On Shulamith Firestone
The writer, artist, and feminist thinker Shulamith Firestone died in August 2012. In Firestone’s honor, we have assembled the following reflections on her life and work by friends, critics, and fellow travelers.
I first met Shulie over Labor Day weekend in 1967, at the National Conference for New Politics — an unsuccessful attempt to unite the organized left behind a presidential ticket that would campaign against the war in Vietnam. A couple of women had persuaded the conference organizers to give them some space for a women’s caucus. Black caucuses at such meetings were common and accepted, but one for women was in itself radical.
Shulie was one of about four dozen women who met daily to hammer out a resolution that called attention to women’s issues — equal pay, child care, abortion on demand, and other things that today don’t seem very radical. She didn’t say much, but what she did say stuck in my mind. I would now characterize her views as radical feminism uncontaminated by left-wing rhetoric — something one didn’t encounter much in those days.
When we took the women’s caucus resolution to the resolutions committee, we were told that we were too late: the agenda already had a resolution on women, and there was only time for one. That resolution had been written by members of Women Strike for Peace, none of whom had attended the women’s caucus; it was about peace, not women. I walked out mad. I probably would have gone home had I not run into Shulie. At first she didn’t believe what I told her. But after she found out for herself, she was angrier than I was.
Alone, neither of us would have done anything, but together we fed on each other’s rage. We decided to propose a substitute resolution when the Women Strike for Peace language was read for discussion before voting the next day. We stayed up all night revising our resolution. The more we talked, the more radical it got.
We printed copies and passed them out. By the time the agenda reached the women’s resolution, a handful of us stood at the microphone, our hands stretched high, waiting to be recognized to propose our substitute. After reading the ‘women’s resolution,’ meeting chair William Pepper didn’t recognize any of us. “All in favor, all opposed, motion passed,” he said. “Next resolution.”
As we stood there in shock, a young man pushed his way in front of us. He was instantly recognized by the chair. Turning to face the crowded room, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I want to speak for the forgotten American, the American Indian.” Infuriated at being “forgotten,” we rushed the podium, where the men only laughed. When Shulie reached Pepper, he literally patted her on the head. “Cool down, little girl,” he said. “We have more important things to do here than talk about women’s problems.”
Shulie didn’t cool down, and neither did I. We put together a list of every woman we knew who might be interested in women’s issues and invited them to a meeting at my Chicago apartment. What came to be called the West Side Group met for seven months. Shulie only stayed a month before moving to New York; her sister Laya took her place in our group. Shulie left with a list of names of some New York women. With them, she founded the first women’s liberation groups in New York.
For the next couple years we stayed loosely in touch. When The Dialectic of Sex was published in 1970, she inscribed the copy she gave me, “For Jo: With Whom It All Began.”
By 1975, Shulie had faded away. I had to track her down to give her a copy of my first book. Years later, I was told by others of her mental illness and its effects, but I didn’t see it myself.
We reconnected for a few years when her next book, Airless Spaces, was published in 1998. She invited several old friends to celebrate. She seemed fine, but others told me that she wasn’t.
The last time I saw Shulie was in 2000, at a party Gloria Steinem hosted for my latest book. Even though both were early feminists, they had never met. Gloria told her how honored she was to meet the author of such an important book. They hugged, and they talked.
Shulie and I managed to stay in touch through 2003. Afterward, I only got her voice mail when I called, and no reply to my emails. Carol Giardina and Kathie Sarachild kept me apprised of her ups and downs through 2007. The next time I heard of Shulie was when I got word of her death.
Thinking back on those years and Shulie’s contribution to the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM), I see Shulie as a shooting star. She flashed brightly across the midnight sky. And then she disappeared.
I first met Shulie in the fall of 1967 in New York, at the apartment of Bill Price, a writer for the independent left movement newspaper the National Guardian. They both had been at the NCNP in Chicago, where Bill witnessed Shulie being patted on the head and told to make way for “more important issues.” Shulie was livid about how the feminists were treated at the conference and she wasn’t afraid to show it. Her anger was right on target. She was obviously a doer and an organizer, as well as a thinker.
As a result of our meeting, I became an early member of New York Radical Women, which Shulie was organizing with Pam Allen. Kathie Sarachild and I had been talking about the possibility of a movement for women’s liberation, but it was Shulie and Pam who called that first meeting in New York that made history and changed the direction of many lives, including mine.
New York Radical Women’s first action was at the Jeanette Rankin Brigade, a women’s peace march in Washington DC in January 1968. Shulie was very clear from the beginning that we should go there to point out the futility of women protesting the war when we had so little real political strength ourselves. Others were not so sure this was the right tack to take, but Shulie, as always, stood her ground. She also took a leading hand in shaping the details of the protest, bringing her humor, her creativity, her political insights, and her passionate insistence that the oppression of women be on the front burner. Then she followed through with a public analysis of the action, printed in Notes from the First Year, for others to learn from.
