26 September 2012

On Shulamith Firestone, Part Two

This is the second of two segments on Shulamith Firestone. Read the intro here, and Part One here.

Almost fifteen years ago, I picked up my ringing phone and the voice on the other end identified herself as Shulamith Firestone. I almost dropped the receiver.

When the call came I was in touch with many second-wave feminists, but no one knew how to reach Shulamith or anything about how she survived since decisively quitting the movement she helped launch. Not one to show up at Veteran Feminists of America gatherings or 92nd Street Y panels, she didn’t appear to want to dine out on her past, or even preserve it. She was the rarest bird. 

That day in 1998 Firestone informed me she had written a small book of interconnected stories called Airless Spaces, her first published work after The Dialectic of Sex; she hoped that I could review it. You have to understand: meeting the women who created radical feminism felt like my life’s work. Alice Echols’s 1989 Daring to Be Bad was my guidebook, alerting me to the conditions and personalities that led to the explosion of theory and action behind contemporary feminism.

The out-of-the-blue call from Shulamith led to the two of us meeting. She lived, it turned out, just a few blocks from me in the East Village. She had short, brushed back hair, an open smile, and a short, trim body clad in jeans and sneakers. She wore a denim jacket and was fun and genuine. We had dinner, she came to an event I held in which second- and third-wave feminists read each others’ work, we grabbed beers at St. Dymphna’s.

During this time, I was lobbying to get Farrar, Straus & Giroux to reissue a series of “Feminist Classics,” and I wanted The Dialectic of Sex to be part of the series. I thought it was the most significant feminist book out of print. In it, Shulamith blasted the then-overriding assumption that men work and women live parasitically off of their labor by declaring that “(male) culture was (and is) parasitical, feeding on the emotional strength of women without reciprocity.” Her thinking in that book was so bold, so devoid of accommodations to men or “cultural constructs” like “romantic love” or the beauty of childbearing, it was almost as if she weren’t part of reality. 

As it turned out, she wasn’t firmly rooted in reality—or any stability that could enable her to have peace of mind or meaningful community. When I met her, she was very vulnerable: poor, in and out of mental hospitals to deal with paranoia and other mental illness, living off of social security and almost never interacting with old friends. She mentioned a science fiction novel she was producing in a blaze of creativity during one visit (she had gone off her medication, which dulled her mind); the next time we met, she was bleak and had thrown all of the pages away, having shown it to someone (she didn’t say who). According to Shulamith, this reader said she had somehow plagiarized the book. I never learned what had actually happened, but her demeanor was flat and she didn’t want to write.

The last time we met, in 2002, she told me that she wanted The Dialectic of Sex to be reissued as part of the Feminist Classics. I was ecstatic. A few years after the new edition was published, she demanded we take it out of print. We did and, other than occasionally seeing her sitting at the coffee shop across from Tompkins Square Park, I never interacted with her again. I moved out of the neighborhood, had kids, published another Feminist Classic or two, but began focusing more on feminist peers and those in the next generation, replacing some of the ardency I had for radical feminists of the 1960s and 1970s.

I opened Airless Spaces again today and found a note I had scribbled in the margin, a remnant of my 1998 thinking: “One has no sense of how her feminist fame contributed to her demise . . . was it such a hard act to reprise? Was it the tight girdle of the Women’s Liberation Movement identity? Backlash and conspiracy?” When I wrote that, she was still alive and would be for many years—but, in a way, her demise was imminent. The liberated mind she used to so vividly imagine a feminist revolution lacked any tether to connect Shulamith to community, sanity, or life.

Losing Shulamith Firestone chills me. Are her ideas sufficiently embodied in the DNA of the feminist movement? Will her contributions live on? I think so, and yet I wonder. The bold thinkers of the second wave, those rare birds, are scarce. Is it enough to read their books and know their history to keep them from extinction? Or is it necessary that we continue to uphold, as she did, a unique vision of the world?

