BY Jenni Sorkin in Frieze | 18 MAR 15
Featured in
Issue 170


Re-reading Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex

BY Jenni Sorkin in Frieze | 18 MAR 15

Courtesy: William Morrow and Company

In 1993, when Shulamith Firestone’s feminist classic The Dialectic of Sex (1970) was last reissued, the American feminist historian Alice Echols lamented that the book was ‘far from hip now’, and that it had not got the traction it deserved in Women’s Studies courses (hers and others) because of an unrelenting emphasis on a softer breed of feminism that took root in the mid-1970s and was still with us in 1993: cultural feminism, splintered from its radical past. Radical feminism called attention to the permanent, beleaguered status of women in male-dominated society and agitated for true parity through socio-economic legislation and intensive, widespread psychological change. As its name suggests, cultural feminism attempted change through cultural means: funnelling women into visible roles beyond their traditional position in the home and dispatching them to the public sphere as cultural caretakers. What did public caretaking look like in 1993? Let’s consider charities such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a modern twist on the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Or the National Council of Women’s Organizations, a dizzying cluster of hundreds of women-run social-service agencies. Or even the collaborative feminist group Guerilla Girls, whose motto remains ‘conscience of the art world’. A generation later, in 2015, on the occasion of its publication in the uk for the first time, what can The Dialectic of Sex teach us?

Released in October 1970, Firestone’s book developed out of her life as a radical-feminist activist, first in Chicago, then in New York. For three impassioned years, from 1967 to 1970, she was at the helm of radical feminism, the supposedly leaderless movement fighting for social, economic and political parity. Born in Ottawa in 1945 to Orthodox Jewish parents, Firestone was educated at Washington University in St. Louis and then left to study figurative painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. That Firestone was educated as an artist was not so unusual. Two other major writers within the movement also began their careers as visual artists: Ti-Grace Atkinson and Kate Millett. Contemporary artists, too, have circled the content of Firestone’s text. In 1997, Elisabeth Subrin made the film Shulie, a scene-by-scene remake of a documentary portrait of Firestone as a young art student, which included footage of a humiliating critique that she had endured at university before a panel of all-male painting professors.

Most feminists had come of age as student Civil Rights activists, only to become disaffected by the movement’s unrelenting sexism. Recall the famous epithet in a quote from a member of the Black Panther Party’s Executive Stokely Carmichael, that ‘the position of women in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is prone’. Firestone addressed this adversity directly in her book, reprimanding activist women from every historical period for their failure to prioritize women’s issues while entrenched in social movements, and wrongly viewing women-only needs as ‘special and sectarian’ while those that involved men were considered ‘human and universal’.

Written at fever pitch over the space of several months, The Dialectic of Sex is a visionary document that theorizes ‘sex’ as a category of gender apartheid: that is, the systematic segregation and enforced social, political and economic discrimination against women in society. Further, she productively complicates the modern legacy of women’s liberation, tracing it to its roots in the biological imperative of motherhood and sexual servitude to men.

It is the nuclear-patriarchal family superstructure that Firestone blames for many of the social ills that befall women: in particular, women’s historical treatment as marital property. Marxist theory defines the ‘dialectic’ as a continual conflict of opposites but, when applied to gender, in Firestone’s analysis, this results in class warfare between men and women: men can’t be blamed for claiming their social advantage and it is only the eradication of the ‘sex distinction’ that can compel significant social progress.

Transparent, 2014; Courtesy: Transparent and Amazon Prime Instant Video

Clear, breathtakingly intelligent and occasionally impulsive (for example, a much-criticized chapter clumsily conflates racial stereotyping and sexual attraction), the book as a whole is political theory delivered at breakneck speed, chock-full of quotes without attributions and singsong asides that point out the clichés and contradictions inherent in the gender dynamics of the 20th-century, middle-class family. It is as though Firestone is channelling Emma Goldman or Rosa Luxemburg, showing herself to be very much part of a lineage of Jewish-Socialist thinkers. Yet The Dialectic of Sex was intended as a radical break with the gender and social theory of the past: there are constant quibbles with Karl Marx and Engels, and an entire chapter on Sigmund Freud.

Susan Faludi’s 2013 profile, ‘Death of a Revolutionary’, published by The New Yorker the year after Firestone’s untimely and tragic death (apparently from starvation) outlined the author’s strict and oppressive Orthodox Jewish upbringing. Firestone’s philosophical rejection of her roots seems like a way of ousting the burdens of her class privilege and the Orthodoxy of Jewish elders (albeit the secular giants of Engels, Freud and Marx), as well as the ancestral rituals that dominated her early life. While Firestone disdained the Oedipus complex, stating that its destiny ‘will be the fate of alchemy, phrenology and palmistry’, her ‘kill the father’ metaphor was self-actualizing: she disowned her own father via Certified Mail, making good on a threat he had made to her. For Firestone, the misery of the patriarchal family was magnified as an oppressive social force, one that reified women’s status as a ‘slave class’ due to the institutionalization of the reproductive function.

Firestone attempts to solve this problem by introducing a new and radical ideology for propagating the species: she was an early proponent of artificial insemination and of a feminist revolution that would offer the possibility of polymorphous sexuality – in any form, unattached to gender. In a sense, Firestone’s text is a bridge between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto (1991): all three challenge the biological imperative of women’s bodies, offering an alternate structure for life-giving. Shelley’s Frankenstein provided its male protagonist the opportunity to birth a monster, while A Cyborg Manifesto not only championed new technologies, but also utilized the metaphor of the cyborg – a bionically enriched human being – to rally feminists to move beyond the limitations inherent in traditional gender roles and normative thinking.

In 2015, we are in an era where women’s colleges have been forced to re-evaluate their separatist admission policies, challenged by transgender students who transition during their four years. Now, more than ever, when we are on the cusp of genderqueer acceptance on college campuses, when transgender characters appear as protagonists in film and television – Felicity Huffman in Transamerica (2005), Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent (2014–ongoing), Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black (2013–ongoing) – it seems worth taking seriously Firestone’s utopian vision for a different kind of world: genderless, a world where the ‘sex class’ is abolished and femininity is not attached either to mothers-as-nurturers or bombshell babes. She offers a worldview in which femininity could just as easily be transferred to men, or a third gender could manifest, if we give up the social constructions of gender. Like racism, gender is engendered by our interactions with early belief systems and forms of parental instruction and imprinting. As flawed adults, it can take an entire lifetime to come to terms with these so-called family values, without hardening into hysteria or breeding conditions for violence toward any perceived form of difference.

Arguably, Firestone’s disavowal of the hetero-normative family structure has even more currency at a moment when the Supreme Court in the US is on the cusp of a decision about same-sex marriage. The political content of the long-time queer anthem ‘Love Makes a Family’ – the right to love whoever we wish, however we wish to – is finally being treated as an inalienable right and not a fringe concern. And it is exactly this possibility of an entirely different world order that Firestone’s book asks us to envision: a society eager to define itself as against the oppression of women, on the path to, in Firestone’s own words, ‘the self-determination of all’.