Book Post: The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone

“The first demand for any alternative system must be: The freeing of women from the tyranny of their reproductive biology by every means available, and the diffusion of the childbearing and childrearing role to the society as a whole, men as well as women.” -Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (1970)

My reading has slowed down recently as I’ve been struggling to make it through the semester, but when I ran across an article that mentioned “that 70’s Italian feminist who wanted to abolish childbirth,” I pretty much immediately dropped what I was doing and ran to get a copy from the library.

Before I start the post, let’s talk about the limitations of second-wave feminists! The majority are not what I would describe as “intersectional.” When it comes to women of color, poor women, non-straight women, transgender women, disabled women, and so on, they often tend to either completely ignore their existence or say some cringe-worthy, ignorant things. If you’re lucky, they might have something decent to say about one or two marginalized groups, but otherwise, you have to accept what you’re getting into: insights which can be quite apt, but only relevant to the specific category of women which the author sees as “default.”

In particular, radical feminists from this time period (or, for that matter, our current time) are known for being quite awful on the topic of transgender people, which is personally very disappointing to me, because I think that there is a great, unexplored area in developing a radical feminist ideology that is inclusive of and respectful of non-cis people. Every now and then, I see others who agree with this: I’ve got a Facebook friend whose profile picture refers to NERF (non-exclusive radical feminism), and one of my favorite bloggers, Ozy Brennan (who is themself nonbinary), has written some interesting posts from a trans-positive gender abolitionist perspective. But in general, reading these classic feminist authors can be a minefield of transphobia (I was turned off Germaine Greer recently for this reason).

Keeping that in mind, I was almost relieved that Firestone never mentioned transgender people in her book. Sure, it was probably because it didn’t occur to her that they existed, but at least it meant she didn’t say anything too off-putting about them. For the rest of this post, you can generally assume that I’m referring to cisgender people, as these are the people Firestone had in mind when writing. I think a modern analysis of her work and the way non-cis people might fit into it would be interesting and would have to be an entirely different post, because it would more than double the length of this one.

For now, let’s suffice it to say that I don’t find her ideas (that the oppression of women originated in physical sex difference, and that complete liberation would involve no longer placing cultural meaning on sex differences) incompatible with a modern view of gender being something separate from sex: the fact that gender roles arose from sex differences doesn’t mean that gender didn’t then take on a life of its own in society, similarly to how money, which was socially constructed to represent concrete goods and services, became a separate cultural entity over time. For a more eloquent explanation, I’d encourage anyone interested to check out the Ozy Brennan posts linked above.

Alright, with that long asterisk, we can start to talk about Firestone. Compared to feminist authors today, who tend to focus on the specifics of what is wrong in our society and the practical steps that must be taken, second-wave feminists can seem utopian and a bit insane, because they had the courage to throw out pretty much any idea that popped into their heads. Firestone’s ideas are out at the deep-end of the swimming pool. I’ll go into more detail in this post, but to summarize, she believes that true liberation would involve the end of: capitalism, labor, gender, pregnancy, childbirth, the nuclear family, exclusive heterosexuality, hierarchy, power, and childhood. Without using these exact words, Firestone is basically advocating for fully automated luxury pansexual space feminism/anarcho-communism. She’s sometimes considered to be the original transhumanist feminist and she is 100% ready to be assimilated into the Borg. I find about half of her ideas insane, but the other half of the time, I feel like she has reached into my head and pulled my dreams out and put them on paper. I would follow Shulamith Firestone into hell.

The book in general focuses on the concept that original biological sex differences between male and female humans created an inequality, which was then seized upon to create the concept of gender and the cultural subjugation of those with female bodies (and, beyond that, those perceived as women, which isn’t necessarily the same thing). Firestone supports the Marxist view of class struggle, except that she believes that other forms of oppression and hierarchy (class, race, etc.) grew out of the essential power imbalance of the nuclear family and the power than fathers held over their wives and children, which thus was the origin of the assumption that hierarchies are intrinsic to human nature. Because of this, she posits that any socialist/leftist revolution that fails to eliminate gender roles and the biological family structure will fail, because the origin of power psychology will remain.

I’m not so sure about that bit, but I do agree with part of her analysis, which is that movements that attempt to fully integrate women into the workforce will fail if they do not put equal efforts into taking the unpaid work that women have been performing (reproduction of the species, childrearing, domestic labor) and distribute it evenly across all people.

Like I said, Firestone is alternatively crazy and wonderful. To criticize her, the chapter dedicated to racism, as you might expect from a white second-wave feminist, was pretty cringe-worthy and inadequate from a modern view, as she was dedicated to the idea that race oppression could be compared directly to sex oppression and seen as, in some way, originating from it. I think she would have been better off to omit this chapter rather than miss the mark so much.

