Fire, stone and radical feminism
I, who am now starting my twenties, have no idea what it means to be a woman at the height of her twenty-somethings in the 1960s - let alone a woman who turned on the feminist movement at that age and in that period - but that’s what Shulamith Firestone lived through. The art student at Washington University, who was born in 1945, unsatisfied with the suffragist claims initiated in the previous century, she had something to say. Right to vote and equal pay for men and women were not what she had as a priority.
Humanity in public life and also in private life. Theorizing about love, family, gender, politics, and the patriarchal system, Firestone has become one of the most troublesome voices in the history of feminism.
The year was 1967. The Canadian daughter of Orthodox Jewish parents finished her graduation and founded the first radical feminist collective in partnership with Political Science student Jo Freeman at the end of September after their barred participation at the National Conference on New Policies in Chicago, on the grounds that “there were more important topics to be discussed than women’s liberation.” Two years later, however, ideological differences led the women in the collective to separate. Socialists, based on Marx’s writings, believed that political reform would bring an end to gender inequality, but according to Firestone, they were mistaken: leftist men preached and practiced as much sexism as other men.
From that moment on, the term radical became even more meaningful. The feminist revolution, for Firestone, would go beyond classes and ethnicities - the patriarchal system allowed men, in the position of dominant sex, to oppress women under any circumstances and the urgent need to abolish that system was what brought the second feminist round to light.
Later, two other groups had Firestone participating in its foundations. A feminism that plunged into the roots of gender oppression, denouncing pornography, prostitution, marital rape, compulsory motherhood/heterosexuality was gaining a voice. And criticism.
Emotionally exhausted with internal conflicts, Shulamith abandoned all collective militancy and began to devote herself to the book she was writing. Published in 1970, The Dialectic of Sex saw biology as the basis of inequality between men and women. Pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing are vital to human existence, but the need for reproduction of the species has made women vulnerable to patriarchy, a system whose priority is to limit women to something less than their own. “Women throughout history before contraceptive methods were constantly at the mercy of their biology - menstruation, menopause, ‘hysteria and other female ills’, labor pains and childcare made them totally dependent on men (whether brothers, fathers, husbands or the state, on a larger scale) to survive”, she wrote.
The solution? Abolishment of the cultural meaning that biological / genital differences between female and male has gotten in the human race - plus, of course, contraceptive freedom and the right to abortion for all women.
Surprisingly not at all, Firestone’s book was violently criticized by the media while it became a bestseller and bedside book of thousands of college-level young women.
“A revolutionary in every bedroom can’t fail to shake up the status quo. […] Feminism, when it truly achieves its goals, destroyes the most basic structures of our society.”
Praised by Simone de Beauvoir (having her work called a “spectacular manifestation” by the french) and inspiring other women who also became icons of the radical strand, such as Andrea Dworkin, Sheila Jeffreys and Germaine Greer, among others, Shulamith Firestone soon disappeared and isolated herself until her death - in August 2012. Victim of mental disorders (possible schizophrenia perceived after a revolutionary work carried out in the midst of so much repression), she was found after she died a week ago in the apartment where she lived for more than three decades.
She died as she lived. Lonely and misunderstood.
In front of the cameras, in a short film recorded during her senior year of college and found only in 1997 by Elisabeth Subrin, Shulamith Firestone said: I just generally identify with groups as I oppose to the large homogeneous mass of people, I just automatically feel a bond with people who aren’t exactly in things.
Today, 50 years after the beginning of the story of this woman as a feminist and five years after the end, the so unpopular and criticized radfem still has as a priority to embrace women who “aren’t exactly in things.”
In this september we celebrate 50 years of second-wave feminism.
Or radical wave feminism.
Or Firestone wave, whatever you like to call it.
Even now, all around the world, her written ideas are still important to the whole movement. The fight for women’s liberation is still happening through fire and stone.