Artwork: Who is She?, Elish Kathleen, 2021
This essay is part of a wider series of articles called ‘Who is She?’ where we explore women who have been famously vilified or misunderstood in wider culture throughout history and modern society.
Trigger warning: this article refers to sexual violence and abuse.
Valerie Solonas was an artist, writer, activist and feminist. But if you’ve heard her name before, you probably know her as the ‘crazy lady’ who shot Andy Warhol. After the shooting in 1968, Valerie gained fame and notoriety in pop culture. Her most famous work, SCUM Manifesto – a scathing critique of patriarchal culture – was similarly ridiculed for its misandrist tone. Valerie and her work are still written about today, 50 years later. SCUM Manifesto is included in the canon of feminist literature. It’s been praised and denounced. It’s been analysed and reviewed. It’s been used in pop culture: the events of the shooting were made into a film and her plays have since been produced. Valerie, and this incident, were even the inspiration for American Horror Story’s recent episode, ‘Down With The Patriarchy’.
If you’re still wondering who the F is this woman and what the F is the SCUM Manifesto, and why the F did she shoot Andy Warhol?! Then, be patient! It is coming! Across these next two articles, we will explore who Valerie was, her work and her subsequent infamy. In part 1, we will recount Valerie’s early biography and analyse the SCUM Manifesto.
While Valerie and her work, and what she had done in her life are interesting enough to just retell, I’m more concerned with the perception of Valerie. She, like so many other women with mental health issues, has been vilified and portrayed as ‘unhinged’ in so many films, articles, academic essays, etc., for literally 50 years. Valerie, and her work, have been dismissed by scholars and society for decades. Is it because she’s a woman? Is it because she had mental health problems? Is it because this was the rhetoric of the 1960s (when SCUM was written) and it’s just kind of… stuck? Is it because she attempted to assassinate a beloved and famed artist? Or, is it all of the above?
Even though society itself has seemingly moved on from this culture of dismissing women (to the extent of the 1960s) and being unsympathetic towards the mentally ill – this does not apply to Valerie. Not then and not now.
Valerie Solonas – Who is she?
Solanas was born in 1936 in Ventnor City, New Jersey where she lived with her mother, father and sister. Valerie repeatedly said throughout her life, to both friends and psychologists, that her father regularly sexually, physically and verbally abused her throughout her young childhood. Thankfully, whilst Valerie was still young, her mother divorced him, and remarried shortly after. While Valerie was thankful there was an end to the horrific abuse she endured, this obviously triggered a distrust in male ‘father figures’ and she did not get on with, or particularly like, her stepfather. This resulted in Valerie rebelling against her mother and stepfather. For example, she would skip school and swear and hit the nuns who taught there. Due to this rebellious behaviour, her mother and stepfather decided that, in 1949, they would send Valerie to live with her grandparents. However, her grandfather was a violent alcoholic who would frequently beat her. Valerie, then 15 and sick and tired of being constantly abused and controlled by men, left her grandparents’ home and became homeless. Whilst homeless, Valerie had a child with a much-older, married sailor. Given the time (1953) Valerie was not able to keep her child. He was taken away for adoption and she never saw him again. Soon after, Valerie fell pregnant again, this time by a family member. Her child was taken away from her, again, and she never had contact with them.
Despite the abuse and emotional turmoil Valerie went through as a child, she still graduated from high school, and actually did very well. She began to explore who she was and what she wanted from life. Valerie explored her romantic feelings toward women and started building an identity for herself where she could excel. In her letter of recommendation for college, her high school principal wrote that she was an “exceptionally bright girl with lots of courage and determination”.
Valerie was an exceptionally intelligent and vibrant young woman, who despite everything she had been through, was awarded for her determination and strength with a way out: university. She earned a degree in Psychology from the University of Maryland and flourished through hosting her own call-in radio show. On the show, Valerie gave advice on how to ‘psychologically unarm male abusers’ from their hold over women, specifically the female listeners calling in. This was controversial on the campus, but today could be read as necessary. She was also an open and proud lesbian, despite the conservative cultural climate of the 1950’s. This, again, showed just how determined and stubborn Valerie was in regard to living her life the way she wanted to live it, whether the current climate of the society she was living in deemed it to be acceptable or not.