The confidence and presence of self it took for Shulamith to write her daring view of feminist revolution is one message of her life—and it’s the one I choose to remember.

—Jennifer Baumgardner1

Some time in 1997, the artist Beth Stryker wrote me to ask if Semiotext(e) would like to consider a new work by Shulamith Firestone for our Native Agents series. My heart leapt. The timing seemed almost magical. For the last couple of years, I’d been obsessed with researching the histories of second-wave feminist critics, artists, and writers. I’d just published my first book and at the time, it seemed like the worthiest goal of any life was to appear. Where are they now? I wondered. The answers, as they arrived, formed a nauseous testament to the personal cost of American activism. Some had become New Age shamans and healers, living in tepees and tents in the Southwest. Some had been institutionalized. Some, when I managed to reach them, were impossibly bitter and cranky, having been backed so far into a corner they could no longer speak to the world.  Others had simply stopped working and dropped off the cultural radar.  

Throughout this research, I’d wondered what had become of Shulamith Firestone. The most intellectually brilliant and bold of her contemporaries, surely she hadn’t succumbed to these disappointing conciliations. Published when she was 25 years old, Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex fused the dizzying extrapolationist logic of Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto with the analytical rigor of any great work of philosophy. When it arrived, Firestone’s manuscript seemed to answer the question. Airless Spaces is a series of pointed vignettes about the lives of the poor inside and outside public psychiatric institutions. And, I must confess, at that time I misread the book. Like the obituary writers who choose to memorialize Firestone through the lens of her mental illness, I found it heartbreaking proof of the isolation suffered by women pursuing ideas when they are no longer popular.  

Shortly after Dialectic appeared, Firestone walked off the stage of professional feminism, an arena in which she could have pursued a distinguished career. Instead, she returned to her earlier work as a painter, which she continued even after the onset of schizophrenia in the late 1980s. During this time, her income and life were extremely marginal. The hospitalizations she describes in the book were confinements in public institutions, where the words “treatment,” “activities,” and “community” rightly appear in italics.

Fifteen years later, I’m struck less by the fact of Firestone’s death—frankly, 67 is a ripe old age within the indigent, mentally ill population—than by the book’s astonishing literary achievement. Far from a rehab or hospitalization memoir, Airless Spaces makes no mention at all of the author’s diagnosis and treatment. Its first person merely observes, with impeccable, damning detail, the small and large acts of brutality imposed by the patients themselves and by the institution that must eventually culminate in the annihilation of personality and will. No one outside of this world could have written the book; no writer I know who’s undergone the experience has ever described it with Firestone’s lucid sangfroid and dispassion. Airless Spaces is singular testament not only of madness, but of the psychic condition of poverty and all forms of institutionalization. The book is a miracle.

—Chris Kraus

I never met Shulamith Firestone, but I’ve been immersed in a representation of her for seventeen years. While researching second-wave feminism in graduate school at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I was shown a documentary portrait of her filmed when she was a student there in 1967. The 16mm film, titled Shulie, was produced by four Northwestern University graduate film students: Jerry Blumenthal, Sheppard Ferguson, James Leahy, and Alan Rettig. In it, Shulamith Firestone, 22, argues confidently for a life on the margins. Though it had been filmed almost thirty years before, she seemed eerily contemporary. The filmmakers document her waiting for the train, photographing trash and workers at a dump yard, painting a young man’s portrait in her studio, working at the US Post Office, and enduring an excruciating painting critique before an all-male panel of professors. She discusses her views on art, religion, language, men, motherhood, and race. Because the filmmakers had a mandate to document the so-called Now Generation, questions about time, generations, and what constitutes the “now” recur throughout. 

