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The radical legacy of Shulamith Firestone

Why Firestone’s groundbreaking manifesto The Dialectic of Sex, first published in 1970, still feels radical today.

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If there were another word more all-embracing than revolution we would use it.” So opens Shulamith Firestone’s radical feminist manifesto The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. Published in 1970, the book’s ferocity and imagination still gesture towards a horizon more radical than revolution – even as we approach its 50th anniversary.

Firestone was 25 when she wrote The Dialectic of Sex. Born in 1945 – her mother was a German refugee, her father an American serviceman who took part in the liberation of Bergen-Belsen – Firestone chafed against the conservatism of her Orthodox Jewish parents and left home, bound for art school in Chicago.

Firestone moved to New York to begin her career as a painter in 1967, but soon grew frustrated. She reflected later: “Finding it nearly impossible at that time for a woman to ‘make it’ legitimately, I instead gave my creative energy to founding a women’s liberation movement.” With her radical feminist collectives, Firestone spent her early twenties staging witty, brazen “actions”. These included the “Burial of Traditional Womanhood”, a funeral-style ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery during the Vietnam War (the collective sent out invitations with black borders that read, “Don’t Bring Flowers… Do be prepared to sacrifice your traditional female roles”); abortion speak-outs, during which women testified about their disturbing experiences procuring then illegal abortions; and a sit-in at the Ladies’ Home Journal, where Firestone climbed on to the editor’s desk to tear up copies of the magazine in his face.

Firestone died in 2012 aged 67. Alix Kates Shulman, a member of Firestone’s group Redstockings, remembered her as “energised by righteous rage. More than anyone I’ve known, she was able to harness negative emotions around her – resentment, outrage, confusion, sadness, hurt, and more – and turn them into the kind of rage needed to fuel a revolutionary movement.”

The Dialectic of Sex burns with this righteous rage. Firestone began the book with the premise that the division of human beings according to their reproductive function was the origin of women’s subordination. Biological reproductive difference created a sex-based class system that subordinated women and children to a tyrannical patriarchy, an oppression that took its most vicious form in the nuclear family. But biology was not destiny. Firestone imagined that women might “seize the means of reproduction” through the technology of artificial wombs. Pregnancy would become archaic, women freed from the subservience of childbearing and family life. Indeed, all forms of labour would be replaced with automation in Firestone’s cybernetic communist utopia.

For Firestone, mainstream feminist proposals for 24-hour childcare centres and better contraception were spineless reforms. The Dialectic of Sex described a utopian horizon that would free humanity of the sex binary, liberate women from the oppressive work of reproduction, and free all people from the degradations of waged labour. It would bring an end to the nuclear family, and initiate collective forms of living; it would mean the realisation of a truly free childhood. Firestone was sceptical of a blueprint for the revolution – all the oppressed “need know is that the present system is destroying them”, she argued, not how to convince the oppressor of an alternative – but she imagined anew anyway.

People would live in extended communal households, not organised by biological relation but by shared desire and commitment. Adults and children would care for each other, freed from the authoritarian hierarchy of the nuclear family, and children would have the right to “transfer out” of their parents’ care if they wished. Schools – which Firestone saw as essentially disciplinary institutions that dampened curiosity – would be abolished in favour of multi-generational learning centres, replacing memorisation of rote knowledge with creative self-determination. Automation would mean the end of household drudgery. People could pursue whatever creative or restful activities they liked while the machines got on with the work, including the work of gestation. If a woman wanted to get pregnant, she could, of course; but Firestone envisaged biological pregnancy becoming a quaint, knowing throwback, “just as already women today wear virginal white to their weddings”.

Fifty years later, at a time when scientists are growing premature lambs in “Biobags” and the automation of waged work has already begun, Firestone’s ideas are still radical but no longer seem so outlandish. In the 1970s, though, The Dialectic of Sex was thought brilliantly, righteously wrong, remembered as the “demon text” of second-wave feminism. But while the use of artificial wombs was key to Firestone’s revolutionary programme for women’s liberation, she wasn’t naive about technology’s power and promise. She knew that this “new technology” may be used against women, reifying their exploitation. Firestone argued technology was a product of its culture, and a patriarchal society would not give up easily the tools of its domination. Scientists now pioneering artificial womb research understand the Biobag as a technology for saving the lives of infants born very prematurely, before current “viability” at 22-24 weeks gestational age. Firestone speculated that artificial womb technology might further curtail women’s reproductive rights, pushing back the boundary of life, and with it the boundary of legal abortion.

Was Firestone revolted by the gestating female body? She wrote in The Dialectic of Sex that “pregnancy is barbaric”, childbirth is painful and even traumatising, “at best… tolerable”, at worst – famously, gloriously – like “shitting a pumpkin”. Firestone’s abhorrence of pregnancy was critiqued by feminist thinkers who argued her writing was shaped by an internalised misogyny. Countervailing feminist writing positioned pregnancy as a creative, empathic, progressive undertaking, one that exposed vulnerabilities and dependencies that might help us imagine new forms of solidarity. As Maggie Nelson has written more recently, pregnancy may be visceral, but it dramatises the ways that we are made and unmade by another, by virtue of another.

