A “War of Pens” With One of UMD’s Most Notorious Alumnae

Before writing the S.C.U.M Manifesto and attempting to assassinate Andy Warhol, Valerie Solanas was a student-journalist for the Diamondback from 1956 through 1957.

Valerie Solanas, 1958 YrBk picture.jpg
Valerie Solanas, 1958 Yearbook

In contrast to her later reputation as a radical feminist, Solanas wrote some fairly generic articles for the paper. In her first article from February 2, 1956, Solanas reported on a female student who donated her eighth pint of blood. The next time she popped up was as a feature reporter on a May 16, 1956, article defending the university’s decision to charge seniors a $10 diploma fee.

The fall semester of 1957 saw the end to her rather bland assignments. On November 19, 1957, the Diamondback editorial staff praised a speech given by Max Shulman at the Associated Collegiate Press Convention. Described as a humorist and national college newspaper columnist, whose column “On Campus with Max Shulman” appeared regularly in the Diamondback, Shulman’s speech declared that in order to “reinvigorate the youth,” the matriarchy must be destroyed. He claimed that when America was run by “restless men,” the country was the light of the world. Shulman suggested that one way to begin the process of reversing the matriarchy was to take the girl with whom you have been going steady since you were 13 and “punch her in the nose” because it will “leave no confusion as to who’s boss.”

Max Shulman title card.jpg
Title card for Max Shulman’s column, which appeared regularly in the Diamondback.

Solanas responded with a letter to the editor on November 22, 1957, stating that Shulman was the “nadir of trivia” and that his statements were “pure bigoted drivel.” She went on to defend stay-at-home mothers by outlining all of the work they did while their husbands were at work and noting that two-thirds of married women juggle work and family duties. She then turned her attention to the Diamondback editors by questioning whether or not it was appropriate for this sort of content to be in the editorial section of the paper. Her fiery response was co-signed by ten other female students on campus.

Solanas First Response.jpg

On November 26th, Harry Walsh, writing on behalf of himself and the residents of North Baltimore Hall, responded to Solanas by claiming that “these females” purposefully misinterpreted Shulman’s speech and he doubted that Shulman was serious about revolting against the matriarchy since Walsh doubts it even exists. While he does not believe that men have lost masculinity and that he should he punch his girlfriend in the nose, he and his dormmates believe that Solanas’ response only created more humor around the whole situation.

Over the next two months, anonymous and named men from the UMD campus and College Park community chimed in to defend Shulman’s comments, with the main war waging between Walsh and Solanas. One anonymous writer from December 11th wrote that women are meant to stay home and that “women think they’re too good to do housework and try to think.” Another man, W.E. Parr, wrote on December 12th that Solanas is “Maryland’s own little suffragette.” He stated that when UMD men come across a “certain type of distraught female,” the best thing to do is humor them.

Solanas wrote two significant responses on December 17th and December 18th. In the first, entitled “Verbal Warpath,” she tells men to “maintain your manly composure” and that their replies are “unbecoming to men of your intellectual stature.”  After taking a few more shots at the multiple men writing in and insulting her, she signed off with “‘The pen is mightier than the sword’ and my pen is dipped in blood!” The next day, she responded directly to Parr, arguing that men are actually the ones who are wasting away without the women because they are desperately seeking companionship as they lurk around dances and the female dorms.

One female student did come to the defense of Solanas on December 10th when Mary Louis Sparks wrote that Solanas was not trying to wage war, but clarify certain concepts that are held by a large number of men and that those concepts are being held in error. None of the women who signed off on Solanas’ first letter wrote in to defend her, and it is unclear if women wrote in and were not included or if Sparks was actually the only student to defend her.

By January 9, 1958, the editor of the Diamondback had stepped in to put an end to what had become known as the “War of Pens,” as it was unlikely that Shulman or his followers would be converted. He also noted that both sides stated their cases rather poorly due to the sheer number of insults and sarcastic responses to one another. The editor then declared that January 17th would be the last issue that would address the debate.

Solanas was the only person to directly respond to the call for final thoughts. She opted to write a poem rather than a traditional letter:

Final Thoughts, Solanas.jpg
January 17, 1958, poem on the War of Pens

There were at least 15 exchanges over the course of three months with articles separate from the “Backtalk” column that addressed the debate. Nearly every “Letter to the Editor” section had someone chiming in on the debate. After the war of pens had ended, Solanas did not appear in the Diamondback as a writer again, while Max Shulman’s column “On Campus,” that was sent out to multiple college newspapers, continued to be published. On what could be considered a particularly conservative campus in the 1950s, the Diamondback editorial staff said that War of Pens had permeated every part of campus life. Though it cannot be said that it caused any major changes, this look into gender relations on campus is certainly enlightening, especially since it was led by Valerie Solanas.

Flip through the gallery below to see the entire “War of Pens”!

To see more archived issues of the Diamondback, visit https://www.lib.umd.edu/univarchives/student-newspapers

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s