Born in New Jersey in 1936, Solanas was, by her own report, regularly sexually abused by her father. Her parents divorced during the 1940s and by the age of 15 she was homeless. In spite of this, she managed to complete high school, and a degree in psychology from the University of Maryland.
Details of her life until 1966 are sketchy, but it is believed she travelled the country as an itinerant, supporting herself by panhandling and prostitution. She arrived in Greenwich Village in 1966 where she wrote a play entitled "Up Your Ass" about a man-hating prostitute and a pan-handler. In 1967 she encountered Andy Warhol outside his studio in Manhattan and asked him to produce her play, and he was fascinated enough by the title of the play to accept the script for review. He was unimpressed by the content however, and did not bother to contact her again.
Warhol left for Europe shortly afterwards, and in the interim Solanas wrote and self-published the work she is best known for - "The S.C.U.M. Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men)."
Later in 1967 Solanas began to telephone Warhol demanding he return the script of her play. Warhol admitted he had lost it, at which point she began demanding money as payment. Warhol ignored these demands, however he did employ her for minor roles in two of his movies of the time.
Solanas began to believe that her difficulties achieving financial success were exclusively due to Warhol, and on June 3, 1968 she entered his studio and fired three shots at him. Although the first two rounds missed, her third shot sent a bullet through Warhol's left lung, spleen, stomach, liver, esophagus and right lung. Solanas then turned the gun on a companion of Warhol, injuring his thigh. Although Warhol survived these injuries, he never fully recovered.
That evening, Solanas turned herself in to the police, and was charged with numerous offences, including attempted murder. After pleading guilty she received a three year sentence, a surprisingly short sentence for such a crime, and possibly influenced by Warhol's refusal to testify against her.
Solanas reportedly considered Warhol a vampire and spray-painted her bullets silver. She tried to wrap them in foil, but it made her gun jam. It jammed anyway, which is why she was unable to shoot the third man.
Feminist Robin Morgan demonstrated for Solanas's release from prison. Robin Morgan later went on to edit Ms. Magazine in the 1990s. Ti-Grace Atkinson, the New York chapter president of National Organization for Women described her as, "the first outstanding champion of women's rights". Another member, Florynce Kennedy represented Solanas at her trial.
After her release from prison in 1971, Solanas drifted into obscurity, although an interview with her was published in the Village Voice in 1977. During the 1980s it is believed she was living in California, supporting her drug addiction through prostitution. In 1988, at the age of 52, she died of emphysema and pneumonia, in a welfare hotel in San Francisco.
Warhol's friend Lou Reed never forgave Solanas for the attack and recorded “I Believe” with John Cale, singing “I believe I would've pulled the switch on her myself."
In 1996, a movie based on her life was released, entitled I Shot Andy Warhol.