In 2020, a pregnancy announcement is frequently met by stories of the very same violence that Firestone described. Photos of graphic scars and stretch marks, tales of third-degree vaginal tears, unvarnished details of postpartum depression, mind-numbing exhaustion: new motherhood sounds barbaric in the first-hand accounts revealed by friends over coffee and by strangers on online pregnancy forums, certainly more an unmaking than a making. The desire to destigmatise the pain and exhaustion of something as impossibly over-sentimentalised as pregnancy is surely an admirable aim of contemporary feminism, part of a wider movement to seek justice and equality through public chronicling. But what feminist critics once considered to be Firestone’s uniquely misogynistic fear of the pregnant body is now far more common in popular feminism.

Firestone’s case for a feminist revolution proceeded from the premise of gender as biologically innate, of womanhood as a sex-class; for this reason, The Dialectic of Sex could resonate with some of the worst of the essentialist transphobic discourse that can pass for feminist debate in Britain. But this is to mistake Firestone’s rhetorical strategy for her beliefs. Firestone began with an invitingly clear, common-sense principle – men are men, women are women – in order to more persuasively build the case for abolishing that very same logic. More recently, theorists such as Madeline Lane-McKinley and Sophie Lewis have authored powerful trans-feminist readings of The Dialectic of Sex, openly exposing Firestone’s contradictions while (critically, carefully) inheriting her mantle of a joyful, brash, revolutionary feminism.

For all the criticism of Firestone, what is often missed from The Dialectic of Sex is its humour. Firestone’s audacity was critical to her radical imagination. She is outrageous, sarcastic, biting. Her “dream action” was a smile boycott: women would stop smiling at men unless they said something truly funny (I get the feeling she thought this would be exceedingly rare), and children would stop accepting physical affection from adults unless they actually wanted it. In 1970, she co-organised a guerrilla action to ogle men on Wall Street (“You’ve got strong hairy legs,” they leered, “why don’t you wear shorts?”). Firestone’s gutsy creativity is an antidote to the foreclosed feminist imaginations of the present. We don’t even dare ask for those 24-hour childcare centres any more – but instead meekly hope that 10,000 of them won’t permanently close while the government funds casual dining.

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Firestone’s revolution would liberate children. “Few men show any interest in children,” she wrote, “and certainly not enough to include them in any books on revolution.” But few white feminist writers of her time were concerned with the place of children in the struggle for liberation, either. “Childhood is hell,” she wrote, and what could be more hellish than the misfortune of being cute? For Firestone, cuteness was a visible symptom of women and children’s linked oppression. No child can answer back when some adult babbles at him and kisses him, pats or squeezes him; women risk retribution if they frown when receiving a “friendly compliment” on the street. Imagine, Firestone writes, the rage that a man would spout if a woman or child gurgled back to him in baby talk, or refused to accept his patronising. “Their violence is amazing,” she observes. As the theorist Sianne Ngai has argued, “cuteness is not just an aestheticisation but an eroticisation of powerlessness”, inviting touch, helplessness, ownership. Cuteness is diminishing. One of the most original arguments of The Dialectic of Sex was that the revolution was impossible without abolishing childhood and its humiliations.

The most important critiques of Firestone’s work have been levelled by black feminists. Hortense Spillers wrote that Firestone’s concept of “womanhood” was undifferentiated, that she failed to understand inequalities between white and black women. Firestone’s “barbaric” vision of pregnancy isn’t theoretical for black parents. Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women in the UK; in the US, black newborns are three times more likely to die than white infants when “looked after” by a white doctor. Black feminists have long argued that centuries of systemic racism shaped black motherhood into an inherently radical act with its own distinct history. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, for example, argues that black motherhood is “some of the most subversive work in the world”, as black mothers “nurture the lives of those children who are not supposed to exist”. And while white feminists of the 1970s largely ignored the place of children in the revolution, non-white activists saw children as critical to collective liberation. As the interracial couple Mary Peña and Barbara Carey wrote in 1979, children “will not belong to the patriarchy. They will not belong to us either. They will belong only to themselves.”

Fifty years since the publication of The Dialectic of Sex, the need to reconceive childhood and the family is arguably more pressing than ever. Firestone had a lively imagination, but she couldn’t have predicted that a global pandemic would throw motherhood and childhood into such profound crisis: with early childhood care provision under severe threat, social isolation leaving children and adolescents more vulnerable to abuse, and the dangers of pregnancy for black mothers drastically exacerbated by the virus. The political theorist Nancy Fraser has called childcare a “hidden abode” of capitalism, an ever-renewable resource relentlessly drained in the pursuit of profit. The government’s failed response to the pandemic has badly exposed this unsustainable organisation of care, as mothers are expected to leave the workforce en masse to care for and school their children, and women – especially women of colour – fill low-paid and dangerous jobs in nursing, care, and domestic work. In 1970, motherhood and childhood could be dangerous. In 2020, both are existentially threatening.

Fredric Jameson wrote that it was a lack of imagination that prevented us from conceiving of the end of capitalism. But Firestone had imagination in spades, and reading her work now is a sharp command that we might imagine more boldly again. If we don’t like “nature”, it’s all culture, all history, all contingency anyway: change it. To “come out openly against motherhood” and childhood is “dangerous” – but so is childbirth, and so is the nuclear family. There is a place for both rage and humour, for earnestness and pleasure, in the revolution. Fifty years after its publication, The Dialectic of Sex teaches us that the abolition of childhood and the family is not some utopian dream of long-ago radical feminism, but critical to imagining a future beyond capitalism, to remaking the world for our freedom. 

This article appears in the 23 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic