Key thinker: Shulamith Firestone (1945–2012)
Shulamith Firestone (1945–2012)
Shulamith Firestone was born in Ottawa, Canada, to Orthodox Jewish parents. When Firestone was young, her family moved to St. Louis, Missouri and Anglicized their surname from Feuerstein to Firestone. From an early age, Firestone rebelled against the restrictions of her family’s Orthodox Judaism and her father’s patriarchal behaviour (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/04/15/death-of-a-revolutionary). Because of her critical attitude towards Orthodox Judaism Firestone became increasingly alienated from her parents and siblings (https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/firestone-shulamith). Firestone went on to study for a BA at Washington University in St. Louis and the Art Institute of Chicago, where she received a BFA in painting in 1967. In Chicago, Firestone and her friend Jo Freedman founded the Westside Group, a radical women’s liberation organization and predecessor to the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/sep/06/shulamith-firestone). Firestone was active in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, as well as leftist workers’ organizations, which she criticized for their sexism (https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/obituary/shulamith-firestone-1945-2012).
After graduating from university, Firestone moved to New York City and co-founded the city’s first women’s liberation group, New York Radical Women, and two other radical feminist organizations. In 1969, she organized the United States’ first abortion speak-out, which gave women the chance to speak to an audience about their experiences with abortion (https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/firestone-shulamith). In 1970, Firestone published The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, which turned her into one of the leading voices of second-wave feminism. Second-wave feminism, also known as the Women’s Liberation Movement (see 34.2. The Women’s Liberation Movement), built on the gains of first-wave feminists like the suffragettes who had abolished legal obstacles to women’s participation in the public sphere. But second-wave feminists argued that after entering the workforce during the Second World War, middle-class women were again confined to the domestic sphere as wives and housemakers. Second-wave feminists argued that the domestic sphere, too, was political and that feminist activism should broaden its scope to issues relating to the family, sexuality, and reproductive justice (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/04/15/death-of-a-revolutionary).
Firestone was uncomfortable with the media attention that the book’s publication brought with it, and became discouraged by the constant conflict and infighting that plagued the feminist groups she founded. In the early 1970s, Firestone withdrew from feminist activism to focus on painting (https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/firestone-shulamith). In the late 1980s, Firestone began struggling with mental health problems; she was in and out of psychiatric hospitals and battled with schizophrenia for the rest of her life (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/04/15/death-of-a-revolutionary). In 1998, Firestone published her final book, Airless Spaces, a collection of short stories on mental illness, poverty, and psychiatric hospitals (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/sep/06/shulamith-firestone). In her final years, Firestone rejected the help of friends, family, and colleagues. Shulamith Firestone died alone in her apartment in August 2012. She was 67 years old.
Shulamith Firestone is considered a pioneer of second-wave feminism. As editor of and contributor to Notes from the First Year (1968), Notes from the Second Year (1968), and Notes from the Third Year (1971), Firestone helped introduce a generation of activists to important feminist writing. Firestone was a vocal proponent of the idea that ‘the personal is political’, which has become closely associated with second-wave feminism (see 34.2.1. The Personal is Political). Second-wave feminism emerged in the post-war years as a response to American women’s dissatisfaction with the gender roles that they had been assigned. The publication of the liberal feminist Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique (1963) (see Key Thinker: Betty Friedan) had inaugurated a new strand of feminism, which was championed in publications such as Ms., founded by Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Friedan argued that women should seek fulfilment by participating in public life and seeking paid employment, but her argument ignored that many working-class women already had jobs in addition to the household work they did every day. Moreover, Friedan was critical of feminists like Firestone, who argued that women’s emancipation required more than what Friedan proposed.
