YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

September 1, 2012

Sex, sex, and less sex

Shulamith Firestone

[For a related blog see http://clarespark.com/2009/12/23/she-who-gets-slapped-the-magic-of-middle-aged-boomerdom/.]

I have written before about the second wave of feminism, reminding my readers that it was civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s that generated the revolt of young movement women who wanted respect from the emerging male stars, particularly after such notorious remarks as “A woman’s place is on her back.” In other words, young women who insisted that “the personal is political” were already anti-imperialists, and had imbibed histories of the U.S. that painted their country as hopelessly opposed to Nature, to native Americans, to (racial) minorities, to gay men and lesbians, to all women, and to the labor movement. But it was sexuality that became the focus of much of their activism, for sex talk sells, and many a new feminist wrote best sellers cursing out men, including those in the white male canon of literary heroes.  Today their ideological offspring are tenured professors in Women’s Studies, in cultural anthropology, in film studies, in the history of science, and in related fields. I don’t know if any of them compares the 1960s-70s culture to the 1920s, when anticapitalism, primitivism and promiscuity were all the rage among expatriates and artists in general, all of whom were in revolt against “the genteel tradition” and their (“Hebraic”) puritan forebears.

Return to my life after I started the radio broadcasts on Pacifica. I did my best to publicize female artists, designers, and writers when I had my radio program. Thanks to the material collected at CalArts, I was able to mount a slide show on sex and violence in the imagery of women artists and photographers that was delivered in numerous prestigious venues during the 1970s. Thoroughly immersed in the writing of the Frankfurt School of critical theory in those days (e.g. Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization), I did not think of the large audiences I was drawing as an audience for pornography, but rather as a symptom of emancipation from old excessively prudish taboos that were better overthrown. I did notice, however, that the New Left men I had met were womanizers, or, if they were New York writers, had numerous failed marriages, and were not faithful to the wife of the moment.

In retrospect, this obliviousness to the value of traditional marriage was widespread among New Age liberals as well as leftists. I remember one psychologist telling me with great confidence that sexual jealously was unhealthy: that the jealous wife was “giving away her power” to the faithless husband and his consorts. That was Gestalt therapy in the late 1960s-early 1970s as practiced in West Los Angeles.

Alexandra Kollontai and comrade

The leftists and liberals mentioned above were no doubt exponents of Alexandra Kollontai’s famous claim that “sex was a drink of water.” I should have recalled Marcuse’s theory of “repressive desublimation”: that sexuality run amok would serve the aims of capitalists selling goods and services. Today, the cult of Beauty is dominant, and woman expend much of their time and resources defending themselves against bad hair, sartorial dowdiness and aging, at the expense of child-rearing, expanding their minds and their general socio-political-economic awareness.

But the second wave feminists were politically aware and media savvy, all right, and many of the artists I championed during my delayed adolescence were exhibitionists defining their “feminist sensibility” as a presentation of female genitalia.  Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party brought her fame, stimulating a cottage industry of feminist art historians who meditate upon her gestures and her contemporaries, some pro, some con. Personally, I rejected her mystical linking of famous women through the ages as pandering, ahistoric, and reactionary.

Dinner Party postcards

But then there were those New York women (Redstockings) influenced by Friedrich Engels and other materialists from the wild male Left. Here is one example from a book that became a must-read for hip women everywhere:

[An excerpt from Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex:]

“So that just as to assure elimination of economic classes requires the revolt of the underclass (the proletariat) and, in a temporary dictatorship, their seizure of the means of production, so to assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction: not only the full restoration to women of ownership of their own bodies, but also their (temporary) seizure of control of human fertility – the new population biology as well as all the social institutions of child-bearing and child-rearing. And just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself, so 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. (A reversion to an unobstructed pansexuality Freud’s ‘polymorphous perversity’ – would probably supersede hetero/homo/bi-sexuality.) The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction: children would born to both sexes equally, or independently of. either, however one chooses to look at it; the dependence of the child on the mother (and vice versa) would give way to a greatly shortened dependence on a small group of others in general, and any remaining inferiority to adults in physical strength would be compensated for culturally. The division of labour would be ended by the elimination of labour altogether (through cybernetics). The tyranny of the biological family would be broken.”

