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Who was Valerie Solanas? Part Two

Image of woman in a headscarf and sunglasses, smoking. Text above reads: 'Who Is She?'

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. 

In part one of ‘Who was Valerie Solonas?’, we discussed Valerie’s early life and looked into her most notable work, the SCUM Manifesto. After learning of her life events and the abuse she experienced, we can begin to understand perhaps why Valerie wrote what she did in SCUM, and perhaps why she was ‘radical’ in her feminist ideology. 

But as we mentioned in part one, her writings were relatively unheard of until she shot Andy Warhol. 

Andy Warhol and The Shooting:

During the early 1960s, Valerie wrote her satirical feminist play, Up Your Ass, and managed to get famed artist Andy Warhol to agree to produce it. However, he didn’t. In fact, he did nothing with the play and claimed that he had lost it. Valerie, rightly so, demanded that he find the play or provide her with financial compensation for the lost work. She actually believed that he had stolen her play and was refusing to pay up for it – which was not an entirely outlandish thought, given that Warhol’s whole brand was built on reproducing things that he didn’t initially create. 

However, Warhol refused to pay for the play or admit to any wrongdoing. Instead, he offered her $25 to star in his film, I, A Man. Valerie, desperate for money, agreed. $25 dollars in the 60’s, would be equivalent to around $220 dollars today so, not too bad, but also probably not the average price of rights to a play. She also worked and earned this money by starring in his film – so, really, she was not compensated for her lost play at all. Despite Valerie being a financially independent woman, she was somehow still being taken advantage of and being ruled financially by men. Considering Valerie’s early life, and the abuse and control she suffered at the hands of men, and how even as an adult, she couldn’t escape the restraints men had over her, we can begin to understand perhaps why she had called for a reform of society in SCUM. She was, rightly, calling for a society where men were not at the top. While we know that society has reformed in some ways since then, and women do have more independence than they did in the 1960s, the patriarchy still controls dominant culture and women are still taken advantage of financially and emotionally. As a result, Valerie’s story doesn’t feel so far away after all. 

Soon after the film, Valerie began to self-publish SCUM Manifesto and was introduced to Olympia Press’ owner, Maurice Girodias. Girodias was a publisher who had recently gained a reputation for publishing Nabokov’s controversial novel, Lolita. Valerie showed Maurice SCUM and he was interested in publishing it – he was seemingly the perfect man for the job, given his recent success in publishing controversial literature. Valerie seeking out Maurice to publish her manifesto could also suggest that she was fully aware her writing wouldn’t be taken lightly and, in this awareness, Valerie proved that she knew she wouldn’t have mass appeal. She was maybe seeking out an audience she thought would understand it – perhaps, even understand the satire but the call for reform. Valerie sought an audience who would understand that change was necessary but who would also understand that she wasn’t actually calling to eradicate men from the planet to do so. But in her utopian and satirical writing, there would be one way to find this freedom from men.  

The contract between Valerie and Giordias stated that the latter would “own her writing (SCUM), her next writing, and all other writings”. Giordias paid Valerie $500 dollars to essentially own all of her work and any work she made in the future. This contract meant that Giordias had full autonomy over Valerie’s work and livelihood, and she now had $500 dollars to live on for the rest of her days. Once again, Valerie had been grossly taken advantage of at the hands of a powerful man. This pattern in Valerie’s life further justifies her writings in the SCUM Manifesto. Every experience she had with men, and or capitalism (through acts which were usually perpetrated by men) had left her worse off than before. Once Valerie had realised what she had actually signed up for, she was upset that she had been manipulated into signing her life away, and that, again, her work was being stolen by a man

At this time Valerie’s mental health was starting to deteriorate. She became paranoid that Giordias and Warhol were plotting against her and working together to steal her work. Giordias and Warhol were friends at the time and, in Valerie’s mind, this fact combined with the missing play script and the contract binding Valerie’s work to Giordias, proved tthat there was a conspiracy against her, and something had to be done about this. 

This psychological reasoning is what triggered the shooting. Valerie went to Warhol’s factory, with a gun concealed in a brown paper bag and shot him and art critic, Mario Amaya. She attempted to shoot a third man, Warhol’s manager, but the gun jammed. Two bullets from her gun missed, and one tore through Warhol’s stomach, liver, spleen, esophagus and both lungs. He was briefly declared dead, but doctors were able to revive him. Warhol’s manager, Fred Hughes, told her to leave and she did, leaving behind the brown bag she had the gun in, her address book and a sanitary napkin on the table at the scene. Cultural critic James Harding has read this assassination attempt as its own theatrical performance. He stated that leaving behind the sanitary napkin was part of the performance, and called “attention to basic feminine experiences that were publically taboo and tacitly elided within avant-garde circles”.

