Shulamith Firestone, 1945-2012: In Memoriam
Today’s news brought the shocking report of Shulamith Firestone’s death, at age 67. The circumstances were disturbing: Firestone died alone in New York, in her East Village apartment, where apparently she had expired some days before. No one had known of her passing; no one had been there to comfort her. Shulamith, or “Shulie,” as everyone called her, had suffered from mental illness—apparently diagnosed as schizophrenia—for many years. After her brief foray in the public spotlight in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she largely withdrew from public life, even from her friends, painting, reading, writing.
But although Shulie was not yet 30 when she turned away from public life, her place in history is assured. No one was more important to the birth and flourishing of early women’s liberation than this singular persona. Firestone was an “unidentified comet,” in writer Susan Brownmiller’s words, a “studious, nearsighted yeshiva girl” who transformed herself into a “fearless dynamo, consumed by a feminist vision."
Born to Orthodox Jewish parents in Ottawa, Canada, and raised in Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri, Shulie, who had studied at Yavneh of Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, then Washington University, was a student at the Art Institute in Chicago, when, barely 22, she came face to face with the winds of change. One event that helped trigger the start of a new women’s movement, distinct from the liberal feminism of the Betty Friedan/NOW kind, occurred during Labor Day weekend at the National Conference for New Politics in Chicago in 1967.
At the conference, Shulie and civil rights activist Jo Freeman authored a resolution giving women delegates 50% of the convention votes, to reflect the percentage of women in the general population. Freeman (now using the name Joreen) recalled that although the women delegates waited all day to put their minority report on the floor, the meeting chair refused to recognize them, although he allowed a delegate representing Native Americans to enter a resolution, which the convention duly passed.
“Infuriated, “ Joreen recalls, “we rushed the podium, where the men only laughed at our outrage. When Shulie reached [the chair], he literally patted her on the head. ‘Cool down, little girl,’ he said. ‘We have more important things to do here than talk about women's problems.’ Shulie didn't cool down and neither did I... The other women responded to our rage. We continued to meet almost weekly, for seven months... we talked. And we wrote.”
Following the incident at the National Conference of New Politics, Shulie and Freeman organized Westside, the city’s first women’s liberation group. Firestone and Freeman’s Westside group lasted only through the spring, but by the time it dissolved, consciousness-raising groups had mushroomed in Chicago and across the country. The Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement, the newsletter of the Westside group, gave the burgeoning movement its name.
In just a few years, Firestone would publish one of radical feminism’s most influential treatises, The Dialectic of Sex (1970), which shocked many in her community, and certainly her observant parents, with its call to free women from the “tyranny of their biology,” allowing childbearing to be replaced by technology and the nuclear family by nontraditional, and in her view, more humane households. The Dialectic of Sex became feminism’s most famous “demon text,” in Ann Snitow’s words—books “demonized, apologized for, endlessly quoted out of context” to prove that radical feminism in the early 70s was “strangely blind”; Snitow explains that it was patriarchy which Firestone wanted to smash, not mothers. In the decades since The Dialectic of Sex, several of Firestone’s suggestions for transforming women’s place in society have come to pass, but at the time, Firestone was considered by many to be an outrageous provocateur, a destroyer of the family.
Firestone, in fact, was a key theorist of the women’s liberation movement, imagining the ways that technology could be a handmaiden for a profound social transformation that would lead to greater gender equality. She was the author as well of several essays—“Women and the Radical Movement,” “The Jeannette Rankin Brigade: Woman Power?”, and “The Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S. A.: New View,” and the founder and editor of the movement journal, Notes from the First Year (1968) and Notes from the Second Year, and with Anne Koedt, Notes from the Third Year (1971). Notes articulated the ideas that were forming in the radical women’s liberation groups that Shulie helped to organize. After the Chicago group, she co-founded New York Radical Women, the first women’s liberation group in the city, then Redstockings, which she co-founded with Ellen Willis, and finally New York Radical Feminists. Each of these groups was a major source of movement ideas and practices. The several editions of Notes, as well as Shulie’s other writings, were widely influential as well, as the new ideas spread like wildfire around the country.
Shulie believed in the power of consciousness-raising, and she believed in action. In both her words and her own actions, she was a total original. And she was daring. Her courage, in collaboration with other movement activists, ushered in a new way of thinking about ourselves and the world around us, a world which Shulie helped to change in profound ways. As we mourn her loss, and perhaps, the promises unfulfilled in her own life, we need to remember the path-breaking contributions she made to ours.