By Marybeth Hamilton
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.
Ferocious, deranged, hilarious, and exhilarating, Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto set out the agenda of the Society for Cutting Up Men, a revolutionary organization of which Solanas was the founder and sole member. First produced as a mimeograph in 1967 (Solanas sold it on the streets of New York, charging fifty cents for women and one dollar for men), the Manifesto appeared in book form in August 1968, two months after its author made headlines for her near-fatal shooting of Andy Warhol, who she believed was stealing her work.
The SCUM Manifesto was the product of years of rumination by a woman living on the margins. Born in 1936 to a working-class New Jersey family, Solanas experienced physical and sexual abuse from her father and grandfather, bore two children before the age of fifteen, began to identify as a lesbian, and attended school erratically in between occasional stints on the streets. Eventually her sharp intelligence won her a place at the University of Maryland, where in 1958 she earned an honors degree in psychology. For a time she flirted with graduate training (including a job in an animal research lab) before dropping out of education, drifting across the country, and arriving in New York in 1962. Supporting herself through prostitution and begging, she set out to become a writer, penning a satirical play titled Up Your Ass and fleshing out a set of ideas about women and men that she had been incubating since the mid-1950s into a call to arms that she called her Manifesto.
At the core of the Manifesto was a kind of inverted Freudianism. Burdened with a defective genetic structure (the y chromosome being a fragmented x), the male (an “incomplete female”, a “walking abortion”) harbored a pathological longing for core female qualities (“emotional strength and independence, forcefulness, dynamism, decisiveness, coolness, objectivity, assertiveness, courage, integrity, vitality, intensity, depth of character, grooviness, etc”). The corrosive force of men’s “pussy envy” propelled not only acts of misogyny, but every conceivable social ill: war, disease, money, marriage, class hatred, prejudice, authoritarianism, and bad conversation (“Being completely self-centered and unable to relate to anything outside himself, the male’s ‘conversation’, when not about himself, is an impersonal droning on, removed from anything of human value”). Yet so adept were men at public relations (their lone but shockingly effective skill) that most females remained blind to the truth. The male, Solanas wrote, “has done a brilliant job of convincing millions of women that men are women and women are men.”
The only solution for that kind of mass brainwashing was criminality and violence. SCUM would recruit a cadre of freewheeling, rebellious, pitiless females and systematically sabotage the status quo, via an “un-work force” who would “fuck up” on the job, looters who would destroy useless objects (“cars, store windows, ‘Great Art’, etc”), and guerrilla operatives who would “couple-bust – barging into mixed (male-female) couples, wherever they are, and bust[ing] them up”. In time, SCUM would turn to murder, “coolly, furtively stalk[ing] its prey and quietly mov[ing] in for the kill”. Although targets would be determined on a case-by-case basis, destruction was guaranteed for the most offensive: “rapists; politicians….; lousy singers and musicians; Chairmen of Boards; Breadwinners; landlords; owners of greasy spoons and restaurants that play Muzak; ‘Great Artists’;…cops; tycoons…; liars and phonies; disc jockeys; men who intrude themselves in the slightest way on any strange female; real estate men; stock brokers; men who speak when they have nothing to say”. What SCUM would not do was demonstrate, or march, or picket, or strike, or use any conventional tools of organized resistance. Such tactics only endorsed a system that SCUM was out to annihilate. “If SCUM ever marches”, Solanas concluded, “it will be over LBJ’s stupid, sickening face; if SCUM ever strikes, it will be in the dark with a six-inch blade”.
Had Valerie Solanas never shot Andy Warhol, the SCUM Manifesto would have been lost to history. But in the months after the shooting, Solanas’s diatribe became a foundational document in the nascent movement of radical feminism, seized upon by women frustrated with the limits of existing forms of feminist protest. Ti-Grace Atkinson and Florynce Kennedy, two militant loose cannons in the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), visited Solanas in prison and offered legal and moral support. Roxanne Dunbar, a burnt-out veteran of the civil rights movement whose disenchantment had led her to leave the country, read about Solanas and the Warhol shooting in a cafe in Mexico City and felt a rush of inspiration that propelled her back to the US. “I was tired of playing the ‘Who’s more oppressed’ games in the South and wanted a change”, she told Solanas’s biographer Breanne Fahs. “I would go to the United States to launch this revolution with this superwoman ideology”. The activist group she founded in Boston, Cell 16, called for “a vanguard of women….to show women the possibility of a new society”. Cell 16 members cut their hair short, donned combat boots, and took up karate to ready themselves for guerrilla warfare. At each of their meetings, they read the SCUM Manifesto as the first order of business.
What Dunbar and others found in the Manifesto was something no one else was articulating: a wild and uncompromising insistence that female subordination was utterly primal, the fundamental oppression from which all others sprang. That in itself was a tonic for many women frustrated by their experiences in the New Left, where sexism (when acknowledged at all) was dismissed as a minor by-product of capitalism and where their objections to its presence in the movement were met with ridicule or outright contempt. Others, like Atkinson, had grown impatient with NOW, whose leaders framed women’s oppression as a simple civil rights issue and comported themselves with decorum and reason. The SCUM Manifesto dispensed with moderation, with any concerns about respectability. What it voiced was new and profoundly compelling: incandescent, unladylike rage.