One part of the chapter I did find relevant, though, was her critique of the way black male revolutionaries tried to access power by imitating white masculinity, putting black women on the same stifling pedestal that white women had been elevated to (the whole “You are my queen and mother of my children and the Divine Feminine and all that, and your role is to submit to me and raise my children and allow me to be A Man, i.e., powerful”). Luckily, in recent years, it seems this approach is taking a backseat to letting black women themselves speak on their own oppression along both racial and gender lines, rather than, as Audre Lorde described, the separate women’s rights and black rights movements expecting black women to identify with one side or the other. Firestone does make a good point about the gendered oppression of black women, but, like most white feminists of her time, refuses to see the complicity of white women, including feminists, in the racial oppression of black women.

Her views on the liberation of children are some of the most out-there in the book. Basically, she believes that childhood is a socially constructed status, as in the past, children were treated as small adults and mostly integrated into the wider society. I am not sure I would agree with her claim that all hierarchy is intrinsically oppressive, or that children should be given total freedom, as children are often very dumb and make decisions that get them hurt.

However, she did make some good points. The idea that children are the property of their parents (especially when the book was written in the 60’s) and should be used for ego fulfillment and a sort of false immortality does do more harm to children than good, and children need more legal recourse from abusive parents. I may be biased as someone who hated school to the point that I entered an online homeschooling program and taught myself because I felt the public school system was literally crushing every bit of curiosity and self-determination from me, but I am sympathetic to her claims that the school system is focused more on the imposition of “discipline” than any actual love of learning, and that it destroys the ability of children to self-regulate and replaces internal motivation with external control, which kills curiosity. And she does make a good point that it seems the focus on childhood as a magical, carefree time exists more for the benefit of jaded, nostalgic adults than children themselves, and that segregating children from adult life hinders their growth and places undo burdens on their parents rather than allowing the community at large to play a role in their upbringing.

I could write a whole blog post just on her critique of childhood, but I’ll try to keep it brief. She points out that the extended dependency and limited freedom of children reinforced women’s dependence:

With the increase and exaggeration of children’s dependence, woman’s bondage to motherhood was also extended to its limits. Women and children were now in the same lousy boat. Their oppressions began to reinforce one another. To the mystique of the glories of childbirth, the grandeur of “natural” female creativity, was now added a new mystique about the glories of childhood itself and the “creativity” of childrearing.

Their oppression reinforced one another in the sense that dependent, powerless children required the oversight of a parent 24/7, and women, expected to use motherhood as a substitute for every other opportunity denied them, became suffocating, overly-attached parents whose self-worth was dependent on their ability to “sacrifice” for their children, even if that led to resentment.

She also points out that, while child labor laws did help to protect lower-class children from being exploited as much as their parents are, the real question should be:

Why were their parents being exploited in the first place: what is anybody doing down in that coal mine? What we ought to be protesting, rather than that children are being exploited just like adults, is that adults can be so exploited. We need to start talking not about sparing children for a few years from the horrors of adult life, but about eliminating those horrors. In a society free of exploitation, children could be like adults (with no exploitation implied) and adults could be like children (with no exploitation implied).

Firestone believes that women should advocate for children’s rights not because women are inherently responsible for children, but because they are oppressed in similar ways (dependent on the father for patronage, at least when the book was written, and placed on a pedestal in which they are not to be troubled with serious matters or allowed to make their own choices), and that part of the liberation that women should fight for is that the care of children should be shared equally among everyone.

My favorite thing about Firestone is the way that she attacks traditional views of femininity on both the left and the right. I hate the way that many feminists buy into the image of Woman as Earth Goddess, in which they want to return to the golden age of women’s elevation as fertility symbol in matriarchal society, and in which the biological function of childbearing is put on a pedestal. “Women are special because they can create life,” they say, acting like giving birth or breastfeeding or menstruating are the most amazing things a woman can do.

Firestone dismantles this idealization of matriarchal societies, which, in her view, did not give women the same power than men have in a patriarchy. Rather, matriarchal societies existed because men lacked the tools to control nature and thus feared it, and they associated women with nature rather than humanity.

Though it’s true that woman’s lot worsened considerably under patriarchy, she never had it good; for despite all the nostalgia it is not hard to prove that matriarchy was never an answer to women’s fundamental oppression. Basically it was no more than a different means of counting lineage and inheritance, one which, thought it might have held more advantages for women than the latter patriarchy, did not allow women into the society as equals. To be worshiped is not freedom; for worship still takes place in someone else’s head.

In other words, true liberation for women does not involve being a symbol of anything, positive or negative, but rather being allowed to just be a member of the human race who does not have to symbolize anything other than herself.

But it is Firestone’s take-down of the concept of pregnancy and childbirth, and the knee-jerk negative reactions to artificial reproductive technologies, that forms the heart of the book and her argument for women’s liberation, and because this is the passage that made me want to swear my undying loyalty to her, I will just insert it here in full, even though it’s a bit long.

