What Shulamith Firestone will best be remembered for is The Dialectic of Sex, the manifesto she wrote arguing for women’s liberation from their reproductive biology. What I will remember her for—one of many things, but the one that was most important to me, at a critical moment in my life—is how she helped liberate me into my own biology.
I got to know Shuley when I was still in high school in University City, just embarking on my first affair. Her sister Laya was my classmate and friend, and we were part of what we thought of as the bohemian set. Shuley was a couple of years older than us, rooming at the time with a woman who was in the Catholic Worker movement. Somehow the Catholic Workers and a bunch of us high-school kids had found each other through the civil rights movement and become friends. They were older and seemed like the most glamorous people in the world to me—selfless, idealistic, dedicated to the poor and the downtrodden. “We Shall Overcome” was our anthem on the picket lines, and we believed in it. A strange concept of glamor to be sure, perhaps available only to the very young and naïve, and perhaps only at that particular moment in time.
I no longer remember why I went to Shuley for advice about how to get birth control, but I do recall what she told me to do: Go to Planned Parenthood. Show up wearing a ring on your left hand and tell them you’re married—because for whatever reason (no doubt something mandated by the morals police of the time), PP was not allowed to dispense “the pill” to unmarried women. And so I did. This was how I obtained a prescription for those little dial-a-pill packs that, in those days, were salvation for anyone trying to avoid getting pregnant.
My next memory of Shuley—my memories are like disconnected snapshots, taken at long intervals—was when I was at the University of Chicago and she was at the Art Institute. Now I was married, but still very naive, very unsophisticated. Shuley invited my new husband and me to Thanksgiving dinner, and we showed up only to discover a raw turkey, since Shuley, never known for her domestic talents, had no idea what to do with it. Neither did we, but my husband was actually something of a cook and figured out what had to be done—quite simply, putting it in the oven, for what was, of course, a very long time, which made for a very long evening. It was an evening made even longer in my mind by Shuley, who passed the time unpacking ideas for the book she would eventually publish several years later—ideas that were not just foreign to the earnest, romantic, and at heart conventional girl that I was, but actively repellent. Not have children? Shocking! Or have them via some kind of futuristic technology? Beyond weird! Men as the enemy? Not my man! Eventually I retired to the bedroom, sobbing quietly into a pillow, if I recall correctly, leaving Shuley to debate her revolutionary ideas with my husband—a man who loved nothing more than a verbal slugfest with anyone, from Shulamith Firestone to the Seventh Day Adventists who used to show up at our door peddling their pamphlets.
I eventually left Chicago to go to graduate school, and while I was doing that Shuley published her book and became famous. The ideas were no more appealing to me in book form than they had been over raw turkey, but one of the most brilliant women I know today remembers what it was like to have that book in her hands. “Prose on fire,” she said, adding that she always wondered what would happen to the author, because “a mind of that intensity would be hard to carry around.”
And so it proved to be. When I next encountered Shuley, many years later, when we both lived in New York, she was slipping in and out of mental illness. She surfaced triumphantly once during that period, publishing her only other book, Airless Spaces, a fictionalized account of her own grim experiences with hospitalization and the psychotropics that were the only thing standing between her and insanity. As part of a support group that met with Shuley every month for awhile in her psychiatrist’s office, I was one of many urging her to stay on those drugs. But in the end she couldn’t. They stole too much of her soul.
I shall remember Shuley as one of the luckiest women I’ve known—gifted with a mind of searing intensity and brilliance, beautiful, and, when she was on, charming and funny in her sly way. But she was also the unluckiest, cursed with a mental illness that destroyed that mind and left her with no way out.
As for us, we—even those of us who didn’t appreciate her when she was with us—were lucky to have her.
Almost fifteen years ago, I picked up my ringing phone and the voice on the other end identified herself as Shulamith Firestone. I almost dropped the receiver.
When the call came I was in touch with many second-wave feminists, but no one knew how to reach Shulamith or anything about how she survived since decisively quitting the movement she helped launch. Not one to show up at Veteran Feminists of America gatherings or 92nd Street Y panels, she didn’t appear to want to dine out on her past, or even preserve it. She was the rarest bird.
That day in 1998 Firestone informed me she had written a small book of interconnected stories called Airless Spaces, her first published work after The Dialectic of Sex; she hoped that I could review it. You have to understand: meeting the women who created radical feminism felt like my life’s work. Alice Echols’s 1989 Daring to Be Bad was my guidebook, alerting me to the conditions and personalities that led to the explosion of theory and action behind contemporary feminism.
The out-of-the-blue call from Shulamith led to the two of us meeting. She lived, it turned out, just a few blocks from me in the East Village. She had short, brushed back hair, an open smile, and a short, trim body clad in jeans and sneakers. She wore a denim jacket and was fun and genuine. We had dinner, she came to an event I held in which second- and third-wave feminists read each others’ work, we grabbed beers at St. Dymphna’s.
