Eulogy for a Sex Radical: Shulamith Firestone's Forgotten Feminism

A utopia without pregnancy or childbearing? That was the dream of the controversial Dialectic of Sex author, who was found dead on Tuesday at 67.

Shulamith Firestone

It's hard to imagine that Shulamith Firestone and Helen Gurley Brown thought very highly of each other. Gurley Brown wore immaculate make-up and had a driver. There were needlepoint pillows in her office. She had sex. She told other women that they should have sex, too.

Firestone, on the other hand, did not have sex. In fact, she was a political celibate. She encouraged other women to become celibate. Some of them did. She wore owl glasses; she looked like the 70s radical she was.

Firestone, whose death was reported yesterday, will not receive a fraction of the encomia Gurley Brown did after her death earlier this month. Why? Both women were feminist pioneers. Both wrote canonical feminist texts that became bestsellers when they were published about a half century ago. Both shaped absolutely the ways we think about gender, education, and the family today. Both put sex at the center of their analyses.

Yet Gurley Brown became one of the most successful magazine editors of all time. Firestone became a hermit and suffered from mental illness. She'd been dead for a week when neighbors found her. But her reclusiveness isn't the only reason we don't remember her.

Here's the main reason. Firestone wanted to eliminate the following things: sex roles, procreative sex, gender, childhood, monogamy, mothering, the family unit, capitalism, the government, and especially the physiological phenomena of pregnancy and childbirth. She wanted to mechanize reproduction -- gestating fetuses in artificial wombs -- and raise the offspring communally, treating them no differently from adults at the earliest possible age. Sound crazy? It was certainly extreme. But it's surprising how many ideas that are now starting to gain currency can be found in kernel form in her 1970 book The Dialectic of Sex.

When parents choose to raise their children gender-neutral, a lot of that's Firestone. When we hail advances in artificial reproduction, we're seeing developments that Firestone championed decades ago. When writers theorize about the end of men, they're tearing whole pages out of Firestone's book. We know how Gurley Brown influenced us. Yet we know nothing about Firestone.

Tongues of flame: Lady Marx and the feminist analytic

The Dialectic of Sex, by far Firestone's most famous work, appeared in 1970 when she was 25. (The text of the book's opening chapter is here.) It was a different time. Radicalism in general had more currency, and it is easy to forget just how much more, as evidenced by the (at least) 10 printings this book went through in the years after it was published. Firestone was heralded as a feminist philosopher on par with Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Freidan for imagining a world where "genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally."

This was Firestone's central ambition, and the book reflects as much. She feels free to revise Marx and Engels. She takes pot-shots at Freud in her critique of psychoanalysis. She tries to explain away racial antagonism, saying it has its basis in nothing other than gender distinctions and will disappear when the gender crisis resolves. (This is particularly problematic given the complicated history of race in feminism.)

Why did Firestone want to eliminate gender? She argued - taking Marxism and skewing it -- that all forms of oppression were rooted in an antagonism between men and women. Resolving this antagonism would pave the road to utopia and cure society of its ills.

This belief -- that the battle of the sexes was the source of all ill -- leaves a radical feminist with few options. Option one is to destroy all men. Firestone did not want to eliminate men, although she didn't like them much. She believed the gender system oppressed men, too. What she wanted was radical equality. The only way to achieve this, she thought, was to eliminate gender entirely.

How? At the core of gender -- and inequality -- was an accident of biology, she theorized. Women are the ones who are physiologically capable of carrying babies. All gender roles have their roots this simple fact. If you eliminate pregnancy and childbirth, you can eliminate gender.

So, she argued, we need to devise ways to reproduce artificially. And until then, women ought to be celibate.

Though an ideology that opposes sex might seem unlikely to catch on, many of Firestone's ideas did prove influential. She presaged some of today's thinking on reproduction and childhood, helping pave the way for the acceptance of, for instance, non-traditional child-rearing arrangements. She may have been the first feminist to argue systematically and scientifically that the traditional heterosexual married pair is not the only structure capable of raising well-adjusted children. "No matter how many cases" we see, she wrote, "of sex-role reversal, male housewifery, or even empathetic labor pains, these facts prove only one thing: the amazing flexibility of human nature." (She was refuting arguments that more empathetic and helpful husbands were the key to women's liberation.)

And she wasn't a lone voice. The year after her book appeared, The Atlantic published an article suggesting that pregnancy might soon become obsolete through the invention of artificial wombs. Some of Firestone's ideas are shared by futurists (like transhumanists) who want to vastly extend the human lifespan. As Firestone wrote:

We are no longer just animals. And the kingdom of nature does not reign absolute. ... Thus the 'natural' is not necessarily a 'human' value. Humanity has begun to transcend Nature: we can no longer justify the maintenance of a discriminatory sex class system on grounds of its origins in nature.

Her most radical suggestion -- that procreative sex, sexual attraction, and reproduction are not central to what makes us human -- has a fair amount of currency at this point. When The Atlantic's Kate Bolick wrote about the growing power of the single, childless woman, she was in many ways, consciously or not, echoing Firestone.

Presented by

Emily Chertoff is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's National channel.

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