She had such courage. I listened in awe as she spoke on the steps of a New York City cathedral about what unwanted pregnancies are like for women and the need for legal abortion. It was at a demonstration in support of Bill Baird, who was facing a jail sentence for his abortion and birth-control activism. This was early 1968, before abortion was something you talked about in public or even with friends. Instead of berating women who didn’t show up at the rally, she publicly acknowledged her own fears about coming out for free abortion and pointed out how real social power was brought to bear against women who stepped out of line.
Notes from the First Year was her baby, but she didn’t try to control its content by editing or vetting contributions, as far as I know. Most women brought their articles to the Southern Conference Educational Fund office mimeograph machine ready to run. Shulie did write several of the articles, which showed the range of her knowledge. There was an eye-opening history of the 19th-century women’s rights movement and also “Women Rap About Sex”—a seriously funny piece based on a consciousness-raising meeting. It was unsigned but really captured her wit.
Shulie went on to help found Redstockings and then New York Radical Feminists, and to edit Notes from the Second Year with Anne Koedt, all by 1970. The second Notes carried a broad roundup of the thinking and actions evolving in the WLM and added to the Movement’s amazing upsurge. Many people consider The Dialectic of Sex Shulie’s major contribution, but I believe these early writings and actions are even more valuable; they’re crucial to understanding the early WLM and her leadership in it.
I’ve heard that later in life Shulie preferred the more formal Shulamith. But Shulie was what she called herself back when she made a big impact on my life. I hope she would forgive that she lives in my memory as Shulie.
I had seen her at meetings of New York Radical Women. I didn’t know the name of that fierce presence with the thick dark mane and piercing eyes, but among the fifty or sixty women who met regularly in a large downtown hall to talk about the new ideas of women’s liberation, she, with her startling opinions and analytical prowess, made an impression on me.
After NYRW grew too large for everyone to be heard, we decided to meet in smaller groups. With Ellen Willis, she cofounded the group called Redstockings. When I attended my first Redstockings consciousness-raising meeting, I learned her name: Shulamith Firestone.
The subject at that first meeting was sex — always a hot topic, but one that in the early days of WLM so roused women’s resentment about being mistreated by men that there was barely room to sit on the floor of that small East Village apartment, across the street from a concurrent meeting of WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) and down the block from the New York headquarters of Hells Angels.
Seated in our rough circle, I was about four people ahead of Shulie. When it was my turn to speak, I described how, when I became pregnant with our second child, my husband took up with other women, and I eventually responded by taking a lover of my own. I spoke of my fear that he would abandon our children if he discovered my affair. In the room I felt sympathetic vibes for my “testimony,” but what Shulie took from it was entirely unexpected. An attractive, forceful heterosexual woman, she’d had any number of lovers (though not, apparently, at that moment). None, she said, had treated her as an equal. She was enraged by the power disparity between the sexes that enabled men to treat her any way they wanted and get away with it. If she — if women — made demands, men could simply walk away and find someone else. Then she fixed her piercing eyes on me, pointed her finger, and said, “You have two men and I have none. It’s unfair.”
I didn’t take it personally. She was addressing the question of scarcity, and pointing out that just as there was no justice in the conduct of sexual relations, there was none in its distribution. Who but Shulie would be able to step back and see it as another aspect of what we then called male supremacy?
She was energized by righteous anger. More than anyone I’ve known, she was able to harness negative emotions around her — resentment, outrage, confusion, sadness, hurt, and more — and turn them into the kind of rage needed to fuel a movement.
After another summer or two, our Redstockings group died of burnout and attrition. Shulie had long since decamped to cofound yet another important WLM organization, New York Radical Feminists, which I joined upon the demise of our group — as usual, several steps behind her. Three of the most important movement organizations in New York City were founded by her and might not have existed without her.
Soon afterward, she left the movement. I lost sight of her until 1997, when she came to Barnes & Noble for the launch party for the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of my first novel, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen. I had written it back when I was in the groups she founded, and it burned with the insights her work had sparked. I have a photo of us together from that party, posing with two more old Redstockings, Irene Peslikis and Corrine Coleman, who, too, are now deceased. Shulie was writing her own collection of short stories then, the spare and moving Airless Spaces, based on her time in and out of mental hospitals. Debilitated by medications, she could do little to publicize her new book. I had the honor of helping to arrange a group reading. Her inscription in my treasured copy of Airless Spaces shows her generosity: “To Alix, With enormous thanks for a wonderful reading and for being a great role model.”
I, her follower, a role model? For what? Persistence? Survival? She was the visionary whose organizing passion helped create the movement that forever changed our lives.
—Alix Kates Shulman
I remember Shulie once saying to me: “The revolution will begin when women stop smiling.” She sure had that right.
I met her in September 1967 at the NCNP in Chicago — I had come from New York with Florynce Kennedy and Peg Brennan — where I encountered both her and Jo Freeman for the first time. We introduced ourselves at the mimeograph machine, running off copies of our feminist resolutions.
