Dates: born 1945, died August 2012
Known for: radical feminist theory
Shulamith (Shulie) Firestone
is was a feminist theorist known for her book The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, published when she was only 25 years old.
Born in Canada in 1945 to an Orthodox Jewish family, Shulamith Firestone moved to the United States as a child and graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago. She was the subject of a short 1967 documentary called Shulie, part of a series of films made by Chicago art students. The film followed a typical day in her life with scenes of commuting, working, and making art. Although never released, the film was revisited in a shot-by-shot simulacrum remake in 1997, also calledShulie. The original scenes were faithfully recreated but she was played by an actress.
Shulamith Firestone helped create several radical feminist groups. With Jo Freeman she started The Westside Group, an early consciousness-raising group in Chicago. In 1967, Firestone was one of the founding members of New York Radical Women. When NYRW split into factions amid disagreement about what direction the group should take, she launched Redstockings with Ellen Willis.
The members of Redstockings rejected the existing political left. They accused other feminist groups of still being part of a society that oppressed women. Redstockings drew attention when its members disrupted a 1970 abortion hearing in New York City at which the scheduled speakers were a dozen men and a nun. Redstockings later held its own hearing, allowing women to testify about abortion.
Shulamith Firestone’s Published Works
In her 1968 essay “The Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S.A: New View,” Shulamith Firestone asserted that women’s rights movements have always been radical, and have always been strongly opposed and stamped out. She pointed out that it was extremely difficult for 19th-century women to take on the church, the entrenched law of white male power, and the “traditional” family structure that ably served the industrial revolution. Portraying suffragists as old ladies gently persuading men to allow them to vote was an effort to minimize both the women’s struggle and the oppression against which they fought. Firestone insisted the same thing was happening to 20th-century feminists.
Shulamith Firestone’s best-known work is the 1970 book The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. In it, Firestone says that a culture of sex discrimination can be traced back to the biological structure of life itself. She claims that society may have evolved to a point with advanced reproductive technology where women could be liberated from “barbaric” pregnancy and painful childbirth. By eliminating this fundamental difference between the sexes, sex discrimination could finally be eliminated.
The book became an influential text of feminist theory and is often remembered for the notion that women could seize the means of reproduction. Kathleen Hanna and Naomi Wolf, among others, have noted the book’s importance as a part of feminist theory.
Shulamith Firestone disappeared from the public eye after the early 1970s. After struggling with mental illness, in 1998 she published Airless Spaces, a collection of short stories about characters in New York City who drift in and out of mental hospitals. The Dialectic of Sex was reissued in a new edition in 2003.
BY LINCOLN ANDERSON
Shulamith Firestone, a pioneering feminist who shot to fame at age 25 with her best-selling book, “The Dialectic of Sex,” was found dead in her East Village apartment on Tuesday. She was 67.
Alerted by neighbors, who had smelled a strong odor from her apartment, her superintendent peered in through a window from the fire escape and saw her body on the floor. Her landlord, Bob Perl, said she had probably been dead about a week. He said her one-bedroom unit included rows of books, including Greek classics.
Suffering from mental illness, she had shut herself off from contact with other people. Perl said the cause of death is unclear at this point — police said it wasn’t starvation — and that the coroner’s report should provide an answer.
Perl purchased the building, 213 E. 10th St., in 1993, and figures Firestone lived there, on the fifth floor, for about 30 years.
“She was not well for many years,” Perl said, noting that her family members and “strangers” would pay her rent when she was unable to. “She was a prodigy. But she had been ill for so many years, she lost contact with the outside world.”
Firestone grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Ottawa, Canada. According to Perl, she leaves at least two sisters, one of whom, Tirzah Firestone, is a rabbi in Boulder, Colorado.
Published in 1970, her “The Dialectic of Sex” was a key feminist work that presaged today’s issues surrounding birth and science. The book influenced her feminist contemporaries as well as those who followed behind her.
“No one can understand how feminism has evolved without reading this radical, inflammatory, second-wave landmark,” said Naomi Wolf.
According to Amazon.com, “The book synthesizes the work of Freud, Marx, de Beauvoir and Engels to create a cogent argument for feminist revolution. Identifying women as a caste, she declares that they must seize the means of reproduction — for as long as women (and only women) are required to bear and rear children, they will be singled out as inferior.”
According to Wikipedia, “She advocated the use of cybernetics to carry out human reproduction in laboratories as well as the proliferation of contraception, abortion and state support for child-rearing; enabling [women] to escape their biologically determined positions in society. Firestone described pregnancy as ‘barbaric’… . Among the reproductive technologies she predicted were sex selection and in vitro fertilization.”
Firestone wrote in “The Dialectic of Sex”: “…[J]ust as to assure elimination of economic classes requires the revolt of the underclass (the proletariat) and, in a temporary dictatorship, their seizure of the means of production, so…the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction… . The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction: … [T]he dependence of the child on the mother (and vice versa) would give way to a greatly shortened dependence on a small group of others in general… . The division of labour would be ended by the elimination of labour altogether (through cybernetics). The tyranny of the biological family would be broken.”
One of her few friends in her later years was Lourdes Lopez, who met her about 10 years ago through a mutual friend. Lopez, a Lower East Side native, is a human resources administrator at Columbia. She said she enjoyed going to movies and museums with Firestone.
“She was very down to earth,” she said, noting that Firestone painted people who were close to her.
“She was isolated at the end and had changed her locks,” Lopez said. “We tried to get Mobile Crisis in there. She pretty much, because of her illness, cut off people. I was really pretty much the only person she trusted at the end as her illness took over. Between hospital stays, we would hang out for a few months until she went off her medication,” and then the process would repeat, Lopez said.
She said Firestone was paranoid-schizophrenic, as far as she knew, and had been hospitalized many times over the years.
Nevertheless, “She did write two other books and continued to paint,” she said.
Lopez is openly lesbian. As for Firestone, she said, “Honestly, she was never really tied to anyone,” and never spoke of her own sexual orientation.
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