Edit: a more complete version of this article can be found here:



I don’t know Ruth Christenson.

Until today, I’d never heard her name before. I suspect that you haven’t either.

As I said, I don’t know Ruth Christenson. I don’t even know if she’s still alive. What I do know is this:

In July of 1984, she walked into a bookstore in Minneapolis that sold pornographic materials. She had a backpack full of literature that condemned sexual exploitation. Earlier that week, Christensen had written to Charles Hoyt, then a city council member, who was sponsoring an anti-pornography ordinance. Her letter told him that “sexism has shattered my life.”

When she entered that shop, she proved that her beliefs — so easily dismissed by even her peers in this world — were more than just words.

Ruth Christenson doused herself with gasoline and set herself on fire.

She was removed from the store in critical condition, having burns over 60 percent of her body.

The press included a quote by Terese Stanton, then an organizer of a Pornography Resource Center in Minnesota: “This will not be in vain — she did this for a lot of women. This will definitely be witnessed and remembered.”

Perhaps Ruth Christenson is still remembered in quiet vigils in Minneapolis. I hope so. She sure as hell isn’t remembered anywhere else.

Perhaps that’s for the best. If Ruth Christenson were remembered today, she’d be remembered not as a hero — or even a martyr — but as a crazy woman. A tragic figure, no doubt, but the tragedy would be considered hers to bear alone.

Even people calling themselves feminists, no shortage of men in that number these days, would believe Christenson did what she did out of selfish, personal desperation: an inability to cope with private horrors that have little to do with what the “common woman” experiences. To them, that can be the only reason why she took such a terrible and final action.

Not because sexism shatters women’s lives.

Two decades after Ruth Christenson set herself on fire, very little has changed.

While sexism can be talked about as violence, only the most blatant, rude, and Republican forms of it can be addressed. A bourgeois woman is a battered wife, a bohemian woman is a “bottom,” living a lifestyle, or transcending cultural mores.

Sexism can only be seen as violence when that violence isn’t seen as sexy.

Eve Enslers “V-Day” festivities are, well, festive. All too often they resemble drag shows even when they aren’t specifically drag shows — as they sometimes are. The consumerist crowds they assemble would never condone an anti-pornography message. No Monologue will ever be said in honor of Ruth Christenson. That’s likely for the best. I doubt she’d want someone talking about her vagina. After all, it’s men and not female genitalia that needs to change.

Even the more somber Take Back the Night processions, now often equally about men’s “pain,” are enthralled with capitalism. The march that takes place in my home city of Buffalo was once sponsored by a college bar that uses underage girls as bait for its paying male clientele.

When it comes to the idea of consent, critiques of capitalism aren’t allowed in our culture: few are willing to think about how money — and the power it gives one person over another — influences our opportunities to say “no.” Even liberals run from such critiques.

Ruth Christenson isn’t remembered on the internet, either.

There, the feminism of post-modernist academia joins the feminism of the hipster set. The idea of “Gender Oppression” has become subordinate to “Gender Expression.” This shifts the political focus of feminism from the voiceless to media exhibitionists. Gender is something that makes you more interesting. Gender is something that makes you better in bed. Gender is something that scores you a book deal.

There are a lot of Gender-Superstars now. And not one of them has ever made a sacrifice for his or her convictions the way that Ruth Christenson did.

Instead, they’ll tell you that porn isn’t going away. They’ll tell you that it’s vital for our education as sexual beings. They’ll tell you that even though they agree that 99 percent of porn is sexist and racist (not that they’ll personally do anything about the pornography that is sexist and racist, indeed “tackiness” is the only pornographic crime they ever publicly object to), they hold out hope for a new feminist porno-paradigm. And they’ll require you to do the same or they’ll throw you to the dogs: the male pimps and johns that cluster about them, celebrating their every word.

In turn, they’ll glorify the cleverness of the men who conspired to shatter Ruth Christenson and her world. In my research I found only one other article bearing testament to her deed: it was a journalist’s 1997 love-letter letter to the store franchise’s founder, congratulating him as Russian immigrant who made good on the American dream.

It was an ode to freedom and male survival at any cost, including women’s lives.

Ruth Christenson was reduced by the article to a “moral snit” and a punch line. One former employee recounts how, on his very first day there, Christenson set herself alight. To him it was just a zany event that bookended his rollercoaster of wild experiences at the store.

If Ruth Christenson is alive today, she is approaching 50 years old. I’m not sure what she’d think about what she did — or even me dredging up that past again. Neither can I know the extent of her motivations when she set herself on fire. All I know is that I wish she hadn’t done it. But even more than that, I wish she hadn’t needed to do it in the first place. Her psychology was never the real problem.

Sexual exploitation is always a backburner issue. It comes up from time to time, but only when it’s “over there” in other countries, countries our government declares are full of bad men, who are not at all like the men who live here.

Women who complain about the men here are silenced quickly. After all, they don’t have it as bad as the women over there. I defy anyone to say that Ruth Christenson didn’t have it “bad.”

Liberal men, especially, demand that their female peers abandon any interest in “feminist issues,” those things “only affect women,” until more the important crises are all brought to conclusion. When men set themselves on fire to protest one war or another (each always a problem of male creation), they are at least honored for their sacrifice by those who share their politics. Those men are proved strong by their actions, rather than weak, foolish, and broken. And yet that’s just how our world regards a woman who would make the same sacrifice for herself and others like her.

If female bravery (outside of men’s fantasies about dominatrices) could be celebrated, it would mean that women suffer under patriarchy in the here and now, even surrounded by good men.

Relatively few feminists today would celebrate bravery of that kind. The vocation of silencing other women comes with great monetary rewards in our society. With those rewards, it’s quite easy to think that one is smarter, stronger, and better than the Ruth Christensons of the world.

I can only imagine the hubris of someone saying, “Ruth Christenson just needed to see some feminist porn. Then everything would have been different.”