The directors had no way of knowing that Firestone would go on to become a key figure in the Women’s Liberation Movement and produce one of its most radical texts. Still, the seeds of her nascent feminist theories are embedded in the film. So too is her bold vision of how to live as an artist. Employing an intimate, lyrical, cinema verité approach, the directors successfully captured a young woman’s complexity and fervor during that critical historical moment. And while Firestone notably chose to withhold information about her political activities, it’s all there: the intensity, the irreverence, the challenges to religion and gender roles, and her self-described alienation. On camera she is intense, funny, flirtatious, ironic, driven, audacious, coy; an intellectual badass. 

After watching Shulie so many times it should have staged a revolt in my VHS deck, I was given permission to work with the material. Obsessed with the ways the original film spoke to contemporary issues surrounding gender, representation, and the legacy of the 1960s, in 1997 I completed a Super 8 fictional adaptation. Also titled Shulie, it was a shot-by-shot remake with intentional deviations and slippage and an introductory section that sets up the film with contemporary footage. Using friends as actors and crew, I collaborated with the uncanny lookalike Kim Soss, who was also the production designer. One of the original directors, Jerry Blumenthal—an award-winning filmmaker and producer, and co-founder of the acclaimed Kartemquin Films—generously racked his brains to help me find the original locations and shared his memories of the original production. 

The completed project left me with questions that I’ve wrestled with for many years—questions that have only intensified in light of Firestone’s recent death. I’m often asked why I made the film, which I have written about in aesthetic and theoretical terms here. But what first compelled me was the chutzpah and spirit of this incredible woman, who went on to write not one but two books that unapologetically confront some of the most controversial, taboo subjects in our culture. She was just a kid when she began writing The Dialectic of Sex, a mature, brilliant work synthesizing the ideas of major philosophers, historians, sociologists, novelists, and public figures. Twenty-eight years later, in Airless Spaces, she took on the cruelest companions of an intense psyche—mental illness, poverty, and alienation. Both books are provocative and exposing, but in some ways, Airless Spaces is even more courageous in its utter refusal to insulate us from the hell of psychic disorder. 

As a graduate student and then an instructor at the Art Institute in the ’90s, I was troubled by how Firestone’s experiences there reflected my own and those of my female students. The resonance seemed a sad testament to the work that remains unfinished today. Resurrecting that era across exactly thirty years of history felt like urgent and essential work. But after sending Firestone a rough cut of the film via her good friend Robert Roth, I learned that she didn’t like it. Roth told me Firestone said that as an artist she appreciated it as a labor of love, but she hadn’t liked the 1967 version and didn’t see how mine was any different. 

Crushed and conflicted, I decided not to publicly screen the film—not for legal or ethical reasons, but for emotional ones. Five months later, a mentor and feminist intellectual challenged my decision. She argued that we have a right in this culture to contemplate, cite, and respond to the ideas and representations of public figures without authorization. And that in the spirit of Firestone’s own revolutionary call to arms—her argument that women must “dare to be bad” and resist the tyranny of niceness—I should share my own provocative work. In the spirit of Firestone’s incendiary writing and activism, I decided to show the film. Being, perhaps, an obedient bad girl, I allowed it to be screened only conditionally: in arts and educational contexts, with extensive educational materials, limited publicity, and strict presentation conditions; and whenever possible, with myself there to contextualize the project, especially in New York.

It’s complicated to address someone’s legacy when at times she no longer wants that recognition. And it’s a delicate decision to present someone in that moment of becoming. Firestone, by many accounts, saw herself first as an artist. While most artists don’t suffer from mental illness, studies have shown how often the two go hand in hand. In the original Shulie, she expresses her passion for her work with such an intense, almost hypo-manic fervor, perhaps a subtle indicator of things to come. Having explored mental illness in my own work, I’m familiar with its vicissitudes and the ways such diseases can both illuminate and distort one’s intellectual, emotional, and perceptual fields. One cannot help but wonder how that affected her feelings about her work and influence. 

One of the most enduring legacies of second wave feminism is its insistence on respecting multiple subjectivities. As Firestone and I never met, such an opportunity to hear each other was lost. Over the years, Firestone’s friends have reported her varying reactions towards the film, from begrudging approval to much distress. It is heartbreaking to contemplate that a reverent film that reignited interest in her work would have caused her pain, and for that I’m deeply sorry. Now I’ve been asked to both show the film in her honor and to withhold it in her honor. Once again, the dilemma: which Shulamith Firestone do we honor? There’s the artist, the trailblazing activist, and the writer of important, provocative books; there’s the author who alternately allowed and withdrew those books from publication; and there’s the woman who suffered from mental illness.

Was her withdrawal from the life of the public intellectual another prescient and willful insight? Or in complying with her (occasional) wishes, thus letting her ideas become less accessible to new generations of readers, are we ultimately responsible for allowing another brilliant woman’s voice to be slowly erased from history?

I asked myself these questions every time I showed my film. When I was told about her death, I pulled the film from distribution. As we mourn Firestone’s untimely death, we should honor the actual woman’s legacy, not a fictionalized conceptual art project.

A few weeks ago, the feminist writer Jennifer Baumgardner, who made rigorous efforts to republish The Dialectic of Sex, told me that in her conversations with Shulamith she seemed neutral about my film but felt I hadn’t captured her spark. Clearly her objections were stronger at times, but I love that she still knew this about herself. Shulamith Firestone was completely out there. She was on fire. And that passionate flame is irreducible, and irreproducible. 

—Elisabeth Subrin

I never met her. I never even spoke to her. By the time I first wrote about Shulamith Firestone, in 1989, in the context of the history of women’s liberation, her brilliant, offbeat book The Dialectic of Sex was almost twenty years old and she had been absent from the women’s movement for just as long. In the years that marked the fading of feminism and the appearance of “post-feminism,” Firestone wasn’t heard from in any way that brought her public attention, except for the very occasional letter to the editor.

Almost twenty years ago I wrote about The Dialectic of Sex again, this time on the occasion of its re-publication. I compared Firestone to Patti Smith, at that point still in retirement. The spiky, fearless, whip-smart Firestone seemed to me to share something with Smith, who, as Sandra Bernhard memorably remarked, “saw so far into the future she could afford to take ten years off and not say another word.” My essay appeared in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, and some part of me probably hoped that Firestone, buoyed by Dialectic’s re-appearance and appreciative reviews, might write again. She did, but not about feminism. Her book of stories, Airless Spaces, which appeared in 1998, instead drew on her experiences in psychiatric hospitals. 

I cannot speak to Firestone’s decision to drop out and fade away from the women’s liberation movement. But I can discuss, very briefly, Firestone’s Dialectic. It was a polarizing text, one that upon publication was praised and vilified. Firestone, impatient with any version of feminism that refused to dig deep to understand women’s own investment in business as usual, believed that women had to un-learn habituated niceness, to “dare to be bad.” Tellingly, her “dream” feminist protest was a smile boycott. While it did not lack humor, Dialectic was a smile boycott on a grand scale. Whatever she was like as a person, as the author of Dialectic Firestone refused to be judicious, apologetic, modest, or coy. For me, the book’s appeal had as much to do with her assumption that she could take on that era’s big guns—Marx and Freud—as anything else. 

As for Firestone’s analysis of male dominance, many feminists took issue with her insistence that its roots lay in the “natural reproductive differences between the sexes,” and its solution lay in society “getting rid of nature” through cybernation. Although Dialectic had its defenders, over the years it became feminism’s favorite whipping girl. The book would stand accused of multiple sins, but two stood out: it revealed an author who was male-identified (she favored socialism, technology, and polymorphous sexuality), and the utopia it advanced was really a cybernetic Brave New World. Firestone anticipated many of the criticisms against her, including the charge—one that resonated across feminism’s political spectrum—that she wanted to transform women into men. Her point, she argued, wasn’t to “draft women into a male world” but rather to eliminate the gender distinction altogether. Today, Firestone’s conviction that getting rid of nature is the way forward is the stuff of gender studies classes everywhere. Indeed, before Donna Haraway declared her preference for the cyborg over the goddess or Judith Butler began troubling gender, there was Firestone, and, before her, of course, the woman who helped inspire Dialectic, Simone de Beauvoir. 

