Shulamith Firestone, R.I.P.

The brilliant feminist Shulamith Firestone, author of the second wave classic The Dialectic of Sex (1970), has died, apparently of natural causes. She was 67. For decades, she had battled severe mental illness, and the circumstances of her demise were especially sad; she lived alone and, according to reports, her death was not discovered until neighbors “smelled a strong odor from her apartment,” by which time she had been dead for about a week.

The Dialectic of Sex, the work for which she will remain best known, is one of the great utopian manifestos of its era: a heady, wildly ambitious melange of Marx, Freud, Reich, and de Beauvoir, it is at once thrilling and infuriating, searingly insightful and totally impractical. Taking as a given the idea that women’s subordinate status is rooted in biology, Firestone called for the destruction of the nuclear family; the use of technology to create “test tube babies” and thus eliminate the practice of natural pregnancy and childbirth; and a radical re-organization of human society based on communal living and a socialist economy.

Like I said, completely impractical! — and also, not especially appealing to most women, which helps to explain why Firestone has not been particularly influential. But while some of her ideas — that naive faith in technological progress! — have not held up particularly well, others — such as her intriguing argument that the oppression of women is inextricably linked to the oppression of children, merit much more serious attention than they have received.

Like all the best radical thinkers and visionaries, Firestone is valuable for busting ancient paradigms, burning through centuries-old intellectual debris, and opening one’s heart, mind, and imagination to new ways of thinking and new ways of being. “Agreeing” with the ideas or the analysis presented, or fussing about its feasibility, isn’t the point. By questioning everything you thought you knew, and broadening your horizons to wide new vistas, you see the world in a new way, and you come away with a greatly expanded vision of human possibility. In a society in which the boundaries of political discourse have become so painfully pinched and narrow, and where, to quote Fredric Jameson, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” that is no small thing. For how can we ever come even one step closer to creating a brave new world if we let despair drive us to abandoning the project of envisioning what such a world would look like?

If you’re interested in reading more about Shulamith Firestone, you can find some of her writings here and here.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee