Grappling with the Legacy of the Woman Who Shot Andy Warhol
The strange tale of Valerie Solanas reads as both tragedy and farce. In 1967, the radical feminist wrote one of the most vitriolic, misandrist treatises in American history, entitled “The SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto.” So absurd that it reads like parody, the work nevertheless offers a striking (if deranged) record of 1960s tensions, many of which persist today. The manifesto might have remained a historical oddity if Solanas hadn’t turned her rage into actual violence: In 1968, she shot
The assault became a key moment in pop-cultural history, reported in newspapers across the country. Never one to miss an opportunity to transform life into art—and fame—Warhol literally exposed his scars to the press. Yet the trauma also haunted him for the rest of his life. Solanas became integral to Warhol’s mythology, her writings a footnote in a larger celebrity biography. Contemporary scholars are still wrangling with Solanas’s legacy, suggesting something vital and timeless in her unique brand of political madness.
Solanas (1936–1988) was born in New Jersey, towards the end of the Great Depression. Her heavy-drinking father, Louis, sexually abused her. She acted out in school: At the Holy Cross Academy, she once assaulted a nun. By the age of 15, she’d given birth to two children. The fathers’ identities remain unknown, though incest may have been responsible for the first pregnancy, and a sailor for the second. Solanas’s mother raised the first child, Linda, as her own. A family in Washington, D.C., adopted Solanas’s son, David. Solanas had no recourse to abortion, and societal restrictions prohibited her from becoming a mother out of wedlock.
By the time Solanas was a student at the University of Maryland, College Park, in the mid-1950s, she was already seeking outlets for her (warranted) rage. She wrote for the school newspaper and penned sarcastic letters to the editor repudiating sexism across campus. Breanne Fahs’s 2014 biography Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol) presents a wealth of this enlightening archival material. Arguing against a classmate who believed that women attended college in order to hunt for marital prospects, Solanas seethed: “Do I detect of touch of male arrogance and egotism?…I’m afraid Mr. Parr’s puerile arguments are doomed to fizzlehood.” She maintained that unique, acerbic, hippie-inflected tone throughout the rest of her career. Solanas herself had no domestic aspirations. She had flings with men and women, more interested in sex than in settling down.
After Solanas dropped out of a psychology master’s program at the University of Minnesota in 1959, she hitchhiked around the country, hung out in Berkeley, and ended up in the ultimate misfit mecca of her time: Manhattan. She moved to the Upper West Side—even then, Greenwich Village was too pricey. “New York offered [her]…freedom to express herself, openness to differences in sexual identities, and the chaotic tangle of urban life,” Fahs writes.
Solanas struggled to find stability in the city, panhandling and prostituting herself. Her itinerant lifestyle led her to lodge in hotel after hotel, including the Chelsea, where Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, and more countercultural figures once lived. (Solanas got evicted multiple times.) In 1965, she finished a version of her infamous play, Up Your Ass, which boasts a colorful cast of wise-cracking characters. The protagonist, Bongi, is an aggressive feminist who rejects men’s advances with lines such as “Get your apey hand off my boob, or I’ll kick you in your big, fat, hairy shins” and “I remember the time I was stomping up and down on this masochist’s chest, and I had to charge him an extra ten bucks ‘cause I broke ‘em.”
In 1967, Solanas completed her most famous manuscript, “The SCUM Manifesto.” In the work, she asserts that the only way men can further civilization is to destroy themselves. Additionally, she calls for women to “overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation.” Her writing exudes impassioned loathing—but it’s also laugh-out-loud funny, driven by a distinctly late-1960s voice that translates Summer-of-Love lingo into venom. “The female function is to relate, groove, love and be herself, irreplaceable by anyone else; the male function is to produce sperm,” she wrote. “We now have sperm banks.”
Solanas became notorious around New York as she circulated her manifesto, held SCUM meetings (both women and masochistic men showed up), and networked in order to find a producer for her play. In the spring of 1967, she appeared on a conservative television talk show, The Alan Burke Show, to discuss her sexuality—the host simply wanted to interview, and malign, an out lesbian. Burke so antagonized her that the pair ended up chasing each other around the stage. Solanas grabbed his ass, then tried to hit him with a chair.
Solanas became increasingly desperate to find a venue for her production of Up Your Ass. Many theater directors feared the work was too dirty, figuring they’d get arrested for showing such pornographic material. Photographer
Yet the goodwill didn’t last long. “Andy created women as offshoots of the male imagination, something Valerie could never (and would never) live up to,” Fahs writes. Her assessment of Warhol, if accurate, veers dangerously close to victim-blaming. If Warhol could be superficial, exploitative, and cheap (he didn’t properly pay his film stars and was known to be a bad tipper), he didn’t deserve to be shot. Fahs claims that Warhol stole bits of Solanas’s conversation for his own work, which seems like an unfair complaint: Isn’t chatter where most writers get their material?
Warhol ultimately said no to producing Up Your Ass. In fact, he lost his copy of the play, which infuriated Solanas. He did, however, give her a role in his 1967 production I, a Man. She played herself, rejecting a male character’s sexual advances with witty barbs. Though Solanas was able to somewhat ingratiate herself with the Factory crew, she never totally fit in—many of the resident women were classically beautiful and came from wealthy backgrounds. Solanas had neither attribute to recommend her.
