Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Valerie Solanas and the SCUM Manifesto

Valerie Solanas (born 9 April 1936)


If she had lived, Valerie Solanas would have been seventy-nine years old today, two years younger than Gloria Steinem, who is still vigorous, active, and involved, an iconic--and beloved--figure in the second-wave feminist movement. But Solanas died in 1988, at age fifty-two. She is not a revered figure whose life and work are celebrated. No major universities have endowed academic chairs in her name. A polarizing figure, at best, Solanas is still the subject of scorn and vitriol, nearly thirty years after her death.

Many people despise her--I am not one of them.

Solanas was a provocateur, radical and volatile. She was angry, confrontational, and violent--and while I do not excuse her acts of violence, neither do I believe her to be a depraved monster. 

In the past, I have compared Valerie Solanas to a woman whom I have already profiled in this blog, Arcangela Tarabotti.* And in many ways, it is hard to say which is more shocking today, Arcangela Tarabotti’s Paternal Tyranny or Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto. I've taught both texts to classes full of college students, and my sense is that they find Tarabotti's work every bit as challenging and upsetting as Solanas's.

I was in college when the Women’s Liberation movement was born, when the newly formed National Organization of Women celebrated Mother’s Day by demanding “Rights, Not Roses,” when a group of New York feminists protested by burying a dummy of “Traditional Womanhood” at a peace rally in Washington D. C., when Angela Davis was on the FBI’s list of the “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives,” and when a group of lesbian radicals began publishing The Furies, a “lesbian/feminist monthly.”

In the midst of all of this, in early 1967, Valerie Solanas began selling mimeographed copies of her SCUM Manifesto on the streets of New York. Even though I know the context out of which she wrote, I still take a deep breath before I open up my slim copy of Solanas’s work. I know what to expect, but she still takes my breath away. 

Solanas is very clear not only about the genre but about the purpose of her work: 
Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation, and destroy the male sex.
For a long time, Solanas and the SCUM Manifesto were largely written out of feminist history. Robin Morgan did include selections from the Manifesto in her 1970 Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement (misspelling Solanas’s name as “Solanis”), and Germaine Greer wrote incisively and sympathetically about the manifesto in The Female Eunuch, published the same year.

But as second-wave feminism became less radical and more mainstream, Solanas tended to disappear. Now-classic references like Yale’s 1990 The Feminist Companion to Literature in English: Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present (1203 pages) and Bloomsbury Publishing’s 1992 Guide to Women’s Literature throughout the World: From Sappho to Atwood, Women’s Writing through the Ages (more than 5,000 entries) ignored Solanas as they helped to shape an emerging canon of “women writers.” Even today, the self-proclaimed “landmark” American National Biography, which “offers portraits of more than 17,400 men and women—from all eras and walks of life—whose lives have shaped the nation” mentions Solanas only in its entry on Andy Warhol and describes her only as an “aspiring actress.”

As for me, now that I have reread Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto before writing this post, I am struck at the visceral responses it still evokes, nearly fifty years after Solanas wrote it. While critical reassessment of Solanas’s Manifesto has begun, too many readers respond not to Solanas’s work but to her life. She is reduced to the events of 3 June 1968, when she shot Andy Warhol, and the SCUM Manifesto is read as if it were the mad ramblings of a female jihadist rather than a carefully crafted text. 

More than one careful reader has compared Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal--I have made this comparison myself, in fact. The savage satire of Swift’s “proposal” is shocking and provocative, yet this eighteenth-century text is a staple of the literature classroom—I first read it in high school, and it was assigned reading in several of my undergraduate and graduate literature courses.

Swift’s The Modest Proposal is read and taught as a conscious literary effort, a brilliant example of Juvenalian satire, perhaps inspired by the second-century Christian Father of the Church, Tertullian, and his Apology in Defense of Christianity. In his “proposal,” Swift “advocates” infanticide and cannibalism—cooking and eating Irish babies—as the only logical means of curing deplorable social, political, and economic ills. Yet no one reads Swift’s A Modest Proposal literally—or, at least, they don’t read it literally for long, if the ridicule heaped on na├»ve high-school students in my 1967 high school classroom was typical. If you didn’t get it, you were an idiot. Although Swift’s life ended in debility, violence, and madness, that life—and his work—aren’t reduced to his debility, violence, and madness.

Swift’s legacy is his writing—A Modest Proposal and Gulliver’s Travels, chief among his literary achievements. But Solanas is reduced too often to “madness” and her act of violence. The SCUM Manifesto is read as the primary symptom of this madness and violence. Its craft—its satiric brilliance, its linguistic sparkle, its stylistic inventiveness (Solanas’s extravagant lists, for example, with their breathtaking juxtapositions)—is all too frequently ignored. 

But, against all odds and the many efforts to discredit her or to erase her altogether, Valerie Solanas managed to live on, despite the outrage and the efforts to make her--and her work--disappear. When she was interviewed in 1991, Solanas’s mother gave her daughter an identity that she was largely denied in her own lifetime—her daughter was a writer, Dorothy Moran insisted.

Today, there is the slick hardcover edition of the SCUM Manifesto with hot-pink endpapers and a more recent paperback (which, oddly, also uses hot pink in its design), but that radical identity Solanas dared to claim—writer—has survived in other ways, less pinkified and "girly," as witnessed by graffiti images captured by passersby and shared online.

One image, posted in December 2006 on Flickr, the popular photo-sharing website, is from a bathroom stall somewhere in New York City. On the grimy, mustard-yellow door (underneath "buns, not guns"), near the hinge, is scrawled, “Read the SCUM Manifesto.” Another photo, this one part of a series of “Ivy League” graffiti images, was posted online in 2008. It offers first a command, in large letters, “♀—read the SCUM MANIFESTO.” In smaller letters, below, the writer offers her rationale: “our justified rage can be hilarious!” And then there’s the photo of another piece of graffiti, found outside a sex shop in Gothenburg, Sweden, and posted in 2009. This image is in stark black and white, black italic script, slightly blurred, on a white stucco wall: “Valerie Was Right.”

Eva the Weaver's flikr image
In fact, I put together a visual presentation for my students in spring 2013, the last time I taught Solanas's SCUM Manifesto. I collected dozens of such graffiti images posted online, including photographs taken on the campus of Evergreen State College, in my home state of Washington, others from places as far away from one another as New Orleans and Barcelona, and one recent photo noting the graffito was found and photographed in "an undisclosed location."

There are comic books, art school projects, blog posts (like this one), cartoons, and reimaginations posted on Facebook. And there are tons of products--jackets, "Valerie was right" barettes, t-shirts, even baby onesies. I love these memorials—testimony to the enduring nature of Solanas’s work as a writer and to the survival of her anger and her humor. 

More recently, Solanas and the SCUM Manifesto do seem to be making their way back into history. Solanas is included in both the 2004 Notable American Women: Completing the Twentieth Century (Harvard) and in the 2005 Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Women's Biography. Breanne Fahs has just published the first biography of Solanas, Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol), published by the Feminist Press

And while there are several print editions of the SCUM Manifesto available for sale on Amazon, for once, in the spirit of Solanas, who distributed her work on the streets of New York, I'll suggest reading one of the many online versions--I like the text posted at Womynkind, but there are others available.

*Parts of this post have been adapted from Reading Women's Worlds: Six Centuries of Writing by Women Imagining Rooms of Their Own. And you might want to check out my essay, "Lysistrata and the War on Women," here (scroll down once you reach the site for this particular essay).