Monday, September 03, 2012

Shulamith Firestone: making sex not matter

Shulamith Firestone has died. In 1970 she was at the cutting edge of second wave feminism, with the publication of her book The Dialectic of Sex.

She was a genuinely radical intellectual in the sense that she took the generally accepted principles of her time to their logical conclusion in one big leap.

The principle she took to a radical conclusion was this: that our sex (i.e. the fact of being a man or a woman) should be made not to matter.

There are large numbers of liberals who support some version of this principle. It flows from a belief that the overriding good in life is freedom defined as individual autonomy. If you think that an autonomous, self-determining life is what counts, then you'll see whatever is predetermined as being an impediment to be overcome. Given that sex distinctions are predetermined, it follows logically that liberals will want to make such distinctions not matter.

Where Shulamith Firestone differed from much of the liberal left was this. Left liberals usually argue that sex distinctions are social constructs and therefore can be socially deconstructed. Firestone however accepted that sex distinctions are based on real biological differences. She therefore concluded that nature had to be overcome if sex distinctions were to be abolished.

She wrote:
...the end goal of feminist revolution must be...not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally....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...

Firestone wanted to free women from the tyranny of being biologically female. She saw it as a tyranny because she believed in autonomy as the great good in life; she did not think that a woman could be autonomously independent when she was subject to pregnancy and then the nuture of children. She thought that this inevitably made women dependent on men for support.

And so Firestone took a very hostile view toward pregnancy; toward women looking after dependent children; and toward the act of sex which led to these things. She wanted to bust up the biological family and replace it with artificial procreation.

These views did not create a happy life for Firestone. In the 1980s she suffered from mental illness and she died alone, not being discovered for a week after her death.

Her fault was not to examine the underlying principles she was working with closely enough. She did not see motherhood, or family, or marital love as goods in themselves, goods which were not always to be subordinated to the pursuit of a radical, individualistic autonomy. She operated with a reductionist account of the human good, one which distorted her view of what might be valued in life, and so she failed to see politics as an application of wisdom and experience to the ordering and weighing of a range of possible goods.


  1. I read the The Dialectics of Sex about five years ago as part of a several-month, self-assigned, reading project that included important feminist and anti-feminist works. Shortly before reading Firestone, I had read Susan Brownmiller's In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, which was a history of radical feminism including a hagiographical description of Firestone, and Valarie Solanas' . In reading Firestone's Dialectic an observation that kept striking me was how she put forward as serious ideas, in cold, hard, rational-sounding language, many of the same proposals that were easily recognizable as insane ravings in Solanas' book.

  2. Gerry...

    So is Firestone to Solanas, what Fjordman is to ABB?

    Loony left, loony right.

    The most successful people, it seems, don't spend too much of their type fretting over the minutiae of politico-social ideologies of whatever variant; rather, they spend their time actually living.

    I also think that far-left and far-right politics is a little bit like an intense rivalry between two football teams.

  3. "She thought that this inevitably made women dependent on men for support."

    and where exactly are the artifical wombs and synthetic testosterone coming from?

    "In the 1980s she suffered from mental illness and she died alone"

    quelle surprise!

    The feminists seem to be more bothered about whether there is a man snooping around with the woman than the well-being of the women herself.(or in diluted terms, whether girls score better than boys than the scores themselves) The independence argument doesn't make much sense either when you hear the exaltations of sisterhood. It's bizarre. Even more bizarre that they and their ideas still have traction.

  4. Almost like a blueprint for her utopia, better described as a dystopia in reality.

  5. Loony left, loony right

    Anon, the problem is that the state ideologies in the West are based on the same underlying principles as those held by Shulamith - it's just that they are being worked through a little differently.

    So we can't just say about Firestone "loony left-winger, move on".

    The Western states are involved in a project to transform the traditional family by making women autonomous of men and by ditching distinct paternal and maternal roles in favour of a single unisex one - two of the goals put forward by Firestone.

    It's a radical project but not recognised as such.

  6. Such radical projects of ever increasing complexity are doomed to fail, and fall into self extinction. Such a fail is already observable, just by making the distinctions of a now rapidly failing civilisation of the corrupted West.

    I note this woman died alone and unhappy, who would of predicted that?

  7. John Donne once wrote that "Each man's death diminishes me..."

    Well, mates, he was dead wrong.

  8. Shulamith Firestone (birth name Shulamith Bath Shmuel Ben Ari Feuerstein) is still in good odor in universities, and specifically with university lecturers. What is considered respectably academically has a lot to do with what counts as "received opinion" when politicians want a "credible" report with policy implications. So yes she still matters.

    So yes she still matters.

    And she deserves to. There's a strong thread in feminism that assumes that men are innately evil, but generally the "argument" is carried forward indirectly, by implications, snark and anecdote. "Shulamith Firestone" said, yes men are innately evil, there is a physical, biological explanation, this is how it works, and this is how to end it.

    When there's a cloud of people in a field tacitly assuming X, and there's only one theoretician willing to positively affirm X and give the explicit, materialist theory of X, then that writer is the leader, acknowledged or not. For the rest: no guts, no glory.

