Radical feminists Valerie Solanas and Shulamith Firestone battled schizophrenia until their tragic deaths. What happened to our feminist visionaries?
Sometime in the late 1970s, radical feminist Shulamith Firestone, author of the pioneering and best-selling 1970 manifesto The Dialectic of Sex, went to visit Valerie Solanas at her apartment on the Lower East Side. Solanas had written her own searing work, 1967’s S.C.U.M. Manifesto, but then, as now, she was better known for shooting Andy Warhol in 1968, after which she served three years in prison and was in and out of psychiatric hospitals. “She waxed paranoid on the subject of the ‘media mafia’ that was out to get her,” Firestone recalled in her second and final book, Airless Spaces. “I thought maybe it was true.”
The next time Firestone saw Solanas, likely around 1980, Solanas was begging on the street and speaking gibberish. Soon after that, Warhol’s would-be assassin left New York and spent the early 1980s in Phoenix, where, according to Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote S.C.U.M. (and Shot Andy Warhol), a new biography by Breanne Fahs, she “roamed the streets eating out of Dumpsters, digging a fork into her scab-filled arms, and howling at the moon.” Solanas landed in San Francisco, where she rented a room in a seedy hotel, holing herself up to write furiously, and supplemented her government benefits by working as a prostitute. In April 1988, the hotel manager entered her room to collect her overdue rent and found her decomposing body.
Firestone’s recollection of Solanas in Airless Spaces—a book categorized as fiction but widely considered to be a memoir—is haunting, in no small part because of Firestone’s own sad demise, 24 years later. Hers contained eerily similar elements: an unpaid rent bill leading to a grisly discovery by a building superintendent. Both women, after writing urgent works that showed a razor-sharp grasp of women’s oppression, were diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and institutionalized, subsequently exiling themselves and dying in isolation (Firestone in 2012).
This comparison shouldn’t be stretched too thin; Solanas and Firestone were very different before and after the onset of mental illness. Fahs’s biography sees Solanas as an inspirational figure to the radical feminist movement, and Alice Echols, whose 1989 book Daring to Be Bad is the seminal history of that movement, called S.C.U.M. Manifesto “obligatory reading for radical feminists” upon its publication. The Manifesto—which opens, “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”—still grabs readers by the throat decades later. But the intense and abrasive Solanas was no women’s libber or movement feminist. She preferred, Fahs writes, “total outsider status.” Her case was divisive to feminists: Some saw her attack on Warhol (who Solanas believed was planning to use her work without compensating her) as a feminist act. And indeed radicals like Ti-Grace Atkinson, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, and attorney Florynce Kennedy, who represented her pro bono, rallied around Solanas. But there were others who wrote her off as a lunatic who would discredit the movement. In time, Solanas alienated all of her supporters with threatening and abusive behavior.
Firestone, on the other hand, was a vital builder of the radical feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s, helping to create three organizations—New York Radical Women, Redstockings, and New York Radical Feminists—that offered a revolutionary alternative to the liberal National Organization for Women. She was also an important theorist: The Dialectic of Sex used Marxist and Freudian analysis to offer a vision of a world where “genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.” S.C.U.M., for its part, argued for the elimination of the male sex using humor, satire, and sarcasm. In Airless Spaces, Firestone said of visiting Solanas, “I did not see this as a meeting with a fellow theorist”; she seemed more interested in Solanas as a fellow former mental patient.
Perhaps that’s why Firestone’s assessment of Solanas’s paranoia—“I thought maybe it was true”—is so resonant. At what point did Solanas’s intuitive understanding of the structures oppressing women degenerate into delusion? In her later years she believed she was being monitored by a group of men—she called them the Mob—through a radio transmitter implanted in her uterus during one of her forced hospitalizations. (It seems that she did indeed have a hysterectomy at Bellevue, a hospital with a documented history of performing experimental procedures on patients.) She avoided speaking aloud because she was convinced “the Mob” was trying to steal her ideas.
Fahs writes that “Valerie exhibited a unique blend of schizophrenic paranoia and outright accuracy”: she feared that she was being exploited—primarily by Warhol and by her sleazy publisher, Maurice Girodias—and she was. But Fahs also sees S.C.U.M.’s origin in a “collective madness brewing in many women.” As Echols’s title, Daring to Be Bad, suggests, women seeking to change the world had to be troublesome and wayward to do so.
Rosalyn Baxandall, who organized a group to picket in support of Solanas outside of her trial, told Fahs, “Some people said she was crazy but I thought she was very sane. A lot of people were supposedly crazy like Allen Ginsberg and people who had been put in mental institutions weren’t crazy at all. They were telling the truth. People who didn’t conform were always being labeled as crazy then.”
I asked Baxandall, whom I know, how her perspective on Solanas had changed over the years. She told me, in an email, that “Valerie seems more crazy over time” but that she still values S.C.U.M. Manifesto. As for Firestone, with whom Baxandall was friends, she said, “She was mentally ill and the medicines took away her talent and thoughts. So sometimes she couldn’t take that and resorted to insanity over lethargy and numbness.”
In a powerful New Yorker profile of Shulamith Firestone’s life and death, Susan Faludi wrote, “Last fall, as I interviewed New York’s founding radical feminists, the stories of ‘social defeat’ mounted: painful solitude, poverty, infirmity, mental illness, and even homelessness.” Kate Millett, author of 1970’s second-wave classic Sexual Politics, who was also institutionalized—she, for bipolar disorder—wrote an article in 1998 revealing that she’d resorted to selling Christmas trees in Poughkeepsie to survive. “Pioneers pay dearly and in unnecessary solitude for what their successors take for granted,” she wrote, confessing that she worried about “distant bag-lady horrors.”
Of course, many of those who were on radical feminism’s front lines are, like Baxandall, writing and teaching and continuing to fight the good fight. Still, it’s hard not to search for some kind of symbolism in the similar fates that ultimately befell Solanas and Firestone. Interestingly, both women are often considered prescient. Fahs says that Solanas anticipated Viagra with what she referred to in letters as her “perpetual hardness technique,” a therapy whose details she kept under wraps but that she claimed would “render men manageable and easy to deal with.” And each of them wrote of childbearing in ways that seemed futuristic at the time but are commonplace now: Firestone, in Dialectic of Sex, described technologies similar to sex selection and in vitro fertilization, while Solanas, in S.C.U.M., wrote of a time when women would reproduce without need for men’s bodies. Ti-Grace Atkinson knew them both; Fahs, who interviewed Atkinson for her book, recalls her reflecting, “for the visionaries and revolutionaries, they must ask, Just how far out can I get from the time and context in which I live?” In different ways, Firestone and Solanas helped to change the context if, yes, they ended up being too far out.
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