, and well-researched, but criticizes the volume for presenting an oversimplified, one-sided view of human sexuality.]
Reading these two studies in the same week, one on prostitution and the other on rape, you get the uneasy impression that they are somehow mutually exclusive—that the social situation described in the one could not exist on the same planet with the other and vice versa. I think this is the fault of both books; both, in different styles and at different intellectual levels, have their points, but each manages only a one-sided view of the complex field of human sexuality. Through the eyes of the whores whose reported testimony makes up the bulk of Jeremy Sandford's work, men seem a pretty harmless lot; there is the odd tale of rape or bullying, but the general impression is of a docile horde of faceless males, easily parted from their money, easily pleased by the gratification of perverse tastes more infantile than vicious. How, one is inclined to wonder, can this horde fit into the inherently brutal society of masculine domination depicted by Susan Brownmiller, a world in which, according to her, ‘all men keep all women in a state of fear’?
Those who read this...
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SOURCE: Cunningham, Ann Marie. “Spotlight on Rape.” Progressive 40, no. 1 (January 1976): 52–53.
[In the following positive review, Cunningham asserts that Against Our Will provides important information on the role of rape in human history.]
Susan Brownmiller wrote this remarkable, prickly book [Against Our Will], the first history of rape, because she changed her mind. A woman who always walked quickly and carried a confident look, a civil libertarian whose sympathies went out to the accused, Brownmiller had to hear victims' testimonies at a 1970 public speak-out before she stopped believing that if women were raped, it was their own fault. She realized then that the physiological truism that women can be raped but cannot rape, has meant that although few men are rapists; the threat of “the one crime” has cut across age, race, class, and time to chill and circumscribe all women's lives. Basically a violent means of overpowering and humiliating women or other men, rape has been used as “a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”
Initially, Brownmiller comes across as a bit of a crank. I could not take her woman-centered revisionism seriously when I found it bolstered, early in Against Our Will, by such shrilling as: “Man's discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate...
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SOURCE: Chesler, Ellen. “Abnormality as a Norm.” New Leader 59, no. 1 (5 January 1976): 16–17.
[In the following review, Chesler asserts that the argument in Against Our Will is superficial and contradictory, questioning Brownmiller's use of sources to support her arguments.]
Five years ago, while helping to organize a feminist speak-out on rape, Susan Brownmiller made a discovery: Rape could be seen as an extraordinary historical metaphor, a fundamental “way of looking at male-female relations, at sex, at strength, and at power.” Now, after four years of what she describes as grueling and methodical research, she has given us a book [Against Our Will] that jams the facts—against their will—into the Procrustean bed of her original “moment of revelation.”
This is not the definitive “historical analysis” it purports to be. It is a passionate, often angry, sometimes downright nasty treatise on man's historical oppression of woman, an oppression that Brownmiller feels is rooted in the incontrovertible biological truth that only the male can initiate forcible sexual intercourse. “When men discovered that they could rape, they proceeded to do it,” she asserts at the outset. “From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men...
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SOURCE: Sobran, M. J., Jr. “Boys Will Be Rapists.” National Review 28, no. 7 (5 March 1976): 220, 222.
[In the following review, Sobran offers a negative assessment of Against Our Will, commenting that the work's central thesis is illogical and that Brownmiller's argument is intellectually sloppy.]
Neither Susan Brownmiller nor Against Our Will needs much in the way of introduction. There has not been a more spectacular book-club meteor since the days of, oh, Kate Millett, anyway. You do remember Kate Millett? Cover of Time, and all that? Well, Miss Brownmiller has not only made Time's cover, she has done so as one of 12 Women of the Year. Her book has been a Book of the Month, one of everybody's Ten Best of 1975, and a best-seller. Two Village Voice reviewers—Eliot Fremont-Smith, of course, and some dizzy feminist—hailed it in such terms as “landmark” and “classic,” thereby announcing not only their own enthusiasm but that of posterity.
At this writing—January 26—it is still a classic, and Miss Brownmiller is still popping up on talk shows, trying to make her thesis sound scientific-like. She holds, as you may know, that rape is no mere aberration of the occasional brute or sociopath, but the act that defines the relations between the sexes: it is normal, central to the whole system of male oppression of women,...
