Andrea Dworkin, the feminist author whose radical analyses of male-female relations and unrelenting attacks on pornography made her a prominent, often polarizing, figure in the women's movement of the 1970s and '80s, died Saturday at her home in Washington, D.C. She was 58.
The cause of death was not disclosed, but she had been ill for several years with various ailments, including osteoarthritis.
Dworkin upset many feminists, liberals and civil libertarians with her unforgiving stance on pornography, which she condemned as "a celebration of rape and injury to women." With feminist theorist Catharine MacKinnon, she championed a law that defined pornography as a violation of women's civil rights and allowed any woman to sue porn producers and distributors for civil damages. Critics disparaged the pioneering law, which was adopted in two cities and later overturned, as an infringement of free speech.
A prolific author with a forceful style that led one critic to describe her as "a Leon Trotsky of the sex war," Dworkin found it difficult to be published in this country and in later years was better known in England, where several of her 13 books first saw print.
Among her most notable nonfiction books were "Woman Hating," published in 1974, and "Pornography: Men Possessing Women," published in 1981. She also wrote novels and poetry, which, like her nonfiction, were influenced by the personal traumas -- including her experiences as a prostitute and battered wife -- that led her to the women's movement.
Although her critics portrayed her as a man-hater who saw the possibility of rape in any intimate encounter between the sexes, she denied that she was anti-men. She believed, however, that a battered woman had the right to kill her batterer.
Despite the violence she endured in her first marriage and her subsequent identification as a lesbian, her longtime companion was writer John Stoltenberg, who has described himself as an openly gay man. They were together for 30 years, the last seven as a married couple.
Her relationship with Stoltenberg was a subject of intense fascination for many who knew of Dworkin's work. The two met in 1974 at a benefit for the War Resisters League and soon began living together. Stoltenberg shared Dworkin's feminist fervor and helped found the group Men Against Pornography. Often at her side when she marched against pornography, he is her only immediate survivor.
Dworkin was born in Camden, N.J., to immigrant Jewish parents with progressive politics. As a child, she often stayed with relatives because her father, a schoolteacher and postal employee, worked long hours, and her mother had heart trouble. In school, her nonconformist tendencies put her at odds with teachers; in sixth grade, for instance, she refused to sing "Silent Night" at Christmas and was dropped from the choir.
Her life as a political activist began in 1965 during an anti-Vietnam War protest outside the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. The Bennington College freshman was sent to New York City's notorious Women's House of Detention, where she was violated during strip searches and a brutal internal examination by prison doctors. She bled for days afterward, sustaining injuries so shocking that her usually dispassionate family doctor cried when he treated her later.
She was befriended by writer-activist Grace Paley, who urged Dworkin to tell newspapers about her prison abuse. The New York Times and other major papers gave her story prominent coverage, which led to government investigations and the eventual closure of the prison.
Her parents felt disgraced by her disclosures and, Dworkin said, "pretty much abandoned me." She dropped out of school and went to Greece, where she turned to prostitution for food and money.
She returned to the U.S. after a year and earned a bachelor's degree from Bennington in 1968. She went abroad again and married a Dutch radical. She often wrote about how he beat her repeatedly and burned her with cigarettes.
No one came to her aid, even when she dared asked for it.
"I was buried alive in silence," she wrote in The Times in 1995. "I didn't know that such horror had ever happened to anyone else."
She was homeless and hid from her husband until a woman acquaintance helped her leave the country, but Dworkin said she lived in fear of him for the rest of her life.
She later concluded that pornography, which she and her Dutch husband read, played a role in her victimization. "[I]t helped give me the wrong idea," she told the New York Times in a 1985 interview, "of what a woman was supposed to be for a man."
In gratitude to the woman who helped her flee, she vowed to use her skills as a writer to improve the lives of women.
While hiding from her husband, she began to write "Woman Hating," a radical feminist critique of pornography and violence against women that examined fairy tales, myth and pornography.