Gen Z and Her Radical Foremother

Cover of Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution.

Growing up in the third millennium, I have learned to indignantly marvel at my generation’s unique set of anxieties and norms, wrought from communal experiences I have come to understand as nothing short of radical. Radical, of course, is a loaded term, ripe with political, cultural, and historical baggage. I intend to invoke all such associations and implications; I intend to discomfort you with my language.

Truly, Generation Z—that end of alphabet name suggesting a finality, the stifling of our future—lives a radical life.

Gen Z watches the rain pour and speculates whether the deluge will prove “detrimental,” a word proposed by her classmate who lost family in one of the recurring floods exacerbated by the climate crisis. Her radical language.

Gen Z opens her phone to a video of a student lying limp, bleeding out on a gurney, bullet-stricken from a shooting at the neighborhood school. Her radical images.

Gen Z coaxes her resistant friend into the seat in the waiting room of the mental health clinic, terrified that the stigma against depression will cause this friend to continue self-infliction of jagged cuts in silence. Her radical responsibilities.

The extremities of Gen Z’s life are pervasive and fundamental; unparalleled by other contemporary generations, this radical way of life alienates Gen Z and shapes her psyche. Since Gen Z knows no life but this one, she embraces her radical upbringing as the fuel for her enlightened mind. All of the lenses through which Gen Z understands the world coalesce into a perfect looking glass, forming for Gen Z to examine the deeply rooted, severely intertwined systems of injustice that have created this radical reality.

As a scholarly teenager, she integrates her studies of history with her daily experiences in her communities, and her favorite word becomes “intersectionality.” She delivers lectures on why colonialism and racism are the culprits most responsible for seeding the modern climate crisis; she dissects casual conversations, texts, and classroom dynamics on a hunt to recognize microaggressions; she avoids consuming certain pop culture that feeds into mainstream heteronormativity and rape culture. Because Gen Z suffers regularly from these issues, she can easily reach for the roots of the ingrained systems of oppression within which her reality is grounded.

Confronting and comprehending radicalism is a frightful and lonely task; what ally can Gen Z seek out for wisdom and consolatory encouragement? Her radical feminist foremothers, of course! The firebrands, the subversives, the rabble rousers! The great Shulamith Firestones, who tackled “the whole ball of wax”; who combatted all the underlying, historical systems working to oppress women in every aspect of their daily lives.

Perhaps best known for her incendiary spirit and book The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, Shulamith Firestone put forth a variety of arguments about interplaying elements of dominance by gender, race, and class (in the context of Marx and Freud). The Dialectic infamously assesses what Firestone considers the “barbaric” nature of pregnancy and the need to end the social structure of nuclear families to ultimately liberate women from domesticity.

Critics in the 1970s may have found Firestone’s commentary ghastly, but to Gen Z, her novel illumination of the injustice entrenched in the basis of American culture speaks volumes and speaks truth. Gen Z embraces Firestone’s radical mind when she reads in The Dialectic that “feminists have to question, not just all of Western culture, but the organization of culture itself, and further, even the very organization of nature. Many women give up in despair: if that’s how deep it goes they don’t want to know.” But Gen Z does know, and Gen Z must know.

After all, how can she deny Firestone’s raw intellect, enshrined for posterity in a book created in a fervor of furious, uninterrupted feminist insight? Firestone’s ideas, and her complementary activism, appear radical, but the extremity lies in the absurdity of the entrenched problems she tackles.

This is also the case for Gen Z. She occupies a congressional office to advocate for mandatory buybacks of assault-grade weapons, she strikes for the climate on Fridays to demand a Green New Deal, she writes obscenities and draws female reproductive organs on her poster for the Women’s March—radical actions for radical policies, yet completely normal given Gen Z’s radical world.

The mainstream must learn this critical lesson, decades in the making. It is not that the approach to activism or the proposed social reforms themselves are radical; rather, the systemic nature of injustice is so radical for select groups that we are driven to expose this reality in order to preserve our vulnerable well-being.

Radicalism is an awakening. But the mainstream narrative (pushed by male or adult dominance, for Firestone or Gen Z), which attempts to normalize and ignore the abhorrent conditions we face, fears a reckoning with radicalness.

So instead, the mainstream dubs the activists and their proposed reforms as the real radicals. And since radical is a dirty word (carrying the weight of truth), the mainstream historically wins. For activists like Firestone, the insurmountable burden of creating a livable world drives them to the brink of collapse. The isolation and mental illness wound up in Shulamith Firestone’s untimely death illuminate this depressing cycle of radicalism.

Gen Z refuses this mainstream’s perpetuated cycle. She wants to break the mold.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Canfield, Madeline. "Gen Z and Her Radical Foremother." 4 March 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 21, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/gen-z-and-her-radical-foremother>.

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