After earning her degree, she attended the University of Minnesota’s Graduate School of Psychology where she worked in the animal research laboratory. However, this was the late 1950s/early 1960s and the world was beginning to change. There were seemingly more opportunities for women in industries there had not been before, particularly the creative industries. Valerie decided to drop out of the graduate programme and pursue another passion of her’s: writing. She moved again and attended Berkley for a few courses when she began to write the SCUM Manifesto.
After Berkley, Valerie was intent on becoming a writer and joining the growing creative buzz that was happening in New York City. The 1960s have since become an iconic era for its contributions to pop culture, and Valerie was a part of that. In 1963, she up and left for New York. However, this was when mental illness began to affect Valerie and she was ultimately diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in the late 60s. When Valerie had arrived in New York, she at first had to support herself through begging and prostitution. This was, until, she wrote her satirical feminist play entitled Up Your Ass, and got it into the hands of Andy Warhol.
What is SCUM Manifesto?
Solonas was still in the process of writing her most significant work, the misandrist SCUM Manifesto, when she met Warhol. It was eventually published in 1967. The manifesto argues that men have ruined the world and that it is up to women to fix it. To achieve this goal, it suggests the formation of SCUM: an organization dedicated to overthrowing society and eliminating the male sex. The manifesto has often been described as a satire or parody, especially due to its parallels with Freud’s theory of femininity. It has been reprinted at least 100 times in English, translated into 13 languages, and excerpted several times.
SCUM Manifesto is both hilarious and radical. While Valerie takes the piss a fair bit about how shit men are, and how they ruin everything, there is an undertone of seriousness. For example, when Valerie points out that men should not run the world, because they are doing a shocking job at it, and, in fact, women should run it instead. Obviously in the 1960s this was not taken lightly and stirred up anger and controversy amongst both men and women for its outlandish and radical statements about men, their power, the patriarchy and its relevance. However, given Valerie’s upbringing and life as a young adult, you can start to understand perhaps where her resistance for men, and, particularly, men in power came from.
Many people at the time, and even still to this day read SCUM as an anti-men manifesto. But, actually, Valerie and her manifesto were more anti-capitalism than anti-men. It just so happened that men were at the top of the capitalist ladder, as they still are in many ways – and that was what she was criticising.
The values at the core of SCUM manifesto run true to this day and are still written about. While they were radical at the time, and it was hard to decipher between when Valerie was being satirical and when she was being serious, points were still made! And they are still analysed, and some have even come into fruition post-1960s.
The opening line of SCUM manifesto, reads:
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.
While at the time, and even now in 2021, if you took this statement literally, it could be read as radical. With any radical literature, it is in our natural reaction to reject it, as it is not our norm and purports a reality far from anything that we could ever imagine. But, regardless of it being radical, Valerie, at the core, made a good point. In the 1960s, women were second class citizens to men and if you thought otherwise, or tried to live your life outside of this mould, you would have been considered a ‘thrill seeker’. Obviously now, in 2021, it is a given that we are part of our societies in a myriad of ways, not simply by fulfilling the role of a good wife or mother. This further proves that Valerie was right in some of her arguments. Her comments about eliminating the money system obviously refer to capitalism, but at the time this was also seen as an attack on men, as they were the bread-winners of the family.
Eaten up with guilt, shame, fears and insecurities and obtaining, if he’s lucky, a barely perceptible physical feeling, the male is, nonetheless, obsessed with screwing; he’ll swim through a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there’ll be a friendly pussy awaiting him. He’ll screw a woman he despises, any snaggle-toothed hag, and furthermore, pay for the opportunity. Why? Relieving physical tension isn’t the answer, as masturbation suffices for that. It’s not ego satisfaction; that doesn’t explain screwing corpses and babies.
