Overweening Generalist

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Shulamith Firestone: Second Wave Radical Feminist, Heretic, Visionary

Late this past August, in the East Village in New York, someone noticed a bad smell. Others said they hadn't seen Shuley for awhile and were a bit worried. Someone climbed up the fire escape to the 5th floor where Shuley had lived for about 30 years, among mostly books. Peering in, the person saw her on the floor. It was Shuley. She'd died. Later the coroner thought she'd been dead for about a week. The preliminary was "natural causes." She was 67. Shuley had had a rough life. I never met her; if I had met her it would've been weird: she was probably something along the paranoid-schizophrenic axis  by the time I would be old enough to try to have a conversation with her. I admire her wild intellectual chops. Her sister - a Rabbi in Boulder, Colorado - once said, if I recall correctly, that the reception her 1970 book - both positive and negative and everything in-between, eventually got to her, and it started to tear her down.

                                        Shulamith Firestone, who died at 67 in August

Born in Ottawa, Canada, on June 7, 1945 to orthodox Jews, she grew up in St. Louis and Kansas City and was a prodigy, at age 25 producing The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for a Feminist Revolution. In a few short years she would drop out of the radical feminist scene she'd been a major player in, and move to Saint Marks and paint, and soon showed signs of mental illness. By the late 1980s she began her trek in and out of mental hospitals and in 1998 published a book, Airless Spaces, purportedly a bleak, haunting account of her life in those hospitals. I have not read that book yet.

In her magnum opus, The Dialectic of Sex, she draws upon and synthesizes Freud, Marx, Engels, Wilhelm Reich, Simone de Beauvoir, and, with the vision of a science fiction genius, foresaw a world in which the biology of women would not hamper them. That's what's most striking to me about Firestone: she thought carrying a baby around full-term and then raising it in the nuclear family was a total nightmare for women, it was practically a disease, and she thought this must be cured. She compared pregnancy to barbarism and said giving birth was like "defecating a pumpkin."

She called on cybernetics and science in general to free women of this plight. At the time, most intellectuals thought she was brilliant but crazy. She was indeed a little of both, but her visions are starting to become reality.

Shulamith (which she pronounced "shoo LUH mith") was part of the New Left, but helped lead splinter groups from not only SDS, but from less-radical feminist groups. A firebrand at the age of 23, she urged women to vote for themselves, and not how their husbands told them to vote. 50 years after women gained the right to vote she said, "what is the vote finally worth if the voter is manipulated?" She took seriously ideas such as community-raising of children, because the nuclear family was the nexus of sexual repression and emotional illness. "Marx was onto something more profound than he knew when he observed that the family contained within itself in miniature all the antagonisms that later develop on a wide scale in the society and the state." (Dialectic, p.12) I was drawn to her from her reading of Wilhelm Reich's ideas, and, more generally, because I'm congenitally drawn to brilliant heretics,  people whose ideas are so "dangerous" (I think: ahead of their time) to society they're either persecuted and locked up, or they are driven insane, or their genius and latent mental illness express themselves one after the other. Shuley - as her friends called here - was one of these.

The history of the feminist movement is for all of us who care about human freedom and should not  only be taught in Women's Studies classes once you get into university. The history of women's liberation tells us much about how the paideuma can be changed. It takes a long time. It takes brilliant, fearless weirdos who dare to envision a Better World. The history of women in the First World, in the  West, since the early 19th century, is a ceaselessly fascinating study. Freedom! Let us study it.

For, as a young male, I never understood why women should be considered "the second sex." Maybe because my mother was a (non-radical) feminist and I was not raised on the Adam and Eve story?

But Shuley ran with some rough gals. But I will give her this: she didn't shoot Andy Warhol!

By 1967, the hyper-educated radical feminists were tired of taking orders from the male leaders of SDS, so they split, while still protesting the Vietnam War and sexism in general. After the demoralizing victory of Nixon in 1968, Firestone and a few other militant, radical feminists got together around the moment of Nixon's inauguration in January of 1969 and formed the Redstockings, to honor socialist ideas that harken back to the Blue Stocking feminists of the 19th century. The First Wave of feminists included people like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Emma Goldman.