Later that day, Solanas turned herself in to the police, gave up her gun, and confessed to the shooting. She told a police officer that Warhol “had too much control in my life.” She was charged with felonious assualt and possession of a deadly weapon. 

Valerie handing herself in could suggest she had some remorse over the shooting. However, it might also suggest that she felt justified in doing it; she had nothing to hide, so why wouldn’t she hand herself in to the police? Her admission to police and the statement she made about Warhol having too much control over her life starts to paint a picture of how desperate Valerie felt in these moments, and how she truly believed that Warhol and Giordias were stealing her work and conspiring against her. This theory that they were working together has never been proven, but it does give you an insight into how (at the time undiagnosed) paranoid schizophrenia was affecting Valerie’s mind. However, it also isn’t completely unreasonable that she believed that they working together, as they had both stolen her work. Obviously, Valerie’s actions in response to this belief were extreme and inexcusable, but her crimes do not negate the facts. And the facts are, both men had taken advantage of Valerie and her work for their own gain. 

The next morning, the New York Daily News ran the front-page headline: “Actress Shoots Andy Warhol.” Solanas demanded a retraction of the statement that she was an actress. The Daily News changed the headline in its later edition and added a quote from Solanas stating “I’m a writer, not an actress.” This, perhaps, gives even more insight to her mental state and her determination to be taken seriously. 

At her arraignment, Valerie denied that she shot Warhol because he wouldn’t produce her play, and said “it was for the opposite reason” that he had “a legal claim on [her] works.” Valerie told the judge: “it’s not often that I shoot somebody. I didn’t do it for nothing. Warhol had tied me up, lock, stock, and barrel. He was going to do something to me which would have ruined me.” She wanted to represent herself and declared: “I was right in what I did! I have nothing to regret!” The judge struck her comments from the court record and had her admitted to a hospital for psychiatric observation, where she was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. 

This event was obviously sensationalised by the media and, through it, SCUM Manifesto gained a lot of attention. The manifesto provided the perfect rhetoric for the media to spew to the masses – that this ‘crazy’ man-hating woman had finally snapped. This narrative was perpetuated despite the fact that was not what the SCUM Manifesto was about and despite the fact it had been written years earlier, before her diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. However, Harding explains that perceptions of the assasination attempt on Warhol were seen as politically-motivated and, in the media, Warhol was portrayed as a martyr-like figure.

Lasting cultural legacy:

There were polarised views from prominent feminists regarding the manifesto at the time. Ti-Grace Atkinson defended Solanas and considered the manifesto a valid criticism of patriarchy, while others, such as Betty Friedan, considered Solanas’s views to be too radical and polarising to be taken seriously by the larger movement. However, Solanas has been credited by some critics with instigating radical feminism. Catherine Lord wrote that “the feminist movement would not have happened without Valerie Solanas” and that SCUM Manifesto, paired with her outsider status within the feminist movement, triggered a wave of radical feminist publications. 

While now, we have a larger catalogue of critiques and reviews of Valerie’s work, it is still largely ridiculed for being ‘too radical’. The most dominant narrative surrounding SCUM is that it is just ramblings of a crazy woman. SCUM is often stripped of its impact, conviction, and truths solely because the woman who wrote it was mentally ill. At the time, it was rejected due to people having little respect for women, especially women with mental health issues, and because she was a sex worker. But despite Valerie’s mental health issues and the subsequent crime she committed, it does not make her manifesto unworthy of analysing. Valerie was simply ahead of her time.

Her role as a cult figure was solidified with the publication of SCUM Manifesto and her shooting of Warhol. Harding’s understanding of Valerie is that by declaring herself independent from Warhol, after her arrest, she “aligned herself with the historical avant-garde’s rejection of the traditional structures of bourgeois theatre”. As previously mentioned, he has argued her act was performance art, continuing that her anti-patriarchal “militant hostility pushed the avant-garde in radically new directions”. However, Valerie, even in cultural theory has become an enigma. Everything she did when married with what you know about her life becomes poetic and reads theatrical. 

Valerie was constantly abused, manipulated and taken advantage of by men, while all along trying to campaign for feminism and be her own autonomous entity. Despite everything she worked for, the cycle did not change – men still controlled her, no matter how detached from society she was. In the end, her shooting at men at the very top of the capitalist ladder becomes poetic and performative and serves as symbolic end to the torture she endured throughout her life, torture she suffered at the hands of figures similar to the men she shot at. 

