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Revisiting radical feminism

A contemporary analysis of a second wave masterpiece

The Dialectic of Sex:
The Case for Feminist Revolution

by Shulamith Firestone, 1970

Reviewed by Serene Williams

Few works of feminist theory are more contentious and more important to a diverse feminist dialogue than The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone. A masterpiece of second wave literature, The Dialectic of Sex challenges even the most committed feminist to rethink everything she or he feels about the role of the two sexes in American society. While this book is essential reading for any feminist attempting to understand feminist theory and the struggles women were facing in the early 1970s, it is ultimately devoid of practical solutions of use to a wider audience.

On the thirty-fifth anniversary of this groundbreaking work, it's amazing to realize how far women have come since Firestone's book was first published. Although it is must reading for anyone truly interested in understanding the beliefs of radical feminism, it is not for the faint of heart. Her opinions are intentionally shocking, and with just cause. Tackling the most important issues of her day, including: race, parenthood, love and sex, she has an ambitious project. With her book, Firestone aims to convince women to overhaul traditional motherhood and societal beliefs of gender roles in general. "…the end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally" (19). Unlike the majority of other second wave feminist authors, Firestone aims to completely reconstruct our society. Instead of demanding laws and equal protection for women within the existing political system, Firestone wishes to completely demolish our existing system and replace it with a radical one to her liking.

Written in 1970 in the middle of the second wave of the women's movement, The Dialectic of Sex was a battle call for women to combat societal norms of the relationships between men, women and children. Her purpose was to build a new dialectical materialism based upon sex, similar to what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels did for economics. In her aim for feminist revolution, Firestone makes many provocative goals for feminism that did not sit well in the 1970s and would still not be widely supported today. Her myriad of revolutionary goals are too numerous to examine comprehensively in a brief review; a select few will be included below, chosen as a sample to understand a few of Firestone's fundamental positions.

Perhaps most famously, and inherently relevant to mothers, is her argument that in order to achieve equality, women must eliminate their role as the sole biological producers of children. In Firestone's view, the biological restriction upon women as child-bearers will consistently keep them in their place as second-class citizens until they relieve themselves of this burden. Less shocking is her complimentary view that women should not be solely in charge of child-rearing. In calling for her vision of feminist revolution, she would like to see, "The freeing of women from the tyranny of reproduction by every means possible, and the diffusion of child-rearing to the society as a whole, to men and other children as well as women" (221).

Throughout the course of her argument, Firestone is correct in questioning historical male domination over women, but does a disservice to women by insisting biological motherhood is inherently oppressive. Shulamith Firestone's radical feminism, as relevant and reactionary in the 1970s as it is now, tends to make the assumption that child bearing and child rearing hold women back from achieving true progress. I would argue the contrary -- that when entered into it willingly, motherhood is a distinctly feminist act. Her argument, in my opinion, has led to a still unresolved shift in contemporary feminism. The marginalization of mothers, especially stay at home mothers, from the visible women's movement has, in part, led to the dissociation many women feel from feminism. Her beliefs on child-bearing ultimately do feminism a disservice. The responsibility of women to solely give birth should not be looked upon as a burden we need to shed. Rather, it should be socially recognized as a source of societal power women alone possess.

Although it is still incredibly hard to fathom today, the possibility of reproduction of children outside of a women's uterus, as Firestone proposed in 1970, must have sounded grossly far-fetched, perhaps comparable to living in outer space. Today, however, it is not nearly as hard to imagine technology that would aid in the creation of her version of a utopian society. Despite these potential possibilities, the fact that the author's technological ideas may now be more possible does not make them more convincing. The acts of child-bearing and child-rearing themselves do not oppress women. Instead, women are oppressed by a lack of societal respect and support for their roles as caregivers. The devaluation of traditional women's work is not a problem of their own doing, but rather a manifestation of our society's marginalization of women as mothers.

In addition, Firestone argues that women and children being consistently lumped together, as in "women and children first," emphasizes their perpetual dual oppression. "The special tie women have with children is recognized by everyone. I submit, however, that the nature of this bond is no more than shared oppression" (73). Her recognition of this mutually dependent partnership helped to improve women's plight. She makes a valid point that women in her time were unnecessarily sheltered and infantalized, and did a service to us in helping alleviate the unnecessary babying women often received from men.

Equally provocative is Firestone's argument in favor of the abolition of the nuclear family. This is a running theme throughout her book, one that permeates all of her fundamental proposals. In Firestone's view, the nuclear family oppresses women by keeping them in the private sphere. Women are solely responsible for the multitude of needs their children present in a more material-minded world. "The rise of the modern nuclear family, with its adjunct 'childhood', tightened the noose around the already economically dependent group by extending and reinforcing what had been only a brief dependence, by the usual means: the development of a special ideology, of a special indigenous life style, language, dress, mannerisms, etc. And 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" (89). While her call for the abolition of the nuclear family is both unlikely and mostly unwarranted, the argument that women can be burdened by being solely responsible for child-rearing, still relevant today, had an even greater relevance when her book was written. In 1970, it was rare for a husband to actively participate in child-rearing. Today, as the number of women in the paid workforce has more than doubled, women frequently find themselves in a position of serving a "second shift," working full time jobs both inside and outside the paid workforce. Firestone's belief that women alone have shouldered child-rearing is still not far off the mark. Although paternity leave now exists and it is no longer socially unacceptable for father's to be more involved in their children's lives, it is still very rare for men to be a primary caregiver.

Towards the end of her book, Firestone offers a laundry list of possible alternatives to the nuclear family. Her suggestions include some feasible and realistic possibilities, including women being granted full legal rights with men, and some not so feasible, including child-rearing in group settings with state monitoring as opposed to the nuclear family.

In considering her beliefs, it must be remembered the context in which this book was originally written. Reading these words today, they seem over the top, unnecessary and irrelevant. When considering they were written during a time when women were still in many ways considered second-class citizens, her viewpoints can appear to seem less radical. For example, in 1970, a married woman did not have her own credit rating, and if she got a loan from a bank, she might be required to sign a promissory note that she will not get pregnant and leave her job. Women workers could also be fired if they became pregnant. Child-bearing and child-rearing were obviously much greater barriers to female advancement than they are today.

The legacy left by The Dialectic of Sex is truly mixed. On the one hand, it is unfair to make the assumption that women are always oppressed by child birth and taking care of their nuclear family. In a constant battle to remain relevant in the face of conservative backlash, feminists must stay within the confines of addressing issues of importance to mothers rather than belittling their work. Where Firestone's book loses its relevancy today is not in its radical claims, but in its open condescension of women who are happily embracing their role as primary caretakers for their children as an essential part of their feminist ideology.

On the other hand, contemporary feminists, including liberal or as Firestone would call them "conservative" feminists, would be wise to listen to a few of her radical arguments. Instead of arguing for quick fix solutions, Firestone contends women must address the root of the problem, rather than asking for a band aid solution. For example, she writes, "Day-care centres buy women off. They ease the immediate pressure without asking why that pressure is on women" (193). This is a valid argument, one that should be given careful consideration. Instead of fighting for more day care centers, maybe women should be asking why women are always the ones to have to find a solution to an ever present child care problem. Her statements such as these are as relevant today as they were in 1970.

But many things have changed. Unlike women in Firestone's generation, women today as a whole are waiting longer before they have children and may be more emotionally and financially prepared to be parents compared to many of their foremothers. To understand Firestone's arguments better, remember that women in 1970 did not have such easy access to contraception as women do today, and abortion was yet to be legalized (that came three years later). Her argument that children are overly coddled and that perhaps one day our society will pay a price for our preoccupation with their every success and failure is probably true. But with all of the obstacles women face in their attempts to start a family, from miscarriages to infertility, it is no wonder they dote on their offspring once they are lucky enough to reproduce. While not all women face these obstacles, all women have a right to be emotionally engaged with their children. Women should not begrudge one another of the pleasure of being a mother, inside or outside a nuclear family. It is wrong to assume all women feel oppressed by child rearing and are ultimately looking for a way out. Communes and collective living is not the answer. Larger support networks made up of family, friends and community members, not mandated warrants of the state, is what is much more likely to have the potential to relieve women of the overwhelming responsibilities women face in taking care of their children. In addition, in Firestone's attempt to rid children inside a nuclear family of their oppression, she aims to assist them by denying them their most prized possession -- their parents. One can only imagine what troubled experiences she must have faced to cause her to write, "Children are repressed at every waking moment. Childhood is hell" (101).

While some of the author's views are obviously at odds with the entire structure of our society, the brilliance of her book means all of her arguments warrant serious thought and discussion. What is most fascinating about Firestone's book is that had her ideas been adopted, our society would undoubtedly have become a more troubled place, yet her book is essential reading nonetheless. This is because like a true revolutionary, she has argued for far more than is actually possible. Where her book becomes essential reading in contemporary feminism is in its call for women's issues to be moved to the forefront of the political debate, as well as in her call for women to step outside of their comfort zone to ensure their demands are met. It is one of the few pieces of radical feminist literature that has ever made me, a committed liberal feminist, seriously reconsider my long held more "conservative" beliefs.

Despite its obvious extremism, it is unfortunate for feminists that this book has nearly become a forgotten relic of time past. Like many truly groundbreaking books, The Dialectic of Sex could very likely enjoy a more receptive audience decades from now. Published the same year as other second wave masterpieces, including Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch and Robin Morgan's Sisterhood is Powerful, The Dialectic of Sex has been grossly overshadowed by these two works. Although many, if not all, of Shulamith Firestone's ideas have yet to be proven as practical solutions to real societal problems, her vision of what must occur in our society for women to achieve true equality cannot be forsaken. The Dialectic of Sex is a critical piece of feminist literature, and despite its flaws, deserves to be received by a wider feminist audience than has embraced it thus far.

mmo books : october 2005

Serene Williams has a Masters degree in political science and prior to her daughter's birth was head of the history department at Convent of the Sacred Heart High School in San Francisco. She lives in San Mateo, California with her husband and one year old daughter.
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