Legacy of a feminist revolutionary

American radical feminist Shulamith Firestone was a leading theorist of 70s feminism who died a lonely death last summer. Responding to Susan Faludi’s psychological profile of Firestone in The New Yorker last month, Kathleen B. Jones examines Firestone’s contribution to women’s liberation

Kathleen B Jones
13 May 2013

Little more than a month ago in The New Yorker Susan Faludi profiled the 1970s radical feminist, Shulamith Firestone, an immensely influential writer and activist who had largely fallen off most people’s radar by the early 1980s. Faludi’s not unsympathetic portrait focused on Firestone’s battle with schizophrenia and her lonely death late last August--her body lay undiscovered in her small East Village, New York studio apartment until the landlord, noticing bills had lain undisturbed outside her door for several days, sent in the building superintendent to see what was going on. The essay circulated the web like wildfire, swiftly being shared thousands of times on social media and generating instant commentary on other web-based sites, such as Slate. Bloggers noted the poignancy of Firestone’s near anonymity at the time of her death. Isolated from both her family of origin and most of her feminist allies, the once iconic revolutionary seemed to have disappeared into oblivion.  

Yet, however sympathetic to Firestone’s “solitary demise” Faludi’s essay appeared, the tenor of her analysis amounted to pathologizing Firestone’s catalytic intensity and quixotic personality while extending her assessment to an entire generation of 70s feminists. At the New York memorial service for Firestone, Faludi noted, several other pioneering American feminists, such as Jo Freeman and Kate Millett, were in attendance. “It was hard to say,” Faludi wrote, “which moment the mourners were there to mark: the passing of Firestone or that of a whole generation of feminists who had been unable to thrive in the world they had done so much to create.” A whole generation of feminists...unable to thrive? As the philosopher Babette Babich commented on Facebook in response to the rapid circulation of Faludi’s essay, Faludi’s interpretation, combined with her extensive discussion of Firestone’s mental problems, came dangerously close to blaming women for failing the revolution, instead of holding society responsible for failing to change. Indeed, a full two-thirds of Fauldi’s essay is devoted to the in-fighting and “trashing” that divided many in the women’s liberation movement from each other. By contrast, her analysis of Firestone’s major theoretical contribution to feminist theory—The Dialectic of Sex—is contained in a mere four or five cursory paragraphs.

It is time to give Firestone her due. Rereading her today, more than forty years after her work made its best-selling debut, I am struck (again) by the visceral power of her argument and the urgency with which she proffered her case for feminist revolution. It’s no wonder that many women, myself included, credit this book with changing their lives. Even if we disagreed with some of her most imaginative musings, she opened our eyes to the deep-rootedness of women’s oppression.

Since the mid-1980s and until fairly recently, feminist theory, both in the U.S. and beyond, has been dominated by a particularly cerebral form of poststructuralist theory. Now that interest has re-emerged in the potentiality of materialist analysis to explain how social and natural structures of power can both reproduce and transform gender systems it seems timely to reconsider the significance of Firestone’s contributions to this tradition. The brilliance of her classic, The Dialectic of Sex, was its innovative interpretation of Marx and Freud to identify a “sexual class system” rooted in biology itself. “Sex class is so deep as to be invisible...[F]eminists are talking about changing a fundamental biological condition...[S]o profound a change cannot be fit into traditional categories of thought...because they are not big enough: radical feminism bursts through them.” 

Firestone aimed at nothing less than to “develop a materialist view of history based on sex itself.” She postulated what might be called a nascent socio-biological theory of women’s oppression, identifying women’s inequality with a sexual dimorphism rooted in biology itself. Yet, Firestone contended, biology was not immutable. “Unlike economic class, sex class sprang directly from a biological reality: men and women were created different, and not equally privileged...But to grant that the sexual imbalance of power is biologically based is not to lose our case. We are no longer just animals. And the Kingdom of Nature does not reign absolute...Humanity has begun to outgrow nature: we can no longer justify the maintenance of a discriminatory sex class system on the grounds of its origins in nature. Indeed, for pragmatic reasons alone [population control and ecology] we must get rid of it.” ( emphasis original).

While calling for a technological revolution that could free women from their biology and alter the human relationship to work, Firestone recognized that the existence of such technologies alone was an insufficient guarantee of women’s freedom. She demanded a political revolution because “though man is increasingly capable of freeing himself from the biological conditions that created his tyranny over women and children, he has little reason to want to give this tyranny up.” Just as the proletariat needed to take control of the means of production, to “assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction.” (emphasis original) Such a revolution entailed not only the elimination of male privilege; it also required the elimination of the sex distinction itself. Yet, her imagined world was not a one-size-fits-all humanist vision. She imagined the elimination of the sex distinction to be the precursor to the elimination of all artificially imposed limits—of age, race, sexuality—allowing truly individual distinctiveness to flourish.