What else was happening in the summer and fall of 1967? There was the Columbia–SDS sit-ins and university takeover; the black power conference in Newark; the March on the Pentagon in October. Historically, women’s movements have arisen within the context of widespread social unrest, and ours was no exception. We were greatly influenced by the civil rights movement — the National Organization for Women (started in 1966) called itself the NAACP for women — and by 1968, many of us were inspired by black power.
I came to know Anne Koedt better than Shulie, but they were often together. I remember both from early 1968, when Anne called me to compare notes on women’s rights. (I was president of the New York chapter of NOW at that time.) We discovered right away that there was a natural alliance between some members of Radical Women and some of the younger women in NOW. This alliance initially focused on our willingness to take public stands on so-called “sexual” issues, beginning with abortion. I remember both Anne and Shulie came with me to Philadelphia the day after Martin Luther King was killed; I was delivering a speech entitled “Vaginal Orgasm as a Mass Hysterical Survival Response.” I was very grateful for their support! Radical Women was also in general much less freaked out by Valerie Solanas than NOW was. I remember Shulie and Anne both came up to my place for Valerie’s birthday party. It was a small party.
Later, for the 1970 Ladies’ Home Journal sit-in, a group of women in media put out a call to the general women’s movement for support. Shulie and I both responded. The editor, John Mack Carter, ended up sitting atop his desk, with some one hundred women seated at his feet on the floor. Many hours dragged on with little progress for the media women’s demands. The situation was ghastly. Shulie and I were there in support, but were forced into this humiliating position: the sultan on top, his harem below. What to do? Finally — I don’t remember why or how — Shulie and I threatened to throw this guy out the window (we were many floors up). Some of the women in media protected him.
I most fondly remember Shulamith Firestone as never a “patient” woman. She didn’t take shit. At least — never with a smile.
There were two major divisions of the Women’s Liberation Movement: the uptown women and the downtown women. Kate Millett and I were founding members of NOW NY. She and Fumio Yoshimura were artists and lived in a loft on the Bowery, but somehow she landed uptown in NOW. When we first heard of Radical Women and read its magazine, Kate said, “Let’s go, I’ll join any feminist group around.” I happily agreed, and took off with her, miniskirt, eye makeup, and all, and sailed into a possibly rent-controlled flat south of 14th Street.
I was impressed with Shulie’s writing, as most people are: it’s cogent, original, stimulating, and bursting with brilliance. It was Shulie who marched up to me, as the other downtowners eyed me warily, and got straight to the point: “I’ve heard so many terrible things about you, I knew I had to meet you.” Already captivated by her mind, I was bowled over by her beauty. The masses of curly, dark hair and sensuous mouth, set above a curvy, well-proportioned body: she could have been an adored icon of European cinema. Big, all-seeing, black-brown eyes, magnified by granny glasses, held a steady gaze as she looked at my face, in my eyes; none of that invasive, insulting old up-and-down we get from too many women, sizing up the merchandise or the competition, so to speak.
I fell in love with all of her, and though we rarely met, we would speak for hours on the phone about everything. Mostly we spoke of ideas, ours and those of other feminists. She approved of my feminist theater project (pronouncing it theetur) and we often discussed how she might best honor her ambition. She absorbed Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself, and explained her strategy for making her mark as an artist. She felt the book she was writing would put her on the map, easing her transition to recognition as a painter. She anguished over a New Yorker article about a Redstockings CR group: names and professions had been changed, but she felt she was recognizable and that the ironic tone of the piece would damage her credibility. Often hard up for money, she told me about interviewing for a topless waitress gig. The guy in charge eyed her boobs, asking, “Are they firm?” She said she gasped mentally, thinking, “Oh God, you mean I’m not even qualified for this?” After the first dough came in from the book, she was mugged on the street by some homegirls with a knife. She told them that she lived in the neighborhood (Alphabet City in the raw), and was far from prosperous. They rifled through her waist pack anyway, and waving in her face the little checkbook they found, said accusingly, “So what’s this?”
I talked myself hoarse to get her to stop feeling guilty for the little bit of success she had earned with her hard work. And it did cost her. I lost her for weeks and months as she kept the phone unplugged to concentrate on writing. Then she’d surface again. One day she left the country and vanished altogether. I grilled everyone I could think of but got only vague answers. I received the odd postcard, always with a terse message, like this one from Africa: “Hi Anselma. Bye. Shulie.”
I never stopped looking for her. In the ’80s Susan Brownmiller said she’d seen her wandering around an organic restaurant with paperbacks falling out of her pockets. When at long last I found her a few years ago, she was curt on the phone and said she had no interest in seeing anyone “from back then.” It was a body blow. Not long after, she wrote to say that after my call she felt a surge of love for me in her heart. Mine leapt. On my next trip to New York we met downtown, but my Shulie was AWOL for good. She said her medication destroyed her ability to think and write. I was unable to get through the thick curtain of blues she drew around her like a shroud. I asked if I could take her book to an Italian publisher and she quickly sent it, along with one written by her sister. Even in her misery, she was thoughtful. We never met again. Then, I mourned the loss of her élan vital, hostage to implacable forces. Now that she is dead, I grieve anew with fresh sorrow. She burned so bright, the flames consumed her; yet the mark she left on the world — and on my soul — is indelible. I love you, Shulie. Bye. Anselma.
I first read about the Women’s Liberation Movement in the fall of 1967, in an article in the Guardian—the article either mentioned Pam Allen or was by Pam Allen. I was immediately excited and called Pam and asked to join. I was tired of engaging in peace movements dominated by men. She never told me about a meeting — I think, in retrospect, because I sounded too radical and anti-male. But I went to the Jeanette Rankin Brigade march, where I saw the Burial of Traditional Womanhood and made contact with Jenny Gardner and Kathie Sarachild. We talked the whole train ride back. Kathie said they were looking for a meeting place and I volunteered my apartment (a fact verified in my FBI file). At that first meeting I remember Anne Forer, who was winding her underarm hair and asking how exactly were we all oppressed. The answers were exciting.
My memories of Shulie start with our meetings at the Southern Conference Educational Fund office, at Broadway and 10th Street. I loved her fierce, definitive statements, especially because I was an “on the one hand, on the other hand, this and that” type. I used her as a role model and tried to imitate her militant convictions. Afterward, we Lower East Siders — Anne Forer, Shulie, Irene Peslikis, Linda Feldman, Judith Duffett, and others — would go to Ratner’s and rehash the meeting. I was married and had a young kid and a regular job, and that made me different. But I loved the talk, especially about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways we had been oppressed since childhood, probably because I was weighed down with responsibility. Shulie talked a lot about men, especially Abbie Hoffman — she knew all those guys intimately. I know it doesn’t sound like the serious Shulie, but boy talk and sexuality were part of her life then. I also remember talking about having a party of all us radical feminists. Shulie and I were the only ones who voted for having men at the party. We thought it would be more fun.
My next clear memory of Shulie was of her visiting Paris and wanting to tell Simone de Beauvoir about our movement. She organized us to write articles for Notes From the First Year to bring to de Beauvoir. I hadn’t seen Shulie as a leader of the group, but she was the spark that made things happen. She solicited articles, helped edit them, and put them together. She didn’t think she should share in the menial tasks, like collating and stapling, as she was the brains behind it, but I think we convinced her to take part in all aspects. As I remember, Shulie told us de Beauvoir was underwhelmed. Nonetheless, the effort was important and made us all consider the significance of the movement we had made. She understood from the beginning that the WLM was revolutionary.
I believe it was Marilyn Webb, whose husband Lee was a honcho in SDS, who convinced the Mobilization Committee to allow a woman to speak at the giant march and Anti-Inaugural Ball in 1969. Shulie wrote a speech that was militant and eloquent — an indictment of men who benefited from the age-old oppression of women and a call on women to revolt. But neither Shulie nor Marilyn Webb could speak because SDS guys swarmed the stage, saying, “Take her off the stage and fuck her!” The stage began to sink and David Dellinger, the MC, called for order, but he didn’t demand that the men behave or allow the women to speak. This confirmed to Shulie, Ellen Willis, and others that male chauvinism was alive and well on the New Left. After that disaster, Shulie and Ellen started Redstockings.
Both left after a short while. They wanted more militant action and less consciousness-raising, and to do other things. By this time Shulie had begun work on The Dialectic of Sex, the major book of second-wave feminism. I remember reading it and marveling at how it contained the material we had been discussing for years, but Shulie drew new conclusions, put the insights in a new framework.
I hardly saw Shulie after that, except at Anne Forer’s, and then they were discussing astrology. Shulie wasn’t easy. I remember that when she told me she was writing her book, I mentioned Philippe Ariès’s Century of Childhood. She wanted to borrow it. When I asked for it back, she said she had better use for it than I did. She did, as I saw in her book.
The next time I saw Shulie was in the ’90s, after she had been hospitalized. I was part of a support group that visited her and kept tabs on her whereabouts. The group was made up of her family, a nurse, a social worker, and a few friends. Until about 2010 I’d visit Shulie, or she’d visit me, and we’d go to museums, poetry readings, and movies, maybe once every two months. She still painted, and had written a formally innovative book after The Dialectic of Sex on art and feminism, but she told me her publisher had rejected it. She wrote something else and showed it to people, who said it wasn’t good, and though I volunteered to read it I never saw it.
By this time Shulie was much changed, low-key and mellow, but she still had interesting insights and was good company. We spoke much of her dilemma: if she took the medicine she was sane, but couldn’t create; if she didn’t take the awful drugs she was creative but self-destructive. Her later paintings were abstract, with greens in them; they weren’t the wonderful, dark portraits and drawings from her early years. She wasn’t too interested in feminism, and she grew quiet when more than three people were around. But she still went to the Left Forum and poetry readings and out to dinner with me, and liked seeing old feminists.
I feel awful that Shulie is being so much more honored and cared for in death than she was in life.
This is how it is: I could maunder on vaguely and sentimentally about that astounding year after I attended the founding meeting of New York Radical Feminists in November 1969. But, to my eternal regret, I took no notes. I remember so few specifics. I attended the meeting at the insistence of an old friend, Cellestine Ware, who told me something important was happening. Within those few hours I became a feminist activist, the start of what has become a lifetime of engagement. Shulie was central to that intense beginning. Her presence was luminous; she was a knife cutting through everything.
But what exactly did we tell each other during all those hours and hours? I don’t know. One of the hardest things to remember is earlier states of mind. The best source is Alice Echols’s Daring to be Bad. A great historian, Alice picked patiently through piles of evidence, faithfully reconstructing what she could of who we were then: sometimes naïve or silly, often original and wonderful.
I do remember the excitement, the joy of that brief time when we met every week and Shulie was writing her great book. I have written about Dialectic twice: first for the radio show Womankind in 1970 and then, twenty-five years later, for Dissent on the occasion of Dialectic’s long overdue republication. Both times I found the book remarkable, though the melancholy of the longue durée did invade the second piece. In the years between these two takes, Shulie’s book had often been demonized. I argued in Dissent that people were missing the genre in which Shulie was writing. She was a utopian visionary: “This sort of person appears (is created? is momentarily heard?) at the beginning of movements. Magnificent and stunned by insight, they tell us . . . the way we live is intolerable. Then they stagger off, leaving [the rest of us] to try to live the insight out.”
But there is something more than praise that I’ve never written about: my deep sense of indebtedness to Shulamith Firestone. She dared in a way I never could have dared. When I think of Shulie, it is not to those now-mythical meetings I return, not even to the astonishing book, but to the very beginning of our movement for women’s liberation, that scene in Chicago in 1967, when Shulie and Jo Freeman faced humiliation, sexual insult, and ridicule, and responded to men of the left with rage and magnificent indignation. Where did they find the nerve, the strength to confront male contempt?
I’ve wondered about this for many years. It was a time of outrage, indeed, but their rage was a special, personal brew; out of a complex amalgam of private reasons and individual genius they stepped outside of our common female desire to be acceptable to men, to stay in their good books, dependent on them for either love or livelihood. Shulie and Jo invented an indignation and a new vision of how women are oppressed that we all embraced ten minutes later. But I, for one, could never have made that leap into rage and new hopefulness without them. Like many women, I simply was too ashamed, too vulnerable to male insult to contemplate what they imagined. They made honorable and magnificent a claim that most men then assumed was stupid, narcissistic, vaunting, girlish, shameful, and sad. Does this characterization of the gender scene back then sound exaggerated? It’s not. Again, one of the hardest things to remember is earlier states of mind. The sexism and female self-doubt of those times is hard to recall, even for those of us who were there.
I loved Shulie, but it was hard to stay close. Jo Freeman has quoted what Shulie wrote in her copy of The Dialectic of Sex, and this emboldens me (as she and Shulie will always embolden me) to do the same:
I want you to know — though I still urge you for your sake to try a little masculine selfishness — that I too basked in your kindness and rare understanding all the long winter that I wrote this book.
All love and good wishes, Shulie
I wouldn’t mind having this as my epitaph. She identified my habit of compliance — of, alas, all-too-female self-sacrifice — but so kindly. She urged me to be more like her, willing to take off and be free.
For a long time, our movement was haunted by the terrible absence of Shulamith Firestone. The disappearance of so shining and brilliant a star always reminded me of Sylvia Plath’s sudden demise — young genius cut down too soon. Only in this case Shulie was very much alive. Either she was holed up in her fifth-floor apartment in the East Village or holed up in a hospital. She was still here, without really being here.
I remember reading The Dialectic of Sex when it first came out in 1970. I was writing Women and Madness and her book inspired and challenged me to dare even more. The work is fierce, as sharp as a diamond — logically precise, somewhat frightening, and extremely liberating. I will never forget how her chapter on love (as an illness) made me laugh out loud with relief.
We — and the rest of America — had never seen anything like us before. Cracked, belligerent, misguided, and strangers to one another, radical feminists were giants on the earth. Since the mother-daughter relationship had been painful and humiliating for many of us, we called each other “sisters.” But as Ti-Grace Atkinson quipped, “Sisterhood is powerful — it kills sisters.” Although we knew that this was true, most feminists denied that it was really true.
Once, Shulie called and asked me to visit her in my capacity as a psychotherapist. I immediately agreed. However, she said I would need to come to the fifth floor by climbing up the fire escape. She would talk to me through the window.
I told her I couldn’t. I might fall to earth and shatter. Still, I could not persuade her to open her door.