I’ve been teaching Dialectic regularly for about eight years in a class on the history of US feminism, and it continues to sizzle—to outrage and inspire. If the book confirms the view that the second wave trafficked in false universalism at its own significant peril, it also goes some way toward changing other prevalent notions about women’s liberation. Readers can see for themselves that Firestone’s radical feminism is inclusive of socialism, and unapologetic about heterosexuality. For me . . . I will always wonder in what ways feminism might be different had Firestone not disappeared. 

—Alice Echols

1970 seems a long time ago for those of us not yet born, and possibly even for those who were. Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex, which appeared that year alongside Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, is nevertheless filled with the promise of the future. It envisions a world in which the id can “live free” and technology finally releases women from the “burden” of their biology, eliminating forever the fundamental inequality of the sexes. Nature may have produced the “fundamental inequality,” but widespread application of reproductive technologies will, Firestone claimed, release women from the dangers of childbirth, destroy the family once and for all, and herald a new era of total political and sexual equality.

As a vision of the human emancipation, Firestone’s brief tract is unparalleled, for better or worse. Her “materialist view of history based on sex itself” sought to go further than Marx and Engels—to seize the means not only of production but also of reproduction. Firestone today seems unusual, and controversial for taking the position that sex difference is a question of biological difference, not social construction, and for her claim that female biology is fundamentally nightmarish. (Anyone who has experienced an “ecstatic’” birth or is indifferent to menstruation will find Firestone’s claim that women are at the “continual mercy” of their biology and that pregnancy is “barbaric” bemusing). Rather than suggesting a revaluation of cultural values—for example, challenging the notion that pregnancy is akin to an illness and undermining the idea that women are “weaker,” Firestone takes negative assumptions about female biology all the way to their conclusion: history has treated women poorly precisely because of their biology, or at least their biology has been used as an excuse to generate oppression and social imbalance. Sex difference, she argues, is at the root of all other inequalities: “the natural reproductive difference between the sexes led directly to the first division of labor at the origins of class.” But with the advent of birth control and the possibility of so many more reproductive (or “cybernetic”) technologies, Firestone believed this historical excuse for female oppression would soon no longer be relevant.

Firestone’s turbo-Enlightenment approach to the emancipatory dimensions of these technologies was prescient but ultimately incomplete. The technologies that Firestone celebrated and predicted—IVF treatment, wide access to contraception and abortion, test-tube technology—are here, at least in richer parts of the world, but their effects on the structures of the family have been negligible, or at least nowhere near as revolutionary as Firestone predicted. IVF treatment, which in most cases is extremely expensive, is still seen as an alternative to “natural” childbirth, as opposed to its replacement, and while birth control has undoubtedly revolutionized the ways in which women live and work, it hasn’t shattered the existing order or ushered in a new era of widespread genderless pan-sexuality (unfortunately, perhaps).           

For me, Firestone deserves to be read alongside the feminist science fiction of the 1970s—Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Ursula LeGuin—which is similarly imaginative and equally radical. Not because Firestone’s arguments are somehow utopian, impossible, or idealistic: on the contrary, they are radically materialist and remain relevant, despite some dubious and dated dimensions (Firestone’s comments on race in Dialectic of Sex came in for heavy criticism from Angela Davis, among others). What Firestone shares with these other visionary writers is the belief that anything is possible in this brave new world, and that the old patriarchal, biological, social, and political tyrannies could, and would, be overturned, and quickly at that. The cyber-feminism that re-emerged in the 1990s with the advent of the internet owed much to Firestone’s techno-positive approach—even if the theoretical terrain shifted from the fleshly to the virtual.