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SOURCE: Stewart, Charles W. “Rape as Domination.” Christian Century 93, no. 19 (26 May 1976): 524–25.
[In the following review, Stewart offers a positive assessment of Against Our Will, observing that Brownmiller succeeds in her efforts to raise consciousness about the issue of rape.]
[In Against Our Will,] Susan Brownmiller is one of the first women to undertake an investigation of rape. She writes deeply, personally and polemically of what she believes is an age-old injustice in the relations between women and men. By their superior physical strength, and by their superior position in society maintained through the institutions of law, marriage and the family, men have raped women's personalities and have kept their bodies in bondage: “Rape is a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” Legally, men have defined rape as “the penetration by an act of sexual intercourse with a female, not one's wife, against her will and consent.” Related to the definition are such matters as the threat of force, the use of drugs or intoxicants, the possibility of mental deficiency, and the age of consent. In her personal definition, the author says: “In rape the threat of force obtains a highly valued sexual service through temporary access to the victim's intimate parts, and the intent is not merely to take but to humiliate and degrade.”...
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SOURCE: Marshall, Megan. “Our Bodies, Our Burdens.” New Republic 190, no. 6 (13 February 1984): 33–35.
[In the following negative review, Marshall criticizes Brownmiller's feminist stance in Femininity, calling it simple minded and out-of-sync with the concerns of women in the 1980s.]
Just as American feminism has reached its lowest ebb, Susan Brownmiller has published a book that should have been a rallying point for a feminist revival. Not only has the E.R.A. failed repeatedly in recent years, but many women of the new generation repudiate the movement, and even its most shining examples, the middle-aged female stars of business and politics, begin interviews with “I'm not a feminist but …” What could be more needed now than a re-examination of female nature by one of the movement's intellectual founders?
Brownmiller's Against Our Will (1975), a history of rape in Western culture, was often a starting point for discussions in consciousness-raising groups, and many a feminist of the 1970s was made by a reading of her book. Thanks to the movement Brownmiller helped initiate, women have changed. If many women distrust feminism now, it is at least in part because they can afford to: a woman's right to work, to participate in politics and athletics, is no longer questioned by the majority of Americans. It has instead raised new problems in the home and the work...
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SOURCE: Wheeler, Elizabeth. “The More and Less Meaning of Woman.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (26 February 1984): 3.
[In the following review, Wheeler applies Brownmiller's ideas in Femininity to her own feelings about femininity, concluding that the book is both thoughtful and thought-provoking.]
When I go through an emotional crisis, especially a romantic one, I lose weight. It's not an intentional or reasoned response. I just have that sort of metabolism, or so I tell myself.
Would I, however, have that metabolism if I didn't live in a time and in a place that values thinness? Or if my father had not told me that thin women were beautiful and fat women vulgar? I don't know, but I do lose weight. And, slender to start, I look in the mirror and find that I'm a little more model-thin, a little weaker, a little more fragile in appearance—a little bit more feminine.
But, what does feminine mean? That's the question Susan Brownmiller poses in Femininity. She finds it has dozens of answers, none of them definitive; the pieces of the puzzle turn out to be fascinating and perplexing—at least for those of us who are women.
Brownmiller has found our common ground; I may not be able to say precisely what it means to be feminine, but I do know that I want to be thought of as such. I would hate to, as the expression goes, lose my...
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SOURCE: DeVries, Hilary. “Through the Eyes of a Founding Feminist.” Christian Science Monitor (5 June 1984): 31, 34.
[In the following negative review, DeVries describes Femininity as an expression of outmoded feminist militancy.]
As one of the intellectual founders of the women's movement, Susan Brownmiller knows times are tough for feminists.
Not only has the Equal Rights Amendment failed repeatedly in recent years, but many women of the new generation openly disown the militancy that characterized feminism's formative years.
At the same time, a recent spate of books written by such movement founders as Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer have been greeted with nothing short of critical catcalls for selling out their original radical ethic. Ms. Brownmiller's own new book, Femininity, a none-too-charitable look at the Western feminine aesthetic, has earned the charge of being simply outmoded militancy.
As a veteran journalist and the writer of Against Our Will, a documented study of rape in Western civilization which was considered one of the most forceful feminist works when it appeared in 1975, Ms. Brownmiller is quick to admit that times have indeed changed. In a post-feminist decade that many observers define by a search for fresh gender distinctions, she insists that the times are marked more by political lassitude and...
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SOURCE: Richardson, Laurel. Review of Femininity, by Susan Brownmiller. Contemporary Sociology 14, no. 1 (January 1985): 80.
[In the following review, Richardson offers a negative assessment of Femininity, criticizing the work for its overgeneralizations.]
[In Femininity,] Susan Brownmiller sets herself the task of analyzing femininity as a survival strategy. She contends that femininity, built upon an aesthetic of powerlessness, is a “slippery subject to grapple with, for its contradictions are elusive, ephemeral and ultimately impressive” (19). Unfortunately, Brownmiller, a journalist, has not provided an organizing principle through which that elusiveness might be captured and our sociological understanding deepened.
Between the prologue and epilogue are eight chapters about the ways in which femininity is displayed: Their topics are the body, the hair, clothes, the voice, the skin, movement, emotion, and ambition. In her discussion of each substantive topic, she draws upon her own experiences and upon historical and cross-cultural evidence. In the “Body” chapter, for example, we learn of Brownmiller's experience with her first brassiere as well as a history of brassieres and corsets; the changing historical aesthetic preferences for cup size, shape, and tilt; the American male breast obsession; cosmetic breast surgery; breastfeeding; and the evolution of...
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SOURCE: Pistono, Stephen P. “Susan Brownmiller and the History of Rape.” Women's Studies 14, no. 3 (February 1988): 265–76.
[In the following essay, Pistono evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Brownmiller's argument in Against Our Will with respect to the history of rape laws.]
A decade ago, Susan Brownmiller's book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape first appeared in print.1 She insisted that it was a history of rape. Most historians ignored her work, perhaps, because as one of them suggested the subject of her inquiry was hitherto “as well known to conventional scholars as the dark side of the moon.”2 Those few who took account of it were extremely critical. They found her central thesis difficult to accept. She argued that rape amounted to “a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”3 It was “the quintessential act by which a male demonstrates to a female that she is conquered. …”4 “Somewhere in the shadowy evolutionary beginnings of humanity, man discovered that by the virtue of his anatomy he possessed the means by which he could violate a woman's physical integrity without her being able to retaliate. Man had discovered his most basic weapon of force against women or as Brownmiller puts it:
Man's discovery that his genitalia...
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SOURCE: Vachss, Andrew. “Brownmiller's Cry of the Children.” Washington Post 112, no. 49 (23 January 1989): C4.
[In the following review, Vachss criticizes Waverly Place for failing to address the link between spousal abuse and child abuse.]
Journalists report facts. Politicians spin facts. Novelists spin yarns. The aims and constraints of these varied professions interact and overlap when a novel is used as the vehicle for the subsurface explanation of events that capture the public's fancy. Or its revulsion.
A novelist is permitted, even expected, to relate the narrative from a social-political perspective. Thus, if the novelist believes that poverty is the root cause of crime, he or she writes from that belief. This is morally and ethically acceptable—novels may be designed to persuade as much as to entertain.
Lisa Steinberg's death was national news, not because she was a child when she died, not because her death appeared to be at the hands of her caretakers, but because those charged with her murder occupied a social and economic position miles above the underclass. An apparently successful lawyer, a former children's book editor, a Greenwich Village brownstone. “How does such a thing happen?” was not on the lips of the American public. No, it was “How does such a thing happen here?”
In Waverly Place, Susan...
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SOURCE: Kaganoff, Penny. “Susan Brownmiller.” Publishers Weekly (27 January 1989): 449–50.
[In the following essay, Kaganoff discusses Brownmiller's process of research for writing Waverly Place.]
As the sun sets on another eventful day in the trial of Joel Steinberg, the New York lawyer accused of beating to death his illegally adopted daughter, Lisa, PW winds down with Susan Brownmiller in Greenwich Village, the neighborhood that is the scene of that hideous crime as well as the home of the veteran journalist, who is covering the proceedings for Ms. magazine. Her essay will present an analysis of Steinberg's former live-in-lover, Hedda Nussbaum, whose experience, Brownmiller maintains, is “aberrant” vis-à-vis the typical battered woman.
“I think she is an accomplice. Most, if not all, battered women who sense their children are in danger find the courage to leave or they kill the [abusive] lover,” says the ardent feminist, whose pioneering Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape squarely blamed men and exonerated women for an age-old crime. “I believe Hedda chose her life. She had ample time to see the warning signs and get out. I'm one of those who can't forgive her for not saving Lisa even if she didn't want to save herself. I feel that I have watched [in court] an extremely narcissistic woman who was just concerned with herself and I think she...
(The entire section is 2008 words.)
SOURCE: Pritchard, Melissa. “Battered Lives.” Chicago Tribune Books (5 February 1989): 4.
[In the following review, Pritchard praises Waverly Place as a compelling and accurate portrayal of an abusive relationship.]
Behind Susan Brownmiller's fictionalized paradigm of a battered wife and fatally beaten child lie the grim, numbing statistics of a crime epidemic. In New York state, 95,000 cases of child abuse are annually reported. Ten thousand of these children suffer serious injury, 150 of them die. This year, 2,000 American children will die at the hands of one or both parents.
Waverly Place recounts, through the medium of fiction, 6-year-old Elizabeth (Lisa) Steinberg's path to violent death on November 2, 1987. Joel Steinberg, a disbarred lawyer who never actually adopted the child, this week was convicted of first-degree manslaughter after standing trial for homicide. His companion of 17 years, Hedda Nussbaum, originally was accused of acting “in concert” with Steinberg, but after charges against her were dropped, she became the state's star witness.
In the foreword to her book, Brownmiller explains that she chose fiction because of its license to invent dialogue, explore motivation, deepen character and color events. While Waverly Place is successfully, horrifyingly apt in portraying the gradual disintegration of two personalities,...
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SOURCE: Kendall, Elaine. “Where Reality Outpaced Fiction: A Novel on the Steinberg Case.” Los Angeles Times (10 February 1989): section 5, E1.
[In the following review, Kendall faults Waverly Place for its inaccurate portrayal of drug addiction and its neglect of available information on the Steinberg murder case.]
First out of the gate in an inevitable commercial sweepstakes, Susan Brownmiller's version of the Steinberg case is presented as fiction, though recapitulation might be a more precise description of her method. Beginning to write on the day the Steinberg child died from head injuries inflicted by the man who had so casually “adopted” her, Brownmiller says, “I wanted the freedom to invent dialogue, motivations, events and characters based on my own understanding of battery and abuse.”
Drawing heavily upon the lore collected for her impassioned study of rape, Against Our Will, Brownmiller struggles to make this case fit a precast mold too narrow for the appalling facts. Instead of expanding our perception of the tragedy, Waverly Place inadvertently shrinks it. Even before the actual trial, the New York press coverage was exhaustive, providing Brownmiller with a daily supply of lurid revelations corroborating, rivaling and often exceeding anything she could imagine; turning the project into a contest in which fantasy is continually overmatched by...
(The entire section is 830 words.)
SOURCE: Bakerman, Jane. “The Criminal Element.” Belles Lettres 4, no. 3 (spring 1989): 15.
[In the following excerpt, Bakerman offers a mixed assessment of Waverly Place, commenting that the work is imaginative, but lacks depth of feeling.]
In good crime fiction as in journalism, when and where are almost as important as who, what, and why. For sound, practical reasons, good mystery writers pay close attention to setting: They strengthen plot by intensifying the atmosphere, deepen realism with a wealth of accurate geographical detail, stimulate readers' imaginations with exotic locales, or underscore viciousness by contrasting it to commonplace actions transpiring during and after the crime. A skillfully presented setting is one of the fiction writer's most versatile tools.
Private-eye novels, for instance, usually take place in cities, the larger and grimier the better. The urban scene is an important part of the formula. Some “tough 'tec” writers—and through them, their protagonists—have laid the firm and permanent claim to specific cities; Hammett/Spade's San Francisco is, perhaps, the most widely known example. In more contemporary hard-boiled private-eye fiction, copious details about where to jog, where to shop, where to eat, and what to eat there have become key elements. Apparently, those littered urban streets are more persuasively mean if they crisscross...
(The entire section is 354 words.)
SOURCE: Davidon, Ann Morrissett. “Lethal Case.” Progressive (April 1989): 44–46.
[In the following review, Davidon argues that Waverly Place provides a vivid, engrossing account of the Steinberg murder case but notes that the work exploits the tragedy of a real family.]
As you read this, thousands of men are battering women and children to the point of hospitalization and, in some cases, to death. If the police are called and any action taken, seldom does the case attract media coverage, even when deaths occur. According to New York City statistics, 127 children were killed by abusive adults in 1988. These are only the recorded ones, in only one city.
Yet a single case of lethal battering aroused intensive media and public attention over the past year-and-a-half: the death of six-year-old Lisa Steinberg. Her “parents” were not married; she was not their biological or legally adopted daughter—it was a case like many others. Why the fuss?
Many theories were advanced as the bizarre details of the case were revealed. The television image of Joel Steinberg's live-in companion, hideously battered Hedda Nussbaum, certainly enhanced the story's grisly shock effect. Revelations of gross irregularities, incompetence, and neglect by social agencies were shocking to many. The couple's use of cocaine gave the Just Say No crowd further evidence of the viciousness...
(The entire section is 915 words.)
SOURCE: Fortune, Marie M. Review of Waverly Place, by Susan Brownmiller. Christian Century 106, no. 13 (19 April 1989): 422–23.
[In the following review, Fortune criticizes Waverly Place for failing to convey the complexities of domestic abuse.]
In this book [Waverly Place] Susan Brownmiller creates a fictional version of the relationship between Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum. Through the characters Barry Kantor and Judith Winograd, Brownmiller tells the story of the brutal and abusive man who permanently disfigured Nussbaum and killed their illegally adopted daughter, Lisa. Their recently concluded trial caught the public's attention in part because it involved a middle-class professional couple living in Greenwich Village. In her version, Brownmiller reminds us that battering occurs in unexpected places.
While Waverly Place isn't a bad book, it certainly isn't a great work of fiction. It is an adequate rendering of the story, but it strangely lacks any depth of feeling. The book's only apparent value is that it conveys the dailiness of abuse.
The real crux of Brownmiller's project emerged in an interview, in which she revealed her view of Nussbaum: “I hold that woman morally culpable” for Lisa's death. Brownmiller wants her charged with reckless endangerment. When she discusses the case, Brownmiller expresses moral outrage at...
(The entire section is 693 words.)
SOURCE: Caputi, Jane. “Stranger than Fiction.” Women's Review of Books 6, no. 8 (May 1989): 10–11.
[In the following review, Caputi comments that Waverly Place is less powerful and effective than accounts of the real-life circumstances of the Steinberg murder case reported by the news media.]
On November 1st, 1987, six-year-old Lisa Steinberg was brought to a hospital emergency room, unconscious and with injuries which led to her death four days later. The two people who had been raising her in their Waverly Place, Greenwich Village apartment—Joel Steinberg, a con artist and lawyer who had illegally adopted the child, and Hedda Nussbaum, the former children's book editor he lived with and battered for some twelve years—were brought in by the police for questioning. At first both were charged with second-degree murder, but the prosecution later dropped the charges against Nussbaum so that she could become the state's key witness. The trial was televised and for seven days Nussbaum told of her abusive relationship with Steinberg; videotapes of her extensively damaged body were introduced as evidence. On January 30th, 1989, Steinberg was convicted of a lesser charge, first-degree manslaughter in the death of Lisa Steinberg.
Four books based on the case that became America's number one media event have already been contracted and a number of others are reported to be in the...
(The entire section is 2072 words.)
SOURCE: Souhami, Diana. “A Short, Silent Life.” New Statesman & Society 2, no. 65 (1 September 1989): 36.
[In the following review, Souhami praises Brownmiller for successfully combining her journalistic skills with her feminist perspective in Waverly Place.]
Like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, Waverly Place is a murder story based on fact. In 1987 a New York lawyer killed a six-year-old girl by flinging her across a room in a rage. The child was his illegally adopted daughter. Police and paramedics went to his Greenwich Village apartment. They found the girl unconscious. The woman they presumed to be her mother looked as if she had been hit by a train. The place stank. A baby boy, soaked in urine and faeces, was tethered by a rope. The lawyer, a burly Jewish man with dark curly hair and designer glasses, “acted like he was turning in a broken appliance” as he handed over the girl.
Three days later the child died and Susan Brownmiller began to write, “to imagine how the couple from my neighbourhood whose image flashed repeatedly across the television screen—a lawyer and a woman with a bashed-in face who had once been a writer—could have travelled the distance from people I might have known to such a nightmare.”
