Why Should We Care About Shulamith Firestone?

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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

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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)

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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.

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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.

My Road to Feminism

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Very few people set out to become feminists. It’s not a philosophy that they just happen to pick out one day as if it was a dish in a smorgasbord. Becoming a feminist is usually a process. Things happen that shake us up and make us question everything we thought we believed. In my case, I became a feminist after having an abortion. It’s not that I was looking for absolution. It was more that I was trying to make sense of this happening to me. What were the implications of being a woman who had aborted her child? How had other women handled it? Why didn’t anyone talk about it?

I felt so alone. I didn’t think I could ever tell anyone my “secret.” And then I enrolled in a women’s studies course. This was back when there were no women’s studies departments or degrees. The course wasn’t part of the regular curriculum; it was more or less an experiment. The teachers were sort of making it up as they went along. We read seminal works like The Feminine Mystique and Sexual Politics. But most importantly, we talked. About what it meant to be a woman in our society. And about what being women meant to us personally.

Before I took that women’s studies course, I had never questioned why women made less money than men, or why mothers were more likely to stay home with the kids and did most of the housework. I hadn’t thought about the fact that there were so few women doctors or lawyers or engineers. I know that sounds incredible, but this was 1971. The Women’s Liberation Movement (as it was called then) had just started to pick up steam.

This was also around the time when “The Pill” became widely available. Before The Pill, women had to rely on their partners to use condoms or on birth control methods that weren’t that effective. Suddenly women were able to take charge of their own contraception and to be reasonably sure that they wouldn’t become pregnant. It’s hard to imagine now, but that was a monumental break-through for women. For the first time a woman could take charge of her own life. She was no longer a slave to her biology.

I got pregnant when I was 18 largely because I hadn’t thought about contraception. After my abortion, I went on The Pill. It made it possible for me to control whether or not (or when) I would become a mother. It also made me rethink what it meant to be responsible. Before the abortion, I had more or less gone along with what society (and my boyfriends) said I should be. Having the abortion and going on The Pill taught me that there were decisions that only I could make and that I damn well better make them if I wanted to be my own person.

The women’s studies course gave me the courage to make my own decisions. To step up to the plate, so to speak. I learned that the way a woman lives her life had a profound effect on everything and everyone else in our society. I began to see myself as part of a larger world.

One of the things I like about feminism is that it makes me think. It’s important to question why we do what we do and how we might do things differently. But it’s also important to analyze the influences that come from outside of ourselves. It’s one thing to say, “I’m not a decisive person.” It’s another thing altogether to get to the point where you can say, “The reason I have trouble making decisions is because I was always taught that a woman should defer to the men in her life. She is not supposed to push her own agenda. She is there to accommodate herself to the needs of others.”

Feminism doesn’t advocate selfishness, but self-awareness. Being a feminist means that you are always seeking ways to be better and more effective, not only as a woman, but as a person. It means that you can’t lean on others for everything. You are allowed to have your own opinions. And you are capable of standing up for yourself.

I didn’t become a feminist overnight. My whole life has been one long process of learning to stand up for myself and take responsibility for my own actions. Sometimes I’ve been successful. Usually I struggle. But I can never return to the person I was before I discovered feminism.

 

 

Women’s History Month: Does Being a Mother Count?

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I should have written this post at the beginning of the month instead of at the end, but somehow the fact that March was Women’s History Month got pushed into the background of my mind. And isn’t that what usually happens to women’s history? It’s always getting pushed into the background. It’s always been that way and I fear that it always will be.

Sure, more women are being recognized for their accomplishments these days. But will they be considered noteworthy in the future? Will Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin receive as much attention among biographers and historians as Barack Obama, for instance? (How many women know that Geraldine Ferraro—who just died the other day—was actually the first woman vice-presidential candidate?)

And even though women’s studies has become a staple of almost every university’s curriculum, how many people really know anything about women’s history? Or even care?

What I find amazing is how little women know about their own history. Naturally, feminists and women’s studies majors know a lot. But what about the average woman? Does she know how many women we have in Congress? Or who was the first female candidate for president? (Hint: it wasn’t Hillary Clinton.) Or what role women have played in war and peace?

What about this little tidbit?

On November 11, 1865, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was awarded a Medal of Honor for her service as a surgeon during the Civil War. She was the only woman to receive such an honor, the country’s highest military award. Unfortunately, in 1917, Dr. Walker’s medal was taken away, along with 910 others, when Congress changed the rules of the award to include only “actual combat with an enemy.” Dr. Walker, however, refused to give back the medal and wore it every day until her death in 1919. After her death, she was re-awarded the Medal of Honor in 1977.

Too many people reduce women’s roles in life to that of wives and mothers. For example, Susannah Wesley is known as the “Mother of Methodism” not because she was a preacher or minister, but because two of her 19 children went on to found Methodism.

Probably the most revered woman in the world is Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is known for her faithfulness and obedience to God in her role  as a mother.