We are accustomed to regarding pronouncements such as Firestone’s with a kind of world-weary sigh-smile: Well it wasnt to be, was it? Perhaps it wasn’t, but as an attempt to imagine things otherwise, it remains mind-altering. “If there were,” Firestone says of her project, “a word more all-embracing than revolution we would use it”. We may still be waiting for that word, but Firestone need wait no longer.

—Nina Power

Shulamith Firestone is best known for her visions for feminism’s future, but she also wrote a lot about feminism’s past. Even in 1968, this was a history that needed redeeming. “What does the word ‘feminism’ bring to mind?” Firestone wrote in her contribution to Notes from the First Year. “Chances are that whatever image you have, it is a negative one.” In her writings on the origins of feminism, Firestone insisted on the movement’s “dynamite revolutionary potential,” describing how its attacks on the law and the church shook the foundations of the patriarchy even more than those early agitators realized. But she also faulted the movement’s concessions for feminism’s subsequent dormancy and the false sense of emancipation that followed the vote. Without knowledge of feminism’s real radical history, women had no choice but to try to content themselves with what seemed like freedom. “The smear tactic . . . combined with a blackout of feminist history to keep women hysterically circling through a maze of false solutions.” It is this analysis of feminism’s demise that led to her own radical strain of thought, direct and uncompromising. 

I read Dialectic of Sex at the beginning of my senior year of college, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that the book changed the way I live my life. More than just the force of so many of Firestone’s specific arguments—her chapters on love anticipate Laura Kipnis; her section on male culture would be a good antidote to conversations about the fate of “women novelists”—I was staggered by her faith in feminism’s potential to fight beyond equality per se and toward individual freedom. Before I read Firestone, I didn’t know that you could question things like the family or romance. I didn’t know that kind of thinking was even possible. 

“Feminism has a cyclical momentum,” Firestone wrote. It’s now been almost fifty years since the beginnings of the second wave, the same amount of time Firestone calculated between the end of the first wave and the beginnings of her own movement. May young women in search of new ways to be set aside their Joan Didion and Naomi Wolf and pick up Dialectic of Sex instead. 

—Madeleine Schwartz


I somehow managed to get pregnant and have a child without ever having read The Dialectic of Sex. (Or, considering Shulamith Firestone’s emphatic views on the subject, I suppose she might say that I managed to get pregnant and have a child precisely because I had never read her book.) I’d first heard of her when I was in college; her memorable name for many years would bring to mind nothing more than vague notions of cyborg wombs. “The Women’s Movement,” Joan Didion’s withering assessment of ’70s feminism, reserved particular scorn for Firestone’s proposal to “transcend, via technology, ‘the very organization of nature.’” Reading Didion’s piece in my early twenties, I felt like my reflexive suspicions of a certain strand of radical feminism had been confirmed. Joan Didion sounded reasonable to me. Shulamith Firestone, in her rendition, did not.

I recall my early response to that essay—whole-hearted agreement, an almost sensual pleasure in reading a woman writer skewer “the women’s movement” with such clinical efficiency—and recognize that I was working through some issues of my own at the time. I might have called myself a feminist, but not without some awkward attempts to distance myself from a radical feminism that always sounded either too angry or too idealistic to my ear. I had an almost pathological aversion to sentimentality in any form. Didion was my kind of writer. In fact, she still is. But that doesn’t mean that I can continue to deny how completely her contempt in that essay seems to miss the point. 

The Dialectic of Sex is an utterly unreasonable work of historical inquiry, philosophical reverie, and sci-fi speculation. Firestone’s take on pregnancy (“barbaric … the temporary deformation of the body of the individual for the sake of the species”) and educating a child (“retarding his development”) reflect what seems to be a weird combination of techno-optimism and biological essentialism. Trying to untangle yourself from the thicket is an impossible task. Nature demands that women have babies, but they shouldn’t; nature demands that children be free of adult supervision, and they should. According to Firestone, a pregnant woman provokes revulsion among everyone, including the pregnant woman herself, and Firestone insists we should pay attention: “The child’s first response, ‘What’s wrong with that Fat Lady?’; the husband’s guilty waning of sexual desire; the woman’s tears in front of the mirror at eight months—are all gut reactions, not to be dismissed as cultural habits.”

