Susan Brownmiller

Start Free Trial

Michael F. McCauley (review date 5 December 1975)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 238

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 enticement or compliance. Against Our Will is a poignant, candid and long-overdue analysis of a subject that concerns all. As long as present legal outlooks and cultural mythologies prevail, we are, each one of us, victims of this unspeakable attack on our humanity.

Gillian Tindall (review date 12 December 1975)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 856

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 remark at the end of her introductory chapter may feel inclined, as I did, to mutter, ‘if you believe that you'll believe anything,’ and to feel that the rest of this lengthy work is going to be a waste of time. However, much of Against Our Will turns out to be thoughtful, informative and well-researched. In her chronicle of bygone wars, she attempts to steer a path between believing all atrocity stories and believing none of them, and she is interesting on the part apparently played by aggressive homosexuality in jails: she is right, I am sure, that the rationale underlying this is not frustrated sexual desire but power politics—the physical abuse of weaker men is about the only way an imprisoned criminal can still be, literally, cock of the walk.

(This entire section contains 856 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

turns out to be thoughtful, informative and well-researched. In her chronicle of bygone wars, she attempts to steer a path between believing all atrocity stories and believing none of them, and she is interesting on the part apparently played by aggressive homosexuality in jails: she is right, I am sure, that the rationale underlying this is not frustrated sexual desire but power politics—the physical abuse of weaker men is about the only way an imprisoned criminal can still be, literally, cock of the walk.

Yet there is a vein of obtuseness running through this book, a doctrinaire refusal to carry certain trains of thought through to their logical conclusions. The essential theme is the way in which men, historically and actually, use sexual domination as a symbolic expression of other forms of power, particularly economic power or victory in war. But through all the cumulative and inevitably repetitive examples the author cites of masculine aggression, she avoids any fundamental examination of the nature of male sexuality—or female, come to that. Though insisting that a generalised fear of rape is common to all women, she yet manages to convey the impression that rape is a pathological phenomenon having nothing in common with unforced sex, let alone with sexual love. The truth, however, is surely that rape is simply one end of a sexual continuum which stretches all the way from loving consideration, through many gradations of benign playing-tough, coercion and so forth, and that this is why it is such a difficult subject to discuss or legislate about.

Despite the furious denials of the sort of feminist group to which Ms Brownmiller belongs, many women do have a taste for being ‘dominated,’ or at any rate cajoled into ‘giving themselves’ (the phrase itself says much), and many perfectly kind men have a realistic awareness of this fact. It is precisely because the idea that ‘women enjoy rape really’ is not total masculine fantasy that it is so insidious and ubiquitous. In practice, this author's well-intentioned attempt to define rape as all occasions on which a woman ‘chooses not’ to have intercourse, simplifies the subject to the point of uselessness. She also fails to make out any kind of convincing case against the widely held theory (when she finally gets round to admitting its existence) that masochism is an essential and healthy element in feminine sexuality. She confines herself to saying that this theory ‘has been for me a particular symbol of that which is inimical to all women’: this is to confuse truth with ethical desirability.

Yet a lot of far-ranging reading has gone into this work, and if the result is a little turgid it is so in a most honourable, decent, Simone de Beauvoir-ish way. Turning from it, back to Jeremy Sandford, his book seems superficial, despite his sensible views on the need to recognise prostitution as an integral part of society, and despite one excellent quote from the Victorian monster Acton to the effect that most prostitutes are no more happy or unhappy in their work than anyone else. The blurb claims that this book is the second in a series, of which Gypsies was the first, ‘which is designed to add up to a composite portrait of contemporary British people,’ which I do not believe: you don't start to eat a cake by picking out all the bits of candied peel and polishing them off first—or, if you do, the large and stodgy remnant will hardly be worth consuming.

Ann Marie Cunningham (review date January 1976)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 888

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 fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times, along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe.” But as Brownmiller learned by listening, so too I learned by reading her exhaustive, horrifying documentation of atrocious treatment accorded women in the course of human events.

In the past, women, whether high-born or low-born, were property to be claimed by seizure; more recently, “Women have been raped by men, more often by gangs of men, for many of the same reasons that blacks were lynched by gangs of whites: as group punishment for being uppity, for getting out of line, for failing to recognize ‘one's place,’ for assuming sexual freedoms, or for behavior no more provocative than walking down the wrong road at night in the wrong part of town and presenting a convenient, isolated target for group hatred and rage.” When this analysis of Brownmiller's appeared, more than halfway through Against Our Will, I could not call it overreaching.

Rape literally has been an unspeakable act. Freud, amazingly, never wrote a word about it, and “a casual reader of history quickly learns that rape remains unmentionable, even in war.” Breaking the silence, Brownmiller pulls rape's badly tangled story from many skeins: the Old Testament, the Iliad, military history, tribunals and propaganda, war correspondents, Le Morte d' Arthur, law texts, a diary kept by a slaveowner's wife, Eldridge Cleaver, anthropology and zoology, The Pentagon Papers, histories of the American Indian wars, records of interracial rape cases, those “baffling crossroads” of racism and sexism.

As its history has been obscured, so rape's nature and attendant problems of law enforcement have been clouded by folklore and movie versions. Like the soldier who rapes in war, the police-blotter rapist is statistically an all-too-average aggressive youth, not a sexual highwayman out of Ian Fleming or Harold Robbins. He may actually be someone a woman would expect to trust—a policeman, a relative. As for victims, classes at police academies and law schools have traditionally been taught to regard them as descendants of Potiphar's wife—a legend common to Christian, Hebrew, and Moslem. Yet in New York City, when police-women began interviewing rape complainants, the number of false charges dropped to the same rate reported for other violent crimes.

Against Our Will accomplishes so much that I would like to call it impressive in every way. Unfortunately, Brownmiller will not let the evidence make its own capable case. What she learned in her research made her angry, and she wants her book to startle, upset, and rally readers to one victim's cry, “It's a war and you can't let them win.” And Brownmiller not infrequently undercuts herself with misplaced black humor.

I have been asked—by men as well as women—about Brownmiller's ideas on the confounding question of female rape fantasies. Why is the thought of violation embarrassingly titillating? The reality is terrifying for the victim, and rarely erotic for her attacker. What, if any, is the connection here between thought and deed? “Such is the legacy of male-controlled sexuality, under which we struggle,” Brownmiller writes. After drawing amplification from Jean Genet, Red Riding Hood, and Helene Deutsch's theories of innate female masochism, Brownmiller seems to tire and resorts to italics: “The rape fantasy exists in women as a man-made iceberg. It can be destroyed—by feminism.”

I, for one, hungered for a better answer, one less grandly political. The clashes over political solutions promoted during the recent murder trials of Joan Bird and Inez Garcia, two who abandoned the St. Maria Goretti model of Gandhian resistance, demonstrate how far we must go to understand and prevent rape. Against Our Will is one firm step: ignorance of its appalling history is no longer an excuse.

Incidentally, publication of Brownmiller's book indicates an interesting shift in the popular wind: the Book of the Month Club, which bypassed The Feminine Mystique and other nonfiction by feminist intellectuals, did select Against Our Will and thus guaranteed it a large audience.

Ellen Chesler (review date 5 January 1976)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1513

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 keep all women in a state of fear.” (Author's italics.)

The proof: rape in tribal and feudal societies; in war, in riot and in revolution; on the plantation and on the frontier; in the ghetto and in the prison; between anonymous strangers, husband and wife, father and child; in fact and in fiction. Brownmiller gathers more data on violent sexuality in human history than anyone could ever have conceived existed, as if the sheer weight of the numbers would convince. What she gives us, though, is often superficial and contradictory. One comes away accepting the tragic reality of rape and the author's contention that it has been ignored by male historians, yet skeptical of the meaning she assigns to it in the context of the male-female dilemma. Indeed, her own scholarship seems to confirm the very argument she is seeking to refute: that rape is a dimension of social and psychological pathology, and may have little to do with the historic inequality of the sexes.

Brownmiller begins in the primitive past, when physical strength was presumably the law of the land. “Female fear of an open season of rape, and not a natural inclination toward monogamy, motherhood or love, was probably the single causative factor in the original subjugation of woman by man,” she speculates. She does not mention the alternative anthropological hypotheses that tribal woman may have been viewed as man's equal because of her little understood procreative power, or that her fertility and industry may have made her an object of male worship and not a captive of his militancy. This prompts one to examine the author's sources, listed in the back of the book, and they turn out to be a newspaper clipping about the folklore of “bride capture” in Sicily, another from the New York Times about the stone-age Tasadays of the Philippines, and a 1959 article from the American Anthropologist.

Moving on to the American past, Brownmiller tells us the experience of the slave South is a “perfect study of rape.” She quotes from Winthrop Jordan's towering analysis of race and slavery, White over Black, to establish the point: “White men extended their dominion over the Negroes to the bed, where the sex act itself served as a ritualistic re-enactment of the daily pattern of social dominance.” But his words are too mild, she then declares, “a vastly inadequate description of the brutal white takeover and occupation of the black woman's body.”

More compelling, Brownmiller says, is a 1931 economic study of U.S. slave trade that leaves unchallenged the favorite arguments of 19th-century abolitionists who deliberately exploited the sexual anxieties of their Yankee constituency by dwelling upon the lasciviousness and immorality of the male slaveholder. She dismisses the controversial 1974 work by cliometricians Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, Time on the Cross, whose statistics on the antebellum South indicate that sexual abuse of black women was uncommon.

Brownmiller barely considers, moreover, the historical literature that shares neither abolitionist fury nor Fogel and Engerman's problematically happy view of life on the ole plantation. Had she really done her homework here, she would have had to acknowledge that most historians writing today find evidence that the sexual exploitation of female slaves was tempered by sexual inhibitions, religious constraints, and the presence of a large resident white population. Contrary to her testimony, it is generally held that institutionalized slave breeding scarcely existed in the South and that slave marriage was widely encouraged, along with other Christian ritual. Historians now emphasize the conflict between desire and aversion that shaped the typical Southern slaveholder's attitude toward his black female property.

This is not a mere academic quibble; it speaks to the underlying intellectual problem of Brownmiller's book. One cannot accept the evidence she assembles to prove that rape is a basic aspect of male-female relations unless one is willing to go along with the proposition that male sexual behavior is, by definition, pathological. For in her vast catalogue of crimes, all the examples of rape are set in situations of violent social upheaval having more complex roots than she allows.

Thus, in her portrait of slavery and in her more substantial material on rape in war—from Troy to Vietnam and Bangladesh—she can maintain that rape was not simply peripheral to the violence, but she fails to show that it was something beyond a symptom of the general civil and social disorder. One is left agreeing that women have been victims of sexual abuse, without being able to see the logic that links this to the norm.

Brownmiller's treatment of “the police blotter rapist” is another example of her problem. She introduces the subject by announcing: “The typical American rapist might be the boy next door.” Yet the next sentence contains the significant qualification that this is true only if you happen to be part of the lower socio-economic classes and happen to live in a neighborhood that fits the description of a ghetto. She even commends the recent work of criminologists who have placed rape at the center of a “subculture of violence” formed by “the poor, the disenfranchised, the black”—or “the thwarted, the inarticulate, and the angry”—whose values counter those of the dominant culture and whose only expression of power may be physical.

Similarly Brownmiller notes that in personality profiles comparing criminals, the rapist falls midway between the man who commits aggravated assault and the man who commits robbery. This sociological portrait, she reminds us, has supplanted a Freudian analysis favored in the 1950s of the rapist as “weirdo, psychic, schizophrenic,” beset by a domineering wife or mother. But that doesn't exactly make him your everyday kind of guy, either, as is suggested by her conclusion: “Rather than society's aberrants or ‘spoilers of purity,’ men who commit rape have served in effect as front-line masculine shock troops, terrorist guerrillas, in the longest sustained battle the world has ever known.”

Assuming all men are guilty, Brownmiller demands a crackdown on criminal rape that would abrogate much of what falls under the category of civil liberties, including the publication of pornography portraying unchecked male lust. (She doesn't comment on today's high-brow pornography, which tends to display woman as man's “playmate,” and sex as guiltless childlike fun.) She argues convincingly that the presumption of innocence in rapists has entailed a presumption of female complicity. The female victim of rape has been forced to offer evidence of noncompliance—in effect, to prove her innocence. Not surprisingly, many women have refused to suffer this ordeal.

The situation has been further complicated because theory and reality have not always corresponded in the American system of justice. Since class, race and ethnicity have historically been intertwined with criminal rape in our society, the accused has often been presumed guilty before taking the stand. Seeking to compensate for the court's bias, liberal defense attorneys have concentrated on the psychological and sexual elements of the crime, sometimes to the extent of introducing easily misinterpreted Freudian and neo-Freudian theories about female rape fantasies.

Nevertheless, the frequent abuse of these theories in the courtroom hardly seems adequate cause for Brownmiller's unrestricted tirade against Freudianism. In fact, one would have thought that psychoanalysis, given its emphasis on biology as destiny and its coupling of female penis envy with male castration anxiety, would be of particular interest to her.

What is more important, assigning guilt to every man will not put an end to rape, nor is it the way to redress the discrimination women have suffered at the hands of judges or psychiatrists. By using rape as an analytical tool for a treatise on sexual politics, Brownmiller leads us far afield from the criminal act. Her difficulty is that she hasn't come to terms with what is normal and what is deviant sexual behavior—where sex ends and rape begins.

M. J. Sobran Jr. (review date 5 March 1976)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1089

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, producing benefits even for men who do not rape—and they know it. As she puts it in a much quoted sentence, rape is really “a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” (Her italics.)

Now the funny thing is that Miss Brownmiller does not seriously try to prove this. She offers some awfully confident speculations about prehistory, when man “must have” learned to rape and threaten rape. She prances through recorded history, plucking out the male atrocity and the faux pas with equal indignation. She concludes on a personal note, describing her fun in her self-defense class when she learned to hurt and frighten men. Not men who had wronged her: just men, plain old men, implicated by their genitals in the war of every man against every woman. If they are not rapists, why then they are cryptorapists, cashing in on the dirty work of the guy who jumps women in the alley: the common police-blotter rapist is the “Myrmidon” of his fellow males, subserviently sowing terror on their behalf, thereby forcing women to depend on them for protection from him.

All of Against Our Will is animated by hostility to men as such. “Male” is itself a term of reproach, as in “outdated male values.” Miss Brownmiller speaks casually, and with a straight face, of “egocentric, rapacious man,” by which she seems not to mean one kind of man as opposed to another, but simply to express the character of men in general, as “many-wiled Odysseus” describes Odysseus without suggesting there's another one with fewer wiles. And of course “all men” terrify women, and consciously. How is this undifferentiated hatred of a whole sex different from that which drives the rapist? On the other side, she treats women less as a biological category than as a sort of tribe, to which loyalty is owed. She even denounces Ayn Rand as “a traitor to her own sex” because she glorifies a rape in one of her novels: Randian woman, assaulted by Randian man, lies back and enjoys it. Solidarity with your own sex, in Miss Brownmiller's view, seems to have higher claims than romance with the other.

How preposterous. Do I even have to say so? Is there anyone out there who doesn't know it's preposterous? Yoo-hoo! Fremont-Smith! I'm talking to you! It's so obviously cuckoo that even the book's praisers keep a prudent distance from its thesis—which makes no sense, since it is the thesis that makes it a book. We hardly needed Miss Brownmiller to tell us that rape is despicable, even if she does tend to talk as if it were legal everywhere but in a few counties in Alabama. We know too that it is one of the gruesome features of war: so why heap honors on her merely for collecting the data? The whole point of her book is the tendentiousness of her research: all of it serves a polemic purpose against a whole sex. Her only original contribution, as far as I can see, is to tell me that I am either a rapist or the conscious and willing beneficiary of other men's rapes.

I do admire her cunning as a self-promoter. She has managed to put nearly all her male reviewers on the defensive. They stand accused; they may not simply judge the book like other books, but are under a subtle pressure to vindicate themselves. What she is engaged in, really, is not scholarship but henpecking—that conscious process of intimidation by which all women keep all men in terror. Indeed, only one man, to my knowledge, has dared to attack her book, and reader, you're looking at him.