Her second book, Airless Spaces, is a small and tender gem. Humbly, carefully, she wrote about her madness and her time in various asylums. When it was published, she asked a small group of us, myself included, to read aloud from it and we did. I remember that Shulie stood off a bit, watching, listening, perhaps approving of her words and of our reading. But she remained silent, at a remove. Always removed.
For many years now I’ve kept a list of the feminists we’ve lost. At one memorial service in 1987, in a large West Village courtyard, I saw the faces of many second wavers: they were ashen, shocked, stunned, frightened. We have lost so many dear friends. And now, Shulie has joined them.
I remember Shulie. We all do. Even people who never met her — only read her. Probably they remember her best. We always put the best part of ourselves in our books. The rest is gossip and trash. Opinions, even disdain.
There was a lot to object to in her books. After all, Shulie was making the case for Marxism and for sexual freedom. Reshaped entirely, with the kibbutzim writ large; even group infant care by both sexes so the female would not be weighed down by the “barbarity” of pregnancy and child care. It was, of course, just “poppycock” and “dream vision.” It was also a huge paradigm shift, to imagine liberating human sexuality from millennia of patriarchy.
We all had notions like that once. We had all been driven by the cruelty of sexual abuse and predation, and cried out that it stop. At once. We hadn’t yet entered upon rape and genital mutilation, the enslavement of women as property. We didn’t even have a good idea of what we were up against. It seems Shulie did.
Which was odd. She was one of the youngest among us when The Dialectic of Sex hit print. Way too young for the onslaught.
I was ten years older than Shulie when Sexual Politics came into print, teaching English up at Barnard and married to Fumio, a Japanese sculptor who had been through the War and was even a feminist.
Still, I went a little crazy too, endlessly having to repeat myself. The real problem with patriarchy: it’s an entire social system of status, temperament, and role — centuries old. We regard it as “nature.” The Movement, but also Fumio, cheered me on; we all had a hilarious time laughing at the conceit of Mailer and Miller. It was outrageous fun even to say these things aloud. The wind blew hard at times: my family tried to control me with psychiatry but finally gave up. Eventually, I went off to England to make a movie.
But imagine what Shulie went through in America. She took on the whole show of capitalist society. How was it for her with the malice of the critics, the talk-show hosts, anti-Semitism, the residual mess of anticommunism? Shulie had lived inside the Movement; she had no idea yet of the “real world.” It destroyed her, overwhelmed her. Burned her alive.
We tried to get together once to help, with the American Civil Liberties Union — even just to get them to leave her in peace, to leave her alone. We lost. It’s hard to argue against family power, against doctors, against a whole society, crying this person is mad and has no rights.
Finally a text did emerge, an experimental thing pretending to be fiction. Airless Spaces. Unheralded, unadvertised. It was her account of the useless days on the ward, without any rights or voice or purpose. It is a terribly sad and harrowing account of a fine mind, wasted. It tells more than any other book what we do to “people with a few ideas.”
In other places you get lined up and shot. In America you get drowned out, locked away, made even less authentic. Shulie looks back at us, the beautiful long hair she seemed to hide behind, her owl-like glasses she used to take off when everyone talked at once and wouldn’t listen to her speak. She was beautiful and somehow inscrutable, with something fragile and youthful about her — a mystery. I remember her from so many meetings; then she disappeared.
Other feminists dominated the scene; other voices, other books, other fads and figures; secondary sources. The New York Times predicted feminism’s death very solemnly. Twice already. So far.
Strange how much of it has come true without our even noticing it. How maliciously it has been applied: babies are purchased by blue-eyed Americans at a price in order to avoid the “trouble” of pregnancy; male medicine rules the world, charging more and more for its services. If you’re rich, you can buy any organ. Not what Shulie had in mind at all.
Maybe we could reconsider how we have turned her utopian vision into our own nightmare, as we converted her bright promise at 25 into the voices in her head that made her life hideous.
I recently read of a young man who kept “beating up his refrigerator,” pummeling it with cobblestones, calling it “St. Frigid.” A silly thing to do. Of course, he’s an artist and now famous. Good thing Shulie never tried that; she’d have been carted off in a moment. Consider what a refrigerator means to a man versus what it means to a woman. Women were not rolling much steel in Shulie’s time; few of us had even heard of Kelvin or had any notion of how the damn thing ran.
Shulie went on writing and painting. The world continued to call her crazy. All authorities agreed: she was a “paranoid schizophrenic.” By that time she was mostly on “meds” and resigned to her fate; silenced effectively. In the enormous despair of your last days, Shulie, what of that solitude? You wrote other things: what were they? Whom, what, did you choose to paint? What were your paintings like? What will happen to your work?
Sometime 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. 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.
Fifteen years later, I’m struck less by the fact of Firestone’s death — frankly, 67 is a ripe old age among 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, in 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.
