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"
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
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