Feminist philosopher Avital Ronell compared Solanas to an array of people: Lorena Bobbitt; a “girl Nietzsche”; Medusa; the Unabomber; and Medea. She has purported that Valerie was threatened by the hyper-feminine women of the Factory that Warhol liked and felt lonely because of the rejection she felt due to her own butch androgyny. She believed Valerie was ahead of her time, living in a period before feminist and lesbian revolutionaries such as the Guerrilla Girls and the Lesbian Avengers. This is not hard to believe as Valerie paved the way for radical groups like the Guerilla Girls and the Lesbian Avengers.

Similarly, the writer Andrea Long-Chu has referenced Solanas’ SCUM in her work. Most recently in the book Females (2019), Long-Chu draws inspiration from the forgotten play, Up Your Ass. The book opens with the line: “everyone is born female, and everyone hates it”. Throughout the book takes inspiration from and escalating Solanas’ similar rhetoric in SCUM that everyone is female, defending the claim that femaleness is actually an existential condition that affects the entire human race, rather than merely a biological position. While SCUM Manifesto has some biologically essentialist undertones, Long-Chu, who has been hailed as launching the ‘second wave’ of trans studies, uses some of Valerie’s radical ideas, and through critique, utilises them to inform her arguments regarding gender – fit for a new generation. 

But while these feminist and cultural theorists prove Valerie and her work have made a lasting cultural impact and prove that SCUM was much more than the ramblings of a ‘crazy’ misandrist, she, personally, is still portrayed that way in modern culture. Multiple films and plays have been made since the shooting depicting the events. More recently, American Horror Story based an episode on Valerie and the shooting. Their portrayal of Valerie continues to feed the untrue narrative that she was a man-hating, insane person. In their episode they portray Valerie as ‘unhinged’ and depict her starting a cult in prison – called SCUM, which is essentially a cult of female serial killers. They also infer that this is the beginning of the infamous Zodiac killings. This obviously devalues Valerie and her work, and everything literal feminist and cultural experts have had to say about it. Ironically, it further proves Valerie right in that capitalism is, in fact, scum. While this is the most recent portrayal of her, it is not the only portrayal where she is depicted as a mental, man-hating, cult instigator – which is not the truth. Valerie, was radically anti-capitalist and radically feminist. She had suffered incessantly at the hands of men – it is no surprise she thought radically. Radical change requires radical action. 

The SCUM manifesto was, of course, not the only time that the patriarchy have accused feminists or lesbians of hating men. More recently in 2020, Pauline Harmange’s book I Hate Men, was attempted to be banned in France. Her book discusses whether mistrusting and disliking men, or even hating men, is a useful response to feminism. She looks into whether this response offers a way out of oppression and is a useful means of resistance to the patriarchy. These topics are also explored in SCUM, which suggests that these are not completely off-the-wall ideas, that Valerie’s theories and ideas are still relevant today and are still being silenced as they are apparently still too “radical” for the world to hear. Except this time, we do not have a mental illness to blame Harmange’s theories on. 

Women, especially those with mental health issues, are often silenced by the masses. Valerie was no exception to that. Despite the fame her work has since received and the acceptance and understanding of Valerie’s work in years since the incident, her tragic cycle of being robbed and abused by men in power did not end. 

Olympia Press still owns the rights to SCUM Manifesto and even after the shooting they continued to publish the work. The contract stayed intact despite her being mentally ill at the time of signing. Giordias even told the media that on the morning of the shooting, Valerie waited in his hotel lobby for five hours after asking for him at the desk, insinuating that she was there to shoot him first, to increase sales of the manifesto. The PR stunt worked and it did boost sales of SCUM, but Valerie denied this and it was disproved years later.

Once Valerie was released from prison, her fifteen minutes of fame were over. She tried to continue working as a writer, and even told The Village Voice that she was writing an autobiography, but this never materialised. A decade later she was apparently homeless, and released a revised copy of SCUM Manifesto, that, once again, nobody was interested in or bought. She died at 52 of pneumonia in a hotel she was living in. She was found with pages upon pages of written work, but no one knows, or ever will know what she was working on, as her mother burnt all her belongings after her death. 

Valerie Solonas’s life is a tragic story of a woman who was robbed of everything she had, from birth to death. She was robbed of her childhood, her innocence, her work, her credibility – literally everything. While the end result was of course tragic, and obviously not condonable, her experiences can offer an explanation of why it came to such an extreme ending. She may have been symbolically putting an end to the abuse throughout her life through shooting Warhol, as a symbol of the patriarchy or of capitalism, but in the end, they still won. 

Oh, and Up Your Ass, the play she gave to Warhol, was miraculously found during an exhibition at the Andy Warhol Museum (previously the Factory) – an exhibition that was marking the 30th anniversary of the shooting. It has since been produced and rewritten, by a man obviously, and is about a serial killer prostitute based on Valerie. 

So, make of that what you will.

Written By

Elish is co-founder of The Culture Sift.

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