I've been meaning to write a review of Susan Brownmiller's In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution. But since she discusses the reaction to Agaisnt Our Will I decided I needed to read that before I could write my review.* Then, once I'd read her chapter about race, I realised that I needed to review Against our Will before I could review In Our Time, because some of my thoughts about Against Our Will were too long for a footnote.
If that isn't enough of a precursor I then lost my copy of Against Our Will, so I haven't finished it. But since I'm reviewing a 30 year old book, just to make some points so my review of another book makes slightly more sense, I don't think it'll matter if I'm only actually talking about half the book. So here goes...
My first reaction to Against Our Will is just how amazing it is that it exists. The women's liberation movement invented feminism as we know it. Rape, domestic violence, body image, even abortion - haven't always been defined as political issues. It is a testament to the amazing analysing, educating and organising of the women's liberation movement that we no longer see these things as individual problems.
So I have to start by giving credit to Susan Brownmiller for the work that she did. Also to point out that she didn't work alone. It was as women talked together about their experiences of rape that they realised that rape wasn't just an individual issue. Susan Brownmiller articulated that important understanding, but it was because of the work of many conciousness raising groups that she came to this conclusion in the first place (a debt she fully acknowledges).
The Red Menace
One of the most puzzling things to me about In Our Time was its weird semi-red-baiting. She dismissed any economic argument out of hand, and seemed to think that calling someone red was enough to discredit their point of view.
Having read Against Our Will Susan Brownmiller's position no longer puzzled me. This is an excerpt from a signed article in the Daily Worker:
Was it not a fact that she had been promised $5?
Was it not a fact that she accepted this offer?
Was it not a fact that she had dates in the past with one of the men?
This is completely reprehensible. To imply that if a woman is a prostitute she automatically consents to sex, or if she dates a man she is consenting to sex ever after - that is to condone, if not actively promote, men raping women.
The Communist Party of America did good and important work defending black men against a racist court system. But they didn't need to trash women to do so, they didn't need to reinforce rape myths to do so.
So I can understand Susan Brownmiller's anger at the Old Left - for not just repeating these lies, but believing them. I understand her anger at the New Left that proposed a 'rape-in' against congressmen's wives as political action; used women as a reward for politically right on men: "Girls Say Yes, To Guys Who Say No"; and embraced Eldridge Cleaver. I would say fury is the only appropriate response to these things. I do think that this fury blinded her to some ideas that were too important to be dismissed just because those who espoused them were misogynist assholes, but I understand why it did.
A Question of Race
The most controversial part of Against Our Will was always Susan Brownmiller’s discussion of race. In a way I feel it is foolish for me to comment on it. I’ve read a bit about American history, but I’m not American, I know enough to know that I don’t know enough – and that this is a difficult topic. But I’m feeling stupid today, so here goes.
This was the article of her book that I read first, the controversy – so I wanted to see what she’d said for herself, so I could better judge how she'd reported on the conflict.
For about the first half of the chapter, I thought she was making a lot of sense. She pointed out that white men were using white women to punish black men, and often the white women were merely pawns. The Scottsboro Boys, which is one of the most famous cases, is a good example of this. The rumour that they had been raped was not started by the two white women who were riding on the same train as the Scottsboro boys. The police arrested these women and told them that they'd be charged with prostitution unless they gave evidence.
I think it was an interesting point, and - like I've already said - I agreed with most of the points about how those organising the defence chose to frame these cases. She also has some really good figures about the frequency of inter-racial rape, and the actual reasons black men were lynched (it was more likely to be for owning property, than for accusations of inter-racial relationships).
But the chapter, and her argument, got completely unhinged near the end. It starts with Susan Brownmiller's discussion of the Wille McGee case - a black man who was executed because he was accused of raping a white woman. Towards the end of the appeals process Willie McGee's wife came forward and said that her husband had been having an affair with the white woman, and it was when he was caught that the white woman accused him of rape. It seems to really matter to Susan Brownmiller that the white woman is telling the truth and Willie McGee's wife (who was black) is lying. I think it's always dangerous history (and even more dangerous politics) for the facts of an individual case to matter that much. If you need everyone on your side (in whatever sense you have a side) to have always been worthy and pure, then you're not on particularly solid ground.
If Susan Brownmiller's argument depends on no white woman ever using the agency and power she did have maliciously, then her argument is invalid. That Susan Brownmiller needed to believe the white woman over the black woman, is a sign of her racism.
It doesn't get any better from there on in, and by the end of the chapter it seems that she's suggesting that the reason left-wing people criticise the prison system is because they don't take rape seriously, and don't care about women.**
The need to be specific
The racism in her book isn’t only in her chapter on race, although it comes across most strongly there. While she acknowledges that black men were killed because they were accused of raping white women, she doesn't seem to accept that this means that you have to have a different analysis of rape in the white south, than you would where these circumstances were not present. Over and over again she refuses to see see any other dynamic but a gendered one, and to look at colonial and slavery-era America solely through the point of view of gender.
The only exception, the only time she acknowledges that men don't always rape is the fact that the Viet Cong, and other guerilla armies, don't rape (because they can't, as their military strategy requires the support of the people around them). I guess her background meant that she believed that, when people told her. But she rushed over this point, having spent an entire chapter talking about why men always rape women in times of war.
As well as being hugely racist, I think this is just plain bad scholarship, and bad feminism. Her analysis that men always have raped women in exactly the same way, with exactly the same meaning, throughout recorded time - offers no hope, no subtlety and no possibility of change.
If I'm going to live in this world I have to believe that it doesn't have to be like this. I have to believe that men rape women because of specific historical circumstances, and that we can change these circumstances.
* No I hadn't read Against Our Will before now, I'm a bad feminist. I've also tried to read The Female Eunuch about half a dozen times, but it never seems to make any sense. But I'm not entirely convinced that's a problem with me.
** She was mostly talking about Jessica Mitford (and I'll happily admit that I'm biased when it comes to Jessica Mitford - because her books played a large part in me becoming a political activist) and her critique of prisons. While I'd admit that Jessica Mitford's letters indicate that she her political analysis of rape was only slightly more advanced than Stephen Erber's - I'm fairly sure that her criticism of prisons was based on a thorough understanding of the prison-industrial complex - and is the only reasonable position to take in the face of that knowledge.
Also posted on Alas.