She read everything about the case and kept to the circumstantial facts, but made the motivation and involvements...
(The entire section is 666 words.)
SOURCE: Coles, Joanna. “Against Her Will?” Times Literary Supplement (6–12 October 1989): 1104.
[In the following excerpt, Coles asserts that Waverly Place is poorly written and oversimplifies the issues raised by the Steinberg murder case, observing that the novel sensationalizes the sad events of a true-life story.]
Last year Joel Steinberg, a New York barrister, and Hedda Nussbaum, an ex-children's book editor, illegally adopted two children and murdered one of them—a six-year-old girl. Both Nussbaum and the child, it emerged, had been subjected to brutal beatings by Steinberg over a long period. The United States was horrified: not least by the couple's bad grace in committing such a crime in an apartment on West 10th Street. Susan Brownmiller lived just round the corner, and was inspired to write her first novel, Waverly Place. “It couldn't have happened here” (that is among rich, white people), she writes in her foreword. “But it did … The day after the child died I began to write, to imagine how the couple from my neighbourhood—a lawyer and a woman who had once been a writer—could have travelled the distance from people I might have known to such a nightmare.” (Brownmiller's surprise is something of a surprise in itself. Author of the feminist classic Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, she wrote not so long ago that rape is “a conscious...
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SOURCE: Leepson, Marc. “A Tourist in Vietnam.” Chicago Tribune (15 May 1994): section 14, 5.
[In the following review, Leepson comments that while Seeing Vietnam is an interesting travel narrative about Vietnam in the 1990s, the sections of the book discussing the Vietnam War lack valuable information.]
Susan Brownmiller is best known for her strongly argued feminist writings, including the bestselling Against Our Will, but her Seeing Vietnam barely touches on feminist issues. Instead, it's a combination travel guide, personal rumination and historical and sociological look at the nation of Vietnam and the American war that raged there in the 1960s and 1970s.
Like many other members of the Vietnam generation, Brownmiller was affected directly by that war. From 1965–1968 she screened and edited dispatches from the war zone for ABC News. “I slogged through [videotapes of] routine search-and-destroy operations and inconclusive firefights, pieced together murky footage of falling black bombs, raging smoke and fire, whirring medevac Hueys, wounded GIs on stretchers, captured enemy in black pajamas, burning monks, screaming children fleeing across fields, women keening their dead,” Brownmiller writes.
Working so intimately with images of the war at its bloody height soured Brownmiller on Vietnam. When she quit her ABC job, she stopped paying...
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SOURCE: Linfield, Susie. Review of In Our Time, by Susan Brownmiller. Los Angeles Times (18 November 1999): E3.
[In the following review, Linfield argues that In Our Time is nothing more than gossip about some of the major figures in the women's liberation movement, noting Brownmiller's superficial treatment of feminist issues.]
Few books have affected me as viscerally as Susan Brownmiller's 1975 treatise on rape, Against Our Will, which I read as a college student. Brownmiller's unflinching description of actual rapes was terrifying, but it was her lucid, indeed irrefutable, analysis of how sexual violence by some men served to control all women, not just its direct victims, that really shook me up. Rape could no longer be seen as an obscene, anomalous crime that affected a few unlucky women but, rather, as an obscene but basic link in the structure of male domination that thwarted the lives of all women.
Brownmiller's new work, In Our Time, is an entirely different sort of book, though it is not entirely clear what sort of book it was intended to be. It is not a memoir in any conventional sense; we are offered little about the personal ways in which the women's liberation movement transformed the author. But In Our Time is not a history of the women's liberation movement, either. In fact, Brownmiller's book harks back to that most stereotypically...
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SOURCE: Trouard, Dawn. “Moving the Mountain.” Washington Post Book World (30 January 2000): 3.
[In the following review, Trouard states that In Our Time is informative regarding the history of the women's liberation movement, but criticizes the volume for its inconsistent methodology.]
