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.

 

A Thirteen-Year-Old Talks About Sex–OMG!

The video below has gone viral recently, scoring over a half a million hits, and generating a lot of controversy about the fact that a thirteen-year-old girl is talking about…wait for it…sex!

It seems that many adults are blown away by the fact that “Astrorice” is so knowledgeable and articulate about sex. They obviously see a thirteen-year-old as a child who has no business knowing, much less talking about, things like “slut-shaming” and rape.

I for one am encouraged by this young woman. She really has a handle on what’s wrong about judging people for their sexual activity, whether real or presumed. And I was really impressed by what she said about rape culture. The adults in this next video, not so much; they thought she crossed some kind of line.

What disturbed me is that the panelists spent more time talking about her precociousness than they did about the issues she raised. I thought the most important part of her video was when she talked about “the rape culture.” She’s absolutely right that slut-shaming (or judging people based on their sexual activity or appearance) does contribute to the attitudes that make some men think it’s all right to push sex on women against their will. That’s rape whether the woman is drunk or dressed in a mini-skirt or just minding her own business. I don’t understand people who say that “date rape” isn’t really rape, or that there are degrees of rape, some barely worth mentioning.

Just sayin’.

 

Happy Birthday to the Founder of Modern Feminism

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.

Why Fight the War on Women?

There’s been a lot in the news lately about the War on Women. What most people don’t realize is that this “war” isn’t only about abortion. It’s a series of battles over a woman’s right to live her life purposefully. This doesn’t just mean her right to birth control or abortion. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Women are still having to fight for these things and more:

  • access to education
  • jobs, promotions
  • health benefits
  • reasonable rates for life and health insurance
  • maternity leave and other accommodations for child-rearing
  • effective prosecution of rape, sexual abuse and domestic violence
  • elected office and other positions of power

Many people think that the War on Women was fought in the ’60s and ’70s and that women won it. They point to female CEOs and other professionals, to the number of women obtaining higher education, to greater attention being paid to women’s health issues and  to greater protections in general under the law. But these advantages are not being given equally to all women.

As long as there is one woman who is treated wrongfully and unequally because of her gender, the war has not been won. And the fact is, there are still millions of women who need things that many of us, privileged as we are, take for granted. Not only that, but women who feel that they have never suffered gender or sexual discrimination are either unusually fortunate or delusional.

One of the most insidious ways to keep women down is socialization. It’s hard to point a finger to the culprit here when the entire society participates in the practices that keep women from fulfilling their full potential. Even women themselves cooperate in their own socialization and often seem proud of it. The woman who drops out of college to get married, the professional who stops working to have children, the mother who praises her daughter for being pretty, but not for her participation in sports—all of these women are shortsightedly dooming themselves and their children to discrimination in the future.

These women protest that they have the right to choose to work part-time or not at all (except for in the home of course), to have as many children as they want and to raise them however they see fit. I’m not saying that they don’t have the right to choose whatever they want to do with their lives. I’m just asking them to think about the long-term effects of their choices.

The War on Women can’t be fought only by the people who already have the advantages some women only dream of. It has to be fought by all women. Each woman has to think purposefully about her life and do whatever it takes to achieve her goals. She has to stop thinking about what everyone else wants her to do and start thinking about what she wants.

Some say that the feminist movement has done nothing but create a society of self-centered and selfish women who think nothing of abandoning husbands and children and who could care less about their families’ fates. There will always be those who think only of themselves (female and male), but the feminist movement didn’t cause that. And that is certainly not its goal.

All that feminism asks is that women think and act responsibly with an eye to the future, both their future and that of their children. Do they really want their daughters (and sons) to be saddled with children they didn’t want and can’t care for? Do they want their daughters to continue to have to bear the brunt of housework and child-raising? Do they want their sons to take women for granted, even to the point of abusing them?

Maybe the War on Women will never be over. Patriarchal attitudes are ingrained in nearly every society. Add to that the resistance people have to change. But humankind’s progress doesn’t depend on staying in the present or even going back to the past. Progress means to go forward. What was “usual and customary” for our ancestors has to be re-examined and reworked in order to serve our future.

 

 

Rethinking Abortion

A friend of mine recently told me that she used to be strongly pro-choice but now, because of experiences she’s had in her own life and seeing what other women have gone through, she’s decided that she’s pro-life. She said she’s concerned about the psychological damage to women who have abortions. She also feels many women have abortions for selfish reasons and there are very few good reasons for having one.

To tell the truth, I was surprised at how much I agreed with her. I’ve never felt comfortable about women having abortions just because they don’t want to be inconvenienced or stressed out. I’ve even wondered if there’s ever a good reason to abort a baby other than rape, incest, severe birth defects or the health of the mother. I have four children myself and two grandchildren (with one more on the way) and I know how precious a new life is.

The problem is, the abortion debate forces you to pick sides. You’re made to feel that you have to be pro-life OR pro-choice. You can’t be both. But as I listened to my friend, I realized that I am both.

I believe that abortion should be a last resort. No woman should use abortion just because she was too lazy or irresponsible to use birth control. (However, this belief doesn’t address the issue of what to do when a mistake has been made.)

I also believe that once a fetus is viable (i.e., it can live outside the womb without heroic efforts to keep it alive), it should not be aborted. If you’ve gone eight months with a baby inside you, what’s another month? That child has a right to live; even if you don’t want to be its mother, there is almost always someone who does. Let’s face it: newborn babies are in demand. It’s the older child who is harder to place. So if you don’t think you want to be a mother, don’t “give it a try” for a few years. Make the responsible choice while the baby still has a chance to grow up from birth in a loving home.

When I had my abortion at the age of 19, I was a freshman in college, I didn’t want to marry the father and I was afraid to tell my parents. I was also pretty sure that I couldn’t give the baby up for adoption and I knew my life would be changed irrevocably if I kept him or her. I thought I’d have to drop out of college and depend on my parents even more than I already did (and which I hated). And I didn’t want to have to deal with custody and visitation issues with a man I didn’t want to be with.

Also, this was 1971 and unmarried mothers were not as accepted as they are now.

None of these reasons justified my “killing” my baby, but they added up to a compelling argument at the time. And since the man who’d gotten me pregnant was completely supportive of my getting an abortion, I have to believe that he had similar reasons.

So how did I feel after having the abortion? Was I overwhelmed with guilt and grief? No. I can honestly say that all I felt was relief, especially since I pulled it off without having to tell my parents.

But now that I’m almost 60 and can look back on a long life of mistakes and regrets, I realize that just because something feels right doesn’t mean that it is right. I was a moderately religious person, but I didn’t have a well-developed sense of morals or ethics. I didn’t approach the problem from that perspective at all. I didn’t go to a counselor or a trusted adult. I felt like I got myself into this mess, it was up to me to get myself out.

I have had feelings of guilt and grief over the years, but they’ve never been overwhelming. My main feeling was that the abortion was regrettable, but the right thing for me at the time. But I had some bad moments during each of my subsequent pregnancies, especially once the babies were born. I couldn’t help but think that I would have had another child three years older than my oldest daughter if I hadn’t been so selfish. Who knows what that baby might have been like? Was it the boy I never managed to have later on? He or she would have been forty years old this year. Would I have had other grandchildren? How would he or she have turned out?

Having an abortion puts you in a tricky situation. You can ask God for forgiveness, but you can’t ask your aborted baby to forgive you. Some people get around this by not believing that the fetus was a baby. Technically and medically, the fetus isn’t a baby (that is, it can’t live outside the womb). But is it a life?

One debate surrounding abortion is over whether life begins at fertilization or implantation. Medical science has always favored the latter. You’re not pregnant until implantation occurs and you can’t be carrying a new life until you’re actually pregnant.

People who hold the former view have arbitrarily decided that life begins at fertilization.  Some pro-life advocates are against birth control because they think that the contraception itself causes abortions. But what happens when a fertilized egg passes out of the uterus naturally? Is that an abortion? Carry that a step further: does that mean that even God “murders” babies?

Strong words, I know. But the point I’m trying to make is: Is it ever right to make decisions that only God used to make? If the answer is no, you might as well do away with medical science and research. No more transplants, no more medicines, no more fertility treatments, no more heroic measures. Who are we to decide whether someone should live or die?

The Bible says that God gave man dominion over the earth. You could argue that this doesn’t just mean that he is supposed to tend plants and animals. It could also mean that God gave us jurisdiction over questions of life and death. He gave us the intellect to develop those things that help to extend life. But the flip side is that we’re also allowed to decide when things can or should be prevented from achieving viability, or life.

There are many good reasons for not allowing an embryo to develop into a fetus, or a fetus into a baby. What about when the number of children a family has prevents those children from having a good quality of life? What if the resources and support systems don’t exist to ensure that a child will be raised in a loving environment?

And that’s not even taking into account the health of the pregnant woman. What if she has other children she needs to be there for? Is it right to allow a woman to die just to allow the birth of another motherless child?

There is no consensus about these issues. That means is there is no one position that is more popular than the others. And for that reason, I believe it is against everything this country stands for to allow one group’s opinion to prevail.

Being pro-choice doesn’t mean that women will be forced to have unwanted abortions. But being anti-choice does mean that some women will be forced to have unwanted babies.

Which is right: force or freedom?

For a doctor’s views of when life begins and the abortion debate, go here at “The Moderate Voice.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Road to Feminism

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.