These examples aren’t meant to diminish women who are mothers. I happen to believe that being a mother is an incredibly difficult job and that women who are mothers deserve even more credit than they are given. (Ironically, though we put mothers on a pedestal, we do little to support them. America in particular is notorious for not being mother-friendly. )

Ever since  Louise Story’s article appeared in The New York Times about college-educated women choosing to stay home with their children, feminists have raised the question of whether or not being a stay-at-home mom (SAHM) is the best use of a woman’s talents and education.  And recently, when Natalie Portman announced at the Academy Awards that being a mother will be the greatest role of her life, she was castigated by some feminists for implying that all of her personal accomplishments paled in comparison with being a mother.

I think some feminists look down on SAHMs because they think of motherhood as something that just happens to you, not something you had to work at to accomplish. Perhaps that’s true of the pregnancy, but there’s nothing passive about being a mother. Perhaps Portman was thinking of the awesomeness of motherhood when she called it the greatest role, but she will soon find out that it is possibly the hardest role to execute satisfactorily.

Feminists who put down motherhood are wrong on two counts:

First of all, being a mother does not mean that you can’t still accomplish things other than motherhood. Elizabeth Cady Stanton had seven children and she is known as one of the most important First Wave feminists.

Although she enjoyed motherhood and assumed primary responsibility for rearing the children, Stanton found herself unsatisfied and even depressed by the lack of intellectual companionship and stimulation in Seneca Falls. As an antidote to the boredom and loneliness, Stanton became increasingly involved in the community and, by 1848, had established ties to similarly-minded women in the area. By this time, she was firmly committed to the nascent women’s rights movement and was ready to engage in organized activism.

Secondly, a woman can be extremely influential as a mother. Not only can she shape the values of her children, she can also leave her mark on their world by working for causes that impact her children. Most of the women in the book The Maternal is Political write that they became politically motivated precisely because they are mothers.

Wouldn’t it be revolutionary if women went down in history as being as influential as men, not in spite of the fact that they were mothers, but because of it? Cindy Sheehan is a good example. When her son was killed in Iraq, she found her mission in life and became an extremely vocal anti-war activist. However, the fact that she is a woman and mother has diminished her influence in some people’s eyes: they’ve pegged her as some kind of crackpot. Will she be remembered in history as a famous mother? Only time will tell.

 

 

 

Second Wave Feminists: We’re Not Dead Yet

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As I navigate the Internet searching for feminist resources, I come to an unpleasant conclusion: Second Wave feminists are either all dead or might as well be.

I understand about the generation gap. I do. I know that younger feminists are eager to find their own way in the world. They don’t want to do feminism the way their mothers (and grandmothers!) did it. But do they have to shut us out so completely?

Everything I read is seems to be geared toward girls (or Grrls). Which in itself is weird to me, since feminists from the ’60s and ’70s fought so hard to get people to stop using “girl” or “lady” for “woman.”  (Can you imagine Helen Reddy singing “I Am Girl, hear me roar”? Do you even know who Helen Reddy is??) We felt that to be called a girl was a way of infantilizing us. We wanted to be treated like grown-ups.

I also understand that young feminists don’t give a shit what others think of them, including other feminists (especially older ones). If they want to dress sexy or be obsessed with fashion and makeup, that’s their right. If they want to stay home with their children instead of having careers, that’s their right, too. That doesn’t make them less feminist in their way of thinking.

But what they don’t realize is that older feminists get that. We even admire it to some extent. What we resent is being treated as if our take on being feminine is obsolete. We stress(ed) not getting caught up in the societal attitudes that objectify us.  We didn’t want to be seen as just another pretty face or to be judged by our appearance. We worry that younger feminists are playing into the hands of men who want to keep us in categories they approve: sexual partner, mother, wife, girlfriend, servant.

Which brings us to another difference between Second Wave and subsequent waves of feminists: we blamed men for everything. Or at least we are characterized that way. Actually, we felt that men were as trapped as women were by role expectations and that everyone would be better off if we could break free from those expectations.

I’m not saying that today’s feminists don’t see the sexism in our society. They’re just less likely to blame it on patriarchy. They believe that women have been somewhat complicit in the downgrading of women. And they’re all about taking responsibility for their own choices in life. They don’t want to be hemmed in by what older feminists think is acceptable feminist behavior.

We should have anticipated the generation gap and prepared for our own obsolescence. But instead it seems as if Second Wave feminists have retreated into our middle-aged shells. There’s barely a peep from us on the Internet.

Is it just because we’re old fogeys who haven’t kept up with the times? Is our age to blame for our lack of relevance in the world today?

I’ve used the past tense almost all the way through this post to describe Second Wave feminists. That just goes to show you how even we have bought into the idea that we’re has-beens.

But I for one refuse to lie down and die. I think the Second Wave still has a lot to offer. I even think that Third and Fourth Wave feminists owe us. Without us, they would have neither the opportunities nor the respect that younger women enjoy today.

First Wave feminists prepared the ground for women’s advancement. Second Wave feminists planted the tree. And now today’s feminists are grafting other species onto that tree. What that will mean for the future is anyone’s guess. But we could all use each other’s help to tend what is being created.