Although in later years a private and often isolated person, the writer, artist, and feminist thinker Shulamith Firestone was at one time a formidable public force. A founder of the first radical feminist organizations in New York and co-editor of the first theoretical journals of the Women’s Liberation Movement, she was one of the most memorable characters of the second wave. Brilliant, passionate, aggressive, and uncompromising in her beliefs, possessing an intellectual confidence that lives on in her work, Firestone embodied much of the radical energy of her era. She “dared to be bad”—as she declared women ought to in an editorial for Notes from the Second Year—which meant not just disobedient, but willing to fail. Women, Firestone knew, had to take risks to find liberation, even if it meant faltering in their first attempts. And although Firestone and her peers struggled to form and maintain a coherent women’s movement—and although their movement today is remembered as flawed and tenuous—our world owes as much to their failures as their successes.
Firestone’s wit was biting and aphoristic; her words sizzled on the page. With an almost anachronistic philosophical confidence she explained the world as she saw it without hesitation, from the ground up. At age 25 she wrote the seminal book The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970)—described by contemporaries as “the little red book for women”—which for the first time united the then-irreconcilable discourses of Marxist analysis and feminist critique. And then, in a turn that still mystifies her admirers, she withdrew from both the movement and from public life. Decades later Firestone re-emerged with a small, startling book called Airless Spaces (1998), a fictionalized chronicle of her later life, that spoke in vignettes to her years spent in and out of mental hospitals. But as if unsatisfied by this account, admirers of her early work still wondered: Why had she left? Where had she gone?
For how few know of Firestone’s incalculable contribution to women’s liberation, fewer still know that she saw herself first and foremost as an artist. Her friends from the movement admired her as a seemingly pure revolutionary, seeking change for change’s sake; but Firestone herself aspired to a profound creative freedom for which social, civil, and sexual liberties were only the means. As part of a literary proposal she once wrote (under the header “ANTICREDENTIALS”—a cover letter from the counter-culture), Firestone explained, “I came to New York to pursue a painting and writing career. Finding it nearly impossible at that time (1967) for a woman to ‘make it’ legitimately, I instead gave my creative energy to founding a women’s liberation movement.” After years of “concentrated political activity,” she wrote, “I deserve to unite these split personalities: artist and politico.”
Firestone never did unite those two pursuits, at least not publicly. She continued to paint and to write, but in later years was plagued by mental illness and stymied by the medications and institutions that kept her from self-destruction. She continued to make friends, but was prone to fall out of touch, and the last years of her life were marked by self-imposed isolation. In late August of 2012, Firestone reportedly was found dead in her apartment on East 10th Street, where she lived alone. She was 67 years old.
The first news of her death read like a cautionary tale—a wake-up call for women who choose to reject the security of conventional family life. Later stories gave a fuller portrait of a woman who was loved and supported by family and friends, but who nevertheless slipped away. Obituaries further described the loss of a fearless writer and thinker whose work remains underappreciated, and among younger readers, largely unknown. In an effort to do justice to Firestone’s memory, and to encourage readers to revisit her work, the artist Beth Stryker and I have assembled remembrances from many of her friends, family, and followers here.
To set the record straight is an impossible task. Everyone remembers a different Shulamith, and the following imbricated accounts may overlap without ever quite aligning. Friends called her Shulie; family called her Shuley; according to her sister, Firestone wrote both, and in later life she insisted on “Shulamith.” To honor them all, we have left these variations as they appear. Other inconsistencies, repetitions in the record, and different ideas about her have been allowed to stand, with the hope that the connections linking these writers to Firestone, her particular moment, and her legacy come alive on the page.
Firestone was memorialized at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery this past Sunday, in the neighborhood where she spent most of her life. For the service Kate Millett read a segment from Airless Spaces—the same passage she references in her contribution—and then paused to address the audience. “We should remember Shulie,” she said. “We should remember her, because she was one hell of a woman. And she gave us one hell of a ride. We should remember her. We lost our nerve, all of us, together. Let’s get it back.”
Those of us who never knew Firestone cannot remember her as those who knew her can. But we can drum up the nerve that Firestone wielded in life.
This section of remembrances were compiled and edited in collaboration with Beth Stryker, as part of the Shulamith Firestone Memorial Pamphlet (September 23, 2012).
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