During this time, I was lobbying to get Farrar, Straus & Giroux to reissue a series of “Feminist Classics,” and I wanted The Dialectic of Sex to be part of the series. I thought it was the most significant feminist book out of print. In it, Shulamith blasted the then-overriding assumption that men work and women live parasitically off of their labor by declaring that “(male) culture was (and is) parasitical, feeding on the emotional strength of women without reciprocity.” Her thinking in that book was so bold, so devoid of accommodations to men or “cultural constructs” like “romantic love” or the beauty of childbearing, it was almost as if she weren’t part of reality.
As it turned out, she wasn’t firmly rooted in reality—or any stability that could enable her to have peace of mind or meaningful community. When I met her, she was very vulnerable: poor, in and out of mental hospitals to deal with paranoia and other mental illness, living off of social security and almost never interacting with old friends. She mentioned a science fiction novel she was producing in a blaze of creativity during one visit (she had gone off her medication, which dulled her mind); the next time we met, she was bleak and had thrown all of the pages away, having shown it to someone (she didn’t say who). According to Shulamith, this reader said she had somehow plagiarized the book. I never learned what had actually happened, but her demeanor was flat and she didn’t want to write.
The last time we met, in 2002, she told me that she wanted The Dialectic of Sex to be reissued as part of the Feminist Classics. I was ecstatic. A few years after the new edition was published, she demanded we take it out of print. We did and, other than occasionally seeing her sitting at the coffee shop across from Tompkins Square Park, I never interacted with her again. I moved out of the neighborhood, had kids, published another Feminist Classic or two, but began focusing more on feminist peers and those in the next generation, replacing some of the ardency I had for radical feminists of the 1960s and 1970s.
I opened Airless Spaces again today and found a note I had scribbled in the margin, a remnant of my 1998 thinking: “One has no sense of how her feminist fame contributed to her demise . . . was it such a hard act to reprise? Was it the tight girdle of the Women’s Liberation Movement identity? Backlash and conspiracy?” When I wrote that, she was still alive and would be for many years—but, in a way, her demise was imminent. The liberated mind she used to so vividly imagine a feminist revolution lacked any tether to connect Shulamith to community, sanity, or life.
Losing Shulamith Firestone chills me. Are her ideas sufficiently embodied in the DNA of the feminist movement? Will her contributions live on? I think so, and yet I wonder. The bold thinkers of the second wave, those rare birds, are scarce. Is it enough to read their books and know their history to keep them from extinction? Or is it necessary that we continue to uphold, as she did, a unique vision of the world?
The confidence and presence of self it took for Shulamith to write her daring view of feminist revolution is one message of her life—and it’s the one I choose to remember.
I never met Shulamith Firestone, but I’ve been immersed in a representation of her for seventeen years. While researching second-wave feminism in graduate school at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I was shown a documentary portrait of her filmed when she was a student there in 1967. The 16mm film, titled Shulie, was produced by four Northwestern University graduate film students: Jerry Blumenthal, Sheppard Ferguson, James Leahy, and Alan Rettig. In it, Shulamith Firestone, 22, argues confidently for a life on the margins. Though it had been filmed almost thirty years before, she seemed eerily contemporary. The filmmakers document her waiting for the train, photographing trash and workers at a dump yard, painting a young man’s portrait in her studio, working at the US Post Office, and enduring an excruciating painting critique before an all-male panel of professors. She discusses her views on art, religion, language, men, motherhood, and race. Because the filmmakers had a mandate to document the so-called Now Generation, questions about time, generations, and what constitutes the “now” recur throughout.
The directors had no way of knowing that Firestone would go on to become a key figure in the Women’s Liberation Movement and produce one of its most radical texts. Still, the seeds of her nascent feminist theories are embedded in the film. So too is her bold vision of how to live as an artist. Employing an intimate, lyrical, cinema verité approach, the directors successfully captured a young woman’s complexity and fervor during that critical historical moment. And while Firestone notably chose to withhold information about her political activities, it’s all there: the intensity, the irreverence, the challenges to religion and gender roles, and her self-described alienation. On camera she is intense, funny, flirtatious, ironic, driven, audacious, coy; an intellectual badass.
After watching Shulie so many times it should have staged a revolt in my VHS deck, I was given permission to work with the material. Obsessed with the ways the original film spoke to contemporary issues surrounding gender, representation, and the legacy of the 1960s, in 1997 I completed a Super 8 fictional adaptation. Also titled Shulie, it was a shot-by-shot remake with intentional deviations and slippage and an introductory section that sets up the film with contemporary footage. Using friends as actors and crew, I collaborated with the uncanny lookalike Kim Soss, who was also the production designer. One of the original directors, Jerry Blumenthal—an award-winning filmmaker and producer, and co-founder of the acclaimed Kartemquin Films—generously racked his brains to help me find the original locations and shared his memories of the original production.
The completed project left me with questions that I’ve wrestled with for many years—questions that have only intensified in light of Firestone’s recent death. I’m often asked why I made the film, which I have written about in aesthetic and theoretical terms here. But what first compelled me was the chutzpah and spirit of this incredible woman, who went on to write not one but two books that unapologetically confront some of the most controversial, taboo subjects in our culture. She was just a kid when she began writing The Dialectic of Sex, a mature, brilliant work synthesizing the ideas of major philosophers, historians, sociologists, novelists, and public figures. Twenty-eight years later, in Airless Spaces, she took on the cruelest companions of an intense psyche—mental illness, poverty, and alienation. Both books are provocative and exposing, but in some ways, Airless Spaces is even more courageous in its utter refusal to insulate us from the hell of psychic disorder.
As a graduate student and then an instructor at the Art Institute in the ’90s, I was troubled by how Firestone’s experiences there reflected my own and those of my female students. The resonance seemed a sad testament to the work that remains unfinished today. Resurrecting that era across exactly thirty years of history felt like urgent and essential work. But after sending Firestone a rough cut of the film via her good friend Robert Roth, I learned that she didn’t like it. Roth told me Firestone said that as an artist she appreciated it as a labor of love, but she hadn’t liked the 1967 version and didn’t see how mine was any different.
Crushed and conflicted, I decided not to publicly screen the film—not for legal or ethical reasons, but for emotional ones. Five months later, a mentor and feminist intellectual challenged my decision. She argued that we have a right in this culture to contemplate, cite, and respond to the ideas and representations of public figures without authorization. And that in the spirit of Firestone’s own revolutionary call to arms—her argument that women must “dare to be bad” and resist the tyranny of niceness—I should share my own provocative work. In the spirit of Firestone’s incendiary writing and activism, I decided to show the film. Being, perhaps, an obedient bad girl, I allowed it to be screened only conditionally: in arts and educational contexts, with extensive educational materials, limited publicity, and strict presentation conditions; and whenever possible, with myself there to contextualize the project, especially in New York.
It’s complicated to address someone’s legacy when at times she no longer wants that recognition. And it’s a delicate decision to present someone in that moment of becoming. Firestone, by many accounts, saw herself first as an artist. While most artists don’t suffer from mental illness, studies have shown how often the two go hand in hand. In the original Shulie, she expresses her passion for her work with such an intense, almost hypo-manic fervor, perhaps a subtle indicator of things to come. Having explored mental illness in my own work, I’m familiar with its vicissitudes and the ways such diseases can both illuminate and distort one’s intellectual, emotional, and perceptual fields. One cannot help but wonder how that affected her feelings about her work and influence.
One of the most enduring legacies of second wave feminism is its insistence on respecting multiple subjectivities. As Firestone and I never met, such an opportunity to hear each other was lost. Over the years, Firestone’s friends have reported her varying reactions towards the film, from begrudging approval to much distress. It is heartbreaking to contemplate that a reverent film that reignited interest in her work would have caused her pain, and for that I’m deeply sorry. Now I’ve been asked to both show the film in her honor and to withhold it in her honor. Once again, the dilemma: which Shulamith Firestone do we honor? There’s the artist, the trailblazing activist, and the writer of important, provocative books; there’s the author who alternately allowed and withdrew those books from publication; and there’s the woman who suffered from mental illness.
Was her withdrawal from the life of the public intellectual another prescient and willful insight? Or in complying with her (occasional) wishes, thus letting her ideas become less accessible to new generations of readers, are we ultimately responsible for allowing another brilliant woman’s voice to be slowly erased from history?
I asked myself these questions every time I showed my film. When I was told about her death, I pulled the film from distribution. As we mourn Firestone’s untimely death, we should honor the actual woman’s legacy, not a fictionalized conceptual art project.
A few weeks ago, the feminist writer Jennifer Baumgardner, who made rigorous efforts to republish The Dialectic of Sex, told me that in her conversations with Shulamith she seemed neutral about my film but felt I hadn’t captured her spark. Clearly her objections were stronger at times, but I love that she still knew this about herself. Shulamith Firestone was completely out there. She was on fire. And that passionate flame is irreducible, and irreproducible.
I never met her. I never even spoke to her. By the time I first wrote about Shulamith Firestone, in 1989, in the context of the history of women’s liberation, her brilliant, offbeat book The Dialectic of Sex was almost twenty years old and she had been absent from the women’s movement for just as long. In the years that marked the fading of feminism and the appearance of “post-feminism,” Firestone wasn’t heard from in any way that brought her public attention, except for the very occasional letter to the editor.
