Why Should We Care About Shulamith Firestone?

Shulamith Firestone died sometime last week at the age of 67. She had been a recluse for years, which is one reason why no one found her body for several days. (Her sister confirmed that she died of natural causes.) The feminist community took notice, but the average person could have cared less. And that’s a pity.

Why should we care? What connection could she possibly have to our lives today?

Those of us who are Baby Boomers might remember her name in connection with the Women’s Liberation Movement. She helped to create several radical feminist groups in the late ’60s and was outspoken in her criticisms, not only of the patriarchy, but also of the political left, which she felt didn’t do enough (if anything) to liberate women.

But it was her book, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, published in 1970 when she was only 25, that earned her a primary place in feminist history. And it was also her book—or rather, the reception the book received—that drove her to withdraw from public life in the years following its publication.

To say that Dialectic created a firestorm is an understatement. Even many feminists felt that Firestorm had gone too far in her denunciation of family life and her assertion that women are enslaved by their biology. She felt that women should be released from the burden of reproduction by the use of artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization and artificial wombs.

Besides being one of the first feminist theories of politics, Dialectic also set the tone for how the general public perceived the feminist movement. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it helped to make feminism the dirty word it is to many people today. The book calls for a complete obliteration of gender differences and traditional patriarchal society (what many would now call “family values”). She wrote that pregnancy was barbaric and that as long as the traditional family existed, women would never be liberated.

It was strong stuff then and is even more so now. Most people have forgotten the woman who put forth these ideas, but they haven’t forgotten that feminism appeared to approve of them. They fail to make the distinction between radical feminists, which Firestone most certainly was, and mainstream feminists (as typified by the National Organization for Feminists, or NOW).

I’m a pretty traditional woman. I believe in marriage (although I don’t think it has to be restricted to male-female unions) and families. I think there is such a thing as a maternal instinct and that mothers tend to occupy themselves more with the care of their offspring than fathers do (or perhaps just in a different way). But I also believe that women are penalized in this society merely because they can have children, let alone if they actually have them.

A lot of people still think that feminists are anti-family, that they put down stay-at-home moms, or moms period. (Not to mention are bitter, man-hating lesbians.) But the vast majority of feminists get married (or enter into committed, long-term relationships) and have babies, work in and out of the home, and struggle with the same issues as non-feminists.

The difference is, feminists are also aware of the wrongs that are done to females in this society and are willing to fight to right them. Firestone recognized the problem, and, even if we don’t agree with them, we would be remiss if we failed to recognize her sincere attempt to formulate solutions.

She saw what a lot of people are unwilling to see: This society is not woman-friendly, especially when it comes to reproductive issues. However, the answer is not to give up on having babies. The answer is to take charge of our own bodies. We don’t need artificial wombs; we just need for (male) law-makers to keep their hands off the ones we have.


One Reply to “Why Should We Care About Shulamith Firestone?”

  1. As you point out, feminists worked very hard at deserving their reputation for fantastic hyperbole, poor analysis and poisonous sentiment. Not only Firestone, but also Solanas, Brownmiller, Dworkin, MacKinnon and many others less well known were active in eroding the social glue that used to hold us together.

    To inveigh against the basic conditions of existence — the nature of the sex act and the fact of impregnation, for instance — is to wander off into Loblolly-land. You may as well speculate on extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, or grow angry that we don’t have wings.

    To try to erase the feminist attack on the family, or to erase the man-hating past (not to mention our dreadful present) is to try and rewrite history. Unfortunately for any such revisionist attempt, the record is all too clear in a book like ‘The Dialectic of Sex’.

    Among its ambiguous and problematic achievements, feminism has left us a heritage of loony social and political assertion which still dominates the universities, the uncritical and suggestible mass culture, and other important sections of society. How we can escape feminism’s broad destructiveness — its hysteria and preoccupation with fear, for instance — is not, at present, plain.

    That life is not “woman-friendly” (life — not “society”, or men) is all too true. What feminists fail to recognise is that their notorious patriarchy included an accommodation with their ingrained disadvantage. The traditional compact was that women were protected and advantaged in numerous ways, in compensation for the inherent difficulties of their position.

    Feminists refused to see that, and instead insisted on viewing society as malign and specifically targeting them; and so they launched us on decades of bitter dissension which is as fierce now as ever. It’s too early for historians to arrive at conclusions on the point, but it seems probable that feminism made a major contribution to the American and western collapse.

    As much as a reaction against the hatred she raised on both sides, Firestone’s seclusion may have been a tacit recognition of this fact of her own past destructiveness.

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