Discussing men’s sexual habits was similarly read as an attack on men. But, upon further dissection, you can see this is both satirical and, pertinently, quite sad. Firstly, we know Valerie is a lesbian, so we know she has no sexual interest whatsoever in men, so using gross language like “snot” and “vomit” is actually perhaps just her mocking men and those who can find them attractive. It is also a stab at capitalism, because of a mans need to have sex – we (women) have to sell it to them. This also could refer to her past as a sex worker. As a lesbian, she obviously didn’t want to have sex with men, but the climate she was living in left her no choice but to sell herself to them. Her reference to ‘babies’, could similarly be about herself and the abuse she suffered as a child. This statement was more than just an attack on men: it was self-deprecation and probably the only way she could process the years of torment and abuse she suffered at the hands of men.
Being an incomplete female, the male spends his life attempting to complete himself, to become female. He attempts to do this by constantly seeking out, fraternizing with and trying to live through an fuse with the female, and by claiming as his own all female characteristics — emotional strength and independence, forcefulness, dynamism, decisiveness, coolness, objectivity, assertiveness, courage, integrity, vitality, intensity, depth of character, grooviness, etc — and projecting onto women all male traits — vanity, frivolity, triviality, weakness, etc. It should be said, though, that the male has one glaring area of superiority over the female — public relations. (He has done a brilliant job of convincing millions of women that men are women and women are men). The male claim that females find fulfillment through motherhood and sexuality reflects what males think they’d find fulfilling if they were female.
Here, Valerie discusses the parallels between men and women and how both were perceived stereotypically. Men had a status of superiority over women, particularly in public relations. Women had no relations – unless they were made through her husband. Again, Valerie makes a valid point. She is not necessarily attacking men by saying that men decide what is fulfilling to women, but capitalism. The media did, and still does, project onto women that we will only find happiness in being pretty and starting a family. Only then, it was primarily men at the top pushing this vision and narrative. It’s also not hard to understand why Valerie would be upset by this narrative, since she experienced first-hand that families do not make a woman, since she had her own children taken away from her.
War: The male’s normal compensation for not being female, namely, getting his Big Gun off, is grossly inadequate, as he can get it off only a very limited number of times; so he gets it off on a really massive scale, and proves to the entire world that he’s a `Man’. Since he has no compassion or ability to empathize or identify, proving his manhood is worth an endless amount of mutilation and suffering and an endless number of lives, including his own — his own life being worthless, he would rather go out in a blaze of glory than to plod grimly on for fifty more years.
Valerie jokes about the amount of orgasms a man can have in comparison to women. She jests that because of this, men feel inferior to women, and the only way to surpass that is to go to war. This is a satirical comment which could also be read as subverting Freud’s concept of penis-envy. What she is arguing though, in terms of male fragility and a man’s need to prove his masculinity rings true. This is not necessarily a jab at men, but at their culture – even more so at the time it was written, but this culture of men not being ‘manly’ enough still continues.
Money, Marriage and Prostitution, Work and Prevention of an Automated Society: There is no human reason for money or for anyone to work more than two or three hours a week at the very most. All non-creative jobs (practically all jobs now being done) could have been automated long ago, and in a moneyless society everyone can have as much of the best of everything as she wants. But there are non-human, male reasons for wanting to maintain the money system: 1. Pussy. Despising his highly inadequate self, overcome with intense anxiety and a deep, profound loneliness when by his empty self, desperate to attach himself to any female in dim hopes of completing himself, in the mystical belief that by touching gold he’ll turn to gold, the male craves the continuous companionship of women. The company of the lowest female is preferable to his own or that of other men, who serve only to remind him of his repulsiveness. But females, unless very young or very sick, must be coerced or bribed into male company.
Valerie discusses eliminating the money system – again, expressing her disdain for capitalism, rather than just men. Men, because of their control and contribution to capitalism, are caught within the crossfires of Valerie’s hatred of the capitalist system. Here, Valerie suggests that a lot of ‘companionships’ are due to women not being able to be financially independent outside of their marriage. Valerie, though, had freed herself from the financial shackles of men and marriage by being an out lesbian. So perhaps that is why she suggests the same for the rest of her female comrades, lesbian or not. While the notion that women’s independence was radical at the time, it certainly wasn’t wrong.