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 Art Institute of Chicago, I saw a documentary portrait of her filmed when she was a student there in 1967. The 16mm film, Shulie, was produced by four Northwestern graduate film students. In it, Shulamith Firestone, 22, argues confidently for a life on the margins. 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 by 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 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. In 1997 I completed a Super 8 fictional adaptation starring the uncanny lookalike Kim Soss. 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.
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. 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 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 screen the film publicly — 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 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 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 other strict presentation conditions.
It’s complicated to address someone’s brilliance when she claims to no longer want that recognition. And it’s a delicate decision to present someone in a moment of becoming. One of the most enduring legacies of second-wave feminism is its insistence on respecting multiple perspectives and ways of being. As Firestone and I never met, such an opportunity to hear each other was lost. Over the years, Firestone’s friends reported her varying reactions to the film, from begrudging approval to much distress. It is heartbreaking to think that a reverent film that reignited interest in her work caused her pain, and for that I’m deeply sorry. Now I’ve been asked both to 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; and there’s the author who alternately published and withdrew these books from publication, the woman who suffered from mental illness. Was her withdrawal from public life another prescient and willful insight? Or in complying with her (occasional) wishes, are we allowing the slow erasure of another brilliant woman’s voice from history?
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 Firestone 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.
I somehow managed to get pregnant and have a child without ever having read The Dialectic of Sex. (Or, I suppose Firestone might say, I managed to get pregnant and have a child because I never read The Dialectic of Sex.) I’d first heard of her in college; her memorable name for many years brought to mind vague notions of cyborg wombs. “The Women’s Movement,” Joan Didion’s withering assessment of Seventies 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 that 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 Didion’s essay — wholehearted agreement, an almost sensual pleasure in seeing 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 a near-pathological aversion to sentimentality in any form. Didion was my kind of writer. In fact, she still is. But that doesn’t mean I can continue to deny how completely her contempt in that essay misses 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. To extricate 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 invariably provokes revulsion among everyone, including the woman herself: “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 Firestone’s outrageous pronouncements — which made her both revered and reviled — are the least interesting part of The Dialectic of Sex. Woven throughout the book are more acute and altogether searing observations. Firestone had much to say about the plight of the woman artist, who had to anticipate the expectations and interpretations “of a tradition she had no part in making” if she wished to be taken seriously. To do otherwise—“to participate in culture in a female way”—was to court condescension or neglect, to be labeled a “Lady Artist” or else grudgingly acknowledged as “good but irrelevant.” To Firestone, Didion’s attack must have seemed a prophecy fulfilled. In a society that revolves around men’s aspirations and desires, it is the plight of every woman to feel the lure of male approval. A woman with any ambition would be especially pressed to ignore the situation she shares with other women, to insult “others like herself, hoping to thereby make it obvious that she as an individual is above their behavior.”
There is something bracingly, distressingly contemporary in Firestone’s insights, and the subjects of love and sex seemed to compel her most. We might have come a long way from the Fifties fantasy of the aproned hausfrau that incited much of her ire, but when I first picked up Dialectic not long ago, I expected a treatise on 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 have to agree with what she’s saying to marvel at her mind at work. Firestone, who elsewhere in Dialectic writes hopefully about true love and “pansexuality,” sometimes sounds like a brilliant contradiction in terms: an antimisogynist Michel Houellebecq. The comparison perhaps argues Firestone’s point. Why associate certain ideas with a louche male novelist rather than the female artist who struggled with them thirty years prior?
The seventies seem a long time ago for those of us not yet born, and even for those who were. Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, which appeared in 1970 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 liberates women from the “burden” of their biology. Nature may have produced inequality, but widespread application of reproductive technologies would, 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 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 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 her claims that women are at the “continual mercy” of their biology and that pregnancy is “barbaric” bemusing.) Rather than suggesting a revaluation of cultural values, 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 lies 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, Firestone believed, with the advent of birth control and the possibility of many more reproductive (or “cybernetic”) technologies, this historical excuse for female oppression would expire.
Firestone’s turbo-Enlightenment approach to the emancipatory dimensions of these technologies was prescient but ultimately incomplete. The technologies she predicted and celebrated — IVF treatment, wide access to contraception and abortion, test-tube pregnancy — are here, at least in richer parts of the world; but their effects on the nuclear 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, not its replacement; and while birth control undoubtedly has revolutionized the ways in which women live and work, it hasn’t ushered in a new era of widespread genderless pansexuality. Unfortunately, perhaps.
For me, Firestone deserves to be read alongside the feminist science-fiction writers of the ’70s — Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Ursula LeGuin — who are 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 The 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. The cyber-feminism that reemerged in the ’90s 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 like Firestone’s with a kind of world-weary sigh-smile: Well it wasn’t 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.
I had a feeling early in our friendship, around 1963 at the Art Institute of Chicago, that painting would not demand the greater part of Shulie’s attention. One day she asked me if I would like to see some of her poetry. I expected the kind of postadolescent efforts that I had also engaged in. (She was 18, and I was 23.) What she presented me with were reams of pages written in a large bold hand, running uninterrupted across the pages, threatening to set the paper on fire. The thoughts were wild and apocalyptic, as Shulie herself was at that time.