At least one of the things women, or perhaps feminists, want is a history of our history. Such a work might spare yet another generation the conundrum of why, if there has always been a women's movement, no one seems to know it. In Our Time, by Susan Brownmiller—activist-author of the 1975 Against Our Will, a landmark study of rape—is an account of the women's liberation movement from its combustible and transformative origins in the 1960s to the present vitiated moment. As one woman channeling for the collective, Brownmiller reports that she wrote with “a sense of urgency” since much of the movement's story has “already been lost or distorted.” As a “partisan participant-observer,” she recalls the not-so-long ago when employers were entitled to ask a woman for the date of her last period. She also recalls the times when a consciousness-raising session could lead to the discovery that the woman with two horrendous “illegal operations” in her past was sharing revelations with survivors of four abortions or even five.
Rich in anecdotes, Brownmiller helps readers...
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SOURCE: Rebick, Judy. “The Guest Room: The Radical Roots of Feminism.” Herizons 13, no. 4 (31 March 2000): 44.
[In the following review, Rebick recommends In Our Time as a delightful work that informatively discusses the successes and failures of the women's liberation movement.]
With memories of the Battle of Seattle still dancing in our heads, and thoughts of the World March of Women later this year beginning to take shape, it is good time to think about how social movements actually develop. In this age of celebrity worship, it is hard to remember that most social movements begin with the actions of a small group of radicals working outside of the glare of media scrutiny. A good reminder, not to mention a delightful read, is Susan Brownmiller's new book, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution.
You will remember Brownmiller as the author of Against Our Will, probably the most important book on feminist theory of rape. She has now taken her skill as a researcher and journalist and looked back on the early days of the second wave of the American women's movement. What's remarkable about her book is that it introduces us to the women who were really the pioneers of second wave feminism, and in particular, radical feminism. She talks about the women whose names are familiar, like Shulamith Firestone, author of The Dialectic of Sex, Ti-Grace Atkinson and Rita...
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SOURCE: Winslow, Barbara. “Radical Recollections.” Women's Review of Books 17, no. 7 (April 2000): 12–14.
[In the following review, Winslow asserts that In Our Time makes a significant contribution to the available literature on the history of the women's movement.]
Susan Brownmiller is one of the best-known pioneers of the radical women's liberation movement. An early activist in New York Radical Women, she was a leading organizer of some of the first, groundbreaking actions—the sit-in at Ladies Home Journal, the Speak Outs on abortion and rape, the battered women's movement and the campaigns against prostitution and pornography. In Our Time is an exciting, partisan, unapologetic, contentious and welcome contribution to the growing literature about the women's liberation movement, much of which is memoir (Karla Jay's Tales of the Lavender Menace and The Feminist Memoir Project, edited by Rachel Blau du Plessis and Ann Snitow, to name just two). In an attempt to “recapture a vivid piece of radical history that changed the world,” Brownmiller says she wrote this book “with a sense of urgency because I could see that much of the movement's story had already been lost or distorted.”
Brownmiller reminds us of the bad old days when Help Wanted columns were divided into Male and Female (the latter being the dead-end jobs), when abortion was...
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SOURCE: Douglas, Carol Anne. Review of In Our Time, by Susan Brownmiller. off our backs 30, no. 5 (31 May 2000): 12.
[In the following review, Douglas describes In Our Time as both a personal memoir and an historical account of the women's liberation movement.]
Susan Brownmiller, author of the classic Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, in this book [In Our Time] attempts both a personal memoir and a history of the Second Wave women's movement. She succeeds at both, particularly the history, which she wisely emphasizes. Clearly, she interviewed many feminists to shed light on what they did and thought at the time—the late '60s and the '70s. This is the clearest movement history of those years yet. It captures the spirit of the times.
Brownmiller was a professional journalist at the time that the movement began. But journalism was different then than it is now. At ABC, where she worked briefly, there were separate job applications for men and women. The application for women asked “Date of your last period” and “Have you ever had an illegal operation?” Brownmiller, who had had three illegal abortions, lied. At Newsweek, women could only be researchers, not writers, until they filed an historic lawsuit.
Brownmiller, like many other young people, went to Mississippi to work for civil rights during the Freedom Summer of...
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SOURCE: Endres, Kathleen. Review of In Our Time, by Susan Brownmiller. Journalism History 27, no. 1 (spring 2001): 44–45.
[In the following review, Endres praises In Our Time as one of the best “insider's” accounts of the women's liberation movement, calling the book meticulously researched, well-written, and “painfully honest.”]
Susan Brownmiller's In Our Time is not the first book that tells an insider's story of the Women's Liberation Movement of the second half of the twentieth century. However, from the perspective of the journalism historian, it may be one of the best. She provides an insider's perspective of the role journalism played in this extraordinarily important radical reform movement.
For the journalism historian who wishes to chronicle the largely untold story of the publications of the Women's Liberation Movement, Brownmiller provides a look at the personalities, strategies and attitudes that led to the launch and demise of some of the more important radical publications of the 1960s and 1970s. For example, Shulie Firestone prodded the New York Radical Women to start their Notes from the First Year (followed by Notes from the Second Year) as a chronicle of the consciousness raising that marked the early Women's Liberation Movement. It was for Notes that Anne Koedt wrote the now famous “The Myth of the Vaginal...
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SOURCE: Dunn, Jennifer L. Review of In Our Time, by Susan Brownmiller. Gender and Society 15, no. 2 (April 2001): 318–19.
[In the following review, Dunn comments that In Our Time provides a vivid, complex account of the development of the women's liberation movement.]
This book [In Our Time] is a vivid and vexing account of the Women's Liberation movement from an insider's perspective. Brownmiller draws on personal experience, archival materials, and interviews with more than 200 activists to paint a portrait nearly as complex and controversial as the revolution it describes. Richly anecdotal and written in a highly readable, journalistic style, this ambitious narrative describes the movement (and Brownmiller's involvement in it) from the consciousness-raising groups of the late 1960s through the “Pornography Wars” of the mid-80s. She covers activism in the arenas of abortion rights, rape, battering, and sexual harassment along the way. Many famous and/or notorious events are chronicled, such as the protest of the 1968 Miss America Pageant; the Ladies Home Journal sit-in of 1970; the rise of publications such as Off Our Backs, Plexus, and Ms.; and the passage of Roe vs. Wade. So many individuals and groups make up this memoir, in fact, that it is difficult to keep track of them all, and the book represents a prodigious effort to include...
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SOURCE: Steiner, Wendy. “Rape Belongs to Everyone.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5114 (6 April 2001): 10.
[In the following review, Steiner offers a positive assessment of In Our Time, calling the work informative and engaging.]
In 1922, the young Ernest Hemingway stood on the shell-shocked side of the First World War exposing his psychic disarray in the prose experiments of In Our Time. Susan Brownmiller, standing in the ruins of radical feminism, appropriates the old chauvinist's title without apology or explanation. It is a grab redolent of the glory days of feminism. What they will not give you, take. If they will not make common cause, fight for yourself. “Put your own interests first,” advised Shulamith Firestone, “then proceed to make alliances.” Assertion, like emergency oxygen, was a matter of life and death, and liberation was the power to speak, to control one's meaning, to seize the symbol systems of a man's world for a woman's purposes. “I Am Woman (Hear Me Roar).”
In this informative and engaging history, Brownmiller tells the uneasy story of a political movement dedicated to female assertion. Of course, this was by no means the only form that feminism took. “At its inception, the women's movement appeared to have two distinct wings—the reformers of NOW and the radicals of Women's Liberation.” Betty Friedan's memoir, My Life So...
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Balaban, John. “A Tiresome Journey to Vietnam.” Washington Post 117, no. 113 (16 June 1994): C2.
Balaban argues that Seeing Vietnam is a poorly written travel narrative, adding that Brownmiller would have been more effective had she addressed the history and social conditions of Vietnamese women from her feminist perspective.
Collins, Anne. “The Binding Contract of Femininity.” Maclean's 97, no. 4 (23 January 1984): 57.
Collins faults Femininity for failing to acknowledge the valuable qualities associated with femininity, concluding that the book leaves female readers feeling even more disempowered.
Conaway, James. “Femininity and the Feminist.” Washington Post 107, no. 52 (26 January 1984): B1, B11.
Conaway criticizes Femininity for presenting a one-sided argument.
Eggleston, Kate. “Unveiling the Feminine.” Women's Review of Books 1, no. 9 (June 1984): 5–6.
Eggleston praises Femininity as a lucid, rational, and well-structured argument regarding the societal implications of femininity, but complains that Brownmiller overlooked the concerns of women of color, particularly African-American women.
Gordon, Suzanne. “Women and Their Place.” Washington Post Book World (4...
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