Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging: Shulamith Firestone

Although the feminist movement only became known to the general public 35 years ago, many of its early founders are already lost to obscurity, despite them still living. Key icons of the feminist movement rightly include Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, but as always, the reality was far more complicated and included dozens of people absolutely vital to the movement's success.

Shulamith Firestone is one of these early feminists. Firestone's history is sadly shorter than it should be because of a long history of mental illness. But during the early 1970s, her role in promoting feminism cannot be overstated. She was born in Canada in 1945 and earned a degree from the Art Institute of Chicago in painting. She became involved in feminist causes in the late 1960s while still living in Chicago and in 1967 moved to New York to start New York Radical Women. Like many 60s groups of all movements, NYRW soon split apart as radicals like Firestone rejected the more moderate beliefs of some of their fellow members. This group then started the Redstockings in 1969. In 1970, Firestone published The Dialectic of Sex, one of the most influential second-wave feminist books. She argued that gender inequality resulted from patriarchy forced on women through pregnancy, child-rearing, and other biological functions. She advocated childbirth without men, looking for government-funded laboratories to allow women to escape their biological fate. She even dismissed child-care centers, arguing that these kept the burden of dealing with children on women, and instead demanded that all adults work together taking care of children. More radically, she wanted women to reject femininity. She wanted women, especially white women, to be bad in all its meanings. She turned Marxism on its head, rejecting mainstream radical ideas of the time that argued for the primacy of class, and instead believed that the dialectic of sex, not class, was the great motor of history.

But soon after 1970, Firestone disappeared from public view, dealing with her mental illness. She did publish a book of short stories in 1998 and in 2003 she approved a new printing of The Dialectic of Sex. But that's about it for the last 35 years. However, like many other radical feminists of the late 1960s and 1970s, Firestone paved the way for the real gains that women have made in the subsequent decades and for that deserves much more attention than she usually gets.

Literature on Firestone remains limited. The best thing I know of is Alice Echols, "Totally Ready to Go: Shulamith Firestone and The Dialectic of Sex, republished in her book Shaky Ground. Much of this post is stolen from that essay.