The affect of fatherhood on males, specifically, is to make them `Men’, that is, highly defensive of all impulses to passivity, faggotry, and of desires to be female. Every boy wants to imitate his mother, be her, fuse with her, but Daddy forbids this; he is the mother; he gets to fuse with her. So he tells the boy, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, to not be a sissy, to act like a `Man’. The boy, scared shitless of and `respecting’ his father, complies, and becomes just like Daddy, that model of `Man’-hood, the all-American ideal — the well-behaved heterosexual dullard.
This excerpt, I feel, doesn’t even need dissecting. It’s true and is still an issue in modern society.
The conflict, therefore, is not between females and males, but between SCUM — dominant, secure, self-confident, nasty, violent, selfish, independent, proud, thrill-seeking, freewheeling, arrogant females, who consider themselves fit to rule the universe, who have freewheeled to the limits of this `society’ and are ready to wheel on to something far beyond what it has to offer — and nice, passive, accepting `cultivated’, polite, dignified, subdued, dependent, scared, mindless, insecure, approval-seeking Daddy’s Girls, who can’t cope with the unknown, who want to hang back with the apes, who feel secure only with Big Daddy standing by, with a big strong man to lean on and with a fat, hairy face in the White House, who are too cowardly to face up to the hideous reality of what a man is, what Daddy is, who have cast their lot with the swine, who have adapted themselves to animalism, feel superficially comfortable with it and know no other way of `life’, who have reduced their minds, thoughts and sights to the male level, who, lacking sense, imagination and wit can have value only in a male `society’, who can have a place in the sun, or, rather, in the slime, only as soothers, ego boosters, relaxers and breeders, who are dismissed as inconsequents by other females, who project their deficiencies, their maleness, onto all females and see the female as worm.
In this excerpt the irony and sarcasm Valerie uses when describing SCUM as “dominant, nasty, violent, arrogant” etc., were wasted on her audience at the time. They took this and translated it literally into Valerie ‘telling us’ what SCUM is/are like. And by taking this literally, they assumed SCUM was to be feared, not rationalised with. Valerie was quite obviously being sarcastic in the opening line of this excerpt. She has described herself as everything that men, or even other women who do not think the same as her, would describe her as. A forward-thinking woman with revolutionary ideas isn’t going to be welcomed into patriarchal and capitalist culture with open arms. Valerie knows this, and knows exactly how she and her ideas will be received – she doesn’t literally think this of herself.
As the excerpt goes on and she starts to describe women who are the ‘opposite’ to her, she describes them as “nice, polite, dignified”, etc., which further proves she was being satirical. We know she does not think this of women who do not think like herself. She thinks they are perhaps a little dim – they don’t understand they are currently living in hell. Valerie does not believe there is any dignity in thinking the way they do – that there is nothing wrong with society and it should be left alone, with no attempts to evolve it. She begins to explain this later on in the excerpt when she references these women having to rely on “Big Daddy” for security and when she mentions that these women have reduced their minds, thoughts and sights to the male level.
These excerpts outline why SCUM Manifesto was so controversial; these were radical statements and Valerie did not hold back her critiques on dominant culture. However, the manifesto actually got little to no recognition until Valerie shot Andy Warhol. It was after this event, that it was really reviewed and ridiculed. The manifesto was widely misunderstood by many who did not recognise, nor perhaps appreciate, its satirical and wry humour – which makes you think: had Valerie not shot Andy Warhol, would SCUM Manifesto have gotten any recognition at all?
If Valerie had not gained fame by shooting Andy Warhol, would her work have been seen as less of a threat?
Would the humour suddenly make sense, and the references to violence not be taken so literally, since there wouldn’t have been any evidence of her acting on this violence before?
If that was the case, would anyone have listened at all? Or would it just be pushed aside – as no one had any reason to take this woman (and her supposed violent misandry) seriously?
If Valerie wasn’t diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia so publically after the shooting, would her work have been considered just ramblings of a ‘crazy lady’?
Either way, Valerie became notorious.
In part 2, we will explore the fateful events of June 3rd, 1968 that turned Valerie Solanas into a vilified figure and how her lasting cultural legacy is still polarised.