Biography of Valerie Solanas, Radical Feminist Author

The radical writer who shot Andy Warhol

Valerie Solanas being booked for assault
Valerie Solanas turning herself in for the shooting of Andy Warhol, 1968.

 Bettmann / Getty Images

Valerie Jean Solanas (April 9, 1936 – April 25, 1988) was a radical feminist activist and author. Her major claims to fame were her SCUM Manifesto and her attempt on the life of Andy Warhol.

Fast Facts: Valerie Solanas

  • Full Name: Valerie Jean Solanas
  • Born: April 9, 1936 in Ventnor City, New Jersey
  • Died: April 25, 1988 in San Francisco, California
  • Parents: Louis Solanas and Dorothy Marie Biondo
  • Education: University of Maryland
  • Known For: Radical feminist author who penned the anti-patriarchal SCUM Manifesto and shot Andy Warhol in a paranoid episode

Early Life

Solanas was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, the first daughter of bartender Louis Solanas and dental assistant Dorothy Marie Biondo. She also had a younger sister, Judith Arlene Solanas Martinez. Early in Solanas’ life, her parents divorced and her mother remarried; she did not get along with her stepfather. Solanas said that her father had sexually abused her, and as she got older, she began rebelling against her mother as well.

As a young teenager, Solanas was often in trouble, ditching school and getting into fights. At age 13, she was sent to live with her grandparents. When describing this period of her life, Solanas often described her grandfather as violent and alcoholic. She left their home when she was 15, became homeless, and had a son at age 17. The boy was put up for adoption and she never saw him again.

Despite all this, she did well in school and got a degree in psychology from the University of Maryland, where she also hosted a radical feminist radio advice show and was openly lesbian. Solanas then went to grad school at the University of Minnesota before dropping out and taking a few classes at Berkeley, but never completed her graduate degree.

Critical Writings and Involvement With Warhol

Solanas moved to New York City to write, and she earned money through begging and prostitution or through waitressing. She wrote an autobiographical short story, as well as a play about a prostitute that was so provocative and obscene that, when she approached Andy Warhol about producing it, he thought it was a trap by the police. To assuage her anger, he cast her in a small part in one of his films.

After signing an informal contract with publisher Maurice Girodias, she became paranoid that he had deceived her to steal her work and that he and Warhol were conspiring against her. On June 3, 1968, Solanas went to producer Margo Feiden, and, after an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Feiden to produce her play, reportedly vowed that Feiden would produce her play because she was about to become famous for killing Warhol.

Black-and-white photo of Solanas shouting at a crowd as she's arrested
Solanas confessed to shooting Andy Warhol in 1968, claiming she had good reason. Bettmann/Getty Images

That same afternoon, Solanas tried to make good on her threat. She went to Warhol’s studio, The Factory, met Warhol there, and shot him and art critic Mario Amaya. Warhol underwent successful surgery and made a recovery, though he barely survived and suffered physical effects for the rest of his life. Solanas turned herself in, claiming in court that Warhol was out to own and ruin her career, and was sent for psychiatric evaluation. Initially deemed unfit to stand trial, she was eventually diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, pled guilty to assault, and was sentenced to three years in prison.

The SCUM Manifesto and Solanas' Radical Feminism

Solanas’ best known work was her SCUM Manifesto, an intensive critique of patriarchal culture. The premise of the text was that men had managed to ruin the world and that women must overthrow society and eliminate the male sex altogether in other to fix the broken world. While critiquing patriarchal constructs is a common concept in feminist literature, Solanas took it much farther by suggesting that men were not only a problem as part of the deep-rooted patriarchy, but that they were inherently bad and useless.

The manifesto also had as a core belief the concept of men as "incomplete" females and lacking empathy. Solanas theorized that their whole lives were spent trying to live vicariously through the women around them, and that their lack of a second X chromosome made them mentally and emotionally inferior. Her vision of a utopian future is one that is wholly automated and wholly without men. These extreme opinions put her at odds with most of the contemporary feminist movement.

Later Life and Legacy

Although many mainstream feminist movements disavowed Solanas’ radicalism, others embraced it, and the media reported on it. Solanas herself was reportedly disinterested in contemporary feminist organizations and dismissive of their goals as not radical enough. After being released from prison in 1971, she started stalking Warhol and several others. As a result, she was re-arrested, institutionalized, and subsequently vanished from the public altogether.

In the later years of her life, Solanas reportedly continued writing, with at least one semi-autobiographical text rumored to be in the works. By the mid-1980s, Solanas had left New York for good and moved to San Francisco, where she reportedly changed her name to Onz Loh and continued revising her SCUM Manifesto. She died of pneumonia at the age of 52 at the Bristol Hotel in San Francisco on April 25, 1988. She may have been working on something new at the time of her death, but her mother burned all her belongings after her death, so any new writings would have been lost.

Plaque marking the grave of Valerie Solanas with her name and dates
The grave of Valerie Solanas in Fairfax County, Virginia. Sarah Stierch (CC BY 4.0)/Wikimedia Commons

Solanas was credited with kickstarting a wave of the radical feminist movement, despite her extreme actions. Her work did pioneer new ways of thinking about gender and gender dynamics. In the years and decades after her death, her life, work, and image have all been interpreted and contextualized in a variety of ways; the truth of her life will likely always be shrouded in mystery and contradiction, and those who knew her seem to think she would have wanted it exactly that way.

Sources

  • Buchanan, Paul D. Radical Feminists: A Guide to an American Subculture. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.
  • Fahs, Breanne. Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol). New York: The Feminist Press, 2014.
  • Heller, Dana (2001). "Shooting Solanas: radical feminist history and the technology of failure". Feminist Studies. Vol. 27, issue 1 (2001): 167–189.