Arguing that “family structure is the source of psychological, economic and political oppression,” Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, published in 1970, was one of the most widely discussed books of the feminist movement. Firestone, a founder of radical feminism, brought together the dialectical materialism of Marx and the psychoanalytic insights of Freud in an effort to develop an analysis of women’s oppression that was inclusive of the dimensions of class and race. Although she wrote for a popular audience, her work was broadly grounded in classic texts and raised many questions that have since been taken up and developed by feminist theorists within the academy.
Shulamith Firestone, the second of six children in the Orthodox family of Saul and Kate (Weiss) Firestone, was born in Ottawa, Ontario, on January 13, 1945. She grew up in St. Louis and attended Yavneh of Telshe Yeshivah near Cleveland before receiving a B.A. from Washington University (St. Louis) and a B.F.A. in painting from the Art Institute of Chicago. Active in the civil rights and antiwar movements, Firestone joined with other feminists denied a forum at the National Conference for a New Politics in Chicago in 1967 to found the first independent women’s caucus organized around women’s issues since the suffrage era. Moving to New York, she cofounded New York Radical Women (the first women’s liberation group in New York City), Redstockings, and New York Radical Feminists, and served as editor of Notes from the First Year (1968), Notes from the Second Year (1970), and, with Anne Koedt, Notes from the Third Year (1971). Firestone disappeared from active involvement in the women’s movement shortly after the publication of The Dialectic of Sex. She lives in New York.
While taking much from Marx and Freud, Firestone insisted that they had not carried their analyses far enough. Marx and Engels had failed to recognize that what she called sex-class—the domination of men over women rooted in biology—both provided the model for, and offered additional support to, domination by economic class as well as by race. She drew on Freud to argue that sexual repression was at the root of sociocultural malaise, and insisted that the true emancipation of women would require both an end to sexual repression and the emancipation of children.
It was only in the last quarter of the twentieth century, she argued, that “material conditions” had progressed to such a point that a truly revolutionary feminism was possible. Pregnancy and childbirth were “barbaric.” The development of contraception, the possibility of creating “test-tube babies,” and other scientific advancements meant that humanity would soon have the technological means to separate pregnancy and child rearing from sex and, ultimately, free women from childbearing. Only a destruction of the nuclear family, and the consequent elimination of pressures on women (and men) to marry and have children, would make possible the creation of new, more rational, and voluntarily constituted groups of people committed to raising children in ways that would not require either permanent male-female bonding or the identification of two particular adults with “their” particular children.
Firestone’s efforts to salvage Marx and Freud were the first of a series of feminist efforts to use these theorists and their methods both to understand the subordination of women and to articulate strategies to overcome it. On the other hand, her insistence that the subordination of women was fundamentally linked to that of children is an insight that has not been taken up as ardently by later feminists. Finally, what is perhaps most striking to later twentieth-century readers is Firestone’s extraordinary faith in technology, and her belief that a truly revolutionary ecology would “attempt to establish an artificial (man-made) balance in place of the ‘natural’ one, thus realizing the original goal of empirical science: total mastery over nature.”
The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970); Notes from the First Year, editor (1968); Notes from the Second Year, editor, (1970); Notes from the Third Year, editor, with Anne Koedt (1971).
Gorman, Robert A., ed. Biographical Dictionary of Neo-Marxism (1985); Ireland, Norma Olin. Index to Women of the World from Ancient to Modern Times: A Supplement (1988); O’Neill, Lois Decker, ed. The Women’s Book of World Records and Achievements (1979); Uglow, Jennifer S., comp. and ed. The Continuum Dictionary of Women’s Biography (1989), and The International Dictionary of Women’s Biography (1982); The Writer’s Dictionary.
How to cite this page
Ackelsberg, Martha. "Shulamith Firestone." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 3, 2016) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/firestone-shulamith>.