Fear of new methods of reproduction are so widespread that as of the time of this writing, 1969, the subject, outside of scientific circles, is still taboo. Even many women in the women’s liberation movement—perhaps especially in the women’s liberation movement—are afraid to express any interest in it for fear of confirming everyone’s suspicions that they are “unnatural,” spending a great deal of energy denying that they are anti-motherhood, pro-artificial reproduction, and so on. Let me then say it bluntly:

Pregnancy is barbaric. I do not believe, as many women are now saying, that the reason pregnancy is viewed as not beautiful is due to strictly cultural perversions. […] Pregnancy is the temporary deformation of the body of the individual for the sake of the species.

Moreover, childbirth hurts. And it isn’t good for you. Three thousand years ago, women giving birth “naturally” had no need to pretend that pregnancy was a real trip, some mystical orgasm. The Bible said it: pain and travail. The glamour was unnecessary: women had no choice. They didn’t dare squawk. But at least they could scream as loudly as they wanted during their labor pains. And after it was over, even during it, they were admired in a limited way for their bravery; their valor was measured by how many children (sons) they could endure bringing into the world.

Today all this has been confused. The cult of natural childbirth itself tells us how far we’ve come from true oneness with nature. Natural childbirth is only one more part of the reactionary hippie-Rousseauean Return-to-Nature, and just as self-conscious. Perhaps a mystification of childbirth, true faith, makes it easier for the women involved. Pseudo-yoga exercises, twenty pregnant women breathing deeply on the floor, may even help some women develop “proper” attitudes (as in “I didn’t scream once”). The squirming husband at the bedside, like the empathy pains of certain tribesmen (“Just look what I go through with you, dear”), may make a woman feel less alone during her ordeal. But the fact remains: childbirth is at best necessary and tolerable. It is not fun.

[…]

Artificial reproduction is not inherently dehumanizing. At the very least, development of an option should make possible an honest reexamination of the ancient value of motherhood. At the present time, for a woman to come out openly against motherhood on principle is dangerous. She can get away with it only if she adds that she is neurotic, abnormal, childhating and therefore “unfit.” (“Perhaps later… when I’m better prepared.”) This is hardly a free atmosphere of inquiry. Until the taboo is lifted, until the decision not to have children or not to have them “naturally” is at least as legitimate as traditional childbearing, women are being forced into their female roles.

Shulamith Firestone, where have you been all my life? With a few paragraphs, she cuts to the heart of my discomfort with the cult of motherhood. The fact that generally only women can carry children is not a privilege or a special strength. It is an unfair condition that has kept women down for millenia, and a true liberation should not just include the end of harmful cultural stereotypes and power inequities between genders, but the end of pregnancy as a purely female burden. Women’s power and strength should not be defined primarily in terms of their ability to endure pain and sacrifice their bodies, comfort, and autonomy for the sake of children.

Firestone even addresses the topic of what should be done if women want to free themselves from the expectation of reproductive labor before artificial reproductive methods are perfected:

What if, once the false motivations for pregnancy have been shed, women no longer wanted to “have” children at all? Might this not be a disaster, given that artificial reproduction is not yet perfected? But women have no special reproductive obligation to the species. If they are no longer willing, then artificial methods will have to be developed hurriedly, or, at the very least, satisfactory compensations would have to be supplied to make it worth their while.

In other words: you want women to continue bearing children for you? To quote Goodfellas: Fuck you, pay me.

Not to say that there can’t be incremental improvements made. But they shouldn’t be taken as the ultimate goal. As Firestone says, “Day-care centers buy women off. They ease the immediate pressure without asking why the pressure is on women.” I see the same forces at work when working women are advised to hire a cleaning lady, or a nanny: all this does is shift the burden of childcare and domestic labor to poor women. It lets men off the hook for taking up an equal responsibility for their homes. A revolution in which women are integrated into the workforce and men are not integrated into the running of their households will never work, because those women will always be juggling two jobs at once. (See the statistic that women who out-earn their male partners actually do MORE housework, not less, than women who are not the primary breadwinners in their families.)

(This article, which I shared recently, provides a similar deconstruction of the left’s blind championing of breastfeeding and failure to imagine a better system worth striving for.)

Firestone addresses the idea that artificial reproduction, much like the automation of labor or the development of nuclear energy, while it may be misused or harmful in the hands of our current state, is a neutral technology that can be used for good in the hands of the people. She acknowledges that these ideas tend to make people think of dystopian literature like Brave New World and 1984, but posits that this is the result of people imagining the intrusion of the public, the State, into the private refuge of the home, destroying the warmth and individuality which currently exists only in these private enclaves. On the other hand, what she is proposing is the diffusion of familial warmth and compassion into the world at large, humanizing it, and ending the false division between “feminine virtues” (love, compassion, intimacy) and “masculine virtues” (ambition, competition, innovation).

