Mental Health and the SCUM Manifesto

Friday, 18th October 2019


An insightful consideration on the original SCUM manifesto and a raw response in 2019

“Women don’t have penis envy. Men have pussy envy.” 

So wrote Valerie Solanas, in her 1967 SCUM Manifesto. An influential American radical feminist, playwright and performer, she’s mostly remembered for shooting pop artist Andy Warhol in New York in 1968.

History hasn’t been kind to Solanas. If people are being sympathetic, they label her schizophrenic. Unsympathetic ones call her a loony feminazi. It’s an unfortunate truth that women who commit violence are often written off as mad, invalidating their grievances. The shooting of Warhol was provoked by Valerie’s belief that he’d stolen her play and passed her work off as his own. But her rage had been burning for years, fuelled by a lifetime of hardship.

Valerie Jean Solanas didn’t have the best start in life. Growing up in a working class home in 1940s New Jersey, she was abused by her alcoholic father and had given birth to two children by the time she was fifteen – one by a married sailor on leave, the other possibly by her own father. While at High School in the 1950s, a time of conformity and conservatism in America, Valerie came out as a lesbian, suffering prejudice and extreme bullying as a consequence. Somehow she managed to enrol at the University of Maryland, graduating as a psychology major. But as a female scientist in the sexist 60s, she struggled to find employment. 

The cumulative trauma of her young life – poverty, abuse, neglect, bullying – left her alienated and resentful, distrustful of relationships. And having endured the unrelenting inhumanity of the world around her, she decided that she could never ever participate in it. From this bleak background, she started writing in the mid-1960s the tirade that would become the SCUM manifesto.  

Her Manifesto argues that men have ruined the world. She is incandescent about the structural violence inflicted on women by men and makes it clear that there is no middle ground “SCUM wants to destroy the system, not attain certain rights within it.” The manifesto concludes that the elimination of the male sex is a moral imperative. Was the entire manifesto to be taken literally? More likely Valerie’s intention was to provoke through parody. It is a takedown, almost word-for-word, of Freud’s theories - citing women as the superior sex, accusing men of pussy envy and advocating not just the destruction of men but also capitalism. In both the SCUM Manifesto and her play, Up Your Ass , Valerie takes aim at a society that has oppressed her from birth, dismantling it with her anarchic wit. Sadly, she couldn’t achieve in life what she did on the page.

Hoping that Andy Warhol would produce her play Up Your Ass, she entrusted him with her only typescript copy. When he claimed to have lost it, she snapped. On 3 June 1968 she returned to The Factory, pulled a handgun from her bag and fired three shots at Warhol as he chatted on the phone. As an almost fatally wounded Andy was rushed to hospital, Valerie ran out of the building and later surrendered to a traffic cop in Times Square.

Despite a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia she received a three year custodial sentence, served in various brutal prisons and hospitals for the criminally insane. Life after prison was marked by loneliness and extreme hardship. She spent much of the 1970s revising the SCUM Manifesto and working on an autobiography, but poverty and illness steadily robbed her of lucidity and eventually sent her onto the streets. She died of pneumonia in 1988 in a welfare hotel in San Francisco. This then was a woman whose life was marred by a series of losses – or perhaps more accurately, a series of thefts: of her innocence, her children, her career, her sanity… Perhaps the theft of her life’s work was the final straw? 

It’s an unfortunate tendency in our society to allow men nuance, where women get defined as one thing. ‘Virgin’, ‘whore’,  ‘madwoman’. Valerie suffers the further indignity of being best remembered for the man she tried to destroy: the woman who gained her ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ by shooting Andy Warhol. What she was, in the end, was a singular voice at odds with the world, angry, passionate and unafraid. The SCUM manifesto expresses her uncontainable disgust at the extent and depth of misogyny. And it’s still relevant now, as I was reminded whilst publicising Femme Fatale. 

Two separate (male) journalists asked me if I wanted to hurt or kill men. I’ve also been trolled on social media: not for the content of the play, but for writing about feminism at all. Male fear of equality is still very real and very toxic -  which is why the theme of this year’s Perception Festival at Omnibus Theatre, which Femme Fatale is headlining, is ‘Nasty Women’. Used as a sexist slur by Trump during his 2016 election campaign, it has since been reclaimed to celebrate women unapologetically doing their thing. It’s much needed.

Cut to a theatre bar last weekend. A friend and I notice an older, high-profile man of the British theatre, sat holding court, with loyal friends and fans dancing attendance. The thing is, numerous of his female colleagues recently accused him of sexual and physical abuse, the press and arts world expressed shock and condemnation and he was removed from his position. Yet there he sat, not only still accepted by the theatre establishment, but treated as a king. I felt sick. I felt rage. I felt completely impotent. So did my friend, We both blamed ourselves afterwards for not DOING SOMETHING. But we have good reason to fear the consequences of calling out abusers. History teaches us that they’re not the ones who get punished. 

Why haven’t things got better for women in the years since Valerie shot Warhol? Why are we still battling for control of our bodies and stories? Why was that supposedly disgraced man sat there, with a shit-eating grin on his face? My own past trauma and that of my female friends and relatives nags at me. We’re not crazy: we’re justifiably angry. But most of us turn the feelings of rage and humiliation and shame in on ourselves, as we’ve been trained since birth to do. What makes Valerie so extraordinary is that she didn’t.

I want to be clear that I’m not advocating violence towards anyone. And for the record: I don’t hate men, just the patriarchy. It’s a toxic system that traumatises female children and then re-traumatises them throughout the rest of their lives. It deserves to be mocked, and finally destroyed. Which is why, alongside the play, we’re making a new feminist Manifesto. Everyone is welcome to contribute a demand. What needs to change in the world for women? What would make your life better? Tell us what you want!

Online: Write your demand down, take a photo, share it to Instagram/Twitter tagging us @SCUM_2019_ and using #SCUM2019. Simple. 

Live at our shows where you can pin your demand to a physical version of the Manifesto.

At the end of the tour, we’ll send the Manifesto to policy-makers, and ask them to join a conversation about what needs to change.