“It's intelligent—a rarity and a thrill—and it's handsomely written,” marvels Fremont-Smith. This is almost the contrary of the truth. Consider: is rape a “process” of intimidation? No, it is a violent act, though it may be part of such a process, which I gather is what she means to say. She also speaks of men's historical “conscious process of intimidation, guilt, and fear.” What is a process of guilt and fear? She must mean a process of instilling guilt and fear. But in that case “fear” is redundant, since “intimidation” means “instilling fear.” The sloppiness is not only intellectual but stylistic: “Punishment for raping a virgin of property was thoughtfully reduced to castration and the loss of both eyes by William the Conqueror.” She means that William reduced the penalty, not that he inflicted it. Why not just “castration and blinding”? And why “thoughtfully”? Apparently this is just Miss Brownmiller's compulsive sarcasm (“knowledgeable humor,” her publisher calls it), which so often insists on manifesting her sentiments even when it obscures her sense. Thus the reader takes it that she thinks the story of Potiphar's wife is a male fabrication, not because she offers any evidence or reasons but because her tone conveys her pervasive suspicion that it would be just like a man to invent such a yarn. She is really a sound-effects specialist, and she has caught the tune of the time, and the Fremont-Smiths like the music so much they pay no attention to the words.

Charles W. Stewart (review date 26 May 1976)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1344

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.”

Ms. Brownmiller is angry, and her anger has been ignited by her research; spending over three years in libraries, she has dug out previously inaccessible materials and brought them into the light of day. She ranges over legal history and finds the basis of women's forced subservience in Jewish and English law. Women were treated as property through the Middle Ages, and the institutions of marriage and family which have emerged in Western society have continued that treatment. Laws against rape have been drawn to protect men's property, not to protect women's rights and their public safety—which are issues that did not arise until the present century.

The author's research indicates that wartime rape is a common act which, like pillage, is the expected reward for the victor in war. Rape is a means by which men demonstrate their contempt for women. Sexual humiliation is described as it occurred not only at My Lai but also in the American south of master against slave. Unarmed women, Brownmiller shows, are ever at the mercy of armed men who ravage as cruelly as they kill. Prison rape is a form of aggression of men against men and women against women. But homosexual rape is to be understood as taking its cue from heterosexual rape in the society outside the prison walls.

Not unexpectedly, Ms. Brownmiller criticizes psychoanalytic studies as falsely founded on the superiority of the male's sexual equipment over the female's. More specifically, she takes issue with the psychology of Helene Deutsch, who believes that all women are fundamentally masochistic and desirous of being conquered by a man. While recognizing the contribution of Karen Horney—who argues against penis envy and points out that cultural conditioning is crucial in the attainment of sexual identity—Brownmiller is convinced that Horney does not go far enough in throwing off the Freudian dictum that “biology is destiny.” (A footnote indicating that the author has undergone an Adlerian analysis helps readers understand her fundamental belief that men and women are locked in a power struggle.)

The sociological approach of Menachem Amir and of Marvin Wolfgang, who have studied rape as a subculture of violence, is accepted by the author. Rapists are not simply psychopaths who operate alone, but rather they are persons who are raised in a climate of poverty and violence and who rape as they mug and steal: as means of getting back at the society which keeps them down. Violence and physical aggression constitute a common way of life, the “sine qua non for getting status, reputation and identity for lower class youth.” Brownmiller turns up evidence showing that these young men often operate in pairs, are chiefly in the 15–19 age range, plan their rapes and commit 52 percent of them in the victim's home as a part of assault and robbery.

Brownmiller moves beyond sociology, however, in analyzing the connection of rape with the literature of pornography as a means of understanding the myths of rape purveyed by the mass media. In addition to a subculture of rape, she maintains, there is a culture of sexual exploitation which has fueled the selling of pornography in slick magazines and paperbacks and which has flourished through the existence of prostitution. In her view, machismo is the stuff little boys are reared on; the “rape fantasy” is sold to little girls. And only radical feminism can destroy this pattern.

This book is needed; it fills a large void, since the literature previously was represented only by John MacDonald, Paul Gebhard and a few others. Even Alfred Kinsey's research neglected rape, and his largely middle-class survey left it out except for a passing reference. Consciousness-raising, which launched the author into her study, is a primary purpose of her writing as well. Thus she writes polemically, and she makes exaggerated statements; e.g., criminals are to be regarded as the “shock troops” by which men keep women in fear. But the book does show the inequities of the law as it has evolved in Western societies and the need to revise the laws, both state and federal, in order to put rape alongside other violent crimes. It points out injustices in law enforcement and in bringing rapists to judgment—injustices which make rape the crime most frequently unreported, as well as the most frequently unpunished. More female officers, lawyers and judges are essential in order to create a different climate. Further, the book presents much unpublicized data dealing with rape as a phenomenon of the Vietnam war and with the falsely liberal attitude toward pornography and prostitution. I can say that my consciousness was sensitized—even raised—by the book and by subsequent reflection on my own sexist attitudes which continue to distort my feelings toward women.

On the negative side, as a male I believe Brownmiller goes too far in assigning a rape mentality to all men. Rape is indeed a part of a subculture of violence; but the author herself gets so caught up in the fear-anger syndrome that she is led to imply that all men want to use sex as a means of putting women down. This attitude rejects any mutuality in marriage, along with contractual means by which all societies, from Hebrew times to the present, have arranged for men and women to live, work and create societies together. Brownmiller's dismissal of psychoanalysis, I believe, blinds her to some of the basic causes of rape. The act of rape is a distortion of the sexual drive and a psychopathic deviancy; it is not at the root of men's power drives against women. The ways of a man with a woman and her with him involve mutual satisfaction of needs other than sexual, although the sex drive is what fuses many of these into a relationship.

Finally, Brownmiller is utopian in her desire to see a society rid of rape as of other violent crimes—a view which in my opinion fails to take account of the sinful nature of women and men both as individuals and in groups. One would hope that we as a nation are moving toward a time when we will have less crime. And, although putting women into positions of power may help create a more equitable system, to do so will not necessarily provide a climate that will prevent the aggression of one individual against the other. Accomplishing that goal requires less suspicion, more dialogue and more education for youth in how to live in equitable relationships in marriage and family and particularly in community life. Read Brownmiller for a raised consciousness, but get involved in a discussion group with both sexes in order to do something about the battle for superiority between men and women.

Megan Marshall (review date 13 February 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1637

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 place not susceptible to solution by the old militant feminism. But those who will look to Brownmiller for a new direction will find anything but that in Femininity. Women have changed, but Brownmiller has not changed along with them.

In its heyday in the 1970s, feminism promised to be a critical tool useful for analysis in all disciplines. Along with the women's movement, a new literary genre emerged as writers like Brownmiller, Millett, and Greer turned to history, sociology, and literary criticism with an energetic style that combined scholarship, memoir, and manifesto. Their words rang with the exhilaration of injustices uncovered deceptions exposed—and what they wrote about was what women talked about. In those days, women seemed to find a perverse pleasure in hearing the worst about themselves. It was as if the mere discovery of abuse could correct it (though, more likely, women simply had not yet gathered enough strength to transcend the masochistic nature that feminist writers were so busy proving Western culture had forced on them).

But like many critical disciplines, feminism has proved to be better at saying what went wrong than at offering a practical program for change once its converts were ready for one. In recent years its writers have run out of words. In Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, Gloria Steinem simply reprinted the old ones. Alice Walker and Betty Friedan have tried inventing new ones—“womanism,” “the second stage”—that don't catch on. And now Brownmiller publishes Femininity, a book that shows no awareness of the changed self-image of women readers (as a friend of mine put it, “I'm tired of reading about how I've been screwed over”), or of the new movement, spreading from feminist academic circles through the writing of psychologists Nancy Chodorow and Carol Gilligan, that celebrates the female spirit as distinct and powerful in its own right. Sadly, Brownmiller's only concern is with the old image of abused womanhood that fascinated both female writers and readers of the 1970s.

To Brownmiller, femininity is nothing so straightforward—or so challenging to the writer—as the definition in my Webster's: “the quality or nature of the female sex; womanliness.” “Femininity, in essence,” she writes in her prologue, “is a romantic sentiment, a nostalgic tradition of imposed limitations. Even as it hurries forward in the 1980s, putting on lipstick and high heels to appear well-dressed, it trips on the ruffled petticoats of an era gone by.” Femininity is what's on the outside; Brownmiller doesn't concern herself with the inside.

In each of eight chapters, Brownmiller catalogues the abuses women have historically subjected different parts of their bodies to in the name of femininity. Many of these are tales we've heard before. “Body” includes long passages on foot-binding and obsessive dieting; “Hair” replays the history of the flapper's bob; “Clothes” mourns the failure of the bloomer and the continuing tradition of the veil. But there are insights as well: discussing the advent of the brassiere, Brownmiller remarks on the insidious way in which the language of lingerie advertisements “struck at the heart of feminine insecurity—the fear of not being supported and protected, not only socially and economically but in a vulnerable aspect of bodily shape.” And in her chapter on “Movement,” she calls up the feeling of relief at simply being normal that most women experience regularly but rarely acknowledge: “What a stroke of good fortune that my basic equipment is right for the part. What anatomical dumb luck, what a happy accident of genetics, that my physical characteristics fall within the idealized norm. Suppose my shoulders were broader or my fingers were stubby?” It is in passages like these that Brownmiller's distress at the persistence of traditional femininity seems most convincing.

Yet Femininity is infected with a tone of nostalgia and defeat that never entered Brownmiller's previous writing, and that ultimately undermines her subject here. Each chapter is capped off with a personal, often bitter, and always wistful reprimand to those “backsliders” who have betrayed the advances against femininity that the women's movement made during the 1970s. Brownmiller's friends who dare to trade in pants for skirts, to pull their makeup kits out of their dresser drawers, bear the burden of history here, their errors of style as serious as a change of heart on abortion or the E.R.A. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's short-skirted robes, specially altered to show she is wearing a dress, seem as dire an offense against feminism as her voting record.

But Brownmiller is too much the feminist to blame women, the victims of femininity. The enemy here, as it was in so much feminist writing of the 1970s, is man and the culture he made. She traces the beginning of femininity back to the feminist's version of original sin: the time in prehistory when roving bands of male hunters overthrew the fertility goddesses of matriarchal Mesopotamia and replaced them with their own bellicose male gods. From then on femininity lost any connotation of strength and became nothing more than the pathetic attempts of women to win over men with shows of weakness, painting their faces, shaving their legs, binding their feet, “vying for attention,” writes Brownmiller, “as a means of survival.”

Yet this attractively simple view of history and culture scarcely holds up. It is easy enough to substitute similar restrictions on men and begin feeling just as sorry for women's supposed oppressors. Gray flannel suits, ties knotted at the throat, and clean-shaven chins are scarcely the emblems of liberated manhood—rather the reverse, the symbols of another kind of repression entirely.

But then, liberation of the sexes is not what Brownmiller is after here. Sadly for this book on female nature, Brownmiller has retained the hard-line feminist's suspicion of what she calls “sexual dimorphism.” Perhaps femininity's greatest evil, according to Brownmiller, is its insistence on a feminine difference. Just when the most pressing questions of the post-feminist era seem to be arising from the search for authentic gender distinctions (how else can the best-selling Real Men and Real Women books be explained?), Brownmiller clings to the old equation of sexual equality and androgyny. “To satisfy a societal need for sexual clarification,” she writes,

and to justify second-class status, an emblematic constellation of inner traits, as well as their outward manifestations, have been put forward historically … as proof of the “different” feminine nature.

It follows then, in Brownmiller's scheme, that all trappings of femininity are false, and that the trappings themselves are symbols of a fundamentally violent relation between the sexes in Western culture. The adoring husband who dresses his wife in mink and pearls is only the socially sanctioned version of the rapist. Difference can only mean vulnerability in women and abusive power in men.

But what is woman in Brownmiller's scheme? One can only extrapolate: she is whatever hides beneath the makeup and those bothersome flowing locks. What should women strive for? In Femininity, as in the old feminism, anything marked as male is presumed to be inherently freer, therefore desirable. “Functional clothing is a masculine privilege,” Brownmiller writes with envy, “and practicality is a masculine virtue.” Pants still represent mobility; cropped hair, liberation. Like so many feminists of the 1970s, Brownmiller is singing the most sexist of all tunes: why can't a woman be more like a man?

Women have, despite recent political setbacks, despite continued inequities in opportunity and pay, achieved enough dignity in recent decades that a simple recital of the indignities of the past—a history we've heard many times before Femininity—can only sadden readers with its reminder of women's former weakness. Brownmiller is right to mourn the passing of the years of feminist orthodoxy, when a woman could feel a sense of victory simply by showing up at a cocktail party in slacks. The correct feminist stance is no longer clear. As women have entered the male world of work and privilege, our compromises have been great, our transformation from vulnerable playmate to vigorous team player far from complete. Yet it is precisely because we need to learn how to live with the ambiguity of transition—with our gains and our losses, and with our growing awareness that femininity merits redefinition rather than rejection—that women will no longer be stirred by a simpleminded feminism that draws its battle lines at the hem. Just when we most need new ideas, new goals, new words, Brownmiller has given us a feminism as out-moded as the femininity she writes about.

Elizabeth Wheeler (review date 26 February 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 675

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 femininity.

But, as Brownmiller points out, the fact that I can think about femininity as something that can be lost or retained suggests that it is an external trait. My femininity does not come from the two X chromosomes I possess, but from the curls I put into my hair, the slender frame I cultivate and try to exhibit to maximum advantage—manifestations of womanly attractiveness that differ in degree, but not in kind, from the foot-binding of Chinese women or the tight-lacing of 19th-Century belles. For me, as it was for them, being feminine is an indication of my success at being what I biologically am: a woman. Whatever my other successes, that one, too, is important.

As Brownmiller points out, the smallest concessions can be enough. While I'm earning my paycheck, the tailored skirt under my jacket or the lace on my cuff shows that I understand and respect the traditional relation between the sexes, that I still want to be, and am, acceptably female.

Indeed, if femininity is made up of such small gestures and concessions, it's almost tempting to wonder why it matters. What difference does that trace of lipstick or suggestion of perfume make—especially if it makes me, and some man, feel better or more sexually attractive? Why should it matter if I want to feel feminine so I can make a man feel masculine, so I can soften my image as an ambitious and intelligent woman?

But, as Brownmiller points out, there's more at stake than that. By committing myself to femininity—in addition to, or perhaps in lieu of, success or intelligence—I have embraced a standard that will inevitably defeat me. The component parts of femininity, after all, are linked to being attractive, and attractiveness is still a function of youth. Somebody will be younger, more feminine, than I.

Despite the rise of feminism and the changes in both the condition of women and the ways women relate to each other, Brownmiller argues that there has been a recent return to femininity. The reason, she suggests, is that women are competing for what seems an increasingly limited number of men.

This premise, a variant of the Great Man Shortage, seems the least convincing element of her thoughtful and thought-provoking book. Femininity like the poor person, seems always to have been among us; only its manifestations change with fashion and circumstance. There have never been, it would seem, so many men that a woman didn't want to look her most feminine. By calling our attention to what that truism means and doesn't mean, Brownmiller has written an important book.

Hilary DeVries (review date 5 June 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1456

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 moral polarization. In a society grown increasingly competitive—economically, socially, and professionally—she sees many women returning to traditional feminine values.

Despite newly progressive attitudes toward rape victims and two-paycheck households, she maintains that many women face a buttressed standard of femininity—an ultimately self-defeating aesthetic she says is based upon a “recognition of [female] powerlessness.”

“It could not escape my notice,” she writes in Femininity, “that more women supported the Equal Rights Amendment … than could walk out of the house without their eye shadow.” Women today, she adds, are more fearful of “being judged impolite” than of being physically violated. It is the kind of thesis that predictably draws fire; even so, the author confesses she has been surprised by the lack of generosity in her detractors.

During a recent spring afternoon in her light-filled Greenwich Village penthouse, the author talked about her book, critical reaction to it, and the current challenges that women face. In the wide-ranging conversation, this slight woman, dressed simply in trousers, soft shirt, and flat-heeled shoes, touched on a number of topics, including the recent New Bedford rape case, the possibility of a woman vice-president, and the state of feminism today.

“Books that make an impact usually have a movement behind them,” she says. “Against Our Will hit at the right time. It reflected an entire new wave of thinking, when there were rape crisis centers in every major city. But all these new [feminist] books are just a publishing accident. There is no new wave of thinking coming up the pike.”

Germaine Greer's controversial new book, Sex and Destiny—a book Ms. Brownmiller declined to review and has yet to read—she dismisses with, “I don't understand what she is saying about third-world women being so happy. I don't believe they are.”

As to the possibility of a woman vice-presidential candidate, she is unsure whether this is political window dressing or real commitment. “I suppose the country has to think about it as a general idea before someone can come along and really make a bid for it successfully,” she says with a shrug.

Despite this current lack of ideological urgency, Ms. Brownmiller takes comfort in the women's movement for “lasting as long and creating as many changes as it did.” Particularly in America, she says. “It's such a nonideological country and such a pleasant place for most people that militancy seems very foreign to us.” She points to the recent guilty verdicts in the New Bedford rape trial as symptomatic of some of the changes fostered by the women's movement. Although she adds, “When ethnic pride is at stake, it's framed in terms of the male image. All the [Portuguese] community's sympathies went with their young men instead of the woman.”