                                   Simone de Beauvoir, influence on almost all Second Wave
                                    feminists. Best known for her The Second Sex

Shuley thought that men couldn't truly love, but this was conservative compared to another Redstocking, Pam Kearon, who advocated openly for hatred of men (misandry), arguing that hatred is a natural human instinct, and unless women allowed themselves to hate men, they would turn that hateful energy back on other women. And children. Best to hate "men."

My reading of radical feminism, as of this date, totally deplores any hatred of any group. Group hatred is all-too-common, as we've seen with the Nazis and any other faction that thinks the "real problem" lies in getting rid of the muslims, the Palestinians, the jews, the Gypsies, the gays, the blacks, the whites, the "liberals," the Large Group of People Who Go Under Some Highly Abstract Noun, etc. This is a deep semantic sickness, no matter who is doing the persecuting. No one could possibly know enough about any of these groups to justify the kinds of things that Hitler wrote about "Jews," or Coulter writes about "liberals," or that Dennis Prager writes "secular humanists" or that Andrea Dworkin wrote about "men."

In the case of some but not all of the Radical Feminists, their open misandry, in my opinion, hurt the cause of women in general. Why? Because most young women are not mistreated by their fathers or brothers; in fact, when they hear of this "all men are sick, evil bastards who can't love; only want to use you to spread their disgusting seed inside you," they know it's not true...and they decline to call themselves "feminists." (But they stay in school longer and longer and now they're doing better than men, which we'll get to later.)

Because I believe in gender equality and negotiation, I will call anyone who uses language that seems to suppose they've experienced an entire group, and found "all" of them bad/dangerous/evil/etc: assholes. These individuals are assholes. Now: sure, they may have been mistreated themselves, but someone like Kearon is an asshole to me. She never met me, or my dad, or my brothers, or any of my male friends. What? Because she's a woman I'm not supposed to come right out and say it? Fuck that!: I believe in equality, as much as possible. Note: I'm calling Kearon (I think she's dead) an asshole, not "women." Why? First of all, I dig women. But for our purposes here: I do not have nearly enough knowledge of "women" to say what "they" really "are." And no one else knows enough, either.

When someone asked whatever happened to Shuley, Andrea Dworkin - another asshole - who once argued that any sex between a man and woman was "rape" (I am not making this up), but not if the man's penis was limp - told British journalist Linda Grant that Shuley was "poor and crazy," that she rents rooms and fills them with junk, gets kicked out and then rents another room and fills it with junk. Sisterhood is real powerful with Andrea Dworkin, eh? Maybe Shuley didn't hate men enough for Andrea's taste, I don't know.

Seduction is often difficult to distinguish from rape. In seduction, the rapist often bothers to buy a bottle of wine.
Andrea Dworkin 

Oh really? So artists are no different than totalitarian dictators, I assume? - OG
Shuley was instrumental in leading women to protest the 1969 Miss America show, which led to the media myth that women showed up and burned their bras. There is no evidence anyone burned their bra then, but many of the women who objected to Miss America as a sexist show threw their bras in a trash can. Shuley also led a heated protest at Ladies Home Journal in 1970. They burst in and demanded the editorial and advertising staff be replaced by women, and Shuley herself jumped on editor John Mack Carter's desk and began ripping up magazines, and threatening Carter himself, allegedly. It was widely seen as a publicity stunt, and Shuley was criticized for making the Movement look crazy. (Which, in hindsight, it pretty much was, right? But we're talking the Sixties/early 70s: Weather Underground, Baadher-Meinhof, the SLA, Mansonoids, MK-ULTRA, etc.)

Shuley's book is what will endure. As far as I can tell by Internet research, it's still taught in universities. She was quite brilliant and crazy, a heretic, my kind of thinker. I may not agree with everything, but I admire the overweening chutzpah. When I read in The Dialectic of Sex I feel the spirit of Wilhelm Reich, Timothy Leary, Ezra Pound, Nietzsche, the condensed righteous demand for equality - Emma Goldman, anyone? - from her feminist forebears, even William Blake. The Mad Heretical geniuses that changed the world.

