on 14 March 2003
I only came across this book while researching an essay on the Women's Movement of the '60s, but decided to read the whole lot, which I'm glad I did! Although it paints a very harsh (but perhaps true) portrait of male-dominated society it was an eye-opener and I learnt a lot about socialist theory and Freudianism as well as feminism. It was the first feminist theory book I read. Firestone spends a long time at the start of her book discussing and critising the theories of Marx and Engels - she doesn't dismiss them but says social revolution can't happen until you go back to the source of original oppression, that of man over woman, and then it is possible to remove the oppression of the bourgeoisie over the workers. I like this idea. In another section of the book she discusses Freudianism and the Oedipus and Electra complexes in detail - a bit tedious and it was hard to see the relevance. She goes on to highlight the oppression of children as well as women - this huge conspiracy against everyone is a little hard to swallow maybe! But then again this book was written c.1970 and although while reading it, it is easy to get angry about the inequalities in the world that Firestone sees, it must be remembered that progress has been made since then. I found it an enjoyable, passionate and interesting introduction to feminism and I'm eager to read more.
Andrew Vincent in Modern Political Ideologies describes how feminism developed differently in America and Europe largely through the exclusion or marginalisation womens liberation and womens issues within the different political and cultural contexts, suggesting that a more radical and militant brand of feminism emerged in the US than in Europe.
Reading The Dialectic of Sex and comparing and contrasting it with European, particularly continental european feminism like de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, it seems to vindicate his position.
Firestone's book is very, very uncompromising in its analysis of how socialism, freudianism and cultural changes have failed to address what she considers the essential or principal disparity and oppressive relationship, those between men and women and children, which she believes are underlying other forms of oppression, such as social class divisions.
At times its a very challenging read, even for a sympathiser and I sincerely hope that if she were to write the book today (it was written in 1970) the plight of women and children would not be so severely portraited, at least locally, within the northern hemisphere or western world, if not globally.
However the clear sighted and plain spoken account is refreshing too, this is not death by a thousand words, neither is a journalistic, nor crippled by efforts not to alienate potential readership like some more contemporary feminist books which have a feel of apologia about them.
There is also a very coherent and clear message within this book about self-emancipation, womens liberation needs to be womens work and dont expect for any quarter to be given by men. I just know that that is going to construed as man hatred in the worst possible dismissive sense by a lot of people, men and women, but I would hope that no one, least of all men, will be put off by that and will read what is a well written and nicely presented piece of work.
Shulamith Firestone's 'The Dialectic of Sex' was an anachronism when it was published in 1970 by which time Firestone had moved beyond the politics she espoused into the intellectual obscurity she deserved. What the Marxist Left welcomed as an utopian dream capable of becoming a concrete social form proved to be a paranoid nightmare into which the mentally deranged Firestone descended until she died in poverty in 2012. The social movement she imagined would change the world had already died leaving only the walking dead to mourn her passing. Far from being 'sober and true' Firestone presented a Marxist version of exploitation based on the biological and cultural relationship between the sexes and underpinned by the ridiculous notion that her fictional 'sex class' must be changed. As with so many feminists her inspiration was not that of positive change but of a deep hatred of - and disgust towards - the fact she was able to reproduce. It was not culture she wished to eliminate but childbirth.
Firestone demonstrated her intellectual limitations from the outset, placing her faith in the discredited dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels. Philosophically ignorant she endorsed Marxism as 'a scientific approach to history', whereas history itself had demonstrated the opposite to be the case. She failed to understand that history was not a record of class struggles it was one of power struggles, largely but not exclusively based on group politics. What she attempted was to apply class analysis to women, identifying the latter as a class and therefore oppressed. Using this definition she set out 'to develop a materialist view of history based on sex itself'. She admired De Beauvoir, though not her existentialism, endorsing the ideas that man sets himself up as the Same and women as the Other while claiming they were philosophical categories that grew out of history.
According to Firestone there were a number of fundamental, if not immutable, facts about the biological family including the fact (which she abhorred) 'that women throughout history before the advent of birth control were at the continual mercy of their biology.....which made them dependent on males....for physical survival'. Her belief that human society has taken control of nature led her to assert that 'we can no longer justify the maintenance of a discriminatory sex class system on grounds of its origins in nature'. However, this was based on the assumption that the division of labour based on sex differences, had created 'a discriminatory sex class system' and wrongly excluded the psychological development of sexual perceptions based on the physical reactions of the female body in the process of reproduction. It's not culture that makes a female 'broody', neither are the messages passed within the body in the period between the joining of the egg and the sperm and the actual start of pregnancy determined by culture. Mother nature cannot be dismissed because she is uncomfortable to live with.
Firestone wanted to end the sex distinction between male and female. Messy bodily fluids passing between people would be replaced by artificial reproduction. Children would be born to both sexes equally or independently of either. She claimed 'to assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction'. Firestone's argument was founded on the assumption that women do not have control of reproduction, or as she clearly means, non-production. However, using her anus to communicate did not create a new purpose for that orifice it merely expressed disgust that it existed. In this respect Firestone was a typical vagina-hating termagant deluding herself that Marxian analysis failed because 'it did not dig deep enough into the psycho sexual roots of class'. In practice Marxian analysis failed because it is fictitious, false and futile. Firestone's analysis mirrored that fiction, falsehood and futility by ignoring the reality of human nature, a reality which rapidly ejected her from politics when she was unable to browbeat others into her fanciful feminist world.
Fifty years on that delusion continues to exist amongst those unable to accept that the 'The Dialectic of Sex' was not a great feminist text but the rantings of a disturbed mind. Such denial amongst 'radical' commentators leads them to the preposterous conclusion that the objective record of her mental illness and lonely death is an example of sexism rather than a description of her mental instability in the 1970s. Even her own 'sisters' accused her of homicidal tendencies as one by one they separated from her egotistical intellectual pretensions. She was not the only feminist who drifted into obscurity or displayed signs of mental illness, including suicide. For all the claim that sisterhood was powerful the feminists cut their own throats by denying the legitimate existence of male/female sexual partnerships. She was thrown out of the New York Radical Feminists and was unable to re-order her mind and get on with her life. Her self-centred opinionated view of the world no longer had an outlet and turned inwards to create schizophrenia. Following the death of her father she went into psychosis and complete mental decline characterised by paranoia. 'The Dialectic of Sex' was merely the first characteristic step on the road to insanity and feminist attempts to provide an alternative explanation are as misguided and futile as trying to explain the failure of Marxism as being the departure from correct interpretation.
Firestone's rantings claimed to embrace everything in history including seeing witches as women in independent political revolt. This is as inaccurate as her discredited claim that 'within two centuries eight million women were burned at the stake by the Church'. This mythical figure originated in the Enlightenment when Gottfried Voigt extrapolated figures from one German town over a thirty year period to the whole of Europe over eleven centuries!! Feminism is dead, subsumed within the queer politics of Butler and others who hate reproduction and contribute to the non-survival of the intellectually deranged. Firestone's tired text gets two stars.