It’s worth noting, however, that these kinds of outrageous pronouncements—which are of course the ones that made her both revered and reviled—are the least interesting parts of The Dialectic of Sex. Woven throughout the book are some acute and altogether searing observations on some of the complicated cultural conditions women faced then, and continue to face now:

This image of the supposedly liberated woman went around the world via Hollywood, the unbalancing effects on women of pseudo-liberation giving antifeminists new ammunition.

For the Left Brotherhood have been quick to jump in to see what they could co-opt—coming up with a statement against monogamy, at which clear sign of male-at-work, feminists could only laugh bitterly.

To Firestone, an attack like Didion’s must have seemed like a prophecy fulfilled: 

In a male-run society that defines women as an inferior and parasitical class, a woman who does not achieve male approval in some form is doomed. . . . Thus the particular situation that women never object to the insulting of women as a class, as long as they are individually excepted. The worst insult for a woman is that she is “just like a woman,” i.e. no better; the highest compliment that she has the brains, talent, dignity, or strength of a man. In fact, like every member of an oppressed class, she herself participates in the insulting of others like herself, hoping to thereby make it obvious that she as an individual is above their behavior.

And as an artist herself, Firestone had much to say about the plight of the woman artist trying to be taken seriously in a culture that was defined in terms that aren’t her own:

For a woman who participates in (male) culture must achieve and be rated by standards of a tradition she had no part in making—and certainly there is no room in that tradition for a female view, even if she could discover what it was. In those cases where a woman, tired of losing at a male game, has attempted to participate in culture in a female way, she has been put down and misunderstood, named by the (male) cultural establishment ‘Lady Artist,’ i.e. trivial, inferior. And even where it must be (grudgingly) admitted she is ‘good,’ it is fashionable—a cheap way to indicate one’s own ‘seriousness’ and refinement of taste—to insinuate that she is good but irrelevant.

There is something bracingly—as well as distressingly—contemporary in Firestone’s insights; we might have come a long way from the 1950s fantasy of the aproned hausfrau that had incited much of Firestone’s ire, but when I first picked up Dialectic not long ago I expected a treatise about bionic reproduction and got this commentary on the dark side of sexual revolution instead:

“Emancipated” women … were imitating [men]. And they had inoculated themselves with a sickness that had not even sprung from their own psyches. They found that their new “cool” was shallow and meaningless, that their emotions were drying up behind it, that they were aging and becoming decadent: they feared they were losing their ability to love.

You don’t even have to agree with what she’s saying to marvel at the mind at work here. Firestone, who elsewhere in The Dialectic writes hopefully of true love and “pansexuality,” can sometimes sound like a brilliant contradiction in terms: an anti-misogynist Michel Houellebecq. (The fact that I made the comparison perhaps argues Firestone’s point: What does it say when we associate certain ideas with a louche male novelist rather than the female artist who was struggling with those same ideas thirty years prior?)

Firestone’s desire to eliminate biological differences between the sexes might have been absurd, but it isn’t that much more fanciful than the very public musings of a former State Department official who found it shocking that she couldn’t live in DC and also make it home to Princeton in time for family dinners. One woman wanted to transcend the laws of biology, the other the laws of physics. But I’m going to step away from the edge of false equivalence. Given the tepid punditry that seems to pass for a national “conversation about women” at the moment, I’ll take the doomed commitments of Shulamith Firestone any day.

—Jennifer Szalai

1 Excerpted from On the Issues with the author’s permission.

Image: Jo Freeman, Shulamith Firestone, and Carol Giardina, May 10, 1998. Photo by Amy Hackett, courtesy of Jo Freeman.


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