That rage, once unleashed, fundamentally reshaped the women’s movement. The next few years would see the proliferation of radical feminist organizations, among them Cell 16, Redstockings, New York Radical Feminists, and THE FEMINISTS, the latter formed by Atkinson when she resigned from NOW after her very public support for Solanas appalled many of the group’s leaders. NOW’s founder, Betty Friedan, never forgave her. “No action of the board of New York NOW, of National NOW, no policy ever voted by the members”, she insisted, “advocated shooting men in the balls, the elimination of men as proposed by that SCUM Manifesto!” To lend support to Solanas was to invite the dreaded label of “man-hating” from which Friedan sought to distance the movement. Yet it was precisely that accusation and the resultant opprobrium that growing numbers of women proved willing to court.
What the Manifesto helped catalyze, in other words, was a feminism that dared to dispense with niceness. Yet within radical feminist circles, it also provoked controversy, laying bare tensions that have rippled through the women’s movement ever since. None proved more divisive than its arguments about sex. “Sex is the refuge of the mindless”, Solanas had claimed. “The female can easily – far more easily than she may think – condition away her sex drive, leaving her completely cool and cerebral and free to pursue truly worthy relationships and activities…[W]hen the female transcends her body, rises above animalism, the male, whose ego consists of his cock, will disappear.” The idea that lust was inherently male and the act of sex innately oppressive appalled many radical women for whom a fundamental aim of women’s liberation was (as Kate Millett put it) to “bring an end to sexual repression”. Yet some radical groups embraced it: Cell 16, for instance, advocated celibacy; while THE FEMINISTS (who ultimately barred married women from membership) deemed any sexual association with men to be an act of collaboration. Over time, the question of whether sex was something that liberated women or that women needed to be liberated from would become a key feminist fault line, reverberating through the debates about sexual difference, “female culture”, and pornography that divided the movement in decades to come.
For Valerie Solanas herself, however, all these developments were largely irrelevant. Virtually from the outset, she rebuffed her would-be feminist allies, seeing them no less than Warhol as opportunists out to appropriate her work. “It was obvious from your press release, which I read in court, that you don’t understand SCUM”, she wrote to Atkinson before her trial. “SCUM is not for you.
SCUM is for whores, dykes, criminals, homicidal maniacs. Therefore, please refrain from commenting on SCUM & from ‘defending’ me”. That hostility never abated, even after (following a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia) she was sentenced to three years’ incarceration. After Robin Morgan published excerpts from the SCUM Manifesto in her 1970 anthology Sisterhood is Powerful, Solanas wrote to her on her release from the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane and threatened to throw acid in her face.
“I have a lot of very involved reasons”, Solanas had replied on the day of the shooting when reporters asked why she pulled the trigger. A real-life denizen of the world of outcasts that Warhol stylized in his underground films, she seems to have met Warhol through the drag queen Candy Darling, a friend and sometime roommate who had found her way into the inner circle of Warhol’s Factory. Solanas was looking for someone with clout to produce her play Up Your Ass; when Warhol claimed to have lost the copy she gave him, her frustration spiraled into suspicion and fury. Keeping control of her work and getting it out into the world remained her priority even after her release from prison. She spent much of the 1970s revising the SCUM Manifesto and working on an autobiography, but poverty and illness steadily robbed her of lucidity and eventually sent her onto the streets. She died of pneumonia in 1988 in a welfare hotel in San Francisco. By then she had become a virtual recluse, and no one at the hotel could remember her, apart from a building superintendent who once entered her room to find her pounding at a typewriter, a stack of typewritten pages on the desk.
“In almost any woman you can unearth an incredible fury”, the Weather Underground activist Bernadine Dohrn once remarked. “It is often not even conscious, a threshold thing. But it’s there, and it’s an anger that can be a powerful radicalizing force”. The anger that possessed Valerie Solanas was so corrosive and isolating that it refused all solidarities, but its sheer ferocity remains explosive and heady for anyone reading her work now. Not even the #MeToo movement (which has itself inspired accusations of “man-hating”) has been prepared to voice this level of rage. The predominant tone of #MeToo has been one of indignation and anguish, a kind of righteous vindicated unburdening. Of the many women who have spoken publicly, only Rose McGowan has voiced anything approaching the lacerating fury of the Manifesto. That she has been widely ridiculed for instability is perhaps no accident.
“I feel sorry for nothing”, Solanas told reporters after shooting Warhol. “Read my manifesto and it will tell you what I am”. What she was, in the end, was a voice in the wilderness. To read her manifesto is to feel what she felt: an uncontainable disgust at the sheer depth and breadth of misogyny, the way it keeps on churning, the dark energy on which the world moves.
Marybeth Hamilton is a member of the editorial collective of History Workshop Journal and HWO. She lives in Columbus, Ohio.
50 years after the tumultuous events of 1968, HWO were inundated with posts exploring aspects of that year and its legacy. The Remembering 1968 was shaped from these submissions, and includes: