Why Should We Care About Shulamith Firestone?

Flattr this!

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.

 

Happy Birthday to the Founder of Modern Feminism

Flattr this!

Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience.

Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.

Women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, men are insultingly supporting their own superiority.

These are all quotes from the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, British writer and social theorist, who was born 253 years ago today. Think about it: that was before the American and French Revolutions. (She was living in France and had just had her first child as the French Revolution waged around her.) At the time of her birth, there was no such thing as a public railroad or telegraphs. The suffragette movements in England and America were decades away from materializing.

When she was 33 years old, in 1792, she published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Five years later she died of puerperal fever after giving birth to her second child and daughter (who later became the author of Frankenstein). Although the book was well-received, it fell into disfavor after her widower published a memoir about his wife in which he was unsparingly honest. The problem was that Wollstonecraft had led an unconventional life and in those days, “unconventional” translated into “immoral.” And immorality disqualified you from being considered a serious writer or philosopher, especially if you were a woman.

Not all people view Vindication as a feminist text. That could partly be because Wollstonecraft wouldn’t have called herself a feminist. But then, there was no such word as “feminist” in the 18th century. Mary Wollstonecraft was that ahead of her time.

When I read about a woman like Wollstonecraft (and there were millions like her), whose life’s work was denigrated because of her supposed immorality, I wonder how far we’ve come. Yes, we are more accepting of couples living together and even having children without being married. That alone wouldn’t be enough to condemn Wollstonecraft if she’d been born 200 years later. But it’s still true that a woman can’t get away with what a man can if she wants to be taken seriously.

I say it’s time to give credit where it’s due: Mary Wollstonecraft was both original in her views and courageous in her life. She dared to say and do what she believed in. Her life wasn’t always happy, but she lived on her own terms and left a legacy for all women. Not many of us can say the same.

A New Book Series for Girls (8-12)

Flattr this!

There is a new series for girls coming out which sounds like just the thing for budding feminists (or feminists’ daughters).

None of the books have been published yet (more about that later), but I thought they were interesting enough to report on. Watch this video, then read the description below it.

Wollstonecraft

London 1826: The Advent of the Steam Age

11-year-old Ada has a problem: her governess, Miss Coverlet, has quit her job to go get married (a dumb idea if ever there was one, if you ask Ada) and her new tutor Percy (“Peebs”) is a total drip.  She’d rather be left to her own devices – literally – inventing things and solving math problems and ignoring people altogether.

She’s also forced to study alongside the imaginative girlie-girl Mary, who’s always going on about romance and exotic travels.  Fortunately, Mary’s appetite for adventure leads her to propose the two girls open a detective agency, and when an heiress shows up with a case about a missing diamond, it’s the perfect puzzle to coax Ada out of her shell.

Illustration: Claire Robertson (Loobylu.com)

This is the made up story about two very real girls – Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, and Mary Shelley, the world’s first science fiction author – caught up in a world of hot-air balloons and steam engines, jewel thieves and mechanical contraptions.  For readers 8-12.

This is a pro-math, pro-science, pro-history and pro-literature adventure novel for and about girls, who use their education to solve problems and catch a jewel thief.  Ada and Mary encounter real historical characters, such as Percy Shelley, Charles Babbage, Michael Faraday, and Charles Dickens – people whom the girls actually knew.  If Jane Austen wrote about zeppelins and brass goggles, this would be the book.

Why “Wollstonecraft”?  Mary names the detective agency after her mother, the famous feminist writer. If this is the kind of book you’d like to see, please support this project.

______________

The author, Jordan Stratford, is using a unique platform to finance the books’ publication. Go to his page on Kickstarter.com to find out how you can help these books become a reality.

Adrienne Rich: Not Just a Feminist Poet

Flattr this!

Adrienne Rich died last Tuesday, March 27, 2012, at the age of 82. If it is at all fair to sum up a poet’s work in one word, in her case it would be “feminist.” But of course it isn’t fair, or accurate, to do so. Rich wrote about so much more than feminism.

It is true that she became known as a feminist poet partly because her poetry gained recognition during the early days of the Women’s Liberation Movement. In fact, her third poetry collection, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, was published the same year as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963).

Rich’s life followed a predictable course for a young woman of the ’50s: She graduated from college (Radcliffe) with a bachelor’s in English in 1951, married in 1953, when she was 24, and had three sons before she was 30. But by 1970, when she and her husband divorced, her life had taken a radical turn. She came out as a lesbian in 1976 with the publication of her poetry collection, Twenty-One Love Poems.

Along with her poetry, Rich also wrote non-fiction on a variety of topics: racism, the Vietnam War, politics, social commentary, and of course,women’s issues. She was also willing to act when something moved her.  For instance, she was so critical of the policies of the Clinton administration that she  refused the National Medal of Arts that was awarded her in 1997, citing her dismay that “amid the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice,” the government had chosen to honor “a few token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

It’s sad that we often don’t pay attention to a person’s life achievements until after they’re gone. I’d heard of Adrienne Rich, but didn’t really know anything about her or her writings. I plan to correct that. I’ve ordered two of her books, one verse and the other prose, and I’ll be sharing what I learn from them in future posts.

In a 1984 speech she stated that her writing and her life were about “the creation of a society without domination.” That’s why I think it’s a shame that she is categorized as a feminist poet, just because she was a woman who sometimes wrote about women. Naming an artist a feminist is one way that society silences its critics. (And naming her a lesbian is an even more effective strategy.)

That’s why I’m going to read Adrienne Rich. Not because she was a feminist, but because she was against all injustice. Hers is a voice that deserves to be heard by everyone.

 

 

What Do You Think of “Maggie Goes On a Diet”?

Flattr this!

Maggie Goes On a Diet hasn’t even come out yet and it’s already sparked world-wide controversy. There’s even a “Say No to Maggie Goes On a Diet by Paul M. Kramer” page on Facebook, for instance. Experts, educators and parents are weighing in (no pun intended) on the issue of whether this is an appropriate book for 8 to 12 year-olds. (Amazon cites it as being for 4-8 year-olds, which makes it even more controversial.) Critics worry that it will lead to eating disorders at worst and hurt feelings at best.

This video shows parts of the book and includes an interview with the author (who, ironically, is very overweight himself, a fact no one mentions in the interview).

My worry is about how this book gets in the hands of a grade-school girl. If the book is given to her personally the message she’s going to get is, “They think I’m fat.” Even if it’s true that a child needs to lose weight, there are more sensitive ways of approaching the issue. A fat person knows he or she is fat, especially in this society with all the images of skinny people on TV and in movies and commercials. Not only that, but he or she has been sent the message that fat people are marginal in our society. Maggie herself achieves “fame and popularity” as a soccer player, but not until she becomes thin. Admittedly, part of the book’s message is that Maggie is not only fat, but she’s also not physically fit and supposedly the author’s intent was to show kids a model of how to become more healthy. But the truth is, you don’t have to be skinny to be physically fit, yet you wouldn’t know that from this book.

There are other things I take issue with, like the part where the author writes that Maggie got fat from eating bread and cheese. No one food makes someone fat and in fact bread and cheese are sensible parts of any diet. I also wonder why the author doesn’t criticize the kids who tease and bully Maggie for being fat. He acts as if this is a given—fat people are going to be treated badly—and seems to view it as a motivator for a fat person to lose weight. When in reality we should be teaching our children that it’s not right to be mean to people who are different, even if that difference is that that they’re fat.

I also question the title. Wouldn’t it have been better, and more sensitive, to have called it, “Maggie Makes Her Dreams Come True” or even “Maggie Gets Fit”? The author says that the word “diet” has many meanings and not all of them are negative. This just shows his insensitivity. Telling someone that they need to go on a diet does carry a negative connotation. It’s code for, “You’re fat.”

If a little girl finds this book in the library or book store and expresses interest in it, it might be a sign that she is ready to do something about her weight problem. But if she doesn’t have a weight problem, that should be a red flag that you need to have a conversation about body image and eating disorders.

But perhaps the biggest problem I have with the book is that it targets girls. If the author had come out with editions for boys and girls, I would have felt better about it. Girls are already bombarded with the message that they must be thin. Boys, not so much. What made the author think that his best audience would be female? Perhaps because he knows that they’re more likely to be concerned about their weight? The facts are that boys are more likely to be obese than girls. [Source.]

What do you think about this book or others like them? Do you think they’re helpful or hurtful? Are you comfortable with the target of grade school girls?