A career feminist whose work spans the distance from political activism to historical research and novel writing, Susan Brownmiller (born 1935) is most recognized for raising public awareness of violent crimes against women and children.
Brownmiller was born in Brooklyn on February 15, 1935. She returned to New York City twenty years later, after graduating from Cornell University. She worked for four years as an actress before beginning her journalistic career as assistant to the managing editor of Coronet. During the 1960s she worked as a freelance writer with feminist leanings, and also in various capacities for Newsweek, Village Voice, NBC, and ABC. Especially relevant to the themes of her later writing, in 1968 Brownmiller cofounded the New York Radical Feminists among whose political stunts was a sit-in at the offices of Ladies Home Journal. Her first book, Shirley Chisholm (1970), a biography of the first African-American Congresswoman, was expanded from a cover story for The New York Times Magazine into a book aimed at adolescent audiences. During her work for a 1971 "Speak-Out," Brownmiller so radically revised her own opinions on rape that she began drafting the book which would eventually become Against Our Will. Her next book, Femininity (1984), was written against the "fear of not being feminine," a fear she feels has been historically imposed upon women. She was inspired to write her first novel, Waverly Place (1989), while covering the trial of Joel Steinman for Ms. magazine. As she told Publisher's Weekly in an interview, "I wrote the novel in a white heat because I was possessed. I had never given myself permission to invent before. It was very liberating." Her most recent work, Seeing Vietnam: Encounters of the Road and Heart (1994), also was born from a reporting assignment, this time for Travel and Leisure.
Against Our Will is perhaps most remarkable for its absolute lack of precedent, for as of 1975 such a comprehensive study of rape's genealogy had yet to be written. Indeed, the book created a clamor against this vast silence. Dredging up facts from the Trojan War to the Vietnam War, Brownmiller uncovered rape as a traditional military strategy. Pouring over centuries of legal history, she described rape as an openly or quietly advocated privilege of husbands over wives, fathers over daughters. The book is broadly and meticulously researched, presenting facts that are indispensable to fields of psychoanalysis, sociology, criminology, and law. Its rhetoric does not shy from its controversial claim 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." Behind her commitment to expose rape as a pervasive quality within all cultures stands Brownmiller's interest in empowering an immense society historically paralyzed and atomized by fear. Her third book, Femininity, also addresses the societal confinement of women, but the subject matter is considerably more subtle. Femininity, Brownmiller writes, "in essence, is a romantic sentiment, a nostalgic tradition of imposed limitations." According to this book, these limitations have taken the forms of clothing, games, manners, and popular metaphors for the "feminine" body, all of which debilitate women in their efforts to succeed.
Following the calm reception of Shirley Chisholm, which Booklist reviewed as a "chatty, narrative account," came the critical torrent surrounding Against Our Will. Although some reviews praised its "informed" and "compelling" "vision," as does Mary Ellen Gates for The New York Times Book Review, many more have left Brownmiller's work with more mixed responses. Amanda Heller of The Atlantic Monthly declared it to be "intelligent" and "ambitious" but in places given to "a kind of feminist pornography that overwhelms the book's more thoughtful passages." Diane Johnson, writing for The New York Review of Books, looked more seriously at the risk of these latter passages, suggesting Brownmiller's rhetoric effectively divides her audience between discouraged women and alienated men. Coming from a radically different perspective, M. J. Sobran, writing for National Review, rejected Brownmiller's very premises: "What she is engaged in, really, is not scholarship but henpecking—that conscious process of intimidation by which all women keep all men in terror."
The critical reception of Femininity was likewise divided. Anne Collins believed it to be "neither self-deprecating enough to be funny nor winsome enough to evoke rueful empathy." Laura Shapiro agreed, stating, "Brownmiller skips along with a great armful of cliches and truisms and scatters them like rose petals until they're all gone." In stark contrast to such comments, Elizabeth Wheeler announced "Brownmiller has written an important book." Carol Gilligan agreed, writing, "The critical questions are of perspective, power, and judgment."
Further Reading on Susan Brownmiller
Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, Brownmiller, Susan, Simon & Schuster, 1975.
Waverly Place, Brownmiller, Susan, Grove, 1989.
Commentary, February, 1976.
Commonweal, December 5, 1975.
Detroit News, February 1, 1984.
Nation, November 29, 1975.
National Review, March 5, 1976.