Radical second-wave feminists like Firestone believed that women’s liberation required not only a radical transformation of the domestic or ‘private’ sphere—the household, marriage, or childcare, for example—but a total transformation of social relations (see 34.1. Introduction). Drawing on Karl Marx (see Chapter 13 on Karl Marx), Friedrich Engels, Simone de Beauvoir (see Key Thinker: Simone de Beauvoir), and Sigmund Freud (see Key Thinker: Sigmund Freud), Firestone develops a framework for feminist theory that is resolutely revolutionary. She argues liberal feminists are ‘reformists’ because they fail to consider women can only be free if capitalism is overthrown. For Firestone, the division of labour within the household reflects wider gendered structural relationships of power which must be dismantled if women are to be truly emancipated. The capitalist economy, Firestone argues, relies on women’s unpaid domestic labour to ensure that the men in society can labour productively (see 34.2.1. The Personal is Political). But while Firestone’s revolutionary feminism takes its inspiration from Marxism, it expands its analytical framework rather than confining women’s struggles within existing frameworks for leftist analysis, which treated them as secondary issues (Firestone, 2015: 33).
The Dialectic of Sex was one of the first texts to introduce concepts like ‘sex’ and ‘biology’ into political theory (see 34.1. Introduction). In her discussion of reproductive rights, Firestone argues that women are a specific class (see Key Concept: Sex Class) that is exploited for its reproductive labour (see 34.3. Reproductive biology and women’s oppression). Firestone argues that because women have little to no ability to control reproduction through abortion or contraception, for example, they are forced to bear the burdens of childbirth without reaping the social benefits. For Firestone, gender inequality derives from ‘natural’ physical differences between men and women; therefore, not only the social differences but the biological differences between the sexes must be abolished if women are to be liberated from their oppression (Firestone, 2015:3). Firestone’s anti-naturalism (see Key Concept: Anti-Naturalism) has inspired other feminists, such as Xenofeminism, who are committed to overcoming natural inequalities through technology. For Xenofeminists, as for Firestone, technology can abolish the natural conditions that constrain women’s equality and freedom; why not, they ask, consider the concept of ‘artificial reproduction’, which could alleviate women from the burden of childbearing and socialize reproduction?
But Firestone’s writing has not been entirely uncontroversial. Critics like Donna Haraway (see Chapter 36 on Donna Haraway) have, for example, accused her of ‘dehistoricising’ human evolution by advancing a biologically determinist theory which claims that all societies have always been patriarchal and have oppressed women (see 34.3.1. An Historical Materialism Rooted in Sex). Black feminist critics like Hortense Spillers and Angela Davis (see Chapter 35 on Angela Davis) have shown that Firestone’s feminist excludes Black women and denies them political agency, and that she repeats racist stereotypes about Black men (Davis, 2019:163; Spillers, 2003:159). bell hooks (see Chapter 3 on bell hooks), for example, offers a more balanced framework for the analysis of racism and the family than Firestone. Nonetheless, Firestone’s critique of reproduction also features prominently in social reproduction theory (SRT), a more recent Marxist-feminist theory which seeks to address gendered inequalities in how societies reproduce themselves (see 34.5.3. Reproductive Politics). Moreover, Firestone’s work has inspired the feminist discourse around the abolition of the nuclear family (see Key Concept: The Nuclear Family), which has recently resurfaced and gained traction in political theory and feminist activism (Lewis, 2019) (see 34.4.1. Abolishing the Family).
Susan Faludi, “Death of a Revolutionary”, The New Yorker, 8 April 2013.
Erin Maglaque, “The radical legacy of Shulamith Firestone”, The New Statesman, 21 October 2020.
Firestone, S. (2015), The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (London and New York: Verso).
Hester, H. (2018), Xenofeminism (Cambridge and Medford: Polity).
Weeks, K. (2015), ‘The Vanishing Dialectic: Shulamith Firestone and the Future of the Feminist 1970s’, The South Atlantic Quarterly Vol. 114, No. 4: 735-754.
Lewis, S. (2019), Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (London and New York: Verso).
Spillers, H. (2003), Black, White and in Colour: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: Chicago University Press).