But what seems of greater concern to this writer-cum-feminist are the generations of women who subsequently availed themselves of the fruits of feminism while denigrating much of the early, strident efforts. It's an attitude, she says, that causes many early feminists to feel “betrayed.”

“That's what troubles me about young women who've had doors opened for them by those of us who are older,” she says thoughtfully. “Of course, they haven't had to struggle as hard. But they don't understand that these are very recent gains and they can be taken away. I just remember the '50s and how unfashionable it was [for women] to want a career. I could see it happening again here. One of the reasons it's not is that the economy is such that people seem to need a two-paycheck family.”

Calling herself “a biological determinist,” Brownmiller insists that this is one area where women are still struggling. She uses the term “dual-purpose ambition” to describe the current sociological plight: women's desire to bear and raise children and the growing drive for professional success.

“Many of us are refusing to define ourselves by our reproductive biology,” she says. “I certainly do—I'm a woman who has chosen not to have children. But it is very difficult to reconcile these two [desires], particularly in a very competitive society.” It is not enough, she believes, for women to decide to have it all. “I don't think they can have it all,” she insists. Why? Because men, she says, still set the standards of achievement.

“I don't see why men should have to step aside and wait for women to catch up after they've taken time off to have children,” she says. “That's a very difficult truth for a lot of feminists who don't want to believe there are these differences or that they could be a handicap. It's a real hard truth.”

Not surprisingly, some critics have charged that the Brownmiller position is itself sexist. Megan Marshall, author of the new book The Cost of Loving: Women and the New Fear of Intimacy, wrote in The Nation that Susan Brownmiller espouses an old adage, that “everything male is inherently freer and therefore more desirable.” But Ms. Brownmiller is willing to ask, “Isn't there something positive in femaleness that we want to keep, to propose as a general model for everyone? That's a genuine question. ‘Why can't men be more nurturing?’ Well they should be. … But I feel if you're going to be a writer [for instance], you've got to be disciplined about it, and the distractions considered typically feminine don't help you achieve.”

Indeed, she finds the current revival of femininity—“a grand collection of compromises,” as she calls it—discouraging. And she is quick to discredit those who question traditionally male standards of achievement. “I resent it when some women try to put forward some superior philosophy of womanhood as an excuse for why they're not going to stay in there and do whatever it is they once thought they would do. It's very hard, and it doesn't get easier.”

Women, she says, have often indulged themselves in distracted and “nonlinear” thinking patterns. “This isn't simply a stereotypical or negative portrayal. There is a very good reason for it. When you're listening with one ear for baby's crying in the other room, you can become a distracted person. But beyond that women have often encouraged it in themselves, and men have encouraged it, and I don't like it. Women can think like men, but it means pursuing goals and not getting distracted by irrelevancies.”

She concedes that her own professional success has not come particularly easily. After spending years as a journalist at the Village Voice and ABC-TV, she took five years to research and write Against Our Will and four years to do Femininity. Between the books, a time when she says most men would have married and started a family, she felt unable to do so. “People who make a big push in their 20s and 30s like I did think, ‘Whew.’ Well it doesn't stop there.” Ms. Brownmiller points to her own mother as a sort of reverse role model. “She never got to do any of the things she wanted to do, and I didn't want to make that same mistake.”

While she possesses high hopes for her latest book's impact—“It would be enough if women would understand that it wasn't an accident that the feminine aesthetic arose and flourished”—Susan Brownmiller says too that if the women's movement ends completely, she will cease to write about it. “I believe one should write for an audience and not just to express oneself. I don't care to be a lonely philosopher writing for posterity.”

Laurel Richardson (review date January 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 399

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 breasts, among other subjects. Brownmiller concludes the chapter by asserting that “feminine armor is [always] an exaggeration of physical vulnerability that is reassuring (unthreatening) to men” (51). Moreover, she states, because women are absorbed in perfecting their appearance, and are never satisfied and secure, they endure “the ultimate restriction of freedom of mind,” the concentration on “minutiae of … bodily parts” (51).

This chapter sets both the tone and the style for the remaining ones: Historical charms interspersed with personal experience, popular evolutionary theory, and grand generalizations. Therein lies the value of the book for sociologists: if one wants to spice up a lecture, Brownmiller's compendium of information may be a useful source. For example, one could use the Veronica Lake story of how the 150,000 blonde,.0024-inch hairs on her head, worn in a peekaboo dip over one eye, became a war menace; and how she was prevailed upon to braid back her tresses and speak for safety at the war plant; and how her movie career, subsequently, dipped into oblivion. But if one wants a sociological analysis that unifies the dispersed topics and that explains how the aesthetic of femininity dovetails with other social institutions and with the imbalances of social power between the genders, this book will disappoint.

Stephen P. Pistono (essay date February 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4603

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 could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times, along with the use of fire and the first crude axe.5

It was because of rape or more precisely because of the fear of rape that society was organized according to the principle of male domination and still is. Considered historically, Brownmiller maintained, rape was not and never has been a sexual crime, but rather a crime of violence which is political in nature pitting man against woman. Men have used it as a weapon of oppression.

One male historian angrily responded to these charges by asserting that “the author's arguments cannot be taken seriously either as history or journalism. They are myths in the service of propaganda.”6 He characterized Against Our Will as “nothing more or less than a propagandistic attack on heterosexuality and marriage (and by extension the family) in the guise of an attack on rape. … Its implicit logic makes it a tract in celebration of lesbianism and/or masturbation.”7 A second historian somewhat more charitably concluded that Brownmiller's interpretation “is one extreme, and not the full view, though her scholarship is good and she doesn't distort what she is citing.”8 Still a third historian firmly underscored his belief that “Against Our Will is an important substantive contribution”9 and then went on to observe that it was absolutely wrong in interpreting rape as a political crime. For the three or four centuries before the French Revolution, according to his research, sexual frustration was the primary explanation of rape rather than politics. He believed that without many opportunities for sexual intercourse, a mass of sexual frustration built up among the European male population and could only be relieved through the rape of their women.10

Recent scholarship,11 however, does not support this view. An analysis of towns in southeastern France in the fifteenth century reveals that most of them operated public brothels theoretically reserved for bachelors. The price of sexual intercourse in these places was very reasonable so that bachelors, who were forbidden to seek out proper women for their pleasure, were provided with plenty of outlets for their sexual frustration. Not only were municipal brothels available for those who needed sexual release, but prostitution was practiced at the bathhouses in the towns. The inventory of a bathhouse at Avignon revealed a great many beds, but not a single bathing facility! If the young bachelor needed further opportunities for sexual intercourse, there were also small private establishments providing the services of two or three prostitutes and even streetwalkers who went door to door making themselves available as well.12

Despite all of this, rapes were frequent in cities. Of those we know about, eighty percent can be described as gang rapes committed by groups of young bachelors who usually possessed no previous criminal record. Without concealing their identity, they would go to the home of a woman they wanted during the night and create a public disturbance by calling their intended victim a prostitute and demanding that she come out. Normally neighbors did not interfere and if necessary, the young men broke down the door, seized the woman, brought her outside, beat her, raped her and after tried to force her to accept money.13 In one case, the rapists beat their victim so brutally as they were dragging her outside her home that she was unable to return to work and lost her position as a domestic servant. In another incident, the youthful bachelors beat a young mother (a single parent, perhaps a widow) so unmercifully with sticks that her skin turned black.14 Archival records even speak of pregnant women being dragged through the snow.15

As these cases reveal, Brownmiller's view of rape as a crime of violence rather than as one of strictly passion must be given careful consideration. Evidence from Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance history, areas of special concern to me, will shed further light on her contributions to the history of rape. Guido Ruggerio, for example, in his study of Venetian society during the Renaissance certainly lends credence to Brownmiller's view of rape as a crime of violence when he declares that “in some cases it appears to be so violent and personal that its sexual dimensions are almost lost.”16 He tells of an incident in 1340 wherein a young noble with two friends attempted to rape the wife and daughter of a physician. When he refused to hand them over voluntarily, they “grabbed the daughter and her mother, beat them, cut off their hair, and carried them off by force.”17 In another sexual assault, the wife of a boatman was attacked by an assailant who not only raped her, but slashed her left arm with a knife causing blood to gush forth and when her mother interfered she was beaten and cut above the left eye as well. Ruggerio would add that, because rape was regarded as such a petty offense in fourteenth-century Venice, violent elements such as beatings, threatening with a weapon or drawing blood were stressed to increase the importance of the crime so a more severe penalty could be imposed.18 Nevertheless, violence played a large role in these cases and supports Brownmiller's stress on that element in her analysis of historical rape.

Of course, I do not always agree with her interpretation of the subject as can be seen in her comments about rape in Greek mythology. There is an endless catalogue of rape in Greek mythology which includes some merely attempted and other fully consummated attacks of gods not only on mortal women but also on goddesses as well. Zeus, the chief Olympian god, has been called the master rapist by Eva Keuls19 whose new work on ancient Athenian sexuality contains a revealing anecdote which underscores his numerous conquests: a visitor to Athens asked why people in the city so often used the exclamation “by Zeus,” the answer: “Because so many of us are.” In Greek mythology, Zeus often overcome his female victims through the use of trickery: he appeared to one princess as a white bull with golden horns and to the queen of Sparta as a beautiful swan. He raped the latter in this form and she subsequently bore an egg from which her two children were born—one of whom was the incomparably beautiful Helen of Troy.

What do these rapes mean? Absolutely nothing says Susan Brownmiller: “it is more sensible …,” she contends, “to consider the Greek myths charming fables whose origins have been hopelessly lost and proceed to more tangible substance.”20 Yet to Sarah Pomeroy, recognized for her important contribution to the discussion of women's roles in Ancient Greece,21 the many rapes of Zeus and the other male gods as well reveal the vulnerability of women, the wretched helplessness of women22 and we might add, the real-life position of women in ancient Greek society. At Athens in the fifth century B.C., a freeborn woman of the upper classes, for example, was free in little more than name. She spent her entire life physically confined to a separate part of the house reserved for her.23 Except for the funeral of close relatives and a handful of religious festivals, she was not allowed to leave the premises. She could not vote, make contracts or conduct any business. Her good reputation depended upon proper behavior, an unassertive demeanor and hard work (spinning, weaving, dyeing clothes, cooking, bearing and raising children).

Ironically, if an Athenian wife were raped, the penalty for the offender was far less severe than if he had been accused of seducing her.24 Seduction was considered a much more serious offense because it was a premeditated act and involved a relationship lasting over a period of time during which the seducer captured the loyalty and affection of the woman and thereby gained access to the husband's household since females had few opportunities of leaving home. Moreover, the husband would question the legitimacy of his own children which had serious political implications. If a child were born to his wife, it could be unrelated to the husband and even possibly the offspring of a non-Athenian who would be introduced onto the rolls of Athenian citizens, thus making this private matter of great public concern.25 Consequently, whereas the penalty for rape was a monetary fine, in the case of seduction the aggrieved husband had the right, but not the obligation to kill the seducer. If he chose not to exercise this right, he could exact a form of revenge all owed by law—brutalizing and humiliating his wife's lover by such methods as the insertion of tough thistles up his rectum. In any case, rape and seduction were crimes of which only the wife's lover was considered the legally guilty or active party. Although the wife was legally blameless, the husband of a raped or seduced woman was compelled to divorce her under Athenian law. The accused women had no opportunity to declare her innocence and thereupon became a social outcast.

Although Brownmiller does not consider the question of rape in classical Athens, she discusses how it was treated in other ancient societies, specifically among the Babylonians and the Hebrews.26 The tribal patriarchs among these peoples exercised complete power over their women who, along with children and slaves, were regarded as men's property. Rape developed in their law codes not as a crime against the woman but rather as a crime committed against her male protector. Rape was not damage done to her body, but damage done to his goods, to his property. Only one kind of woman could be raped under these laws—a virgin. There was no such thing as the rape of a married woman. The code of Hammurabi in Babylonia, for example, prescribed in the case of rape of a married woman that, no matter what the circumstances, she was guilty of adultery. Both victim and rapist were punished by drowning (the husband, if he wished, could pull his wife from the water). Similarly, the early Hebrews found that in the rape of a married woman she shared blame equally with the rapist and both parties were stoned to death, with no reprieve for the woman. On the other hand, if an unbetrothed virgin were raped in the fields outside the city walls, Mosaic law provided that the assailant pay her father fifty silver coins, the price she would have brought in the bride market, and the couple were ordered to be married. The sexual violation of the woman was a crime of property. The property rights of the father had been abused.

An analysis of other ancient societies, which Brownmiller did not consider, confirms her view of rape as a property crime. In ancient Roman law the word for rape was raptus which literally meant carrying off by force. Raptus involved the abduction of a woman against the will of the person under whose authority she lived—the father, the husband or other male relative. They were the injured parties and not the woman involved. Her sexual ravishment was not relevant in the consideration of the crime.27 Similar circumstances concerning rape existed among the ancient Germans who practiced the custom of bride purchase. A marriageable girl went to the highest bidder. Far from being seen as a crime against the woman, rape was treated in the German law codes as a form of theft, a seizure of property from her father or other male guardian. Every person in Germanic society had a particular monetary value to the tribe called the wergeld. The culprit guilty of rape had to make reparation to the victim's family by paying them the wergeld or bride price of the stolen or violated woman. where Christianity had made some impact on Germanic values, a third of the bride price went to the woman as a sort of dowry.28 How the church interpreted rape in early medieval society (400 A.D.–1000 A.D.), on the other hand, is not entirely clear. We do know that the primary connotation of rape in the penitential or conciliar texts29 continued to be, as in Roman times, an emphasis on abduction—the carrying off of virgins or widows against their own will or against the will of their parents. What role sexual ravishment of the victim played in church law during the period is uncertain.30

Brownmiller sees a breakthrough in this dismal history of rape laws first occurring in medieval England.31 In the thirteenth century, the king extended the protection of the law to cover married women who had been raped. Previously, in the ancient societies she had studied, Brownmiller found that wives, who were raped, were considered to be technically guilty of adultery and executed with their lovers. In 1285, by contrast, the Statute of Westminster proclaimed that any man raping a married woman or virgin would be considered guilty of a felony and punished by death. Up to this point, moreover, a virgin, who had been ravished, was required to initiate the process which would ultimately bring the rapist to trial. The victim had to go through a long and embarrassing set of legal procedures before lawful action could be taken against the accused. John M. Carter32 in his analysis of rape in medieval English society sets down six steps a woman was compelled to follow if she wanted to bring her assailant to justice: she must create a public outcry over the crime as soon as possible, exhibit her torn garments and bleeding to men of good standing in the neighboring towns, explain the crime to local law officers, make a formal accusation at the first county court to be held, repeat her accusation before the coroners so that it could be taken down verbatim for the public records and finally prosecute the offender in the royal circuit court at the earliest opportunity. Many women could not face this long gruelling process; others failed to bring charges against their attackers because there was a strong probability that they would be arrested and imprisoned for false accusation.33 Consequently, the Statute of Westminster provided that the king would prosecute the offender if no accusation was made within forty days of the supposed offense. “It meant that rape was no longer just a family misfortune and a threat to land and property,” Brownmiller concludes, “but an issue of public safety and state concern.”34

J. B. Post, an English legal historian, takes strong exception to this view.35 He argues that the Statute of Westminster was designed primarily to protect family property rather than being concerned with the welfare of the victim. Public accusation of rape was employed on several occasions in the thirteenth century by eloping couples as a means of coercing families into accepting unwanted marriages. In medieval England, family land and wealth were increased by carefully planned marriage alliances. A liaison which went against family interests and wishes was not to be tolerated. In order to put an end to such relationships, male members of the young woman's family wanted to be able to charge the suitor with rape. Before the Statute of Westminster, they had no way of doing this because only the victim could bring charges against the alleged offender. Now, by the Statute of Westminster, if a woman did not initiate suit against her attacker, the king would do so. Post insists that this clause in the statute provided a method whereby the king could act on behalf of wealthy families to prevent unwanted marriages. A statute of rapes in 1382 completed the process began almost a hundred years before of turning the law of rape into a law protecting the property and wealth of upper-class families in England. It gave the right of accusation of rape to fathers, husbands or next of kin and regarded eloping couples as dead in order to maintain the integrity of family estates.36

If Post has interpreted the Statute of Westminster correctly, the question which naturally arises in this: was there any great advance in the laws of rape during the Middle Ages? James Brundage, a scholar deeply interested in canon law, answers in the affirmative.37 Church lawyers of the twelfth century, he tells us, understood that Raptus in Roman law meant the forcible seizure of a person or a thing and they insisted that the word be reserved for a crime against persons and that another word Rapina be used to denote crime against property. Thus, rape “began to be distinguished from property crimes and to be categorized with crimes of violence against the person.”38 Rape of a virgin or married woman was considered a major crime along with assassination and treason. There were two major exceptions to the rule. A husband could not be found guilty of raping his wife because by the very act of marriage she had given her prior consent to intercourse. No man could be found guilty of raping a prostitute unless he was closely related to her by blood. On the question of the possible marriage of a rapist to his victim, church law took into account the wishes of the family, as the English Statute of Westminster had, by declaring that such marriages were permitted if both the victim and her family agreed to the arrangement. In dealing with seduction, Brundage found that, in contrast to ancient Athens, seduction was considered to be a less serious crime than rape by the canonists and in actual practice, only small fines were levied against offenders.

Although Brownmiller does not consider seduction at any great length, she raises a larger issue of which it is an important part—the sexual exploitation of lower-class women in the Middle Ages by men from the upper ranks of society. Nobles sexually exploited peasant women, she argues, by insisting upon the custom of droit de seigneur or right of the first night which, in her view, is a form of rape.39 It was the right of the local lord of a manor to bed his female serf on her wedding night before the husband did. Although most medievalists would dismiss the droit de seigneur as merely a myth,40 the reality of the situation was that lower-class women were often at the mercy of manorial lords who could rape or seduce them with impunity. Brownmiller rightly shows how Andrew the Chaplain, a twelfth-century Frenchman, who was acknowledged to be the outstanding authority on courtly love in Europe at the time, encouraged his noble readers in their unseemly activities41 against females from the lower-classes. He callously advised them to forget about the rules of chivalry when dealing with peasant women and to take them by force if they should feel so inclined, because it would be a waste of time and words to treat them gently. Georges Duby, an outstanding French scholar on the social history of the Middle Ages, adds that through sexual encounters with peasant women, who served in their households as servants, nobles created “a kind of pleasure reserve.”42 That is, the female offspring from these illicit relationships grew up under the lord's control ultimately working for him as servants and providing objects of seduction for young knights of his family.

Brownmiller may not have analyzed the sexual exploitation of lower-class women in medieval society systematically; she may have made comments about it which scholars would eagerly dispute. Nevertheless, she has made valuable suggestions for further research on the subject. Indeed, the historical chapters of Against Our Will may be characterized in this way.43 They represent a truly groundbreaking, pioneering effort in social history which cannot be overlooked. If historians will put aside the angry, polemical arguments in her work, they will find many intriguing ideas which require much more investigation and thought.


  1. Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (New York, 1975).

  2. Edward Shorter, “On Writing the History of Rape,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, III (no. 2, 1977), 471.

  3. Brownmiller, Against Our Will, p. 15. She apparently has now conceded that this sentence “was carelessly written” according to John Leo reviewing her new book Femininity in Time (Jan. 30, 1984), 82. What she meant to say, Brownmiller insists in her interview with him, “is that all men benefit from the action of rapists, because rape makes all women fearful and less likely to challenge men.”

  4. Brownmiller, Against Our Will, p. 49.

  5. Ibid., pp. 14–15.

  6. Michael Novak, Commentary (Feb., 1976), 90.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Vern Bullough in “Feminists and History—A New View of Rape,” ed. Dorothy Simon, Mankind, V (Aug., 1976), 22.

  9. Shorter, Signs III (no. 2, 1977), 471.

  10. Ibid., 473. For comments refuting Shorter's view of historical rape, see Heidi I. Hartmann and Ellen Ross, Signs, III (no. 4, 1978), 931–935 in which they insist that “rape is quintessentially a crime of aggression and hostility, not a form of sexual release.”

  11. See Barbara S. Lindemann, “‘To Ravish and Carnally Know’: Rape in Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts,” Signs, X (no. 1, 1984), 63 who observes that “almost no historical studies of rape exist.” This paper will demonstrate that much more has been done on the subject than Lindemann suggests. In fairness, some of the work we mention was published after her article appeared in 1984.

  12. Jacques Rossiaud, “Prostitution, Youth, and Society in the Towns of Southeastern France in the Fifteenth Century,” in Deviants and the Abandoned in French Society, ed. Robert Forster and Orest Ranum (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), pp. 1–46.

  13. Ibid.

  14. J. L. Flandrin, “Repression and Change in the Sexual Life of Young People in Medieval and Early Modern Times,” in Family and Sexuality in French History, ed. Robert Wheaton and Tamara K. Hareven (Philadelphia, 1980), pp. 43–45.

  15. Rossiaud, Deviants and the Abandoned in French Society, n. 20, p. 35.

  16. Guido Ruggerio, The Boundaries of Eros: Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice (New York and Oxford, 1985), p. 89.

  17. Ibid., p. 91.

  18. Guido Ruggerio, Violence in Early Renaissance Venice (Rutgers University Press, 1980), pp. 160–161, 163. See also the same author's “Sexual Criminality in the Early Renaissance: Venice 1338–1358,” Journal of Social History, VIII (1974–1975), 18–37.

  19. Eva C. Keuls, The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens (New York, 1985), p. 51.

  20. Brownmiller, Against Our Will, p. 284.

  21. John Gould, “Law, Custom and Myth: Aspects of the Social Position of Women in Classical Athens,” Journal of Hellenic Studies, C (1980), 39.

  22. Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York, 1975), pp. 11–12.

  23. For a discussion of female seclusion and other related matters in ancient Athens see Gould, Journal of Hellenic Studies, C (1980), 38–57 and K. J. Dover, “Classical Greek Attitudes to Sexual Behavior,” in Women in the Ancient World: The Arethusa Papers, ed. J. Peradotto and J. P. Sullivan (State University of New York Press, 1984), pp. 143–157.

  24. This paragraph is based largely on Dover, Women in the Ancient World, pp. 145–146; Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves, pp. 86–88. Lysias (no. 244: Loeb Classical Library, 1967), pp. 5–27.

  25. It was also a matter of great religious concern as only a legitimate male could conduct the worship of ancestors deemed crucial to the well-being of the Athenian family. See Terry E. Wick, “The Importance of the Family as a Determiner of Sexual Mores in Classical Athens,” Societas, V (Spring, 1975), 133–137.

  26. Brownmiller, Against Our Will, pp. 18–20.

  27. James Brundage, “Rape and Seduction in the Medieval Canon Law” in Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church, ed. Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage (Buffalo, 1982), pp. 141–142. The law of rape of many ancient societies, including Rome, is usefully collected by J. Disney, A View of Ancient Laws against Immorality and Profaneness (Cambridge, 1729), pp. 158–180.

  28. Not in God's Image: Women in History from the Greeks to the Victorians, ed. Julia O'Faolain and Lauro Martines (New York, 1973), pp. 100–104; Joann McNamara and Suzanne F. Wemple, “Sanctity and Power: Medieval Women” in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz (Boston, 1977), p. 97.

  29. Penitentials were manuals used by priests which recommended specific penances for specific sins. Conciliar texts refers to statements issued by church councils.

  30. Pierre J. Payer, Sex and the Penitentials: The Development of a Sexual Code, 550–1150 (University of Toronto Press, 1984), pp. 38, 60–61, 168–169; L. Duguit, “Étude historique sur le rapt de seduction. Nouvelle revue historique de droit française et étranger, X (1886), 587–625.

  31. Brownmiller, Against Our Will, pp. 29–30.

  32. John M. Carter, “Rape in Medieval English Society, 1208–1321,” diss. Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1983), p. 146. He mentions a second method of trying rape. Indictment of the suspect could be theoretically initiated by the local community. In his study of 145 cases of rape reported to authorities (1208–1321), he found that none resulted from this procedure (pp. 6–7). See also Carter's “The Status of Rape in Thirteenth Century England: 1218–1275,” International Journal of Women's Studies, VII (no. 3, 1984), 248–259 and “Rape in Medieval England: the Evidence of Yorkshire, Wiltshire, and London, 1218–1276,” Comitatus, XIII (1982), 33–63. All of these studies maintain that a marked discrepancy existed in thirteenth-century England between theoretical views of rape and actual court practice. Whereas rape was recognized as a felony by legal scholars of the period and therefore punishable by death, courts rarely pronounced the death sentence or ordered mutilation for the convicted offender.

  33. Carter, “Rape in Medieval English Society, 1208–1321,” pp. 158–167 maintains that, in 49٪ of rape cases he investigated, the plaintiff was arrested for making false accusation.

  34. Brownmiller, Against Our Will, p. 29.

  35. J. B. Post, “Ravishment of Women and the Statutes of Westminster,” in Legal Records and the Historian, ed. J. H. Baker (Royal Hist. Soc., Studies in History, 1978), pp. 150–164.

  36. J. B. Post, “Sir Thomas West and the Statute of Rapes, 1382,” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, LIII (May, 1980), 24–30. For a detailed discussion of the statute of 1487 which was the last of the medieval English statutes on rape, see E. W. Ives, “Agaynst Taking Away of Women: the Inception and Operation of the Abduction Act of 1487,” in Wealth and Power in Tudor England: Essays Presented to S. T. Bindoff, ed. E. W. Ives, R. J. Knecht and J. J. Scarisbreck (London, 1978), pp. 21–44.

  37. Brundage, Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church, pp. 147–148.

  38. Ibid., p. 143.

  39. Brownmiller, Against Our Will, p. 28.

  40. Although most medieval historians consider the droit de seigneur a myth, one Scottish historian, Hector MacKechnie, “Jus primae noctis,” Judicial Review, XLIII (1930), 303–311 concludes that it really existed in some parts of Scotland in the ninth century. Achille Luchaire, Social France at the Time of Philip Augustus (New York, 1912), p. 403 also cites a thirteenth-century text which refers to the practice as a custom of former times.

  41. Brownmiller, Against Our Will, p. 290.

  42. Georges Duby, Medieval Marriage: Two Models from Twelfth-Century France (Baltimore, 1978), p. 94.

  43. For Brownmiller's English counterpart who also has written an historical chapter on past laws of rape, see Barbara Toner, The Facts of Rape (London, 1977), pp. 85–98.

Andrew Vachss (review date 23 January 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 714

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 Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will and Femininity has written a fictionalized interpretation of the Lisa Steinberg homicide and its precipitating events. The main characters—Barry Kantor, Judith Winograd and Melanie—are thinly disguised versions of Joel Steinberg, Hedda Nussbaum and their adopted daughter Lisa. The sequences are essentially factual: the 911 calls about domestic violence, the reports to the Child Abuse Hotline (and the subsequent investigations that determined the allegations of abuse/neglect to be “unfounded”), the bogus “adoptions” of the child and her younger brother, the visible bruises on the child well before her death, the role of the child's own school in the tragedy. Brownmiller's novel, her first, attempts to answer America's questions: How could this happen? How could this happen with such people involved?

The answer, in short form, is that Brownmiller sees wife battering and child abuse as inextricably intertwined. Kantor is the Devil. Except for some vague hints that he himself was battered as a child (and such hints come from the mouth of a man to whom lying is the staff of life), Kantor is depicted as a controlling, sadistic, evil creature. He is a possession-crazed yuppie, a corner-cutter unencumbered by morals or ethics, a cocaine dealer who works as an (incompetent) criminal lawyer and steals from his clients. The child is “adopted” by accident. Kantor is involved in a baby-selling operation, and gets “stuck” with the child when a prospective deal falls through. When he finally melts down and destroys the child in a series of escalating physical attacks, it is the combination of cocaine psychosis and the stock market crash that drives him to critical mass. Two self-inflicted wounds. Kantor is a snake-charmer fatally bitten by his pets.

Judith is the classic battered woman, manipulated by a sociopathic monster, so diminished of self-concept that she sees it all as “my fault.” No opportunity to make this point is overlooked, from references to “Stockholm Syndrome” and Svengali to the child pathetically wishing her mother would be “good” so Daddy wouldn't have to beat her. Judith is beaten horribly, escapes, and voluntarily returns to promises of love and devotion. Over and over again. Her will is eroded until it vanishes: No cult could have accomplished a more effective brainwashing. The end is inevitable. Brownmiller calls the tragedy of the child's death folie à deux, but Judith's contribution to the result is buried under thick layers of sympathy and empathy for her position as Battered Wife.

Such a position should not be trivialized, and Brownmiller writes with justifiable passion. Her heat sheds light on a cancer within our society, but questions remain. If the case workers, the school authorities, the neighbors—if all of us—must share the responsibility for Melanie's death, can Judith herself really be so blameless? If this book points toward the desperate need for a child protective emphasis within the battered women's movement, it will have been one of the most significant opening salvos in a war that has yet to be declared.

Penny Kaganoff (essay date 27 January 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2008

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 was competitive with Lisa.” Brownmiller notes that Nussbaum's lawyer has already approached Random House with a book deal.

The Ms. piece will not be Brownmiller's “major statement” about battery and child abuse. That distinction goes to Waverly Place, a first novel that reimagines the Steinberg/Nussbaum debacle, to be published by Grove on February 13, a couple of days before Brownmiller's 54th birthday.

The Brooklyn native's early stints at Coronet and Esquire, confession and romance magazines, a newsletter covering the New York State legislature, Newsweek and a Philadelphia television station led to staff writing positions at the Village Voice and ABC-TV. In 1968, at the urging of her live-in lover, Brownmiller became a full-time freelancer. A cover story in the New York Times Magazine caught the eye of a children's book packager, inspiring Shirley Chisholm, a biography for “disadvantaged teenagers” that was published by Doubleday in 1970. The book also went into trade and mass market paperback editions but, admits Brownmiller, “very few people know about it. It was the first time I had ever done anything as long as that. And I did the whole thing for $2000.”

The bestselling Against Our Will followed in 1975: “I thought after I finished it that I should not be asked to do anything else again. I had made my contribution to the world's thinking and that should be enough.

“The women's movement discovered rape. I was in a consciousness-raising group in 1970 and someone brought up the subject. I argued strenuously that rape was a non-issue for feminists. I believed all the myths and misconceptions, all the stereotypes: that no one could be raped ‘against our will’; if a woman was raped she was asking for it.” A public rape speak-out and a rape conference were moments of revelation. “I wrote the book because I am a woman who changed her mind about rape.”

Over the years, Brownmiller had amassed letters from editors and agents testing the waters for her works-in-progress. One was from Jonathan Dolger at Simon & Schuster (he is now an agent). “I thought it would be terrific to have a man edit a book on rape,” she recalls. When Dolger left S & S several years later, Joni Evans, who “had been a big champion of Against Our Will when she was subsidiary rights director,” edited Brownmiller's Femininity (1984), published under the Linden Press imprint.

Against Our Will gave rape a history, tracing the crime from ancient Greece to the Vietnam War. Similarly, Femininity, organized by chapters titled “Body,” “Hair,” “Clothes,” “Voice” etc., explores the origins and perseverance of women's complicity in an enduring if ancient “compelling esthetic.” Brownmiller writes: “Historically … the fear of not being feminine enough, in style or in spirit, has been used as a sledgehammer against the collective and individual aspirations of women since failure in femininity carries the charge of mannish or neutered, making biological gender subject to ongoing proof.”

“I don't doubt my gender,” asserts the woman whose penchant for wearing slacks once was an emphatic political statement. “I don't want to be a man, and I'm not a lesbian. It seems that so much of my life is having to defend my basic gender identity because of people's fear of feminism and the implications of feminism.”

Although the book was generally well received, “by the time Femininity was published, the tide was turning the other way. Women wanted to learn how to be more feminine and still have their careers,” she ruefully observes.

Her next project for S & S was to be a book on friendship. “It didn't turn Joni on. She just didn't see it, and neither did Dick Snyder nor Michael Korda. There came a time when I turned in the first half and I was supposed to get more of the three-part advance. Joni said something very troubling: ‘Look, I don't know what to tell you, but it just didn't grab me.’ I got the feeling that she thought it was too academic. A couple of weeks later I read in the newspaper that she had jumped to Random House. I asked her, ‘What happens to me?’ ‘Don't worry,’ she said, ‘you're an S & S author.’ And then another couple of months went by and they assigned some editor to me whose name I have blessedly forgotten. She wanted to meet me for lunch. I said, ‘It seems to me you should meet the manuscript first.’ They couldn't find it, so I xeroxed another copy of the 200-odd pages and sent it in again. And then I got the lawyers' letters.”

Brownmiller says that S & S rejected the manuscript, pulling both the lateness and the unacceptability clauses. Her laughter is hearty but bitter: “That's when I got the idea they didn't want me. It was like being in a bad marriage where everybody tries to tell you that it's all over. I never thought it would happen to me. I had always had very good relations with S & S. Then I felt the full force of this publishing house. I suspect they didn't think they'd make money on the book. It was hardly an incoherent manuscript. And they wanted their original advance back,” her voice is incredulous. “I haven't done it yet. I'll take it to the Supreme Court first.

“I picked myself up off the floor, but it took me months. It was horrible. I felt like I had been rejected by Random House and S & S. I lost a lot of confidence in my ability to finish this book. They led me to believe my manuscript was worthless.”

Brownmiller and her agent Frances Goldin then agreed to approach what the author considers to be “the most dynamic and sexy duo in publishing”: Grove's Aaron Asher and Dan Green.

While Goldin was negotiating a contract with Grove on the friendship book proposal, six-year-old Lisa Steinberg died and Brownmiller opened a new file on her computer. “No one had ever thought I would consider writing fiction. Aaron read the first 50 pages and said, ‘This is astonishing, it's no Anna Karenina but it's astonishing.’ So he signed me to a two-book contract with the understanding that I would finish the novel first.

“It was the most remarkable turn-around.” She describes her departure from S & S through a disturbing analogy that she admits she uses with some reluctance: “I felt like a battered woman. I felt I had been mauled. I felt I had been thrown from pillar to post and all of a sudden I was rescued. I think a lot of the power of Waverly Place comes out of my rising up against that experience at Simon & Schuster.” A Literary Guild main selection, the novel has a first printing of 100,000. Ladies' Home Journal bought first serial rights, there is a paperback floor of a quarter of a million dollars, the film rights have been optioned and Brownmiller is booked on the Today show.

“I wrote the novel in a white heat because I was possessed. I had never given myself permission to invent before. It was very liberating. At first I thought, ‘Should I commit myself to doing this as a true crime book?’ I knew that I could not compete against a Shana Alexander. If I were to do a nonfiction book, mine would arrive years after everybody else's.”

Finally determining that she also could not penetrate the psychological truth of batterer and victim through a journalistic treatment, Brownmiller opted for fiction: “I felt I understood [the dynamics of the couple's bond] perfectly. I decided my very first day that I wasn't going to win any awards for literature. I felt that the prose was serviceable and the dialogue was authentic and that my psychological insights carried me through.” The commercial novel may have more impact than a scholarly work, she reasons, because it will undoubtedly reach a broader audience.

To Brownmiller, battery is much more complex than rape: “Battery is a sustained relationship between known people, and it has always fascinated me.” Writing the book “was a wonderful experience, which is a strange thing to say since I'm portraying such terrible stuff. But I felt the same way with Against Our Will. It was the joy of discovery, the fact that I knew I was writing an important book. I wasn't depressed, except for the end, where the child moves front and center; that was painful and I did cry.”

Research for fiction ran the gamut from reading the tabloids, perusing psychologist Lenore Walker's work on battered women and interviewing the St. Vincent's paramedic who found an unconscious child on the floor of the Steinberg apartment in November 1987, to seeking out a cocaine addict for a private lesson on freebasing. “Aaron said all along, ‘Get in more about drugs.’ He felt it was an important part of the real case and it certainly worked out that way.” Brownmiller tried to get the latter information from drug agencies but she found that they are not in the business of dispensing recipes. “In desperation, one day I took my dog, Tilly, and we walked to St. Mark's Bookshop in the East Village. They didn't have any manuals on cocaine; in fact I got a rather stern lecture from the manager [who admonished me] that coke kills. A guy was selling books on the sidewalk. He had Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, all the young punk writers who are so hip they all know about cocaine. I felt that these authors would not be in this ludicrous position, trying to research freebasing.”

Serendipitously, the sidewalk vendor, whom Brownmiller identifies by his first name, Clark, had a serious respect for authors as well as a passion for “snow,” and he took Brownmiller to Lower East Side bodegas to buy the cocaine and the paraphernalia. His squat on East 9th Street was a boarded-up building, not easily accessible to the author and her dog. So they hailed a cab to Brownmiller's stylish Village penthouse overlooking the Hudson River. “He cooked up the cocaine in my kitchen, smoked some, pronounced it good stuff; it had been pure quality. Then he said, ‘For your 20 bucks you ought to try it.’ So I had one puff. It didn't do much for me.” The author balked when Clark pulled out a hypodermic syringe to inject some of the drug. “I said, ‘Not in my apartment.’ So he didn't. He smoked it instead.” If Brownmiller had to part with one of her last paperback copies of Against Our Will which she autographed on demand for Clark, the addict “gave me beautiful language,” avows the writer; he saw fish scales in cocaine's white powder, a description she incorporated into Waverly Place.

Melissa Pritchard (review date 5 February 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 666

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, known fictively as Barry Kantor and Judith Winograd, who are locked in a mutually destructive, morbidly dependent dance, the book is less successful in transcending the weight of its own reportage.

It is impossible to empathize with Judith and Barry, even when it is demonstrated that both were verbally and physically abused as children. They are unredeemable, evil characters unleashed upon one another and ultimately upon Melinda, their illegally adopted daughter.

Brownmiller thoroughly delineates these well-educated, financially comfortable, psychologically flawed people; she carefully outlines their meeting in 1970, their subsequent life together and Barry's unpredictable rages that Judith reacts to so perversely. “He grabbed me by the shoulders and shoved. I fell backward, banging my head against a brick wall. … The back of my head hurt, but it didn't matter. What mattered was the powerful current flooding between us.”

Brownmiller's style is brisk, colloquial and uncomfortably accurate in portraying two people locked in an oppressive embrace, capable of extreme injury to themselves and their children. Author of Against Our Will and Femininity a journalist of compassion and social conscience, Brownmiller walks us through the lives of these two individuals as she imagines them—tracing the convoluted route of drugs, personality disorder and career failure, which ends with the death of a precocious, lovely child. She demonstrates the moral dilemmas of ambivalent neighbors, employees and those few friends who suspect Judith's plight but are unable to help a woman who refuses to help herself.

Concerned neighbors place anonymous calls, but investigations reveal no clear-cut evidence of abuse or neglect. Yet the violence in the apartment escalates, in direct correlation to the failure of Barry's self-aggrandizing schemes and his increasing dependence on drugs. Within the unquestioned privacy of home, Judith shuts out the world to protect a relationship she persists in calling love; between beatings, Barry indulges in honeymoon gestures of contrition. It is an insidious pattern, and it leads directly to the murder of Melinda.

Abuse of children is a secret crime, ironically protected by the mantle of parental rights. The public's sense of stigma and shame about this crime make it difficult to confront—in part because, at one time or another, many parents perhaps have come perilously close to that loss of control that signals the abuser. Nor is this a crime confined to particular families. The consequences of abuse saturate our society; today's unloved, battered children are tomorrow's criminals, tomorrow's abusive, unloving parents.

Brownmiller surely experienced pain in imagining the minds and souls of such individuals, and her courage in undertaking this story, one of thousands of similar tragedies left unwritten, is admirable. Although Waverly Place is not particularly strong in a literary sense—over-burdened, perhaps, by its obligation to fact—it is a compelling, haunting account that should arouse each of us to demand the protection of all children.

Elaine Kendall (review date 10 February 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 830

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 reality. Finding setting, characters and plot on her doorstep, Brownmiller seems to have taken them in with only the most cursory effort to turn the raw elements into fiction. Her central characters remain pallid stand-ins for Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum, while the “invented” friends and relatives are hastily recruited from a pool of urban stereotypes. Since virtually every incident is preempted by the actual scenario, the “invention” is limited to singularly flat dialogue and a disappointingly superficial exploration of motive.

On home ground when she's describing the mental and physical degeneration of a vulnerable woman victimized by a vicious man, Brownmiller is less assured when she attempts to portray the complex pathology of extreme drug dependence. Ultimately, the sordid, numbed world in which Nussbaum and Steinberg lived eludes writer and reader. Moderately effective as an account of psychosexual dependence, Waverly Place falters when it ventures beyond the confines of the apartment into the obscure recesses of an addict's mind.

Brownmiller's version of Hedda is a pathetically ordinary young woman named Judith Winograd; a Brooklyn College graduate who dreams of becoming a novelist. In 1970, when she's picked up at a Greenwich Village street fair by a smooth-talking hustler named Barry Kantor, she's 28 years old, stuck in a poorly paid job, living alone in a gloomy studio; spending a June morning fingering the curios at a sidewalk stall and hoping her desperation doesn't show. “Brooklyn gypsy with a ton of hair spray, perky. A type he liked.” By afternoon she's in Barry's apartment, blissfully stoned; thrilled at having been picked out of the crowd by this hip, swaggering lawyer who rolled a joint as if he'd just stepped off the set of Easy Rider.


At first, he takes her hiking at Bear Mountain and skiing in Vermont, introduces her to the Kama Sutra, and she thinks she's the luckiest girl who ever crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan. Within a few months, Judith is living in Barry's brownstone apartment, blindly catering to his outrageous whims, alienated from family and friends; the world well lost for love.

Struggling to learn survival tactics, she tries to avoid doing anything that might send Barry into one of his frequent rages, blaming herself whenever she's brutalized. Always a dissembler, she becomes an expert liar, explaining away the bruises and black eyes as accidents, keeping her distance from the busybodies at her office. Their halfhearted advances rebuffed, her colleagues leave her alone, telling themselves that her private life is none of their business as long as the work gets done.

Barry makes sure there's always a supply of Valium, pot, cocaine and finally heroin to take the edge off the anguish. The drugs erode Judith's fragile will and vestigial self-respect, effectively dulling the emotional and physical pain. Her captor couldn't have found a more malleable subject.


By 1981, when they acquire the first of the two children, Judith is entirely his creature, a zombie programmed to follow his orders unquestioningly. Barry Kantor's law practice has never been more than a matter of defending drug dealers and users, many of whom paid him with stock in trade. What cash there was came from a lucrative sideline as a baby broker. Driven by greed, he tries to extort more money from clients by actually auctioning a child to the highest bidder, and when both sets of prospective parents back off, he brings the baby home to Judith.

For a few years, the role of adoring father amuses him; then it abruptly palls. From this point on, Brownmiller seems content to record the nightmare essentially as documented by the media; reducing the convoluted social issues to an anomalous form that seems a novel in name only.

Jane Bakerman (review date spring 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 354

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 recognizable territory, and a private eye wields more clout if she knows her turf. …

One begins Susan Brownmiller's Waverly Place expecting that its Greenwich Village locale will be a major element, but somehow the full setting never comes alive in this fictional reflection of the Lisa Steinberg murder case. In a cool, flat tone, Brownmiller recounts the debasement of Judith Winograd at the hands of her abusive lover, Barry Kantor. As Winograd degenerates, depending more and more on Kantor and the drugs he supplies, she can do nothing for herself, let alone for the two children the couple have adopted extralegally. Neighbors, friends, and associates realize much of what is happening but settle for gossip or self-protective gestures, taking almost no helpful action. The deadly passivity of all these characters perhaps infects even readers, for Waverly Place prods the imagination but does not engage the heart.

Ann Morrissett Davidon (review date April 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 915

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 of drugs. Ethical and legal questions about Hedda Nussbaum's culpability were hotly debated. But the most salient factor differentiating the Steinberg case from most others was that Steinberg and Nussbaum were a white, educated, upper-income couple who might have crossed paths—at a party, in an office or a restaurant—with any of the white upper- and middle-class people who rely on the social agencies, courts, police, and stratifications of incomes and neighborhoods to separate them from the uncontrolled violence, anger, and twisted values that poverty and frustration breed in the ghettos.

How could “our kind” of people have come to this? Steinberg was a successful attorney, Nussbaum had been a children's-book editor at a Manhattan publishing house. They lived in an expensive apartment in Greenwich Village—in the vicinity, as it happened, of feminist writer Susan Brownmiller. “The day the child died,” Brownmiller writes in her foreword, “I began to write, to imagine how the couple from my neighborhood … could have traveled the distance from people I might have known to such a nightmare, and why the ample warning signs were misperceived and misinterpreted by those in a position to sound the alarm.”

Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, uses her imagination well in this vivid fictionalized account [Waverly Place] of how the Steinberg tragedy might have happened. She has clearly done her homework—much of it absorbed from her home turf—on police and paramedic procedures, drug effects, law courts, battered women, and so on—as well as the milieu in which the Steinbergs functioned. Although she urges readers not to assume that “any of the characters in this novel are accurate portraits of real people, or that the events described actually occurred,” it is almost impossible not to identify her sleazy fictional lawyer, Barry Kantor, with Joel Steinberg; her battered, zonked Judith Winograd is a dead-ringer for Hedda Nussbaum; the history of once-bright-eyed little Melinda Kantor fits too well that of Lisa Steinberg.

All of which raises further questions in regard to this troubling case: How much liberty can a writer take when his or her fiction is based on people who exist or have existed? Making novels—and money—out of real people's bizarre lives and tragedies seems an exploitative, ghoulish occupation.

Yet real people are the subject of most writers—journalists, historians, biographers, novelists. Only the novelist has the literary license to disguise people or amalgamate them into composites, devising their thoughts and conversations so the reader finds them both interesting and credible. Brownmiller has done this effectively, and presumably for good reason.

In a New York Times op-ed piece, Brownmiller deplored what she sees as the tendency of some feminists to identify with—and to some extent excuse—Hedda Nussbaum, perpetuating “the specious notion that women are doomed to be victims of the abnormal psychology of love at all cost.” Brownmiller does not believe Nussbaum should have been offered immunity by the district attorney in exchange for her testimony against Steinberg. If men who abuse women and children (and drugs) are made accountable for their crimes, she suggests, women too must be held responsible for cooperating with the abuse.

While this view seems to come close to “blaming the victim,” Brownmiller no doubt hopes it will also help empower women to get out of abusive situations before it is too late. One expects educated, middle-class women who dabble in drugs and deluded men to have the power to extricate themselves, or choose not to get involved in the first place.

The Steinberg case—and Brownmiller's engrossing novelistic account—may sober up a few literate men and women who were snorting down the cocaine trail, and might help their peers understand better how it could happen. The novel is a good read, even if we know from the start its horrendous ending. But it isn't likely to do much for the hapless women who don't even have the resources and advantages of a Hedda Nussbaum, and for the angry men who will still be beating them and their kids, spurred on by the macho posturings and random violence they see daily on television and in their dismal streets far from Waverly Place.

Marie M. Fortune (review date 19 April 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 693

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 Lisa's death, but at no point does she express moral outrage at Nussbaum's torture, brutalization or disfigurement. Instead, Brownmiller contends that because Nussbaum was educated, had financial resources and a good job as an editor, she is “atypical.” According to Brownmiller, Nussbaum, unlike other battered women, could at any time have left the sadistic Steinberg, who had convinced her that he was God and that she was totally dependent on him.

Brownmiller explains her decision to portray the case in fiction this way: “I wanted the freedom to invent dialogue, motivations, events, and characters based on my own understanding of battery and abuse.” But her understanding of woman-battering is not shared by those who work with battered women and their children. Contrary to Brownmiller's assessment, the controversy around her book is not the result of her bringing “harsh truths to readers” but the result of her intentional promotion of dangerous falsehoods, such as the notion that Nussbaum could rather easily have extricated herself from her relationship with Steinberg.

As is true for many battered women, Nussbaum was not physically abused by Steinberg in the beginning. In fact, he set himself up as her sole source of encouragement and support as she pursued her work as a writer and editor. He taught her that it was he who was the source of her success, so when he began to beat her she was trapped by her dependence. Even then, she did try to leave and get help on numerous occasions. When she went to the emergency room at the hospital, she told people that her boyfriend beat her up. Then she recanted and said she fell down the stairs. Rather than questioning her further, the hospital personnel called Steinberg to come and get her. By the time he began to abuse Lisa, Nussbaum was so brutalized that she was incapable of interceding for her.

Nussbaum was neither heroine nor villain. She and Lisa were hostages. Fifteen years ago Brownmiller might have had some excuse for writing this book and blaming Nussbaum for being victimized and for not protecting Lisa; we didn't understand the experience of battered women then. Today we do. The only excuse Brownmiller has for presenting this case as she does is her need to distance herself from Nussbaum. Any female in this culture could have been Nussbaum. Any one of us could be deprived of our sense of moral agency as she was. Andrea Dworkin comments: “Battery is a forced descent into hell and you don't get by in hell by moral goodness. You disintegrate. You don't survive as a discrete personality with a sense of right and wrong. You live in a world of pain, in isolation, on the verge of death, in terror; and when you get numb enough not to care whether you live or die you are experiencing the only grace God is going to send your way.” This is what Brownmiller does not comprehend.

Jane Caputi (review date May 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2072

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 offing. Susan Brownmiller, author of the classic Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (1975) as well as Femininity (1984), finished Waverly Place before the outcome of the Steinberg murder trial, yet “Barry Kantor,” Brownmiller's fictionalized Steinberg, is presumed guilty here. Her focus is not on who did what, but on the personalities of Kantor and “Judith Winograd,” whose story, as Brownmiller writes in her introduction, illustrates “a thousand case histories and clinical studies of family violence.”

Waverly Place begins with the comatose child “Melinda” being brought to the emergency room and her subsequent death. After that brief opening, the rest is told in flashback, beginning with Kantor and Winograd's first meeting and concluding with the night of Melinda's murder.

For its type—the popular crime novel—Waverly Place is a creditable piece. In the introduction Brownmiller explains that she has opted to write fiction because she “wanted the freedom to invent dialogue, motivations, events, and characters based on my own understanding of battery and abuse.” Particularly in her treatment of the three main characters, Brownmiller is fairly convincing. She hits all the right nerves of recognition and genuine creepiness in her portrait of the consummate user/abuser, Barry Kantor, a man who, through his ability to tap into others' emptiness, is able to overpower psychologically a variety of clients, associates, doctors and, of course, his lover Judith Winograd.

The character of Winograd is developed as a very feminine woman with the deep and dreadful insecurities (about looks, intelligence, marriageability) that go with the territory, a woman who wanted to be taken, body and soul, by her man. In one scene, Barry has recently introduced Judith to smoking cocaine (a substance which Steinberg and Nussbaum habitually abused and which figured in the violence and neglect causing Lisa's death). In Judith's mind,

He was like lava running down a mountainside, a hot stream of words flowing faster, faster, gathering speed … I stood in the path of the molten lava. I was encircled by lava, I craved its warmth. I crawled on my knees through the gravel toward the molten source, stretching my hands, my tongue toward the heat. I was enveloped in lava, I spoke the language, the torrent of words came faster. And then it veered.

He stood up and stretched. “What time is it? I'm going to sleep.”

(p. 85)

In scenes such as this, Brownmiller fulfills her goal. Ultimately, however, the novel does not move beyond a mere reworking of events, with the actual occurrences far more vivid than Brownmiller's reconstructions. For example, one of the reasons suspicion was first directed at Steinberg was that on being told his daughter had suffered at the very least “permanent brain damage,” he joked to a doctor that “Lisa would never be an Olympic athlete” and then settled down to watch a football game. In a parallel Waverly Place scene, Brownmiller has a cold though garrulous Kantor accompany the medics into the Emergency Room. Then: “Most people get hysterical … This guy's acting like he turned in a broken appliance. I have been in the presence of evil, the paramedic thought as he left the ER.” In this case, Steinberg's own words and actions speak much louder than Brownmiller's.

Crucial components of the novel do not move beyond a reiteration of formulaic cliché. Brownmiller “explains” Kantor's violence by making him a battered child, son of an abusive father and a grim and narrow mother. Of course some boys who are physically abused grow up to be abusers, but this is often used as a too tidy explanation of male battery in popular fiction and nonfiction. In Waverly Place it lacks both imaginative and explanatory value. How much more illuminating it might have been if Brownmiller's estimable acumen were focused on Joel Steinberg's formative influences, both personal and cultural.

The side characters in Waverly Place are largely one-dimensional, serving primarily to exemplify the reluctance of outsiders to intervene in domestic abuse. I was surprised to find no character who provided a point of view that might represent the thoughts of the author; Waverly Place might have been stronger had Brownmiller provided that perspective. In a recent editorial in the New York Times (February 2nd, 1989), Brownmiller argues that Nussbaum, despite the years of battery, still bore responsibility as a participant in her own and Lisa's destruction. Indeed, much post-trial feminist discussion has dwelled, I think wrong-headedly, upon Hedda Nussbaum's possible culpability—another case of blaming the victim—while Steinberg, the actual abuser and slayer, gets lost in the fury of conflicting and painful emotions. Yet readers who hope to find a further exposition of this controversial argument in Waverly Place will be disappointed.

In her novel, Brownmiller definitely focuses the blame on Kantor. Characters who do argue for Winograd's responsibility are themselves discredited by their own words and actions. Marianna, the TV journalist who lives in the same building on Waverly Place, condemns Winograd as a “moral zombie,” a woman with education and options who nonetheless chose to remain in Kantor's thrall. Marianna does so, however, at a chic and superficial dinner party while reaching for the Pouilly Fuissé. Moreover, Marianna herself only once halfheartedly placed a call to a social service agency; after this she ignored the abusive situation in the apartment above her.

As is, the novel does seem to absolve Winograd because of her extreme victimization by Kantor. Some time before Kantor started to beat Melinda, Winograd had tried to leave him. She tells him, “Something's wrong with me Barry … I'm losing ground. Little things scare me that didn't used to, I get afraid on the street, I can't write anymore. I don't understand what's happening.” He replies, “Where will you go? What will you do? Take a good look at yourself, sweetheart, when was the last time you held a job?” After this it's all downhill, and soon Winograd has deteriorated to such an extent (she starts seeking secret messages in neighborhood graffiti) that she seems no longer completely sane and really quite beyond responsibility.

The nagging question of Nussbaum's responsibility is addressed both directly and indirectly (that is, wrapped in typical media doublethink) in “Hedda's Story,” a recent cover feature in People magazine (February 13th, 1989). Here Nussbaum is presented as the largely helpless victim of a sadistic madman. We are told in great detail of the horrors of Steinberg's abuse—more extensive and bizarre than Brownmiller depicts in the novel:

Steinberg had kicked her in the eye, strangled her, beaten her sexual organs, urinated on her, hung her in handcuffs from a chinning bar, lacerated a tear duct by poking his finger in the corner of her eye, broken her nose several times and pulled out clumps of hair while throwing her about their apartment. “Sometimes he'd take the blowtorch we used for freebasing and move it around me, making me jump … I have burn marks all over my body from that. Joel told me he did this to improve my coordination.”

This last quote from Nussbaum is reiterated in a blown-up section on the left side of a two-page spread. On the right is an advertisement for Neutrogena soap. It features a large photo of a grinning woman, Cathy Guisewite, cartoonist, creator of “Cathy,®” as well as a highlighted quote from the woman herself:

I know all about eating a cheesecake after a bad date. People say, “You know exactly how I feel; I'm so relieved that somebody else sits in the closet and eats a cheesecake after a bad date.” I think I verbalize for a lot of women the anxieties and insecurities we live out every day, like I'll buy anything that will promise me a miracle … I always go back to Neutrogena Soap, because it's so simple. I mean, I stagger into the bathroom, I wash my face, and I can handle it. It's the one thing I don't have to torture myself about.

It is important to realize that in a media package such as People magazine, articles and ads are arranged in a flow sequence for a cumulative effect. Consider the basic message that this juxtaposition of article and ad delivers. Key themes are torture, feminine insecurities, anxieties and masochism. We move from a graphic description of the torture of a former successful career woman (Nussbaum) to the smiling confession of egregious self-torture by a current career woman (Guisewite). (We might also note that Guisewite's torture can be traced to an abusive man, the “bad date” for whom she locked herself in a closet.) Moreover, after reading “Hedda's story,” including its mention of the six times Hedda left Joel Steinberg (the lifelong “bad date”) only to return, what can we make of these strategically placed words of Guisewite? “I always go back … because it's so simple. I mean, I stagger into the bathroom, I wash my face, and I can handle it.”

While Nussbaum's torture by a man she continued to live with is appalling (though fascinating enough to rivet the nation), Guisewite's self-torment is pitched as normal, representative and smilingly cute. In Brownmiller's New York Times editorial, she castigated some women's typical “feminine identification” with Hedda Nussbaum as both “simplistic and alarming.” In People we find a subliminal advocacy of precisely that same feminine identification with masochism. Though the article superficially abhors Nussbaum's battery (all the while describing it in titillating detail), the entire media package subtextually attempts to instill in women the very attitudes which allow battery.

I had originally picked up the People magazine because after reading Waverly Place I wanted very much to know more about the case and its actual personae—what Nussbaum's and Steinberg's families actually had been like, the psychologistics of Steinberg's control of Nussbaum … I found these, potentially, more persuasive than Brownmiller's (or possibly anyone's) fictional account.

Which brings me to my central question. Why bother fictionalizing a case that has gotten so much publicity that its central characters have become national symbols? One argument is that the popular form will bring greater readership and exposure to the feminist viewpoint, that is, a perspective that recognizes battery as an institutionalized form of patriarchal force. Indeed, Waverly Place is a Literary Guild main selection. It is being serialized in Ladies' Home Journal and has been optioned as a possible feature film. However, if the viewpoint is not so richly expressed in the fictional form, that argument loses ground. Moreover, ideas in feminist nonfiction books do filter into the mainstream culture and have influenced not only common attitudes but also a number of popular novels, films and docudramas. Brownmiller's own Against Our Will is one of the best examples of this.

Another argument suggests that fictionalization allows for greater scope of inquiry. Ultimately, however, Waverly Place doesn't transcend the events but is more like a transparency lifted off them. In her depiction of the abusive relationship, particularly her canny portrayal of the seemingly dreamy though actually demon lover, Barry Kantor, Brownmiller may well provide insight to those who have not previously confronted the dynamics of battery. But for those readers who want a more complex rendering, this novel haunts but does not always illuminate.

Diana Souhami (review date 1 September 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 666

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 fictional. She said she was impelled to write by the haunting image of the girl's face. She tells the story in a series of diary entries and her prose style is emotive: “she mouthed ‘I love you’ through grotesque, swollen lips.” “… with a soft squish the blood from her split lip spurted onto the wall. He stared at his knuckles.”

This is Susan Brownmiller's first novel. She has worked as a newswriter for ABC television and a reporter for Village Voice. She has written books about rape and femininity and she here combines social concern with her journalist's sense of what constitutes a good—that is, terrible—story.

And she succeeds. Fact is worse than fiction. It is not a book that is easily put aside, nor a story that can be forgotten. The diary entries begin with the police intervention over the murder of the child in 1987, go back to the meeting of the surrogate parents in 1970, then forward again through 17 years of hell to the night of the murder. She calls the couple Barry Kantor and Judith Winograd. Their relationship begins as a casual pick-up. They hype themselves up on pot and have sex which is initially good. “He came out of the shower with a towel wrapped around his hips. God he was gorgeous.” His sexual power turns to bullying and brutality. Her sexual passivity turns to collusion in crime.

He beats her up all the time: if she forgets to put out the garbage, if she leaves the oven on, if anything upsets him. He fractures her pelvis by stamping on her crotch, then takes her on holiday to the Caribbean. The violence escalates to the point where he burns her and chokes her on an iron chain. She cannot or does not either tell on him or leave him. She exists in a twilight world of fear and submission.

The diary entries are like pieces in a jigsaw: his crooked dealings in abortion, drugs and the phoney adoption of unwanted children by couples prepared to pay (which is how he gets his two children); the neighbours' perception of violence as the annoyance of noise; the addiction to cocaine, heroin, alcohol, valium, marijuana; his psychopathic violence and lies; the way the couple's professional status fends off inquiries by social workers. The finished picture is of murder.

When the little girl begins to have a will of her own, Kantor beats her too. The silent character is the child that dies. Perhaps this story is a paradigm for the short silent lives of battered children who die, betrayed by the parents or guardians to whom they are assigned.

Joanna Coles (review date 6–12 October 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 748

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 process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”)

But Waverly Place is fiction, she claims. Indeed she is insistent: Waverly Place is not faction but a novel “closely based on a real case.” “I wanted to write fiction because I wanted the freedom to invent dialogue, motivations, events and characters.” She has, alas, abused that freedom, and turned a harrowing true story into pulp.

Steinberg nearly murdered Hedda as well as his daughter. But Brownmiller, as did the American people, puts Hedda, or Judith Winograd, as she calls her character, on trial. The assumption of her guilt is implicit from the start. How could she have let him do it? Why didn't she leave? Get help? Go to her parents? The answers are not to be found in the text. Astonishingly, Brownmiller avoids addressing the very issues out of which she has built her reputation. There is no discussion about the culpability of women involved in destructive relationships. Are they victims of themselves or the prevailing patriarchal culture? Neither? Or both? The true story is not too singular to serve as a basis for moral generalizations, but none is made here.

Supplied by the “real case” with an ending (the death of the child), the book reads as if Brownmiller has worked backwards, filling in the plot. Chapters are headed by times and dates or simply “Judith” (for what we take to be extracts from her journal); it has all the narrative skill of a police notebook. The nature of Judith's attraction to Barry Kantor (Steinberg) is explored in clichés: “Sometimes she felt she wasn't tough enough for New York, but with Barry she felt she could run up the Empire State Building two steps at a time.” Similarly, we are told little about the couple's sex-life, surely a crucial element in whatever bound them together. Judith writes in her journal: “I am so incredibly orgasmic with him, it doesn't matter which way he turns me or what he does … maybe it's the pot I don't know.” Neither does the reader. Only occasionally do we get a splintered glimpse of Judith's reaction to violence. The first time her head is banged against a wall she reacts by writing: “What mattered was the powerful current flooding between us. I felt so alert, so alive.” The couple's frequent drug-taking is never really examined as a cause of their troubles, although the amounts of heroin, crack and cocaine taken are often large. As the perpetrators of crime so often are, Barry is more interesting than his victims—an evil man, he sniffs out weakness and pounces; he also sniffs cocaine in the court room, steals bail money and deals in unwanted babies. Frustratingly few references to a wooden coat hanger in his past are our best clues as to why.

Crude and insubstantial writing—Wolfeian echoes of New York Angst, Shirley Conran-type statements of the obvious—will disappoint Brownmiller's admirers, and her first novel falls a long way short of the best work in an honourable American tradition of faction—In Cold Blood or The Executioner's Song.

Marc Leepson (review date 15 May 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 704

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 close attention to the war. After the 1968 Tet Offensive, she says, the war “receded from my frontal lobes.”

Brownmiller's interest in Vietnam was rekindled a few years ago. “I wanted,” she says, “to see the country in peacetime, its problems and progress.” So she arranged “the trip of a lifetime,” as she puts it—a journey to Vietnam with photographer Maggie Steber. The purpose of the trip: to “explore the country from a tourist's point of view” and produce an article for a travel magazine.

Brownmiller and Steber embarked on “a private, customized tour for two from Hanoi to the Mekong Delta,” with stops in Danang, Hue, the Mekong Delta and Saigon (which only dedicated government officials call Ho Chi Minh City, its post-1975 official name). The women were under the watchful eyes of government-issued guides but managed to make a few unescorted forays.

Brownmiller's report on life in Vietnam jibes with those of other recent American visitors. The nation is desperately poor. The government is relaxing many, but not all, of its authoritarian policies. The people seem very friendly toward Americans and speak bitterly about Russians. Businesses from Asia and Europe are moving rapidly into Vietnam with the government's blessings.

The northern city of Hanoi “charms a visitor,” Brownmiller says, with its “tree-lined boulevards and gemlike lakes set in leafy green parks” and its “stucco row houses and ochre villas with blue louver shutters and iron filigree gates.” Saigon, though, is an overcrowded, cacophonous commercial center with lots of great restaurants.

“Saigon is not beautiful,” Brownmiller reports. “The imperial lines of boulevards laid out by the French are obscured by a hodgepodge of latter-day constructions destined for the wrecker's ball but gussied up for the present with Christmas tree lights, neon marquees, billboards that trumpet Sanyo, Panasonic, Sharp.”

Brownmiller devotes much of her breezily written book to these and other touristic concerns: hotel accommodations, restaurant meals, transportation logistics, historic attractions. In these sections she often succeeds in evocatively conveying the details of her Vietnam tour. The narrative suffers, though, when she interrupts the personal guided tour with what appear to be hurriedly researched mini-lessons on Vietnamese history and the American war.

These “capsule” discussions, as Brownmiller refers to them, are filled with generalizations and unattributed facts and figures. Although she lists a dozen or so sources in her acknowledgement section, the historical discussions contain too many errors of omission and several misstatements.

To cite one example, Brownmiller writes that President Lyndon Johnson waged “full-scale war” in Vietnam. But Johnson's primary goal was the opposite: to wage a limited war. Indeed, some critics of Johnson's policies argue that his main failing in Vietnam was his “conscious decision not to mobilize the American people [and] invoke the national will,” as Col. Harry Summers wrote in his book On Strategy.

Seeing Vietnam, therefore, is not the book to go for a well-researched analysis of the American war. But the book does provide an interesting, and at times insightful, look at the land and people of Vietnam.

Susie Linfield (review date 18 November 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 650

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 feminine form of communication: gossip.

Brownmiller was a reluctant feminist. In 1968, she was 33 years old, a veteran of the civil rights movement, “hoping that my activist days were behind me.” Brownmiller was pouring her energies into her career as a journalist and considered herself a “loophole” woman, one of the few “that men let in to prove they weren't barring everyone else.” But all that changed when she happened upon a New York consciousness-raising group and heard herself talking aloud about her three illegal abortions. This was, she writes, “my feminist baptism”; she realized that “my solitary efforts to forge my own destiny were … pieces of the puzzle called sexual oppression.”

Brownmiller's book is an excellent antidote for those of us who suffer from short memories, which I suspect means all of us. In the very late 1960s, a New York state panel of “experts” on abortion consisted of 14 men and a nun; virtually all professions were caste systems that condemned women to the lowest-paid, least prestigious jobs; and the concepts of sexual harassment, domestic violence and “sexism” itself were nonexistent. Brownmiller charts the transformation of the abortion-rights debate from its focus on health reform (defined by doctors) to the constitutional rights of women; the rise of the gay liberation movement; and the emergence of sexual violence as a political issue. She reminds us of how swiftly feminist ideas swept through the country in the early 1970s “Heated arguments were erupting in the bedroom and on the street … in public bars and bowling alleys. Liberation battles were being fought on the home front, … at the workplace, … inside the legal system up to the Supreme Court.”

Mainly, though, this is a book about personalities. We learn who came out as a lesbian and left her husband; who felt burned by the movement's infighting and retired from politics; who “trashed” whom. Surely this is a perversion of the feminist insight that “the personal is political.” Most of the meaty issues that the movement was forced to grapple with—such as the relationship between sexism and capitalism—are explored in only the most superficial ways.

When Brownmiller does turn her attention to theoretical issues—such as the battered women's movement's apologetic defense of women who stay in abusive relationships—we see flashes of what made Against Our Will a seminal work. But for the most part, In Our Time fails to adequately explicate modern feminism's many real victories and its many wrong turns. A real history—far more political and far less personal—remains to be written.

Dawn Trouard (review date 30 January 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 872

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 recall (or see for the first time) the sweat equity and the fragility of women's liberation in all of its mimeo machines, broadsides hastily stapled and distributed, resolutions, shifting coalitions, and the small but vital loans from working women to keep the revolution going. She also retells the movement's totemic tales: of the 1968 Miss America Pageant, the braburning media chimera, The Feminine Mystique,Roe v. Wade. More valuable in many ways, however, are the lesser-known tales. For example, Nina Harding gets credit for designing the wire hanger that became the symbol for Legalize Abortion. In 1962, Sherri Finklestein, mother of four, scuttled her career as “Romper Room” host in Arizona by making a “public odyssey” out of her need to terminate a pregnancy compromised by the drug thalidomide. Brave personal sacrifices are juxtaposed with quirky moments: For instance, Shulamith Firestone finds destiny in her astrological connection to Simone de Beauvoir, a sister Capricorn. There is an utterly trippy account of the events surrounding the Ladies' Home Journal Sit-In Steering Committee's successful, temporary takeover of the magazine in 1970. Like a Martha Stewart gone feminista, Brownmiller recreates the occupation dramedy, from the demonstrators marching the wrong way down the publication's halls to the question of what to wear for the revolution. (Brownmiller chose “her best dress, a sleeveless gray wool.”)

The movement's celebrities and those in the shadows (not always by choice) emerge from the welter of sit-ins, ogle-ins, marches and provocative acronyms: oob (off our backs), WITCH (Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell), D.O.B. (Daughters of Bilitis) and SCUM (the Society for Cutting Up Men). It's impossible not to learn from this account, which is guaranteed to incite an irresistible nostalgia among those who believed. Even cynics, I suspect, will be a little daunted by the sheer outlay of energy and commitment from the legion of women who made it happen. This is not to say that Brownmiller has written a sanguine portrait of sisters locking arms in struggle. There are hurt feelings and whining galore. As in other recent feminist accounts, pretty Gloria Steinem's media domination of the women's movement haunts Brownmiller even now. Still, Brownmiller claims in a press release for the book that she was not after a “balanced history,” and that “ideological clashes” and “difficult, complex personalities” would not be “papered over” or “airbrushed.”

The book's happenstance methodology, redeemed somewhat by a top-notch index, tempers the achievement. In her acknowledgements, Brownmiller reports the generosity of the women warriors who made the history and shared with her their private archives. She builds the story from taped interviews with 200 leading activists. It's not always possible to tell how the author developed her evidence, and from time to time it is even hard to tell within a paragraph if the assumed voice is still Brownmiller's or that of the person whose story is in progress.

The darkest currents running through the book are mostly about rivalry, betrayal and the need for recognition. Brownmiller rightly if somewhat self-servingly reports the ruptures, the harangues, the disputes among the women about “trashing,” elitism, and the sin of “personal publicity.” She earns the right to her indignation by some candid accounts of her own moments of disappointment and devastation. For instance, she recreates her mortification on the Phil Donahue show when Eldridge Cleaver baited and outmaneuvered her and the audience taunted her about her putative expertise on rape. She also shares a moment when her “blood [was] on the floor” following the East Coast Feminist Conference on Pornography in 1979, where she lost her temper with a heckler and made a ruinous anti-lesbian retort. With poignant candor, she testifies that “nothing in our women's movement was ever accomplished without severe emotional depletion and fractured personal relations.”

Elsewhere, Brownmiller has claimed that Against Our Will was her contribution and that it should be enough. Though In Our Time hardly packs that kind of wallop, it's a worthy reminder of the fight.

Judy Rebick (review date 31 March 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 866

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 Mae Brown, but reveals their role inside the movement, not always in flattering terms.

She also tells us about women whose names we don't know. Carol Hanish, for example, invented the phrase “the personal is political,” and came up with the idea for the Miss America protest, the first action of the burgeoning women's movement. Anne Koedt wrote, “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,” which was circulated in mimeographed long before it was reprinted in books. And Kathie Sarachild coined the phrase, “Sisterhood is Powerful.”

One of the delights of Brownmiller's memoir is her meticulous research into the origins of almost every feminist legend, at least those which began in the United States. The other is that she credits the radicals for many of the new ideas of the movement. She points out, for example, that famous feminists like Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer were more transmission belts of these ideas into the mainstream than originators.

One of the most interesting chapters to me was on the media. Brownmiller makes it clear that it was women working inside the media that helped to connect the ideas of a handful of radicals in various American cities to the masses of American women who were suffering from what Betty Friedan called “the problem with no name.” I don't remember the sex discrimination complaint filed by the women at Newsweek in 1970 to correspond to the timing of the Newsweek cover story, “Women in Revolt.” Nor did I know about the Ladies' Home Journal sit-in in March 1970, when 200 women occupied the office of editor-in-chief John Mack Carter for 11 hours, demanding more feminist content and women editors in women's magazines. I was also impressed with Brownmiller's fairness in reporting those early days, warts and all. For example, she acknowledges the role of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers' Party with getting the women's movement out into the streets over the abortion issue. While I have personal knowledge of the role of the Trotskyist women in the early days of the pro-choice movement, I have never seen that recognition from radical feminists before.

Reading Brownmiller's book is also a bit like a stroll down memory lane. The ferocious battles over minor political differences, the utopian notions of feminism as the opposite of patriarchy in every way, the tyranny of structurelessness … all of these problems in the movement are described along with the many strengths.

“I felt it was my duty to explain to people as vividly as possible how these ideas emerged,” Brownmiller told me in an interview in Toronto during her book tour. Brownmiller captures the energy, spirit and sometimes crazy idealism of the times.

She tells one story about how she was trashed in her consciousness raising group because the other women just didn't understand why she felt it was necessary to put her name on her rape book as the author. In just a couple of decades we have gone to the opposite extreme, where individual recognition seems more important than anything else. While Brownmiller's book is more a collective memoir than a political analysis, I think that young activists in particular could benefit from reading how just a few women made a difference by organizing and speaking out.

Brownmiller believes the women's movement was basically over by the 1980's. Her view of a movement seems to be based on the development of new ideas. It is a very ideological notion of a social movement and one that I don't share. Nevertheless, the book is a wonderful read. I couldn't help hoping that someone would do a similar history of the Canadian women's movement. While we might not have as many famous names, or crazy characters, I think the Canadian women's movement has been much more successful in making structural changes in society. I might even start thinking about doing it myself.

Barbara Winslow (review date April 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1883

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 illegal, when there were no words to describe sexual harassment, when rape was a woman's fault and when marriage was the only acceptable (read ladylike) profession, when women, if divorced, were socially ostracized and denied credit, and if married, needed a husband to countersign most legal documents. Using her journalistic skills, Brownmiller takes you into the meeting rooms, living rooms, storefronts, picket lines, Mother Courage restaurant, Full Moon Rising Coffee House and consciousness-raising sessions of the early radical women's liberation movement.

The book is full of anecdotes about the movement's origins and activities. Because she was at the center of that movement, she knows and worked with all the feminist leaders. For those who never heard of or met Kathie Amatniek/Sarachild, Naomi Weisstein, Jo Freeman, Carol Hanisch, Lucinda Cisler, Ros Baxandall, or Shulamith Firestone, Brownmiller brings them to life. She generously credits theorists like Anne Koedt (“Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm”), Patricia Mainardi (“The Politics of Housework”) and the Boston Women's Health Collective (Our Bodies, Ourselves).

There are vivid portrayals of movement stars: Kate Millett, Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Ellen Willis, Rita Mae Brown, Shere Hite, Jill Johnston, Charlotte Bunch, Jane Alpert, Flo Kennedy, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Robin Morgan, Alix Kates Shulman and Gloria Steinem. For a movement that has been characterized as humorless, Brownmiller's memoir captures the fun and joy of the daring Miss America protest, the WITCH hexes of bridal fairs, the celebrated sit-in at the Ladies Home Journal, the ogle-ins and the women's dances. At the same time, she details the intensity of the debates, the arguments, the polemics, the splits, the denunciations, the trashings, the jealousies, the oversized egos, the frail egos that characterized this movement. Jane Galvin-Lewis dismissed the splits and schisms in the National Black Feminist Organization as “just oppressed people's bickering.” Gloria Steinem, often at the center of controversy, once whispered in Brownmiller's ear, “We're lucky this is the women's movement. In other movements they shoot each other.” In attempting to understand the movement's internal combustion, Brownmiller argues, “Like most utopian visionaries at war with the world, they lacked the flexibility and the practical skills to triumph on the larger stage they had brought into creation.”

Many historians, journalists and political pundits, left, right and center, male and female, have spent a great deal of time trying to distort the women's movement. Brownmiller counters the portrayal of an elitist, all-white, mother-hating, children-hating, housewife-hating, man-hating, sex-hating, ageist, lesbian-yet-homophobic movement by chronicling the diversity of its members and their activities. Having been involved with and now writing about the women's liberation movement in Seattle, I find much of the historical writing about the women's movement too focused on a few East Coast cities. While succumbing to New York chauvinism—“New York represented the roiling center of pure feminist theory (in opposition to Chicago and Washington's socialist/feminist/anti-imperialist vision)”—Brownmiller discusses feminist activities and introduces us to unknown women's liberation activists in Seattle, Denver and Austin. (Disclosure: In order to broaden the scope of the book, she contacted me to get names of people in the movement in Seattle. For this, she thanks me in the Acknowledgments.)

Brownmiller believes that no movement “agonized more, or flailed itself harder, over its failure to attract vast numbers of women of color.” Like many other early feminists, she gained her first political experience in the civil rights movement, working as a summer volunteer in Mississippi, an experience that made her and others very race-conscious. Pam Allen, another early activist, wrote a “Memo to My White Sisters,” warning that “we will lose our chance of finding our humanity” if the women's movement cannot make “alliances among poor black women.” But as Brownmiller shows, women of color such as Flo Kennedy, Pat Robinson, Francis Beale, Cellestine Ware and Eleanor Holmes Norton were present at the creation and played central, albeit unacknowledged, roles in political activity and the development of feminist theory. Brownmiller believes that the repeated flagellation among white women over the issue of race “was born of feminine insecurity, that middle-class white women had no right to make any demands for themselves, or to achieve something of political importance of their own. Black women did come into the movement singly, and sometimes, although rarely, they came in groups. Burdened by two distinct forms of oppression—three when the voices of black lesbian feminists began to be heard—they never forgot their divided loyalties, and how could they.” But in spite of all its problems, Brownmiller concludes that “no other movement in our lifetime achieved such broad based societal changes that cut across so many class and racial lines.”

Brownmiller's 1975 book, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, made her a movement superstar. The chapters about writing the book and its impact are some of the most fascinating, especially in light of late eighties and early nineties feminiphobia—for example, attempts by Camille Paglia and Katie Roiphe to trivialize the women's movement's campaign against rape. Despite anti-feminist attacks by neo-conservative pundits and evolutionary psychologists, Against Our Will continues to be the definitive, albeit controversial, book on the subject.

Preparing to write this review, I reread Against Our Will, in particular the chapter on race. Writing about Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old black youth lynched in Money, Mississippi, for whistling at a white woman, Brownmiller had enraged readers when she asserted that Till and his murderers had something in common—the idea that white women were white men's property. I still gasp at her words: “We are rightly aghast that a whistle could be the cause for murder, but we must accept that Emmett Till and J. W. Milam shared something in common. They both understood that the whistle was no small tweet of hubba hubba or melodious approval for a well turned ankle.” The whistle was “the last reminder to Carolyn Bryant that this black boy, Till, had in mind to possess her.”

Brownmiller came under intense attack from a wide range of feminists and anti-racist activists for her analysis. Unfortunately, she seems impervious to 25 years of critique of both “old” and “new” left positions on rape, race and gender, and to important theoretical studies intersecting race, class, gender, hierarchies of power and domination. Equally unfortunate, she dismisses those who disagree with her analysis of rape, race and gender as inflexible and dogmatic leftists.

She is equally unreflective about the debate over pornography, never really discussing and drawing out the myriad implications of her anti-pornography stance. In some areas anti-porn feminists played into the hands of real estate developers. For example, Diane Feinstein, then mayor of San Francisco, “speaking out against the Kearney Street Blight, how it was bad for San Francisco's image,” supported Women Against Violence in Pornography and the Media (WAVPAM). Anti-porn activists found themselves in alliances with the police and religious moralists, none of them ever particularly sensitive to women's issues, who saw themselves as protectors of women and guardians of their morality.

More analysis and reflection would have strengthened the book. How did feminism inform Brownmiller's life? Did she take the principles of feminism into her relationships with family, friends, lovers, colleagues? She says almost nothing about this here: I got a greater sense of who she is personally from a recent article in The New York Times about her Saturday night poker game.

Political reflection and analysis would engage readers, especially those who would like to find their own connection to the women's liberation movement. Brownmiller needs to write more about the present state of feminism as well as its legacy. How did a feminist analysis of pornography and sexual harassment, even our slogan, “the personal is political,” become co-opted by the right wing, especially in light of the Clinton scandals? Given the intense, sororicidal political fights Brownmiller chronicles, what have we learned about our political behavior? Can we create radical feminist organizations and institutions without the personal carnage? Or is there something intrinsic about feminists and feminist activity and organization that leads to bitterness and burnout? How did institution-building affect radical feminist militancy? For example, the creation and maintenance of rape crisis centers and battered women's shelters meant that feminists found themselves having to make alliances and work with the (patriarchal) state apparatus—police departments, state and federal legislators, judges and social workers. What have we learned? What could be done differently? What has been the effect of women entering in and working within the Democratic Party? I think that has had as much of an impact on the decline of feminist militancy as the debate over pornography.

Reminding us of the women's movement's great triumphs—“the absolute rightness of the feminist vision”—Brownmiller fails to recognize that even today, rightly or wrongly, many women activists still see feminism as a white women's movement. I wonder whether she fully appreciates how class, race and nationality intersect with gender. She still believes that feminism can speak with one voice: “Of course it is wildly unrealistic to speak in one voice for half the human race, yet that is what feminism always attempts to do, and must do.” She has nothing to say about the global dimensions of the women's movement. While she may believe the movement in the United States is moribund, it is not true elsewhere, as the 1995 women's conference in Beijing demonstrated.

The book is a bit of a hybrid. It is not a memoir in the accepted sense of the word, for it lacks the requisite introspection and reflection. Nor is it a conventional history, for Brownmiller writes from the “partisan vantage point of a participant-observer.” Wisely, she decided not to claim that she is writing either a or the history of the radical women's liberation movement, too difficult an undertaking at this present time given its size and decentralization. In Our Time focuses on how feminist activism created feminist theory. Brownmiller's great achievement is to give the reader a sense of the transformative joy of living through and participating in one of the major social movements of the last fifty years.

Carol Anne Douglas (review date 31 May 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2134

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 1964.

In 1968, she went to a meeting of New York Radical Women and was bowled over by women talking about their lives, particularly their abortions. She joined the group.

But the early years of the feminist movement, though full of heady exhilaration, were not easy. There were many political battles, the first being over how much of the feminist agenda could be set by the Left. Brownmiller's first group collapsed over the struggle over whether male supremacy or capitalism was the main problem.

Women were holding speakouts and demonstrations and confronting the men in their lives. “Truth squads” of feminists confronted other feminists' husbands over their philandering. One husband accepted his chastisement meekly; another flew into a rage.

Brownmiller joined the West Village-One brigade of New York Radical Feminists, and belonged to it for four years. The group engaged in both consciousness-raising and activism.

Brownmiller provides many accounts, both first person and not, of the significant early demonstrations. She participated in the sit-in at the Ladies' Home Journal that succeeded in getting the Journal to publish a women's liberation supplement. The feminists made many other demands, including asking for child care for the workers, an all-women editorial staff, more articles by and about Black women, and articles telling how to obtain abortions and divorces. Some feminists have charged that others brought their resumes to the sit-in because they wanted jobs, not reforms, but Brownmiller says the pieces of paper they were waiving were their demands and lists of the kinds of articles the Journal ought to publish.

Brownmiller faced much criticism in the movement for publishing articles in the establishment press. At the time, it was common for feminists to severely criticize others who signed their names to articles or got publicity when they spoke for the movement.

In 1970, Brownmiller criticized NOW founder Betty Friedan's fear of lesbians as “the lavender menace,” saying in a Time article that there was “A lavender herring, perhaps, but no clear and present danger.” Lesbians were furious at Brownmiller for minimizing their importance in the movement. Indeed they were a threat to patriarchy.

Brownmiller has always been a bit clueless about lesbianism. She thought women's dances were “irrelevant to feminist goals.”

But the book is full of details to fascinate those who care about the movement. I was interested to learn many things I didn't know, as well as revisit those I did.

When the media began to tout Gloria Steinem as a feminist leader, though she was not active in the first years of the Second Wave, Betty Friedan told a reporter, “No one should mistake her for a leader.” Steinem responded by largely ignoring Friedan in Ms.—and, irresponsibly, ignoring the National Organization for Women (N.O.W.) as well.

In 1971, the first speakout on rape (where women publicly testified about their experiences) was held in New York, and the first conference on rape was held a few months later. Brownmiller was inspired to devote herself to writing a book on rape. The research was difficult. There were more entries in the card catalogue of the library on rapeseed than on rape, she writes.

Although the conference on rape was a great success, a 1971 feminist conference on prostitution was disrupted by prostitutes, who yelled that there was no difference between selling your body and selling your mind. The problem was that the conference departed from the tradition of speakouts in which women told about their own experiences. Later, survivors of prostitution would join the movement and work against prostitution, but it hadn't happened yet.

Brownmiller's important book on rape was published in 1975. She had left West Village-One when other group members suggested that she shouldn't put her name on the book. (I'm often sorry that I joined the movement so late—in 1972, but whenever I hear about the early days when women were told not to sign their work, I'm just as glad I didn't. Hey, folks, writing is work. As Brownmiller reports, off our backs' founder, Marilyn Webb, was chastised for writing too much and was soon pushed off the paper.)

Brownmiller is good about citing the movement articles on rape that preceded her book, and she details the founding of the first rape crisis center, in Washington, D.C. By the time her book was published, there were 400 rape crisis centers, she notes. Nevertheless, her book added to the feminist analysis of rape and spread it far.

Brownmiller tells how she was criticized for racism in the book. She notes that people on the Left were angry that she said the Left paid attention to rape only when white women made false charges against Black men. She wrote that Emmett Till, a fifteen-year-old who was lynched for whistling at a white woman, shared the same perspective as the men who lynched him, that white women were white men's property. She defends herself for saying that, but she ignores another major criticism by readers of her book: although she wrote that most rape is intraracial (white on white, black on black), she nevertheless included a chapter on “the police blotter rapist” or the police idea of a typical rapist—a young black man. I've never understood why she included that chapter, because she was at some points careful about race, pointing out that historically the real horror of interracial rape was white men's wholesale rape of Black women slaves.

Brownmiller tells about movement history that she wasn't a part of, as well as what she experienced. I hadn't known that the formulation of the idea of workplace sexual harassment and the first actions against it took place at Cornell University. Most of the major cases involving sexual harassment were brought by Black women, Brownmiller writes.

Brownmiller had little liking for Left-feminist views that pervaded much of the '70s. She supported Jane Alpert, a woman who went underground after a bombing and later gave herself up and denounced the men of the Left, saying she didn't mourn the death of “male supremacists” (male prisoners, including her former lover) in a prison revolt at Attica, New York. A number of other feminists denounced this view and said she had informed to the FBI when she turned herself in, leading to the arrest of another woman, Pat Swinton. Brownmiller didn't believe that Alpert had talked. She also found it ridiculous that the Redstockings denounced Gloria Steinem because she had worked in her youth (1959) for a CIA-front organization that arranged travel to youth festivals in Communist countries. Brownmiller clearly places herself on the liberal (rather than Left) portion of the political spectrum, and expresses frustration that radical feminist activists were not able to work within the system.

Then came the anti-pornography movement. Brownmiller participated in the first anti-pornography conference in San Francisco in 1978, which included the first Take Back the Night march. But Margo St. James of the prostitutes' group COYOTE claimed credit in the press for the march and said that feminists weren't opposed to selling sex.

Brownmiller concluded that the anti-pornography movement needed to be centered in New York, where she knew the media. She helped found Women Against Pornography (WAP), which created the first anti-pornography slide show. At the New York anti-pornography conference, a lesbian wearing a man's style suit jumped onto the stage and shouted at Brownmiller, “We do all the work in the movement, and you go home and suck cock.” (Brownmiller notes that she was living alone at the time.) Brownmiller replied, “If you hate men so much, why are you wearing men's clothes?” Many lesbians were angry at Brownmiller; Adrienne Rich left WAP because of Brownmiller's comment and never spoke to her again.

Brownmiller says that the anti-pornography movement was unfairly called conservative for targeting pornography. But it is surprising that she found it acceptable to consult with a Catholic priest, who doubtless had a very different perspective on what was pornography, about how to deal with Times Square.

Brownmiller did not support the ordinance devised by Catherine A. MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin that would have given women used in pornography and women abused through the use of pornography the right to sue the makers and distributors. Brownmiller thought the measure was unconstitutional (the Supreme Court later agreed), but did not publicly oppose the ordinance, eschewing what became a bitter fight among feminists. Now she is critical of the ordinance and its framers, seeing them as dividing the movement. I think they never could have guessed that other feminists would so oppose the ordinance that they would write an opposing brief to the Supreme Court (Betty Friedan and Adrienne Rich were among those who signed it).

Never good with words on lesbians, Brownmiller wisely refrains from commenting on lesbian sadomasochism; instead, she called a lesbian feminist (me) and quoted my comments.

In the early '80s, Brownmiller herself was busy publishing her second book Femininity, which tried to reclaim femininity. The kindest thing that can be said about it is that it was no Against Our Will. She says little about it in this book.

Brownmiller calls the anti-pornography movement “the last gasp of radical feminism” and says there have been no theoretical advances since. But how many major intellectual breakthroughs can one movement produce?

Brownmiller's own last turn speaking out was on battered women, whom she thinks do have some responsibility for their actions or inaction. She wrote criticizing Hedda Nussbaum, the wife of Joel Steinberg, who murdered their adopted daughter, Lisa. Nussbaum did nothing during the 14 hours that Lisa took to die. Other feminists defended Nussbaum as suffering from battered women's syndrome, but Brownmiller felt that she still had some responsibility for failing to act.

This seems to be the time for many women's movement veterans to write their memoirs. 1999 saw the publication of The Feminist Memoir Project, an anthology of memoirs, and Karla Jay's memoir, Tales of a Lavender Menace. Brownmiller's memoir is more ambitious in providing a history of the movement. She generally is fair, even to those who did not share her views, though she always makes it obvious when her views differ from those of the woman she is writing about. She clearly detests the views and actions of Ti-Grace Atkinson, who has told me that there are inaccuracies in the book. It seems strange that Brownmiller didn't interview Atkinson about the early years when she interviewed many other feminists. The only outright error I could find in the book was calling Quest an arts journal rather than a theoretical journal. The book is very worth reading, although I wish it had a more optimistic ending. It does not mention women's studies, which has become the means of spreading feminism in recent years.

Nor does it say much about the work of feminists of color, except for Flo Kennedy and Eleanor Holmes Norton. It tells a bit about the National Black Feminist Organization of the '70s and says that there were successor groups such as the Combahee River Collective. From reading this book, one might think that Michele Wallace's Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman was the only work by a Black feminist! Brownmiller also doesn't mention Jewish feminists (writing as Jews), feminists with disabilities, etc. She believes that there have been no intellectual breakthroughs since the feminist theorists wrote about pornography, but that is because she does not include these strands of feminism. But if you want to know about the '60s and '70s, this book is valuable.

Kathleen Endres (review date spring 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 533

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 Orgasm.”

Brownmiller also tells about the jealousy and infighting within the editorial collectives. Marilyn Webb, founder of off our backs, became one of the first (but certainly not the last) victim of petty jealousies. She was driven away from that publication because others accused her of “class privileges,” rising popularity (seen as a detriment) and “taking up too much space.” She was not the only casualty. Holly Forsman and Diane Crothers, of the New York Radical Feminists, were roundly criticized by Rat, another early Women's Liberation periodical, for appearing on the televised Dick Cavett Show.

Women in the movement had to somehow find a balance between getting their message out, a necessity, and “seeking stardom,” something to be avoided. A number of leaders of the Women's Liberation Movement were able to strike that balance by working behind the scenes to manipulate the mainstream press, according to Brownmiller. When the movement started, marches got little attention, but leaders soon staged “media events.” Brownmiller was at many of them. She was there when the women took over John Mack Carter's editorial office at the Ladies' Home Journal and when Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPAM) arranged tours of the smut shops in New York City. Those two events were extensively covered by the mainstream press.

But Brownmiller, an accomplished journalist and author of Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape,Femininity, and Waverly Place, does not just rely on her memories to write this book. She interviewed more than 200 activists, had access to the archives (cardboard cartons) of such early leaders as Barbara Mehrhof, Marilyn Webb, Florence Rush, Jane Alpert, Becky Taber, Karen Sauvigne, Pat Lynden, and Dorchen Leidholdt, and culled through newspaper and magazine articles of the time period.

Like all of Brownmiller's books, this memoir is meticulously researched and well written. Those who were involved in the movement will find it bitchy. Those who were not will find it painfully honest.

Jennifer L. Dunn (review date April 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 760

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 everyone who played a part, however small. Throughout, Brownmiller tells and repeats fascinating stories of what went on behind the scenes, and it is these tales that are both the most compelling, and sometimes disturbing, feature of this work.

Brownmiller does a wonderful job of conveying the intoxication of epiphany, the lived experience of discovering the political in the personal, familiar to those drawn to social movements in their early days. She brings back to life those moments of simultaneous elation and outrage in the stories of women who remember them well. Now we are used to intimacy in public forums, but Brownmiller reminds us that when women first came together in rap groups and speak-outs, the revelatory connections made sparked individual and collective transformations in ways that forever changed men and women and their worlds.

The book is also notable for the careful attention Brownmiller pays to the growing pains of the movement. For example, her thoughts on issues of race and social class in the early days reveal much about the reflexive awkwardness of attempts at inclusion, and Brownmiller is unsparing of the movement when she describes the factionalism or “internal combustion” (p. 227) that, in her telling, are as characteristic of the movement as sisterhood itself. Here, there is much that will interest a wide range of readers. There are celebrities and their fans in the bright glare of media, such as the much revered Gloria Steinem and Brownmiller herself, and detailed accounts of the costs of such celebrity. Brownmiller addresses, if not dispels, charges that some used the movement for personal gain. She provides nuanced accounts of the struggles among rape, battering, and pornography activists to accomplish change in the context of success, including a thoughtful analysis of how shelter movements have been shaped by the fear of victim blaming in the context of a “bunker mentality” (p. 275).

Brownmiller's candor may go too far, however. “Nothing in our women's movement was ever accomplished without severe emotional depletion and fractured personal relations,” asserts Brownmiller, and it is here that the very tales that make this book so interesting become problematic. For women not personally involved in the struggles reported here, Brownmiller's portrayals of the icons of the movement, as well as some lesser characters, produce something of the guilty pleasures associated with hearing good gossip. Some of those depicted, however, are likely to be infuriated. This is because Brownmiller, despite claiming to have become “philosophical” (p. 100) about “vicious internecine battles” (p. 227) in some of which she played central roles, seems to be using her book to settle some old scores. Many of those who attacked or even snubbed Brownmiller come under fire, with thinly veiled acerbity—Rita Mae Brown becomes a demagogue, Diane Arbus “treacherous” (p. 139), and both Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer are cast in unflattering lights. Does Brownmiller spare herself? Her stories of attempts to purge her, of being labeled homophobic, of famous faux pas she herself committed are mesmerizing—and more than a little defensive in tone. Here Brownmiller blurs the boundaries between reportage, social commentary, and statements that some will certainly feel are self-serving at best. This makes for lively reading, but perhaps Steinem's quip to Brownmiller that “in other movements they shoot each other” understates the real wounding exchanged here.

Wendy Steiner (review date 6 April 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 915

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 Far, just published, expresses unforgettably the reformist sensibility, with her emphasis on equal rights, child care, abortion and other concrete changes in the situation of women. Brownmiller, in contrast, belonged among the radicals. These were the fantasists, spin doctors and poets of the women's revolution who attacked female oppression through its symbols. The two branches fought for many of the same goals, but the radicals' idea of liberation lay as much in expressive practice as in lasting gains.

The poetic legacy of feminism is in its mantras of outrage and excess: “the personal is political”; “abortion is a woman's right”; “take back the night”; “the temptation to be a beautiful object”; “no more Miss America”; “the myth of the vaginal orgasm”; “we are all lesbians.” Consciousness-raising was its insurgency, and hyperbole its favoured weapon. Revolution came by turning the tables. If men burnt their draft cards, women could burn their bras. If male catcalls and whistles objectified women, a feminist Ogle-In would show whether construction workers could take what they dished out. “‘Too small!’ ‘Too skinny!’ ‘Hey, fella, can you type, file, and make coffee?’” If men stared at naked women in peep shows, feminist tours of Times Square would let women stare at staring men. “The unexpected appearance of women in clothes to observe men in clothes watching naked women writhe in mock sexual pleasure for the men's entertainment, dramatically altered the atmosphere of the live sex show's self-contained world.” I'll bet it did.

Brownmiller describes movingly the experience of consciousness-raising, in which she and the others in her group took turns telling their personal “herstories” of abortions, harassment, violence. In the process of this narrating, what had before been shameful secrets became a shared sense of outrage at social injustice. Confessing intimate stories to strangers was not exhibitionism, they realized, but political defiance, for the breaching of “proper” female behaviour revealed propriety as just another mechanism of oppression.

The forging of sisterhood and collectivity, however, left the movement's leaders in a contradiction, and Brownmiller's account sounds eerily like a history of Soviet Communism, full of rightist deviations, false consciousness and purges. The seeds of paranoia and terror are apparent in the feminist Sally Kempton's statement that “It is hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.” Brownmiller herself was accused of racism, homophobia and an attempt “to rise to fame on the back of the women's movement.” When she wrote Against Our Will, a sister complained: “Do you have to put your name on your book? … Rape doesn't belong to you, it belongs to the movement.”

Too literary for her own good, Brownmiller sometimes got into trouble for her well-intentioned witticisms, as when she called the conservative equation of feminism with lesbianism a “lavender herring.” Indeed, some of her figures of speech do not seem altogether innocent. She notes that Gloria Steinem's stunning good looks were useful to the women's movement, calling her “a golden achiever” with an “armament of perfect beauty.”

Radical feminists never could manage differences among women. When they campaigned to end prostitution, they were horrified that prostitutes rose up in protest. Pro-pornography feminists mobilized against their anti-pornography sisters. On talk shows, the consciousness-raising that had earlier linked women now became sensationalist confession, with victims vying in an escalation of pain that fed the ratings but did nothing to change women's lives. And then the final insult: the performance artist Susie Bright called her magazine for “adventurous lesbians” On Our Backs, appropriating the name of America's longest continuously published feminist paper for her own purposes. The righteous game of appropriation turned on itself in a fizzle of poetic justice, and the feminist tilting at symbol systems came to an end.

Brownmiller tells the history of this uncivil war of the sexes with great verve, but she seems quite uninterested in the current phase of reconstruction, in which ordinary women juggle the conflicting demands of jobs, children and lovers. Though a larger-than-life heroism has passed out of the women's movement, we can be grateful to Susan Brownmiller for explaining how we got from there to here and for reminding us how much fun and pain women had in the process.


Principal Works


Further Reading