In the meantime, given that we don’t have the ability to grow babies in vats just yet, I believe, as Firestone does, that we must fully recognize the burden that women take on by carrying children. It is currently taken for granted as part of a woman’s role, something expected of them. Most mothers don’t even get the right to pass on their own last names. Pregnancy and childbirth should be acknowledged for what they are: not a magical feminine experience, but a dangerous and unfair burden on women’s bodily autonomy, one that should be compensated in the present as we work for a way to remove that burden from their shoulders. The fact that something is natural doesn’t mean that it must be good or accepted. People seem perfectly willing, as Firestone points out, to support things like IVF for helping married couples with fertility issues, or artificial wombs for the benefit of premature babies, but as soon as we start talking about using reproductive technology in a way that undermines the traditional family structure and the traditional role of women, suddenly Science Has Gone Too Far.

As I said, I would have to write many more blog posts to fully explore the ideas in this book. I take notes on the books I read, and I’ve got a full 20 pages of notes on this one, twice as much as any other. There are some parts I can’t really describe, such as the chapter in which she somehow makes Freud’s theories make sense from a radical feminist perspective (suggesting that the psychological dynamics he observed were in some way real, but that they were a symptom of the patriarchal family structure and the psychology of power and hierarchy that it creates, not a fundamental truth of human nature). I would highly recommend that anyone interested pick up a copy of the book, as long as you don’t mind some Weird Shit.

At the heart of the book is Firestone’s conviction that the traditional family structure oppresses both women and children, and that the division of the world into business and achievement in one corner and home and comfort in the other, as well as the division of universal human traits into “masculine” and “feminine,” forces men and women to have fractured, incomplete personalities, alienated from their whole personhood. She is not afraid to declare herself anti-family, but she is not anti-love. In fact, I found her description of love to be quite moving:

Contrary to popular opinion, love is not altruistic. The initial attraction is based on curious admiration for the self-possession, the integrated unity, of the other and a wish to become part of this Self in some way, to become important to that psychic balance. The self-containment of the other creates desire; admiration of the other becomes a wish to incorporate its qualities. […] Thus love is the height of selfishness: the self attempts to enrich itself through the absorption of another being. Love is being psychically wide-open to another. It is a situation of total emotional vulnerability. Therefore it must be not only the incorporation of the other, but an exchange of selves. Anything short of a mutual exchange will hurt one or the other party.

There is nothing inherently destructive about this process. A little healthy selfishness would be a refreshing change. Love between two equals would be an enrichment, each enlarging himself through the other: instead of being one, locked in the cell of himself with only his own experience and view, he could participate in the existence of another—an extra window on the world. This accounts for the bliss that successful lovers experience: Lovers are temporarily freed from the burden of isolation that every individual bears.

However, she claims that traditional marriage and family structure makes true love, between two equals, impossible. Women are not able to freely choose love when they are reliant on men for economic support, or when they are seen as lesser, alienated from other women (e.g., the desire to be “not like other girls”), and can only be given value and self-worth by a man choosing to elevate them over the rest of their gender. Men are not able to freely choose love as long as they see womanhood as lesser, a degraded and weak state, because they must place their female partner on an artificial, stifling pedestal in order to justify their association with her.

Firestone’s idea of a revolution is a world in which people, freed from the constraints of gender roles and hierarchies, are able to become fully integrated and embrace traits seen as both masculine and feminine, and to love each other and live as equals. A world in which beauty, compassion, and life-giving aren’t restricted to women, and power, ambition, and purpose aren’t restricted to men.

In the final chapter, probably my favorite in the book, Feminism in the Age of Ecology, Firestone addresses the importance of women’s liberation to the ecological crisis and the population explosion. She says that the public ignores statistics about environmental crisis and overpopulation because of the “chauvinism of the family,” in which they believe that their need and right to perpetuate their own lineage trumps all. Being granted freedom from their traditional role would allow women to make informed choices about their reproduction. I see this as plausible: basically everywhere in the world, as women’s education, freedom, and access to birth control increases, birth rates decrease. We don’t need population control, we need women to be freed from the expectation of motherhood and the pressure to sublimate all personal ambitions into child-rearing.

Firestone is a utopian for sure, but, in my eyes, a welcome one, because no one else seems to be ready to imagine a world in which women can be fully liberated from their traditional role, not only as enforced by society but also as enforced by nature. It may never be possible, but I am glad there are people out there who see that it is worth fighting for. She’s pretty far off the deep-end, and she has flaws, but Firestone is saying things that I have been waiting to hear my entire life without even knowing what I was waiting for, and that alone makes this one of the most important books I’ve read this year.

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