The central tenets of her revolutionary program were these: replace the reproduction of the species by “one sex for the benefit of both” with “(at least the option of) artificial reproduction”; substitute for the dependence of the child on the mother a “greatly shortened dependence on a small group of others,” which would end the “tyranny of the biological family”; and eliminate the division of labor by eliminating labor altogether through cybernation. Related to these tenets, Firestone articulated four structural imperatives for her “alternative system”: Free women from the “tyranny of reproductive biology” and diffuse childbearing and childrearing throughout society; create conditions for the full self-determination, including economic independence, of women and children; integrate women and children totally into all aspects of society; and enable all forms of sexuality without restriction.

Among the more controversial of her imperatives was Firestone’s call for a fully liberated sexuality, not only for adults, but also for children. Most critics dismissed this aspect of her argument as preposterous. And many considered her contentions that biology was the source of women’s inequality and artificial reproduction was the foundation for liberation to be reductionist; perhaps even misogynist. Firestone anticipated the reception of her “dangerously utopian” ideas would range from “mild balking....to hysteria.”  She contended that images of Brave New World, of 1984, combined with the failed social experiments of the past, undermined any serious consideration of the concerns that lay behind her propositions. What were these concerns?

Two primary and interrelated concerns motivated her critique: the oppression of women and the oppression of children. Both, she argued, were rooted in the culturally reinforced economic and physical dependence of women and children on a system of patronage structured around adult male dominance in a nuclear family whose reproductive and economic functions were being rendered obsolete by ecological and technological developments. Ecologically, Firestone thought the nuclear family was at the root of a wasteful economy, perpetuated by what she called “family chauvinism” that, globally speaking, created a population explosion she feared was threatening the survival of the human race. Technologically, if taken out of the “hands of the present powers,” Firestone believed that fertility control and cybernation possessed the potential to fundamentally alter “humanity’s basic relationships to both its production and reproduction” ushering in a “new culture based on a radical redefinition of human relationships and leisure for the masses.”

It’s perhaps too easy to criticize Firestone’s faith in a democratically controlled technology to create the conditions for “paradise on earth anew.”  Not only does control of technology and new media seem even more in the hands of the present powers, serving the interest of dominant classes, but also the image of  a cybernetic socialism of mechanized production generating a leisure-based society does not strike everyone as humanly possible, much less fulfilling. Equally easy is it to criticize as impractical or unstable Firestone’s vision of the reorganization of social life away from private families and toward a program of “multiple options” an individual could choose among and change over the course of the life cycle, including  “single professions,” “living together,” and “households” comprised of a large group of people of varying ages licensed to live together for short-term periods, subject to renewal. And most readily dismissed as dangerous is Firestone’s plea for childhood sexuality.

Yet, beyond such obvious criticisms lay the laudable principle that motivated Firestone’s project—to end a regime of possessiveness that led to favoring one child over another, instead of being loved for the child’s own sake, and equally led to one woman being favored over another, instead of being loved for her own sake. In fact, behind Firestone’s concerns lay a simple, wildly utopian ideal: that “all relationships would be based on love alone, uncorrupted by objective dependencies and the resulting class inequalities.”

Today, the still largely unacknowledged influence of Firestone’s thinking can be traced not only in feminist demands for women’s sexual freedom and equality, but also in the children’s rights movement, in radical efforts to reconfigure regional planning and development along more sustainable models, in critiques of age-segregation in housing and work environments, and even in the most contemporary of post-humanist theories re-imagining the relationship between humans and the non-human world, such as the writing of Donna Haraway, Rosi Braidotti, Vandana Shiva, and others. (See Further Adventures of The Dialectic of Sex: Critical Essays on Shulamith Firestone, edited by Mandy Merck and Stella Sandford) Yet, The Dialectic of Sex, until recently long out-of-print, remains largely absent from the gender studies curriculum.

A decade ago in an essay in Dissent, recounting her effort to create new editions of feminist classics, Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future co-author Jennifer Baumgardner described her initial reaction to Shulamith Firestone’s early refusal to cooperate with reissuing her book. “I couldn't believe that I thought it was the patriarchal publishing industry keeping these books out of younger feminists' hands when, in a way, it was the authors themselves.” But she ultimately drew another lesson from Firestone’s refusal:  “As I came to terms with the fact that my vision for a series of feminist classics wasn't going to be realized, I started to see the lesson in Firestone's actions. Her book was a challenge to the inevitability of the female role, especially that of the mother who has to forgo her own needs by constantly privileging the needs of her progeny.” In the end, Firestone called Baumgardner to say she wanted Dialectic of Sex included. “Every movement has its classic texts. We deserve access to ours,” wrote Baumgardner of the series published now by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. These classics deserve to be read. And their authors deserve to be treated less like madwomen in the attic and more like revolutionaries whose vision has yet to be fully realized.





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