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

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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.

Self-privation and the Joan of Arc school of feminism

Firestone didn't confine her radicalism to her writing. In 1969, while she was living in New York and writing Dialectic of Sex, she co-founded a women's organization called Redstockings that published manifestos, ran consciousness-raising meetings, and organized activism on behalf of a number of feminist causes. Their values included leftist beliefs that we don't today associate with feminism, like a commitment to socialist revolution. But they also believed deeply in, and campaigned for, the right to safe and legal abortions.

Redstockings was one of the nation's prominent radical women's organizations, and one of the earliest, but for a few years after Firestone's book -- and partly owing to converts she won -- the host grew and strengthened. Essentially all major American cities - and even mid-sized ones like St. Paul, Minnesota -- had at least one and usually several radical feminist groups in the 1970s. (That's in addition to chapters of more moderate feminist organizations). As feminism splintered according to race, sexuality, and class, so did the organizations. But when Firestone's book was published, the movement was new, and her work infused radical feminism with purpose during its most inspired, fervent, and productive phase.

It speaks to the commitment of these radical feminists that her celibacy argument -- which required an extreme personal sacrifice -- gained a measure of traction. In Boston, a group of radical women who called themselves Cell 16 -- and who counted among their number Abby Rockefeller -- had already integrated celibacy into a program that also included karate lessons for members (so they could learn to defend themselves against men, especially in cases of sexual assault). Even radicals who didn't practice celibacy long-term seriously debated the question of abstaining from sex, so that a feminist author taking stock of radical feminism in 1991 argued that "celibacy ought to have an honored place" in the feminist movement and its history.

Firestone's book was explosively popular outside the radical feminist movement, too, but for every writer who considered her an intriguing thinker, there was another to criticize her reasoning or call her proposals absurd. Firestone had never intended to become a famous author and was disquieted by the attention she received. She left political activism in the early 1970s and took up painting, isolating herself progressively over the decades so that her death, in her book-filled East Village apartment, went unnoticed for about a week. Her only other published book was a 1998 account of her struggle with schizophrenia, which saw her hospitalized on and off when she developed it in the 1980s.

When radicals lose

Firestone and Gurley Brown pretty neatly represent two divergent forms of feminist thought that came of age during the 1970s. In hindsight, Gurley Brown seems like an early protype for cultural feminism. This was an offshoot of the feminist movement that began by celebrating "essential woman" and advocating all-female communes, and ended with fights over public breastfeeding and debates over whether a woman should carry condoms in her purse. 

In the end, it embraced a pretty moderate program -- except when it came to sexuality, where it really broke the decency scale. It reformed our social life a lot and drew attention to single issues like sexual assault, but it didn't advocate sweeping revolutionary change of the sort that the Redstockings or Cell 16 women envisioned. Feminists like Firestone always accused the cultural feminists of being secret reactionaries.

Firestone was for many years a standard bearer of a more radical feminism, one that has deeply influenced today's progressive and feminist thinkers, even as its extremism ensures most Americans will never know a thing about it. These feminists were often Marxists, often middle-class, and often highly educated (and often white). They were willing to put their bodies -- and all of our bodies, if offered the chance -- on the line in pursuit of women's liberation. 

Many of them suggested that women train to fight men physically; that they cut all personal ties to males, not to reclaim their essential femininity but because men were not to be trusted; that they agitate simultaneously for the overthrow of the economy, the government, and the class system, all of which had patriarchal structures; that they not have children; that they not seek to form families, which were viewed as male mini-dictatorships. If their ideas had won out, today's motherhood-obsessed culture, with its glamour shots of pregnant celebrities and popular websites like The Bump, would not exist.

In the end, we may be personally happier because cultural feminists -- and specifically Gurley Brown's sex-positive team of raunchy radicals -- won the fight within feminism. On the other hand, without having seen Firestone's vision in action, we'll never know. Firestone, like Marx, believed in false consciousness, which she too would say prevents us from seeing the value in revolution. 

Whether we buy that or not, feminists -- and all political activists -- can take two things away from Firestone's life: her readiness to make personal sacrifices, and her willingness to advocate the most extreme and unpopular forms of change. The radical feminists died off because they were inflexible, but we accept a number of their ideas today -- ideas that in the 1970s were considered immoral, laughable, or twisted. Firestone was a radical biological materialist, but in her fervor she at times resembled a martyr or a saint.

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

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