Canadian-born feminist writer Shulamith Firestone (born 1945) was just 25 years old when her first book, The Dialectic of Sex: A Case for Feminist Revolution , ignited a minor firestorm of controversy and public debate in 1970. In it, Firestone argued that true gender equality was impossible to achieve until science freed women from their biological role as bearers of children. She envisioned an artificial womb in which fetuses could be grown until they reached the newborn stage, at which point they would be raised for the next several years in a commune-like household of eight to ten adults. The Dialectic of Sex was Firestone's sole contribution to the canon of feminist theory, but the book continued to be required reading in college women's studies programs some thirty years after its appearance.
Firestone was born in Ottawa, the federal capital of Canada, in 1945, into an Orthodox Jewish family that later relocated to St. Louis, Missouri. Her younger sister, Tirzah Firestone, became a well-known rabbi and author of books on female figures in Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah. As a young woman, Firestone studied at Washington University in St. Louis before moving on to the Art Institute of Chicago, where she earned a fine arts degree in painting in 1967. During her time there, she became interested in new theories about women's roles in society, and was one of the organizers of the Westside Group, which later evolved into the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, the first women's liberation group in the United States.
Later in 1967, Firestone headed to New York City, where she continued her involvement in the nascent "women's liberation" movement, as it was termed at the time. She helped found a new group there, New York Radical Women (NYRW), but ideological divisions between the more politically minded members of the group—who were adherents of socialism—and radical feminists like Firestone split the group. The socialist women believed that political reform would bring gender equality, while radicals disagreed with this proposition, contending that leftist-oriented groups still carried over many discriminatory ideas and practices despite their avowed support for the idea of equality on all levels. Many of the political groups that drew feminist women into their fold failed to give women equal status or allowed them to advance to leadership roles, for example, and some even deemed a separate women's movement actually counterrevolutionary to socialist goals.
NYRW disbanded in 1969, and Firestone went on to found another group, called the Redstockings, that same year with Ellen Willis, a writer. The group took its name from the Bluestockings, an informal coalition of women intellectuals in mid-18th century Britain, and used "red" because it was the color of revolution and socialist upheaval. Its founding, noted an essay on Firestone in Feminist Writers , had been prompted by their "disgust with the blatant antagonism toward women's liberation shown by leftist men, in this case as directed against a women's protest (during which Firestone gave a speech) scheduled as part of a program of the Counter-Inaugural demonstration organized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam held in Washington, D.C., in January 1969." Though Firestone's tenure with the group was brief, the Redstockings had a few notable moments: they disrupted the New York State Assembly's debate on abortion-law reform, and staged a sit-in at Ladies' Home Journal magazine.
Later in 1969, Firestone left the Redstockings to form a third group, the New York Radical Feminists, with Anne Koedt. Within a year, however, some of its newer members claimed that Firestone and the other leadership were elitist, a charge likely linked to the middle-class backgrounds of women like Firestone and the perceived ease with which they handled the press and publicized the group's cause. "Rather than a matter of jealousy, the concern was over whose version of feminism would become popularized," the Feminist Writers essay noted. "The fear was that women with more access to the media would be in a position to become leaders of a movement that officially rejected the idea of leadership."
Firestone left the New York Radical Feminists in 1970, exhausted by the internal struggles and infighting within the movement over the past few years. Though a painter by training, she drifted into writing almost accidentally by authoring the manifestos of the feminist organizations with which she was involved. She served as editor of a magazine, Notes from the First Year: Women's Liberation , published by the NYRW in June of 1968 and on sale for "$ .50 to Women/$1.00 to Men," its masthead read. She also coedited Notes from the Second Year: Radical Feminism with Koedt, in 1970, but was already working on her groundbreaking book, The Dialectic of Sex: A Case for Feminist Revolution , by that point.
Published in October of 1970 by William Morrow, The Dialectic of Sex drew upon the work of Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), the political philosophers whose most important set of theories, known as Marxism, gave rise to the ideology of Communism; the ideas of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) also shaped some of the themes in Firestone's book. Approaching the topic of political theory from a feminist viewpoint, she argued that gender inequality was, in the end, ultimately dictated by biology. Pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing were a vital part of human existence, but the need to reproduce the species efficiently had made women vulnerable, and a patriarchal system had been imposed on much of the human race as a means of perpetuating the system. Few could dispute the fact, she wrote, "that Women throughout history before the advent of birth control were at the continual mercy of their biology—menstruation, menopause, and 'female ills,' constant painful childbirth, wet-nursing and care of infants, all of which made them dependent on males (whether brother, father, husband, lover, or clan, government, community-at-large) for physical survival."
