Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.