Almost twenty years ago I wrote about The Dialectic of Sex again, this time on the occasion of its re-publication. I compared Firestone to Patti Smith, at that point still in retirement. The spiky, fearless, whip-smart Firestone seemed to me to share something with Smith, who, as Sandra Bernhard memorably remarked, “saw so far into the future she could afford to take ten years off and not say another word.” My essay appeared in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, and some part of me probably hoped that Firestone, buoyed by Dialectic‘s re-appearance and appreciative reviews, might write again. She did, but not about feminism. Her book of stories, Airless Spaces, which appeared in 1998, instead drew on her experiences in psychiatric hospitals.
I cannot speak to Firestone’s decision to drop out and fade away from the women’s liberation movement. But I can discuss, very briefly, Firestone’s Dialectic. It was a polarizing text, one that upon publication was praised and vilified. Firestone, impatient with any version of feminism that refused to dig deep to understand women’s own investment in business as usual, believed that women had to un-learn habituated niceness, to “dare to be bad.” Tellingly, her “dream” feminist protest was a smile boycott. While it did not lack humor, Dialectic was a smile boycott on a grand scale. Whatever she was like as a person, as the author of Dialectic Firestone refused to be judicious, apologetic, modest, or coy. For me, the book’s appeal had as much to do with her assumption that she could take on that era’s big guns—Marx and Freud—as anything else.
As for Firestone’s analysis of male dominance, many feminists took issue with her insistence that its roots lay in the “natural reproductive differences between the sexes,” and its solution lay in society “getting rid of nature” through cybernation. Although Dialectic had its defenders, over the years it became feminism’s favorite whipping girl. The book would stand accused of multiple sins, but two stood out: it revealed an author who was male-identified (she favored socialism, technology, and polymorphous sexuality), and the utopia it advanced was really a cybernetic Brave New World. Firestone anticipated many of the criticisms against her, including the charge—one that resonated across feminism’s political spectrum—that she wanted to transform women into men. Her point, she argued, wasn’t to “draft women into a male world” but rather to eliminate the gender distinction altogether. Today, Firestone’s conviction that getting rid of nature is the way forward is the stuff of gender studies classes everywhere. Indeed, before Donna Haraway declared her preference for the cyborg over the goddess or Judith Butler began troubling gender, there was Firestone, and, before her, of course, the woman who helped inspire Dialectic, Simone de Beauvoir.
I’ve been teaching Dialectic regularly for about eight years in a class on the history of US feminism, and it continues to sizzle—to outrage and inspire. If the book confirms the view that the second wave trafficked in false universalism at its own significant peril, it also goes some way toward changing other prevalent notions about women’s liberation. Readers can see for themselves that Firestone’s radical feminism is inclusive of socialism, and unapologetic about heterosexuality. For me . . . I will always wonder in what ways feminism might be different had Firestone not disappeared.
Shulamith Firestone is best known for her visions for feminism’s future, but she also wrote a lot about feminism’s past. Even in 1968, this was a history that needed redeeming. “What does the word ‘feminism’ bring to mind?” Firestone wrote in her contribution to Notes from the First Year. “Chances are that whatever image you have, it is a negative one.” In her writings on the origins of feminism, Firestone insisted on the movement’s “dynamite revolutionary potential,” describing how its attacks on the law and the church shook the foundations of the patriarchy even more than those early agitators realized. But she also faulted the movement’s concessions for feminism’s subsequent dormancy and the false sense of emancipation that followed the vote. Without knowledge of feminism’s real radical history, women had no choice but to try to content themselves with what seemed like freedom. “The smear tactic . . . combined with a blackout of feminist history to keep women hysterically circling through a maze of false solutions.” It is this analysis of feminism’s demise that led to her own radical strain of thought, direct and uncompromising.
I read Dialectic of Sex at the beginning of my senior year of college, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that the book changed the way I live my life. More than just the force of so many of Firestone’s specific arguments—her chapters on love anticipate Laura Kipnis; her section on male culture would be a good antidote to conversations about the fate of “women novelists”—I was staggered by her faith in feminism’s potential to fight beyond equality per se and toward individual freedom. Before I read Firestone, I didn’t know that you could question things like the family or romance. I didn’t know that kind of thinking was even possible.
“Feminism has a cyclical momentum,” Firestone wrote. It’s now been almost fifty years since the beginnings of the second wave, the same amount of time Firestone calculated between the end of the first wave and the beginnings of her own movement. May young women in search of new ways to be set aside their Joan Didion and Naomi Wolf and pick up Dialectic of Sex instead.
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