Meanwhile, Solanas was also negotiating a contract with Maurice Girodias, a publisher who was potentially interested in her work (he became best-known for representing erotic literature, such as Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 masterpiece Lolita, that no one else would touch). Solanas became increasingly paranoid that both Girodias and Warhol were out to get her, eager to steal the rights to her manuscripts. On June 3, 1968 (just days before Sirhan Sirhan fatally shot Robert Kennedy, and months after James Earl Ray shot Martin Luther King, Jr.), Solanas entered the Factory and shot at Warhol and two men near him: his assistant Fred Hughes, and Mario Amaya, an art critic who was visiting from London.
Solanas’s bullet struck Warhol’s abdomen and damaged his lung and other vital organs. The would-be assassin left the premises and ultimately turned herself in. Paramedics presumed Warhol dead—when they reached him he was barely breathing—but eventually revived him. The trauma forever altered Warhol’s body. Scars lined his abdomen, and he wore a surgical corset for the rest of his life. Both
Despite the gravity of the crime, radical feminists persisted in their defense of Solanas. In their estimation, the assailant had simply rebelled against “The Man.” But gradually, Solanas alienated her supporters one by one, and the extent of her illness—paranoid schizophrenia—lost her all potential friends.
Reading about the feminists’ early support for Warhol’s shooter, it can seem as though a nascent movement was simply seeking a patron saint, and Solanas—with her extremism and media attention—happened to be available. Many feminists were not willing to personally wield guns for the struggle; instead, they relied on Solanas’s legacy to promote a more aggressive movement. It’s unclear who this helped—claiming Solanas as their own, radical feminists associated themselves with a violent, unhinged criminal. No progressive legislation resulted. During her three years in the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, Solanas was even hostile to the feminist movement herself. She proclaimed that she was a writer and artist before she was any kind of political advocate.
In the decades since, some academics and creative practitioners have offered a compassionate narrative about Solanas. In 1996, Canadian director Mary Harron (who’s also, fittingly, responsible for 2000’s American Psycho) released a film about the assault called I Shot Andy Warhol. Lili Taylor plays a sympathetic Solanas. “Harron makes the case for SCUM as a wakeup call for female empowerment that predated the women’s movement,” Peter Travers wrote in his review. “In other words, the crackpot was a prophet.”
In his 2001 essay “The Simplest Surrealist Act: Valerie Solanas and the (Re)Assertion of Avantgarde Priorities,” James M. Harding conjectures that Solanas meant the shooting as a radical artwork. Indeed, she dressed up like a spy (trenchcoat, turtleneck) and left a bag of veritable props—her pistol, a sanitary napkin, and her address book—at the scene of the crime. “Solanas constructed a mode of performance that absolutely defied the conventions of mainstream theatre and tore at the very conceptual fabric of the avantgarde,” Harding writes. In contrast, Warhol told the press he’d only been shot because he was famous, and Solanas was jealous.
If it now seems irresponsible to laud any kind of violence as “avant-garde,” Harding’s perspective dovetails with much of the American far-left’s strategy from the early 1970s. According to Time magazine, radical activists set off around 2,500 bombs on American soil from 1971 to ’72. Solanas’s action foreshadowed these desperate attacks. It’s more comfortable to chalk her assault up to an individual mental illness than to situate her project within a larger wave of political dissident activities that were becoming increasingly ruthless in the late 1960s (often, to be fair, in response to the Vietnam War, as well as the violence the far-right perpetuated during the Civil Rights struggle).
Fahs herself takes Solanas very seriously—she still teaches “The SCUM Manifesto” in her undergraduate courses at Arizona State University. “To frame the significance of Valerie’s life around her shooting of Andy would minimize her merits as an author and her broader intentions as a revolutionary,” Fahs writes in her Solanas biography. If it’s easy to chuckle—or smirk—at Solanas’s outrageous writings, it’s challenging to forget her campy, vengeful voice. Fahs doesn’t condone Solanas’s crime, but she does believe that discussing anger and violence is crucial for anyone studying oppressed peoples. Solanas’s militancy is part of a larger story of feminism and its fractures, whether we want to claim her for the canon or not.
This past spring, Michelle Tea published an essay about Solanas in her collection Against Memoir. She asserts that Solanas’s ideas remain plenty relevant today. And, to be fair, “The SCUM Manifesto” still feels like a novel, laugh-out-loud funny provocation. “I’m thinking that going totally fucking insane is a completely rational outcome for an intelligent women in this society,” Tea writes, “and I think this idea only becomes more solid the farther back in history you go.”
As Fahs wrote to Artsy, “Solanas embodies much of what feminism tries to distance itself from”—raw anger, mental illness, violence, fury, nastiness. Yet she still haunts feminism—“a figure on the margins that shapes the center” of feminist thought and practice. Like any fictional character, Solanas has become privy to our own projections: She’s either a headcase or a clairvoyant, depending on your agenda. Personally, I agree with Jo Freeman, who once said that “Valerie should be forgotten.” Let’s consider her a minor addendum to the feminist movement, at best. As a sui generis personality who intersected with so many crucial moments in American history, though, she still fascinates.
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.
A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Solanas’s manifesto as “The S.C.U.M. (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto.” The manifesto is called, “The SCUM Manifesto.”