Firestone's proposed solution borrowed from Marx and Engels: their philosophy maintained that the proletariat workers of the 19th-century Industrial Revolution were the exploited class in a capitalist society, and justice would not come until they seized the means of production, or literally took over the factories and equipment that served to enslave them. Similarly, Firestone argued that women were the oppressed class in modern societies, and that they should seize control over the very thing that exploited them: human reproduction. The process, she theorized, could be turned over to science and privately run laboratories instead. New advances in reproductive technology would lead to an artificial womb, which would forever free women from the burden and dangers of pregnancy and childbirth—the latter which Firestone's text rather infamously likened to expelling a pumpkin, though in far more colorful language. Only by removing the real biological differences between the sexes in this way, she asserted, could genuine equality be achieved.
The Dialectic of Sex addressed the issue of raising children after their incubation period by imagining a communal living arrangement in which biological parents would not be solely responsible for their offspring; instead a household of eight to ten adults would raise a child. Such units could apply for a license to have a child artificially, Firestone theorized, or a female member could carry the child by natural means but would not be its only parent. Her book also urged unrestricted access to contraception and government-subsidized child care as two more goals that could free women and, she argued, the human race, from what she termed "the tyranny of the biological family…. Marx was on to something more profound than he knew when he observed that the family contained within itself in embryo all the antagonisms that later develop on a wide scale within the society and the state. For unless revolution uproots the basic social organisation, the biological family—the vinculum through which the psychology of power can always be smuggled—the tapeworm of exploitation will never be annihilated."
Not surprisingly, Firestone's book caused a stir in the mainstream media. Reviews were largely negative, with a Times Literary Supplement critic calling it "atrociously written … in language that varies from the most clotted kind of semi-scientific jargon to phrases as ungrammatical as they are ugly." Nevertheless, it became a bestseller as well as required reading in many women's studies programs at the college level. Firestone's ideas about an artificial womb predated the first successful in-vitro fertilization babies by several years, and by the turn of the 21st century, reproductive-biology scientists were seeking to erase the viability line for fetuses, who have a difficult time surviving outside of the womb before the 25th week of pregnancy in the event of premature delivery. Though a true artificial womb had not yet been realized, her ideas about donor-sperm banks and homeschooling via computer did come to fruition a generation later.
Firestone virtually disappeared after the publication of her book. She reportedly suffered from a mental illness, and was hospitalized on several occasions. A later radical feminist, Andrea Dworkin (1946–2005), was interviewed for the British newspaper the Guardian in 2000, and told journalist Linda Grant that Firestone was "poor and crazy. She rents a room in a house and fills it with junk, then gets kicked out and moves into another room and fills that with junk." A volume of short stories from Firestone, Airless Spaces , appeared in 1998.
Around that same time, Firestone was the subject of a remake of a short documentary film by an Art Institute of Chicago instructor and filmmaker, Elisabeth Subrin. Subrin had discovered a never-released documentary short featuring Firestone that was made during her final year at the school; Subrin then reshot it in its entirety, with a young woman cast as Firestone instead, and released it in 1997 as Shulie . It debuted at the Walker Art Center of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in an exhibit titled The Shock of the View . Writing in the exhibition materials, media-arts scholar Bill Horrigan called it a "portrait of an emerging artist, shown in the studio, at her job in the post office, in interviews with the off-screen male filmmakers, and weathering an appalling crit session as her paintings in progress are glared upon by a jury of five male instructors." In the original, Firestone tells the camera, "I just generally identify with minority groups as opposed to, you know, the large masses, the large homogenous mass of people. I just automatically feel a bond with people who aren't exactly in things."
Though her involvement was brief, Firestone is considered one of the key figures in what is called second-wave feminism, the term used for the movement which had begun to challenge long-held ideas about gender roles; first-wave feminists, by contrast, focused on more easily legislated issues such as voting rights and equal pay. Le Tigre, the rock band fronted by Kathleen Hanna, performs a song on their 2001 LP, Feminist Sweepstakes , "F.Y.R. (Fifty Years of Ridicule)" whose lyrics were inspired by Firestone's book.
Feminist Writers , St. James Press, 1996.
Guardian (London, England), May 13, 2000.
New York Times , October 29, 1970.
Times Literary Supplement , (London, England), April 23, 1971.
Firestone, Shulamith, The Dialectic of Sex , Marxists Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/subject/women/authors/firestone-shulamith/dialectic-sex.htm (January 1, 2007).
Firestone, Shulamith, "Women and the Radical Movement," Marxists Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/subject/women/authors/firestone-shulamith/radical-movement.htm (January 1, 2007).
Firestone, Shulamith, "The Women's Rights Movement in the U.S.A.: New View," The CWLU Herstory Website , http://www.cwluherstory.com/CWLUArchive/womensrights.html (January 1, 2007).
Horrigan, Bill, "Elisabeth Subrin: Shulie ," Walker Art Center, The Shock of the View , http://www.walkerart.org/archive/6/BE5391BFF2D45424616C.htm (January 2, 2007).