The name Valerie Solanas conjures up a wide range of reactions. She has been called at turns “the Robespierre of feminism” and a trailblazing feminist icon.
Her SCUM Manifesto is still believed to be one of the major factors that contributed to the division of the National Organization for Women; while some read her explicit manuscript as a satirical work, others have pointed to it as troubling and man-hating. Her extreme call to “eliminate the male sex” has led some feminists to claim her as a pioneer, while others have distanced themselves from her rhetoric.
Here are five things to know about the controversial figure, and what led her to shoot Warhol on June 3rd, 1968.
She was not only a feminist, but also a prominent queer figure.
Solanas came out as lesbian in the 1950s, at a time when “out” homosexuals were still heavily discriminated against. She attended the University of Maryland, but it wasn’t until after she’d attended and dropped out of the University of Minnesota’s Graduate School of Psychology, and she’d moved to Berkeley, that she began to pen the SCUM Manifesto, her radical feminist manuscript, that posited that men ruined the world.
Solanas is still the only recorded member of the Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM), which she founded in 1967. Her manifesto begins: “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 automatic and eliminate the male sex.”
Her legacy as a trailblazer in the queer community lies in the fact that she challenged the idea that gender is binary, as well as the accepted norms of sexuality and performative gender. “The male claim that females find fulfillment through motherhood and sexuality reflects what males think they’d find fulfilling if they were female,” she wrote in her manifesto.
In addition to her SCUM manifesto, she is known for two works: one that was published, and the other that would become the impetus for her rage toward Warhol.
The first, a short story called “A Young Girl’s Primer on How to Attain the Leisure Class,” was published in Cavalier magazine in July 1966, a so-called “girlie” magazine that would eventually evolve into a Playboy-style men’s magazine. Her other work, a play titled Up Your Ass, was never published. When she crossed paths with Warhol in New York, she asked him to produce the play, handing him her script for consideration. According to the New York Times, Warhol found the piece so obscene that he “suspected Ms. Solanas was working for the police on ‘some kind of entrapment.'” He passed.
Months later, when Solanas contacted Warhol to see what he thought of the script, she was told that he had lost it. The spurned writer believed this to be a ploy on his end to steal her ideas, and though he casted her in his 1967 film, I, a Man, in hopes of sweeping the tension under the rug, the resentment remained.
Solanas attempted to show the manuscript to artist Margo Feiden on the day she shot Warhol.
Dr. Breanne Fahs, who penned Solanas’ 2014 biography, Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (And Shot Andy Warhol), wrote that Solanas visited Feiden’s residence in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, unannounced, trying to pressure her to produce her play. (At the time, Feiden was known as the youngest Broadway producer and playwright ever, and was also one of the few female producers). Finally Solanas, pushed to the brink by the repeated rejection, pulled out a gun and said, “Yes, you will produce the play because I’ll shoot Andy Warhol and that will make me famous and the play famous, and then you’ll produce it.”
In her book, Fahs describes how Feiden then frantically called multiple police precincts, as well as the offices of Mayor John Lindsay and Governor Nelson Rockefeller, in order to report Solanas. Fahs reports that in one instance, she was met with the response, “You can’t arrest someone because you believe she is going to kill Andy Warhol.”
Warhol wasn’t the only person that Solanas shot that day.
Solanas waited for hours at the Factory for Warhol to show up after she left Feiden’s residence. Even though she was told repeatedly that Warhol would not be coming in that day, she insisted on hanging around. When the artist did eventually arrive at the Factory, she entered the building with him and waited until he was distracted by a phone call in his office before she fired three shots. Her first two missed, but the third punctured both lungs, his spleen, stomach, liver and esophagus. Warhol was taken to the hospital, where he underwent a lengthy surgery but ultimately survived.
Solanas also shot art critic Mario Amaya in the hip and tried to shoot Warhol’s manager, Fred Hughes, point blank, but the gun jammed. Hughes ordered her to leave.
Solanas turned herself in later that day, telling the police officer she approached that Warhol “had too much control in my life.” She took issue with a New York Daily News headline that ran the next day (“Actress Shoots Andy Warhol”), noting that she wasn’t an actress.
Solanas was charged with attempted murder, assault and possession of a deadly weapon, but was determined mentally unstable prior to her trial.
Following evaluation at the Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric observation, Solanas was diagnosed with chronic paranoid schizophrenia; it would be a full year before she was medicated properly enough to be considered competent to stand trial.
She was sentenced to three years in jail, with one already served. When she was released from the New York State Prison for Women in 1971, she stalked Warhol and others over the phone, and so was arrested again that November. After her release, she was institutionalized several times before she faded out of the public eye. She later moved back to the West Coast and died of pneumonia in San Francisco in 1988.