On one of my visits to New York to see Shulie, thirty years ago, she invited me to see a mural she was completing. Because she was interested in all of the world’s tragedies, Shulie had approached the Goethe-Institut of New York with an offer to paint a commemorative mural of the General Slocum Ferry Disaster of 1904. More than a thousand recently arrived German immigrants, on a holiday outing on the East River, had drowned when the ferry caught fire and sank only thirty minutes out of the harbor. The Institut had accepted her offer and provided a schoolroom for her to use as a studio. Besides this, they only paid for her materials. Shulie had declined remuneration; for her, painting the mural was an act of retrospective compassion.
Shulie asked me to critique the mural, with the caveat that if I thought the work bad, she would never paint again. I protested that she was putting me in an impossible situation. I considered her a talented painter, and I would never lie to her. I said that I would rather not look at the work than risk her never painting again. She would not relent. She insisted that a friend was obliged to give an opinion regardless of the consequences.
I gave in, and went to see a large canvas, thirty feet wide and six feet high, tacked to a wall. I told her what I thought of it with great trepidation, watching as her face dropped. She said she would try to finish it, but would make no further attempts at painting. I couldn’t argue with her; she had made her decision. She followed her convictions to the bitter end. Half measures were not a part of her repertoire. This was Shulie.
She grew indifferent to the pressures of speaking about her days in the feminist movement. On one occasion, perhaps in the ’80s, she accepted an invitation to speak at a university. While onstage she realized that the subject bored her to exasperation and drifted into a talk about Jewish mysticism — a subject she was investigating at the time. The audience was appalled and she was gently escorted off the stage. Regardless, she was paid! When she shared this story with me, we both burst into hysterics. It was not that she had lost respect for the radical feminist movement; she simply didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
Shulie experienced disappointment, bitterness, and great sadness in her life, and not only because of an illness over which she had no power. When I last saw her, she confided matter-of-factly that her mental state had long been flat on account of medication — and what infuriated her most was the effect on her creative work.
Today my sister’s body was lowered into a deep mud hole. It was a simple affair. No fanfare, not even chairs or a tent to cover us from the sun. Just the deep trench, a pile of earth pierced by four shovels, and a few family members standing together sadly; women in long skirts, men in black hats and suits. And Shulamith herself, of course.
First the men trudged her in from the hearse, reciting a Hebrew psalm in low tones, and pausing their procession the customary seven times to show reticence in this act of burial. Then, before placing her on the straps that would lower her into the earth, someone asked us, her three siblings: Do you want to ask her mechilah, forgiveness? This was when fifty years of primitive feelings and memories came roaring through me.
We placed our six hands on her box and sobbed.
To ask forgiveness? The very thought elicited a lifetime of failures (for there was no correct way to love this woman). Nevertheless, I asked Shulamith’s forgiveness: for expecting this moment, for dreading it without preventing it, for not bearing her suffering, for betraying her again and again, for trying to make her fit into this world, for misinterpreting her, for oversimplifying her ideas, for pandering, for apologizing for her, for not living up to what she stood for, for forgetting her for months and even years at a time, for not breaking through to her, for not understanding her disease, for not understanding her brilliance. Would there ever be an end to my need of forgiveness?
A small knife appeared. I saw my brother’s lapel being cut and heard a loud rip as he pulled the fabric apart with force. I was next. No little black ribbons for these people; it was all or nothing. The knife approached and I did not demur. My collar was cut. I ripped it further, listening to the shrill sound that mimicked the wail within me.
The men lowered the casket carefully into the earth. I peered down the deep hole. How remarkably austere it all was. The simple unvarnished box that held her remains was like something pulled out of an old studio warehouse; just like my sister, without façade or apology. Surprisingly, a paper label with her name on it had been stuck on the casket lid. As if to make no mistake that she was contained inside, I thought, lest she elude us, evade us, slip away from us one more time.
But of course, she had slipped away, this time for good. The sound of dirt hitting hard on her casket brought me back. I grabbed a shovel.
I don’t know how it works, whether our diseases fall away with our troubled bodies when they die. But I am counting on Shulamith finding herself again as her soul navigates its way into the upper chambers of this universe, her unobscured self, the one that might have flourished had she found enough understanding and love in this world: the wildly creative, overwhelmingly generous being, voracious for change, desperate for a redeemed feminine principle.
When my turn came to say some words, a verse from the Torah popped into my mind. It felt too dark to speak aloud at that moment, but I see now that it has her name on it, just like the label on her box:
Tov Shem mayshemen tov v’yom hamavet miyom hivaldo.
A good name is more precious than fine oil, and the day of one’s death better than the day of one’s birth. (Ecclesiastes 7:1)
Shuley, you are finally released from this harsh world. Time for rest. It is due you.