Thursday, August 30, 2012

Shulamith Firestone, 1945-2012

Shulamith Firestone, author of The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, died Tuesday. This is a book that sits on a shelf in my library near Simone de Beavoir's Second Sex and Joanna Russ's What Are We Fighting For? It burst upon the world in 1970, when Firestone was only 25 years old, a radical tour de force that helped shape the lineaments of Marge Piercy's alternative Mattopisett society-- "democratic, anarchist, communist, environmentalist, feminist, non-racist," in Tom Moylan's words in Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination-- and informed feminist imaginings of the positive, liberatory possibilities of new reproductive technologies. As Firestone concluded at the end of her impassioned argument, what she called "cybernetic socialism" "would abolish economic classes, and all forms of labor exploitation, by granting people a livelihood based only on material needs." She envisaged an end to sexual monogamy and the embracing of polymorphous perversity, and a family unit "meant to serve immediate needs rather than pass on power and privilege." Her call for such a revolution-- which specified women's sharing of reproductive roles with men and children-- came in for a torrent of criticism from many feminists (particularly from essentialists). Her analysis of sexual politics (now "gender politics") was both crunchy (she bites into a lot of Marx, Engels, and Freud) and visionary. It blows my mind that she was 25 when she published it.

The Women's History site offers a concise description of Firestone's activism:
Shulamith Firestone helped create several radical feminist groups. With Jo Freeman she started The Westside Group, an early consciousness-raising group in Chicago. In 1967, Firestone was one of the founding members of New York Radical Women. When NYRW split into factions amid disagreement about what direction the group should take, she launched Redstockings with Ellen Willis.

The members of Redstockings rejected the existing political left. They accused other feminist groups of still being part of a society that oppressed women. Redstockings drew attention when its members disrupted a 1970 abortion hearing in New York City at which the scheduled speakers were a dozen men and a nun. Redstockings later held its own hearing, allowing women to testify about abortion.
Kind of makes you cringe, doesn't it, reading about that hearing on abortion. We're now back to talking about contraception-- only with men only, not even nuns allowed to talk.

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