Shulamith Firestone, the author of The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, has died at the age of 67, apparently of natural causes, The New York Times' Margolit Fox. She had been found dead on Tuesday in her East Village apartment in New York. Lincoln Anderson writes in The Villager that her landlord Bob Perl has said the cause of death remains "unclear at this point."
The Dialectic of Sex was published when she was just 25, in 1970. Margalit Fox writes in Firestone's Times obituary, "Ms. Firestone extended Marxist theories of class oppression to offer a radical analysis of the oppression of women, arguing that sexual inequity springs from the onus of childbearing, which devolves on women by pure biological happenstance." Of the book, Naomi Wolf wrote, "No one can understand how feminism has evolved without reading this radical, inflammatory second-wave landmark.”
In light of recent debates over "women's issues" in the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election, Firestone's concepts of how to achieve gender equality seem, if perhaps not practical or desirable, certainly relevant. Firestone says women "must seize the means of reproduction—for as long as women (and only women) are required to bear and rear children, they will be singled out as inferior." She believed, as Martha Ackelsberg writes in her JWA biography, that "Only a destruction of the nuclear family, and the consequent elimination of pressures on women (and men) to marry and have children, would make possible the creation of new, more rational, and voluntarily constituted groups of people committed to raising children in ways that would not require either permanent male-female bonding or the identification of two particular adults with 'their' particular children."
Fox explains, "In the utopian future Ms. Firestone envisioned, reproduction would be utterly divorced from sex: conception would be accomplished through artificial insemination, with gestation taking place outside the body in an artificial womb. While some critics found her proposals visionary, others deemed them quixotic at best." An excerpt of her first chapter is here.
Per The Times, Firestone was Born in Ottawa, Canada to Orthodox Jewish parents and grew up in Kansas City and St. Louis, and attended The School of the Art Institute of Chicago; in that city she founded the feminist organization the Westside Group. In New York, she founded feminist organizations New York Radical Women, the Redstockings, and New York Radical Feminists. In 1997 the independent film Shulie, by Elisabeth Subrin, a remake of a 1967 documentary with the same name, brought her name to the attention of the public again. Fox writes that it was "conceived as a backward look at a social landscape that seemed to have changed strikingly little in 30 years."
A second-wave feminist along with Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, and Germaine Greer, Firestone had been trained as a painter and never expected to achieve the attention she received for The Dialectic of Sex. She published just one other book, Airless Spaces, a memoir-in-stories about her hospitalization for schizophrenia, published in 1998. Anderson writes, "'She was not well for many years,' [her landlord Bob] Perl said, noting that her family members and 'strangers' would pay her rent when she was unable to. 'She was a prodigy. But she had been ill for so many years, she lost contact with the outside world.'”
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.