Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544
An American journalist who became politically active in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Susan Brownmiller wrote for The Village Voice, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Esquire, and Vogue, as well as working for NBC and ABC. Her political profile of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to be elected to Congress, led to her active participation in civil rights. After joining a consciousness-raising group who gathered to discuss the harsh realities of antifeminist attitudes and behavior, such as equal pay, abortion rights, and rape, Brownmiller became interested in women’s issues.
She participated in organizing the sit-in of The Ladies’ Home Journal, in which women demanded a female editorial staff, and columns and research on such women’s concerns as birth control, abortion rights, and spousal abuse.
In 1975 Brownmiller became an overnight sensation with the publication of Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. This was the first significant documentation of rape and its effects on women and society as a whole. The book was a best-seller. Early reviewers split along gender lines, with most women embracing the theoretical foundations of Brownmiller’s argument and many men questioning her research methodology.
Brownmiller spent about four years doing the research for Against Our Will, meticulously documenting the characteristics and circumstances of rape. Brownmiller begins Against Our Will with a description of the history of the laws governing rape, from those of ancient Babylonia to the Mosaic Law (the Ten Commandments as well as the rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy), through the thirteenth century when attitudes changed remarkably, up to the Vietnam War, an era in which men for the first time in history began to be prosecuted for this violent behavior. Historically rape was not seen as a serious problem. Brownmiller addresses the common use of rape in wars, revolutions, and ordinary life as a means to keep all women in line and to punish some men. She dismisses the claim that all women secretly want to be raped and explains that rape is not a sexual act but rather one of intimidation and power that is meant to humiliate and control women.
Brownmiller continues her discussion in Femininity, in which she argues that femininity is “a powerful esthetic based upon a recognition of [women’s] powerlessness.” Here, in contrast to her first book, she uses material in books and periodicals to discover the terms and impact of various modern views of femininity. She also interviewed physicians to gain insight, but this work does not have the scholarly documentation of her first book. Femininity reveals how women are controlled and manipulated by a society that demands beauty and obedience of them. When Joel Steinberg, a New York lawyer, was accused of beating his adopted daughter to death, Brownmiller was inspired to write her first novel, Waverly Place, in a “white heat because I was possessed.”
In the 1990’s Brownmiller returned to journalism and current affairs, first writing Seeing Vietnam, an account of a 1992 trip to Vietnam that sparks recollection of the antiwar movement in the United States and its aftermath. In Our Time, despite its subtitle proclaiming it a “memoir,” is in fact a nearly encyclopedic history of the feminist movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s from an engaged eyewitness.