Born 15 February 1935, Brooklyn, New York
Susan Brownmiller, best known as a feminist and activist, attended Cornell University from 1952-55. She began her career as an actress in New York City, but after four years she turned to editing for Coronet where she worked her way from assistant to managing editor. She pursued this path and worked as an editor for the Albany Report (1961-62), before becoming a national affairs researcher for Newsweek (1963-64). With experience in newswriting, she worked as staff writer for the Village Voice (1965) and then on to reporting for NBC-TV (1965) and network newswriting for ABC-TV (1966-68). During this time in the 1960s, Brownmiller became one of the earliest politically active feminists in New York City. Acutely aware of the need for improved women's rights, she was a founding member of the New York Radical Feminists in 1968. Their protest demonstrations, along with Brownmiller's freelance journalism experiences led her to help organize a 1971 "Speak-Out on Rape" which became the focus of much of her subsequent work. She also was an organizer of Women Against Pornography. Her activism, and both nonfiction and fiction have garnered her respect as a leader of the feminist movement and an adversary of pornography.
Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (1981) is the result of four years of research and writing in which Brownmiller explores the subject of rape in a way it had never been done before. This controversial work explores the history of rape, the political use of rape in wartime, and the cultural and social permutations of rape. The thesis of the work, which caused both outrage and introspection, states 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," an act of brute power, "a thoroughly detestable physical conquest from which there could be no retaliation in kind." Heavily researched, Brownmiller relies on government statistics, historical accounts, and cultural myths to construct a view of rape as not a sexual act but as an act of power and oppression. While the book gained her celebrity, it was received very differently by different people. Many, especially women, saw the work as eye-opening and liberating by offering them a way to understand an otherwise unexplainable act of barbarism, while others felt it vindictively, angrily, and wrongfully accused all men of heinous crimes against women. The controversy of Against Our Will brought Brownmiller widespread attention and the book became a national bestseller. Her ultimate hope for her book was to give women a way to fight back against rape and to let all women together find a way "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 has since produced additional feminist writings, in addition to her foray into the novel with Waverly Place (1989). This novel again broaches a difficult subject by examining child abuse. Unlike with Against Our Will, she chose to set this work in fiction because "I wanted the freedom to invent dialogue, motivations, events, and characters based on my own understanding of battery and abuse." Where she based herself entirely on fact and statistic in her first work, here she delves into the other side of abuse to emotionalize and personalize the unimaginable.
Turning to a new genre, Seeing Vietnam; Encounters of the Road and the Heart (1994) she chronicles her experiences as an American in Vietnam. According to one critic, she "is a determined aggressive reporter with a fine sense for both background and detail. She makes the point of journeying off the beaten track…. And she manages to convey the flavor of ordinary life in Vietnam." However, all reviews were not as favorable, and another critic found Brownmiller loses the beauty and joy of the curious moment when she interrupts her narrative "to give a history of the Vietnamese alphabet and discuss the faults of the Communist regime." While she turns largely away from her Western feminist focus, she nevertheless maintains the focus of a newswoman and the passion of an activist.
Hurled into the public eye, and surrounded by both criticism and applause alike, Brownmiller's background as a newswriter and her passionate struggle for women's rights have preserved her a place in the feminist cannon.
Shirley Chisholm (1972). Femininity (1984).
Hoy, P. C., et al., eds., Women's Voices (1990).
CA (Online, 1999). Complete Marquis Who's Who (1995). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Book Review Digest (1995).