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Valerie Solanas: Questions, Context, and a Messy Legacy in the Village

Valerie Solanas (April 9, 1936 – April 25, 1988) is nothing if not divisive. She was a mysterious Villager known for being a radical lesbian feminist separatist, for writing the wild, controversial SCUM Manifesto, for shooting Andy Warhol and two others at Warhol’s Factory in Union Square and defending herself at her trial. It’s clear that what is known about Solanas is generally anecdotal, possibly mythology, and often unconfirmed – emblematic of a life lived outside of the bounds of society, which Solanas did by a combination of choice and necessity. There are more questions than answers about Solanas, but looking at her in context and in light of the many readings and retellings of her work over the past decades can give depth to a messy story about a messy woman.

Valerie Solanas leaving the police station after shooting Andy Warhol

I’m thinking about Valerie Solanas and her ever-changing legacy. Did she intend “SCUM” to stand for “Society for Cutting Up Men?” Did she shoot Andy Warhol because he snubbed the play she wrote which he refused to produce, or as a valiant metaphorical act against the patriarchal art apparatus of her time? Did her gun really jam because she’d wrapped her bullets in aluminum foil, thinking that only silver bullets could kill the vampire, Andy Warhol? How influenced was she by the social and political unrest and militant movements around her in the Village and beyond, as she lived, worked, and waged battles in the Village? Was Valerie Solanas off her rocker? Maybe. Was she a prescient and trailblazing figure of radical feminism? Probably. Was she a renegade? A Villager, as only Villagers can be? Definitely. Let’s explore.

Solanas was born in 1936 in Ventnor City, New Jersey to an immigrant family from Spain and Italy. Her parents divorced when she was young and her mother remarried shortly afterward. Solanas disliked her stepfather and began rebelling against her mother. Solanas became homeless at 15. She had a child who was taken from her and put up for adoption. We know that she came out as a lesbian, that she graduated high school on time despite all this upheaval, and that she earned a degree in psychology from the University of Maryland, College Park, where she was in the Psi Chi Honor Society, and did graduate work at the University of Minnesota Graduate School of Psychology and at Berkeley, where she eventually dropped out. She was “a drifter drawn to the Village by the promise of cheap living and a receptive climate for radical ideas and unconventional lifestyles,” joining the ranks of Villagers in the mid-to-late 1960s who were supporting themselves through sex work while hustling to get their art into the public eye. 

Advertisement for a reading, book sales, and radio show with Solanas on East 14th Street

When she arrived in the Village, Solanas had already written the autobiographical short story “A Young Girl’s Primer on How to Attain the Leisure Class,” and her play, Up Your Ass, described by the Italian publishing house that put out the play’s first edition in 2014 as “a humorous portrait of everyday sexism through the eyes of a bitter hustling prostitute. Clearly inspired by her own experiences, this script is not only wildly outrageous but eerily relevant and almost prophetic, forty-nine years after it was first written.” The story’s protagonist kills a man, which many have seen as setting the fictional stage for her real-life attempt at Warhol’s life.

The stories of Solanas’s shooting of Warhol, who refused to produce Up Your Ass in 1967, are well told and broad ranging. The concrete act that Solanas undertook – shooting three people – which landed her in the Jefferson Market Women’s House of Detention – now the Jefferson Market Garden – and in Bellevue’s psychiatric ward for a total of three years, was premeditated and simultaneously it was full of its own mythology which it seems Solanas intended. It was a sort of social commentary, a performance, a delusion (she was deemed mentally unstable, though as we know, mental health professionals, as well as the general public, considered homosexuality to be a mental illness at the time, and it was listed as such in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders [DSM] until 1974). According to James Martin Harding who wrote  Cutting Performances: Collage Events, Feminist Artists, and the American Avant-Garde, Solanas left a paper bag containing a gun, her address book, and a sanitary napkin on a table at the Factory after the shooting, which he identified as a part of the performance of the shooting. What I gather from this is that Solanas saw the world as both what it was, and the metaphor of what it represented. 

Most recent printing of the SCUM Manifesto

The SCUM Manifesto begins bluntly:

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.

When she first printed it in 1968, Solanas sold the manifesto on the streets of Greenwich Village, charging women one dollar and men two – her own form of justice or reparations. She had sold about 400 copies, but that number spiked after her murder attempt and bombastic court display, during which she declared that she should have taken target practice. Now, the SCUM Manifesto has been printed and reprinted dozens of times, as its own volume and excerpted in collections of feminist and anarchist collections. More recently, Lena Dunham portrayed Solanas in the hit show American Horror Story, adding mythology to Solanas’s tale by having a fictional girlfriend recount her experiences. The text remains a topic of energetic discussion and debate. How do we read the text in light of transgender liberation and empowerment, if Solanas was writing in a time when sex and gender weren’t so commonly seen as separate? How does Solanas’s presentation as butch bear on her ideas of womanhood and femininity?

Lena Dunham as Valerie Solanas in American Horror Story

Mary Harron wrote that the SCUM Manifesto “feels as if it were written in one great rush. It isn’t quite like anything else, but it does resemble Artaud’s surrealist manifesto… Also de Sade in its vision of human nature… And, more disturbingly, it resembles the better bits of writing by the Unabomber.” In her 2014 book VALERIE SOLANAS: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol), published by the Feminist Press, Breanne Fahs calls Solanas “a figurehead for women’s unexpressed rage, at the center of many worlds—Warhol’s Factory scene, 60s feminists, NY literati, the counterculture.” In a recent article in n+1 about Solanas, written by Andrea Long Chu which delves into the theories of the SCUM Manifesto, and challenges the tellings of Solanas’s story. Long Chu writes:

To call Solanas a “lesbian feminist” is to imply, erroneously, that she was associated with lesbian groups like New York City’s Lavender Menace, which briefly hijacked the Second Congress to Unite Women in 1970 to protest homophobia in the women’s movement and distribute their classic pamphlet “The Woman-Identified Woman.” But Solanas was neither a political lesbian nor a lesbian politico. She was by all accounts a loner and a misfit, a struggling writer and sex worker who sometimes identified as gay but always looked out for number one. The dedication to her riotous 1965 play Up Your Ass reads, “I dedicate this play to ME, a continuous source of strength and guidance, and without whose unflinching loyalty, devotion, and faith this play would never have been written.”

The entire article is worth reading, and I think holds some ideas and perspectives that Solanas would have appreciated. This made me think about Solanas both as a loner and also as a product of her time – a time of great political upheaval all over the world. Protests and revolutions in Europe rocked the continent. The Black Power movement, which had many roots in the Village, was galvanized with the creation of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, which made its way to New York with a message of radical self-determination and the right to bear arms in the face of an oppressive state and culture which bore arms itself. Just two years after Solanas shot Andy Warhol, the Weather Underground, active in the Village, blew up a townhouse in the West Village as its members were creating and testing bombs to create violent havoc in the neighborhood and beyond. These movements sought the use of violent means to convey their points and enact change, as Solanas did as her own free agent.

Valerie Solanas at her writing desk

What there’s no doubt about is that Valerie Solanas was a part and product of the Village, which she changed indelibly, adding to the still-relevant questions about her intentions, desires, truths, and even whether or not she truly did hit a nun in high school. I’d like to echo what Andrea Long Chu wrote: “ These stories have perhaps less to do with What Really Happened than they do with what Fredric Jameson once called “the ‘emotion’ of great historiographic form”—that is, the satisfaction of synthesizing the messy empirical data of the past into an elegant historical arc in which everything that happened could not have happened otherwise.” Valerie Solanas’s story resists any neat synthesis, which I think further aligns her with the radical movements of her time and with the Village’s history of activism and agitation, and of being home to outlaw thinkers like James BaldwinEmma Goldman, and others, including Valerie herself.

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