Coming of Age

1976–1985: Punk to Pomo, Basquiat to Breakdancing

By Lisa Duggan

October 16, 1984

[Andrea] Dworkin and [Catharine] MacKinnon didn't plan to write a new municipal law against pornography. In the fall of 1983, they were teaching a class at the University of Minnesota, presenting and developing their analysis of the role of pornography in the oppression of women. Each woman is known for her advocacy of one of the more extreme forms of anti-pornography feminism—the belief that sexually explicit images that subordinate or degrade women are singularly dangerous, more dangerous than nonsexual images of gross violence against women, more dangerous than advertising images of housewives as dingbats obsessed with getting men's shirt collars clean. In fact, Dworkin and MacKinnon argue that pornography is at the root of virtually every form of exploitation and discrimination known to woman. Given these views, it's not surprising that they would turn eventually to censorship—not censorship of violent and misogynistic images generally, but only of the sexually explicit images that cultural reactionaries have tried to outlaw for more than a century.

Dworkin and MacKinnon were invited to testify at a public hearing on a new zoning law (Minneapolis's "adult business" zoning law had been stricken in the courts also). When they appeared, they testified against the zoning strategy and offered a surprising new idea instead. Dworkin railed at the City Council, calling its members "cats and dogs" for tolerating pornography; MacKinnon suggested a civil rights approach to eliminate, rather than merely regulate, pornography. City officials must have enjoyed the verbal abuse—they hired the women to write a new law and to conduct public hearings on its merits.

In Minneapolis, Dworkin/MacKinnon were an effective duo. Dworkin, a remarkably effective public speaker, whipped up emotion with sensational rhetoric. At one rally, she encouraged her followers to "swallow the vomit you feel at the thought of dealing with the city council and get this law in place. See that the silence of women is over, that we're not down on our backs with our legs spread anymore." In contrast, MacKinnon, a professor of law, offered legalistic, seemingly rational, solutions to the sense of panic and doom evoked by Dworkin. In such a charged atmosphere, amid public demonstrations by anti-porn feminists—one young woman later set herself on fire to protest pornography—the law passed. It was vetoed by the mayor on constitutional grounds.

Indianapolis, though, is not Minneapolis. When Mayor Hudnut heard of the Dworkin/MacKinnon bill at a Republican conference, he didn't think of it as a measure to promote feminism, but as a weapon in the war on smut. He recruited City Councilmember Beulah Coughenour—an activist in the Stop ERA movement—to introduce the law locally. . . . Coughenour had been considered a minor figure in Indianapolis politics, but she displayed unexpected skill in overseeing the passage of the anti-porn bill. How else could she have gotten radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon and right-wing preacher Greg Dixon to work together, to pass legislation she sponsored, without ever running into one another?


Nicaragua: Waiting for Uncle Sam

By Marc Cooper

November 27, 1984

MANAGUA—A few days after Ronald Reagan was reelected President of the United States, I was sitting at breakfast with a group of Nicaraguan and Argentine cultural workers in a small hotel kitchen a few blocks from the Juventud Sandinista headquarters. The discussion this morning was the same as every morning that week: Would there be an invasion? I was arguing that direct American military intervention would be "politically difficult, illogical." Others at the table rebutted that rationality had little to do with U.S. policy.

And then at exactly 9:25 a.m., somewhere between the eggs and plantains, and the pros and cons, the sky bellowed, the windows rattled, and our table shook as a supersonic boom reverberated off the lush hills of the Nicaraguan countryside. For the third morning in a row, and for the fifth time in 10 days, at precisely the same hour, a U.S. SR-71 Blackbird spy plane had broken the sound barrier over Nicaraguan national air space. Our conversations stopped cold. You could almost touch the tension and the indignation in the kitchen. The morning newspaper reports of State Department denials of invasion plans had been abruptly and rudely contradicted by the Pentagon's booming overflight.

Twenty-five-year old Maria Estér, her olive green militia uniform clashing with her sleek, black-faced Seiko watch, was visibly shaken. "I wish Reagan would just get it over with and send in the Marines. We are ready to fight them," she pronounced in near-perfect English, a product, like her watch, of an adolescence spent in San Francisco. "This is the worst it has ever been. Worse even than last year after Grenada. Last night in my neighborhood we were making plans on where to hide our children." . . .

The Nicaraguans were taking the threats seriously. Seriously enough to significantly endanger the already faltering national economy. Two days after Reagan's election, agriculture minister Jaime Wheelock recalled 12,000 student volunteers who were ready to go to the northern part of the country to pick the coffee crop that is worth a full third of the country's meager $400 million import income. After a reportedly anguished marathon meeting of the Sandinista leadership, a haggard, red-eyed Wheelock announced to the students, "It's better that the coffee falls instead of our country." The students, he said, would be asked to cancel their harvesting plans and instead would be organized to defend Managua.


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