Sadly, Firestone’s body was found on August 28, 2012, possibly a week after her death in her book-lined East Village apartment in New York City. One report states that she owned many works of the Greek classics. Though she was born into a Canadian Orthodox Jewish family, her rebellion against a religion that supports strong families may have taken her into a paganism that was notoriously misogynistic and revolted by female genitals, despite its proliferation of goddesses. And her obituaries state that she was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. The latter is a mental illness that presents itself usually in the early 20s. Firestone was twenty-five when she wrote her famous book. R.I.P. Shulamith Firestone, dead at 67.

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10 Comments »

  1. Thanks for the post, which I found interesting. My reading of the Dialectic has tended to be that its strongly utopian drive was at least partially satirical and, at the very least, rather tongue in cheek. See, most obviously, the lovely, neat outline of the entire historical dialectic in the back pages (ending in ‘Achievement of cosmic consciousness’), preceded by the heading, ‘For that rare diagram freak: 3D revolution’. At least partially, I take this to be a satire on some of the utopian hubris emerging out of the New Left at the time and, for this and other reasons, I would be cautious about retrofitting schizophrenic symptoms to this work (irrespective of any subsequent diagnosis).

    Comment by Kathryn — March 31, 2014 @ 2:42 pm | Reply

  2. […] http://clarespark.com/2012/09/01/sex-sex-and-less-sex/ (On Shulamith Firestone and second wave feminism) […]

    Pingback by Links to feminist blogs | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — May 29, 2013 @ 9:16 pm | Reply

  3. [...] [Before you read this blog see http://clarespark.com/2012/09/01/sex-sex-and-less-sex/.%5D [...]

    Pingback by “Come home, alpha female!” « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — December 29, 2012 @ 4:35 am | Reply

  4. Yes.alas, at the time we mostly did not realise but in the college were I taught the female students were seduced by male staff and it was all thought of as being free,,,,,thank God I was married before I began there!Though that was not a barrier to some men.And some complained as I was called Mrs. on my office door!

    Comment by katzideas — October 6, 2012 @ 4:44 pm | Reply

  5. [...] On the popular Fox show The Five (Oct.2, 2012), Bob Beckel chided Dana Perino and Andrea Santaros for seeing Gloria Steinem as a washed-up feminist, implying that Steinem had paved the way for the cushy jobs enjoyed by Perino and Santaros at Fox. This sent me back into my memory bank. Gloria Steinem was indeed a much publicized star of the second wave. A strikingly beautiful young woman, she was considered ”a babe” and was also known for her connection to powerful male editors in journalism. It is true that second wave feminists had an enormous impact on the culture, but the takeaway was 1. sexual freedom, even promiscuity as the central demand of “women’s lib” and 2. having emerged from the civil rights movement, many of the 1960s-70s feminists soon subordinated their goal of liberating women to anti-imperialism, joining with men in the anticapitalist crusade, and of course, ignoring the subordination of women in South America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. The West was now worst, and “white male supremacy” the enemy for right-on feminists. (For a related blog see http://clarespark.com/2012/09/01/sex-sex-and-less-sex/.) [...]

    Pingback by The Sexual Revolution (2) « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — October 4, 2012 @ 4:01 am | Reply

  6. I also find remarkable the fact the “the dialectic of sex” was(is?) a must read for hip women.

    Comment by david gansel — September 3, 2012 @ 9:23 pm | Reply

  7. I am struck by the absurdity of the excerpt from “the dialectic of sex.” Is this attempt to shoe horn feminism into a Marxist template still taken seriously?

    Comment by david gansel — September 2, 2012 @ 4:03 pm | Reply

    • As I suggested in the blog, her book was the product of a very bright, but possibly deranged mind. I see it as clinical material.

      Comment by clarespark — September 2, 2012 @ 4:07 pm | Reply

    • The point of my blog was to emphasize how outdated Firestone’s book had become, but that is a different issue from the long term effects of second wave feminism. Among all the heavies of that period, only Phyllis Chesler remains relevant because she emphasizes the horror of womanhood in Third World countries.

      Comment by clarespark — September 3, 2012 @ 9:56 pm | Reply


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