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Marina Strinkovsky on Shulamith Firestone: The forgotten firebrand

Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex was a bestseller; an almost unimaginable feat for a book that called pregnancy barbaric, childhood a segregationist institution and heterosexual love “the pivot of women’s oppression”. 

A protester outside the Egyptian embassy in Paris. Photo: Getty
A protester outside the Egyptian embassy in Paris. Photo: Getty

This piece is part of the New Statesman's "Rereading the Second Wave" series. Read the other essays here.

It’s difficult not to think of Shulamith Firestone in Biblical terms. Partly this is a banal reflex: she was Jewish, the second child and oldest daughter in an orthodox family of six. Her name, Shulamith (originally Feuerstein, later changed to the evocative Firestone), is the original Hebrew of Salome, the tragic seductress who demanded a man’s head on a plate. Like the burning chariot of an angry, ranting prophetess, The Dialectic of Sex: A case for Feminist Revolution - Firestone’s broadside against all of the intimate institutions of society - blazed across the feminist firmament before its lessons were snuffed out by the resurgence of capitalist patriarchy and the 1980s politics of backlash.

The Dialectic was a bestseller; an almost unimaginable feat for a book that called pregnancy barbaric, childhood a segregationist institution and heterosexual love “the pivot of women’s oppression”. Without so much as a single fanny joke or wacky dating anecdote, the Dialectic gripped and electrified thousands of people, giving the so called Second Wave of feminism much of its initial impetus and energy. At the core of the book, and at the core of Firestone’s definition of radical feminism, was one simple but terrifying idea: the point of a feminist revolution is not merely to abolish the inequalities and exploitation that attach to gender distinction; the point is to abolish the very idea of gender:

“...the end goal of feminist revolution must be...not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.” 

Like one’s blood group or specific gut biota, the organisation of our reproductive systems must become a marginal irrelevance to which no social, political or economic importance is attached. Only then, after eradicating the very difference over the exact nature of which so much acrimonious ink has been spilled before and since, can we arrive at a truly equitable society. One in which all members are expected and required to contribute equally to its reproductive labour, the flourishing of its members and the sustainability of its future.

Drawing on the thought of de Beauvoir, Marx, and especially Freud, Firestone sought to analyse and expose the mechanisms by which the social structures of oppression and exploitation are constituted. She looked both to economics, and to the formation of intimate relationships between people along the developmental axis from infant neutrality to adult complexes and neuroses first theorised by Freud. Accompanied by (sometimes shaky) historical analysis, this approach mostly leads her along the right path, though occasionally astray. Her chapter on the institution of childhood is not only barnstorming, but chilling in its prescience. She wrote of what she saw as a historical process of pushing children ever further out of the society they will one day be expected to function in. First out of the medieval family’s manufacture and work, later into the schoolroom or nursery, later still into the boarding school, and eventually into a state of separateness, idealised by thinkers from Rousseau onwards as both fragile and impenetrable.

“The rise of the modern nuclear family, with its adjunct 'childhood', tightened the noose around the already economically dependent group by extending and reinforcing what had been only a brief dependence, by the usual means: the development of a special ideology … And with the increase and exaggeration of children's dependence, woman's bondage to motherhood was also extended to its limits. Women and children were now in the same lousy boat.”

Firestone would have been horrified to learn that we have now banished children even from the streets; that they meet their peers either virtually or via adult-organised and supervised ‘play dates’; that they are kept in standardised, age-stratified schooling ever longer, being now expected to pass seamlessly into a similarly structured corporate work without any non-institutional experience of the world, except perhaps, for the most privileged, a permissive but rigidly conformist ‘gap year’, during which they are all expected to get drunk on the same Thai beaches and post identical selfies with Rio’s Christ the Redeemer. The awful injustice and social fracturing Firestone foresaw arising from a banishment of young people from their own lives has proven not only every bit as damaging as she predicted, but that it can get so much worse even than it was when she observed it.

When she was right, she was very right; but boy could she be wrong. The Dialectic’s chapter on race is an incoherent, baffling mess of Freudian supposition that reads almost as a malicious satire of Second Wave attitudes written by an intersectional prankster – a feminist Sokal Affair. Certainly issues of race were deeply important to the feminists in Firestone’s milieu; the caricature of ‘white ladies’ interested only in abortion for middle class university students and advancing their own corporate careers is unfair and, as described by Susan Brownmiller and others, simply untrue. What is indisputable is that the analytical tools brought to bear on race relations by many of the earlier writers – particularly on American race relations – were simply not fit for purpose. Freudian theory is very much a case in point.

Far from being an academic theorist in hock to fanciful notions, however, Firestone was deeply involved in the grassroots and quotidian organising of the Second Wave. She had fled her repressive upbringing to live and fight among other equally electrified women in the febrile atmosphere of a political movement blossoming into unlikely, miraculous relevance. A founding member of Redstockings, New York Radical Women and New York Radical Feminists, she spent a large part of her early life seeking and trying to create a political space which a restless, voracious intellect and an uncompromisingly critical radicalism could call home. Before being overtaken by mental illness, Firestone was involved in some of the most painful and important organisational experiments of the movement. Collectives, leaderless hierarchies, formless anarchic groups, communes; all were tried as alternatives to the well known patriarchal mechanisms of organisation.  And although most campaigned successfully when allied to networks of other feminist groups working in concert, they left many disillusioned, embittered or mentally broken casualties along the way. The revolution fed on its women – in that at least it was patriarchal to the core.

Shulamith Firestone died in 2012; she had only published one other book in her lifetime. Virtually forgotten and practically alone at the end, she is not widely read today. Her revolution, meanwhile, remains incomplete. Oh, women have rebelled; don’t believe the hype – powerful as the backlash was, the rates of both matrimony and childbearing among women are at an all time low. Far from facing a population explosion – a Malthusian dystopia much canvassed by white men who, as George Monbiot once said, are happy to be panicking about something that’s not their fault – birth rates are crashing all over the world (yes, even in Africa) in an inverted hockey stick graph that is not looking to reverse direction any time soon. There are more never-married, financially independent women in the world today than there may have been at any other time in our history. In that respect, unacknowledged as it is, we owe an enormous debt to Firestone’s startling, frightening hostility to the very idea of love and procreation. Quietly and without ever actually painting it on their banners, modern women the world over have absorbed the message that men’s dirty socks are as risky a consummations to be wished as men’s seed.

But the eradication of gender as a concept is arguably a dead project. It is arguably a more powerful organising principle in today’s consumer society than it ever was in the supposedly ‘repressed’ days of Friedan’s feminine mystique. We face an increasingly strict apartheid of his and hers, pink and blue, ‘normal’ Jenga and ‘girl’s talk’ Jenga, the warriors and the victims they rape. Bolstered by a resurgence of pseudo-scientific theories of essential difference, the very notion of there being very little meaningful difference between the male and the female of the species seems to be further out of Overton’s window than at any time since the 19th century. In that sense we are not only in an age of revolution, but very much still in an age of reaction.

The active prescriptions for revolution Firestone set out in the final chapter of her book were, by her own admission, vague and sketchy; prescribing every detail of a hitherto non-existent mode of being and relation is not only difficult but probably unwise. The specifics of what she said was not nearly as important as the fact that she said it; that she lived and thought in a time when it was plausible - respectable even - to think outside and beyond the limitations of our society instead of simply trying to mitigate the worst damages it inflicts on its members. The habit of revolutionary thinking is out of step with an intellectual climate in which grand narratives, universal principles and global aspirations are seen as suspect, imperialist, arrogant, old hat. But though we may have forgotten about the big ole narratives, they haven’t forgotten about us: the global economy is in freefall, economic inequality is mushrooming, and, as Beatrix Campbell writes in the recently published End of Equality, it is women who are paying the price. Crucially, the natural environment on which we depend is threatened by our activities as never before. Firestone was among the first to recognise the agreement between feminist goals and ‘ecological’ – what we would call today environmentalist – ones:

“The best new currents in ecology and social planning agree with feminist aims. The way that these two social phenomena, feminism and revolutionary ecology, have emerged with such coincidence illustrates a historical truth: new theories and new movements do not develop in a vacuum, they arise to spearhead the necessary social solutions to contradictions in the environment.”

I think we can, and must, learn from our radical predecessor the lessons of passion and vision without falling into the (sometimes real, often imagined) mistakes of modernist thinkers who were not embarrassed to commit to an absolute notion of a better world, and not ashamed to apply its optimism to the entire human race. Not just our flourishing and wellbeing, but our survival might depend on it.

MarinaS is a feminist writer and campaigner who blogs at It's Not a Zero Sum Game. Her main interests revolve around male violence against women, reproductive justice, sexual exploitation, rape and harassment. Marina has written for the F-Word and Indy Voices among others. She lives in Swindon with her one surviving cactus and, remarkably, no cats.