Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto is a work that, upon one’s first reading, elicits disgust, dread, and fear. On the surface, this text seems like the rantings of a delusional woman who hated all men indiscriminately for very personal and illogical reasons. Though many consider her the catalyst and a hero of the radical feminist movement, radical feminism itself is very out of vogue. Instead, we live in an era of mainstream feminism in which the phrase “gender equality” is taken all too literally and many oppressive systems remain uncritiqued. The movement also has its own problematic aspects, such as the consistent exclusion of women who face the bulk of systemic oppression.While foundational second wavers such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem will probably never go out of style or feminism’s memory, inflammatory radicals such as Valerie Solanas continue to be held at arms length by the movement.
This is an unfortunate oversight on the part of many young feminists. In SCUM Manifesto, Valerie Solanas explores issues such as the social construction of gender, the inherently sexist and exploitative nature of capitalism, and flips the sexist theories of men such as Sigmund Freud and Aristotle on their heads. Her work can easily be read either as the absurd ramblings of a crazy and bitter woman or as a sharp (though vulgar) analysis of how toxic masculinity is ingrained into boys at a young age and a critique of the patriarchal hegemony that values certain types of knowledge and thought over others.
Though held up by radical feminists, a group strongly associated with transphobia and defining gender by biological sex, Solanas’ work does not oppose men simply on the basis of biology. Rather, she makes it clear that boys are socialized at a young age to become “garbage.” In a theory that inverts Freud’s Oedipal complex, she argues that fathers are highly defensive of their and their son’s “impulses to passivity, faggotry, and of desires to be female.” By scaring their sons out of these desires, they effectively make them “just like Daddy, that model of ‘Man’-hood, the all-American ideal — the well-behaved heterosexual dullard.” This idea is strongly reminiscent of Judith Butler’s theories. Butler’s first book, Gender Trouble, was couched in the theories of Jacques Derrida, Simone de Beauvoir, and Michel Foucault (to name a few) and used jargon that was much less accessible than Solanas’. In it, Butler argues that gender and sexuality and their traditional coherence (i.e., women have vaginas, men have penises) was socially constructed rather than biologically innate. Her theory of gender performativity expands upon how these socially constructed categories are established, recognized, and performed in everyday life. Despite this connection between Butler and Solanas, Gender Trouble would not be published until 20 years after SCUM.
Solanas’ criticism of the money system is also heavily related to a branch of feminism appropriately named socialist feminism, which was not officially named as such until 1972, though women have been expanding upon the link between Marxism/socialism and feminism since the 19th century. Even her declaration that “the male is an incomplete female, a walking abortion, aborted at the gene stage” can be traced back to a statement of Aristotle’s that “the female is… a deformed male.” Since Solanas does not mention other theorists or philosophers in her manifesto, it is unclear whether or not these connections had any influence on her writing. However, it is important for the reader to recognize them in order to fully appreciate Solanas’ work.
When one looks at Solanas’ life, it isn’t difficult to understand what lead her to write SCUM. Born in 1936 in New Jersey to a working class second generation Italian-American family, Solanas’ father regularly sexually abused her. Though her mother divorced him and remarried while Solanas was young, she still disliked her mother and stepfather. Due to her rebelliousness as a child (some of her offenses include beating up a boy who was bothering a younger girl and hitting a nun), she was sent to live with her grandparents when she was 13 and later said that her grandfather was a violent alcoholic who beat her. When she was 15 she left her grandparents, became homeless, gave birth to a son fathered by a married sailor, had her son taken away from her, and still managed to graduate high school on time.
Solanas went on to attend the University of Maryland, College Park, where she hosted a radio show in which she gave advice on how to combat men and graduated with a degree in psychology. She then attended the University of Minnesota’s Graduate School of Psychology, but later dropped out to attend a few courses at Berkeley. There, she began writing SCUM Manifesto. Solanas moved to New York City in the mid-1960s, supporting herself through begging and prostitution. During this time she wrote a short story called “A Young Girl’s Primer on How to Attain the Leisure Class” which was published in a (then-literature, now-porn) magazine called Cavalier in 1966.
This was also around the time she wrote a play titled Up Your Ass, which she asked Andy Warhol to produce when she first met him outside his studio in 1967. He accepted the script, promised to read it, and said that it was “well typed.” However, he later told Solanas that he lost it (though many say that he thought the script was a police trap due to its obscene nature) and joked that he could offer her a job at his studio, the Factory, as a typist. It is curious that Warhol, considered an open-minded and progressive artist, would make so many backhand compliments about Solanas’ typing skills when from the 1870s until the 1990s typists were almost exclusively women whose sole job was to record the ideas and words of their male bosses. Solanas was understandably offended and demanded money for the lost manuscript. Instead, Warhol offered her $25 to appear in his film appropriately titled I, A Man. In this film, Solanas essentially plays herself— a lesbian who leads a straight man to what he believes is her apartment, proceeds to have a long frank discussion about sexuality with him in the hallway, and then exits declaring, “I gotta go beat my meat.”
Most people who have heard of Solanas know that she would later attempt to murder Warhol over a perceived slight/conspiracy involving her lost play. This knowledge would lead one to believe that her seminal work, the SCUM Manifesto, was fueled by her hatred of Warhol. However, as previously mentioned, she had begun writing the manifesto well before meeting him, and published it about a year before her attempted murder.
My review of Solanas’ life up until this point is not an attempt to justify her writing of the SCUM Manifesto—which does not need to be justified. If anything, it is to prove her brilliance in spite of (and most likely because of) the odds she faced, which included trauma from sexual and domestic violence, homelessness, teen pregnancy, and a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia in 1968. While all of these factors could easily explain Solanas’ advocation of gendercide against men, to dismiss her ideas in such a way that lacks nuance would be both irresponsible and disrespectful to her legacy. If one actually dedicates time and thought to reading SCUM, her ideas and thought processes are particularly incisive, especially given her context.