Brownmiller, Susan 1935-
BROWNMILLER, Susan 1935-
PERSONAL: Born February 15, 1935, in Brooklyn, NY. Education: Attended Cornell University, 1952-55, and Jefferson School of Social Sciences. Hobbies and other interests: Travel.
CAREER: Actress in New York, NY, 1955-59; Coronet, New York, NY, assistant to managing editor, 1959-60; Albany Report, Albany, NY, editor, 1961-62; Newsweek, New York, NY, national affairs researcher, 1963-64; Village Voice, New York, NY, staff writer, 1965; National Broadcasting Company, Inc. (NBC), New York, NY, reporter, 1965; American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. (ABC), New York, NY, network newswriter, 1966-68; freelance journalist, 1968-70; writer. Lecturer. Organizer of Women against Pornography.
MEMBER: New York Radical Feminists (cofounder).
AWARDS, HONORS: Grants from Alicia Patterson Foundation and Louis M. Rabinowitz Foundation; Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape was listed among the outstanding books of the year by New York Times Book Review, 1975; named among Time's twelve Women of the Year, 1975.
Shirley Chisholm: A Biography (for children), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1970.
Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1975.
Femininity, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1984.
Waverly Place (novel), Grove (New York, NY), 1989.
Seeing Vietnam: Encounters of the Road and Heart, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1994.
In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, Dial Press (New York, NY), 1999.
Contributor of articles to magazines, including Newsweek, Esquire, and New York Times Magazine.
SIDELIGHTS: Susan Brownmiller was among the first of the politically active feminists in New York City during the 1960s. In 1968 she helped found the New York Radical Feminists, and as a member of that group, she took part in a number of protest demonstrations, including a sit-in at the offices of the Ladies' Home Journal opposing the magazine's "demeaning" attitude toward women. Her interest in women's rights surfaced in much of her work as a freelance journalist, and one article she wrote, about Shirley Chisholm, the first black U.S. congresswoman, developed into a biography for young readers. In 1971 Brownmiller helped to organize a "Speak-out on Rape," and in the process, she realized that once again she had the material for a book. She submitted an outline of her idea to Simon & Schuster, they contracted for the book, and Brownmiller began researching the subject of rape. After four years of research and writing, she published Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape.
Against Our Will explores the history of rape, exploding the myths that, as the author says, influence one's modern perspective. She traces the political use of rape in war from biblical times through Vietnam, explains the origins of American rape laws, and examines the subjects of interracial rape, homosexual rape, and child molestation. Brownmiller asserts that rape "is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear." Supporting her thesis with facts taken from her extensive research in history, literature, sociology, law, psychoanalysis, mythology, and criminology, Brownmiller argues that rape is not a sexual act but an act of power based on an "anatomical fiat"; it is the result of early man's realization that women could be subjected to "a thoroughly detestable physical conquest from which there could be no retaliation in kind."
Against Our Will was serialized in four magazines and became a best-seller and Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and its nationwide tour made Brownmiller a celebrity. Her appearance on the cover of Time as one of the twelve Women of the Year and on television talk shows as a frequent guest confirmed the timeliness of her book. Brownmiller herself remarked, "I saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime subject that had somehow crossed my path," and she expressed gratitude to the women's movement for having given her "a constructive way" to use her rage.
In researching and writing Against Our Will, Brownmiller was motivated by "a dual sense of purpose," theorized Carol Eisen Rinzler in the Village Voice, "a political desire that the book be of value to feminism, and a personal desire to make a lasting contribution to the body of thought." Brownmiller mentions yet another goal in her conclusion to Against Our Will: "Fighting back. On a multiplicity of levels, that is the activity we must engage in, together, if we–women–are to redress the imbalance and rid ourselves and men of the ideology of rape. . . . My purpose in this book has been to give rape its history. Now we must deny it a future."
Brownmiller's next book, Femininity, is less confrontational in tone than Against Our Will but has still provoked mixed reactions. Femininity examines the ideal qualities—both physical and emotional—that are generally considered feminine and the lengths women go to conform to those ideals. The controversy arises, Brownmiller told Detroit News writer Barbara Hoover, when readers and reviewers "want to know where the blame is—is she blaming men or is she blaming us women? Well," the author explained, "I'm blaming neither. I don't criticize; I just explore the subject."
Brownmiller addresses the subject of child abuse in Waverly Place, her first novel. The book is a fictionalized account of the lives of Hedda Nussbaum and her abusive lover, Joel Steinberg, a New York attorney who was accused during the late 1980s of beating to death their illegally adopted daughter. Explaining why she chose to present the story as fiction instead of nonfiction, Brownmiller wrote in her introduction to Waverly Place: "I wanted the freedom to invent dialogue, motivations, events, and characters based on my own understanding of battery and abuse, a perspective frequently at variance with the scenarios created by the prosecution or the defense in courts of law." "Brownmiller's effort serves a potentially constructive purpose," assessed reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times. "It tries to fill the emotional void created by any incomprehensible human act. It proposes how such a thing could have happened and allows us to participate in the drama of its answer. It offers us an experience of mourning, as well as some reassurance that we ourselves are safe from such disasters. . . . In all these respects," Lehmann-Haupt concluded, "Ms. Brownmiller's novel succeeds very well."
When reviewing In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution for London's Feminist Review, Bryony Hoskins commented that—among many other important feminist issues—the book "brings alive" feminist activism in the United States during the late 1960s and 1970s. Hoskins pointed out that this historical and at times autobiographical account of women's second-wave revolution—in which Brownmiller played a pivotal role—"places into overall context the writing of second wave feminist texts. . . . In Our Time describes how the women's movement influenced the writing of these texts and the influence that these texts had on the movement." Brownmiller here depicts the "large scale collective action and demonstration, women being angry and standing up to patriarchy at every level of society: from the bedrooms, the law courts and working environments to the government," wrote Hoskins. Brownmiller recounts the rise and fall of many women's organizations, including the birth of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 and the influence certain agendas—including the New York Radical Feminist consciousness raising session—had on her conversion to feminist action. She also traces how key feminist issues arose during the era: "how to discuss sex and sexuality; women's right to abortion; new ways to understand rape; the acknowledgment and naming of the battery of women, sexual abuse of children and sexual harassment; and finally the divisive understandings of pornography as crime against women," wrote Hoskins, and Brownmiller then discusses "how these notions were used to change the many masculine-dominated cultures in the United States law and society."
In creating In Our Time, Brownmiller used what Sara M. Evans, in her review of the book for Feminist Studies, called "a wealth of interviews" while also being perfectly clear about her own judgments and points of view. "She endeavors to be fair to those with whom she disagrees," commented Evans, "although she pulls no punches when it comes to some of the most wretched conflicts." In Kathleen Endres's review of the book for Journalism History, she noted that 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."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Brownmiller, Susan, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1975.
Brownmiller, Susan, Waverly Place (novel), Grove (New York, NY), 1989.
Edwards, Alison, Rape, Racism, and the WhiteWomen's Movement: An Answer to Susan Brownmiller, Sojourner Truth Organization (Chicago, IL), 1980.
Business Review Weekly, October 3, 1994, p. 107. Commentary, February, 1976.
Commonweal, December 5, 1975.
Detroit News, February 1, 1984.
Far Eastern Economics Review, July 14, 1994, p. 52.
Feminist Review (London, England), 2003, Bryony Hoskins, review of In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, p. 179.
Feminist Studies, summer, 2002, Sara M. Evans, review of In Our Time, p. 258.
Journalism History, spring, 2001, Kathleen Endres, review of In Our Time, p. 44.
Nation, November 29, 1975.
National Review, March 5, 1976.
New Leader, January 5, 1976.
New Statesman, December 12, 1975.
New York Review of Books, December 11, 1975.
New York Times, February 2, 1989, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Waverly Place, p. B2.
New York Times Book Review, October, 1975; December 28, 1975; May 15, 1994, Arnold R. Isaacs, review of Seeing Vietnam: Encounters of the Road and Heart, p. 11.
Time, October 13, 1975; January 5, 1976.
Village Voice, October 6, 1975.
Susan Brownmiller Web site,http://www.susanbrownmiller.com/ (July 24, 2004).