Shulamith Fireston's Visions Slowly Coming To Fruition
I thought of Shuley today when, reading in Salon, I caught an article that said the nation's largest group of OB-GYNs have said that the Pill should be available over the counter. Shuley was way ahead on this one. Of course.

                                    Dr. Carl Djerassi, one of the major developers of the 
                                    oral contraceptive pill (OCP). Now at Stanford.

I recently read a play by one of the main inventors of the birth control pill, Carl Djerassi. He's concerned with conveying ideas about science and the quite-human lives of scientists in works he labels "science-in-fiction" and (as in his plays) "science in theater." The play was titled An Immaculate Misconception, and is surrounded by the story of ICSI, or IntraCytoplasmic Sperm Injection. When, for whatever reason, a man is infertile, he can ejaculate into a cup and the doctors can find one viable sperm, then inject it into a woman's egg, and place the egg back inside her. In 1992 a paper was published that made a big splash: they had figured out how to do this! Now there are tens of thousands of ICSI kids walking around, in their teens. The female scientist hero of the play envisions a world in which sex will only be for fun, procreation being a whole other thing altogether. This made me think of Shuley too...although I'm pretty sure she liked girls.

A recent article on ectogenesis - artificial wombs and Firestone's dream - are already possible, but they will be perfected in either 10 to 60 years, depending on which expert you read. Andrea Dworkin, contra Shuley, thought, in a hopelessly patriarchal society, women are only valued for being able to give birth. The rise of ectogenesis - a word coined by the great biologist JBS Haldane in 1924! - would make women "obsolete." The social, political, and ethical implications are truly staggering here. When will we get the "immaculate gestation," as two scholars are calling it? Haldane predicted that only 30% of births will be via a woman's body in 2074. Will the technique liberate women or further oppress them? My vague guess is that, in places like Idaho and Alabama and Saudi Arabia, it will further oppress women; in places like California and Vermont and the Netherlands it will further liberate them. But we shall see.

                      Hanna Rosin, editor at Atlantic Monthly and author of The End of Men

Finally, Hanna Rosin has stirred up quite a crapstorm with her recent book, The End of Men and the Rise of Women, which I have only read 60% through. First off, it seems giving your title The End of is both audacious and almost guarantees sales. But what of her argument? If you haven't read it and you're interested in men or women in the First World, you might find it interesting. If you don't have the time you might practice Bayard's art: listen to people talk about the book, read reviews, ask someone you know who has read the book to talk about it, and then go to a party and act like you've read the book and give your opinions. What's of recent interest to me is that some feminists seem threatened by Rosin's thesis, and if you read this article, you'll be both practicing some of Bayard's art and getting part of Rosin's argument: that women have adapted far better than men have to the changing world of work, the information economy, etc. In the First World, we're becoming less and less of a patriarchal world, and I think that's good for all of us...but the birth pangs of this New Thing will smart, pun intended.

One thing Ms. Firestone would still be most impatient about is...class and economic inequality, which has only increased since her 1970 book.

Shuley saw all this coming. RIP.
obit from The Villager
obit from NYT
obit from The Guardian
first of 2-part piece on Firestone at N+1 : Goes in-depth about her difficult life, really terrific.

Here's a recent 6 minute interview with Rosin about her book, to help you practice Bayard's art:


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Another way that feminists such as Firestone were ahead of their time: The Miss America pageant, once a major nationwide event watched by millions on network TV, has become a minor event that struggles to get on television at all.

michael said...

You're right. Good point. Anytime I happen upon any of the beauty pageants on TV, the talk amongst me and my wife or our friends is "Oh look how pretty she is...and the whole thing is vacuous and what's the point?"

You're one of the gals who hit the genetic lottery for looks...but we value brains, creativity, wit...and including the Qs about How would you save the world? and such just seem cruel with these things.

WHO actually takes this crap seriously? Or is it all irony, from here on out. Wait. Don't tell me. I think I have an idea of who takes it all seriously. People who think Donald Trump has something valuable to say, we should pay attention to him?