  9. There's an interesting post on a related matter at the "Had Enough Therapy" blog. It discusses an article by a feminist who is disgusted by women who use photographs of their children as the main photo on their Facebook pages. As the feminist writer sees it, a Facebook page should be used for self expression, and anything that eclipses the self is regrettable. The connection to this post on Firestone is that this writer, like Firestone, feels angry when other women feel joy. Not every woman enjoys motherhood in all of its stages, from conception to grandmotherhood, but it's pretty clear that a majority find it, on the whole, extremely satisfying . Why do women who do not wish to be mothers, and who are not forced to be mothers, wish to deprive a majority of their fellow women of an experience that is one of the most, very often the most, satisfying in their lives? It looks like spite to me.

  10. Mark,

    I wrote the post above ("Loony left, loony right").

    I am from Scotland, by the way. I live less than an hour's drive from the place referred to in this post:

    Shulamith Firestone is of Jewish origin, obviously.

    It's funny how so many of the early far-left and Marxist thinkers were Jewish, yet today it seems to be more non-Jewish white people with a university education who do most of this kind of thinking nowadays.

    Aside from that, you state that the West is trying to do much the same thing as what she suggests. I suppose all "progressive politics" is a bit like that - instead of having a sudden revolution, things have to be changed slowly but surely, piece by piece, in order to fit a more left-wing agenda in a way that will not be too much for the people to take.

    I have read about the attempts to "abolish gender" in Sweden. Now here in Scotland no one really suggests that we do that, but there are a few loony leftists out there like Mhairi McAlpine who is a lesbian radical feminist Marxist anti-racist or something like that.

    Overall, the Glasgow area has the strongest left-wing "scene" in Scotland. And I don't live there anyway, nor even near there.

    When I was a teenager and maybe up until the age of about 21 I was broadly supportive of some left-wing ideas until I realised what it was all about.

    Mass immigration and a multi-cultural society is not good for white heterosexual men. A key reason for this is because of non-white men taking white women. Multiracialism, especially when coupled with feminism, is not good for the genetic, racial, reproductive and sexual needs of white heterosexual males.

    A leftist wrote to me "most [white heterosexual males] have no reason to perpetuate the social dominance of [their kind]". Is this really true? I don't think it is.

  11. I suppose all "progressive politics" is a bit like that - instead of having a sudden revolution, things have to be changed slowly but surely, piece by piece, in order to fit a more left-wing agenda in a way that will not be too much for the people to take.

    That's well expressed. That's a large part of the explanation of how progressive politics has managed to be accepted, despite its ultimately radical end point.

  12. I'll leave you with this: there is definitely a strain of thought within left-wing politics that utterly despises white [heterosexual] men.

  13. there is definitely a strain of thought within left-wing politics that utterly despises white [heterosexual] men.

    One reason for that is that many left-liberals blame inequality on a set of a false categories being created (maleness, whiteness, heterosexuality) in order to create an unearned privilege by some groups of people over others.

    Therefore, white heterosexual men are thought to be practising a kind of supremacism which maintaines inequality, oppression and injustice in the world.

    The more that white heterosexual men can be brought down the more that the world moves to its ultimate end point of equal freedom.

    Firestone was a little different in that she did not follow the idea that being male was a false category; she accepted that the male-female binary had a basis in biological reality. In that sense, she was actually less crazy than a lot of more mainstream leftists.

    The problem is that her willingness to accept the biological basis for sex distinctions forced her to very radical conclusions - that nature itself was the enemy that had to be overcome and that motherhood ought no longer to be associated with womanhood (hence the extreme hostility to pregnancy and sex).

  14. I fail to understand how white heterosexual males are any more privileged than any others within the countries that they live in.

    If anything, other groups have the privilege.

    For example:

    Women - look beautiful, can get sex whenever they want, most of the institutions in society (such as supermarkets and soap operas) cater to them, etc.

    Ethnic minorities - are more attractive to women than white men, are seen as "cooler" with a separate culture, can claim victim status, etc.

    Homosexuals - can get sex whenever they want, have their own subculture, can claim victim status, etc.

    Compare this to:

    White heterosexual men - can often go for years without sex, are discriminated against in employment, are as attractive as a bowl of cold oatmeal to women, are portrayed as nerds, losers and socially inept retards, will ply themselves with drink and drugs to escape political correctness, etc.

  15. Does anyone seriously think that "whiteness" is a privilege for heterosexual men?

    I don't. If anything, in terms of attractiveness of men, it is darkness that is often a key defining factor.

  16. Anonymous: "It's funny how so many of the early far-left and Marxist thinkers were Jewish, yet today it seems to be more non-Jewish white people with a university education who do most of this kind of thinking nowadays."

    Like the Blues, with its Black roots.

    Whites will build on any tradition: native, alien, good, bad or outright poisonous.

  17. Which does not make building on a poisonous tradition morally neutral!

    All I meant was, this is predictable.

  18. Anon (9:51)

    I agree with you that white heterosexual males are not privileged in the way that left-liberals assume them to be.

    But one quibble. I've seen research which shows that white women do still have a preference for dating white men. In fact, white women are a lot more loyal to white men than Asian women are to Asian men.

  19. "Asian" as in 'yellow' Asians, I presume, Mark?

    It's hard to say. It depends on geographical location and specific country, too. Certainly I have seen 'yellow' Asian men dating white women as well.

    What I do know is that most black/white mixed relationships involve a black man and a white woman.

    Bearing in mind the fact that black people will, due to consistently high fertility rates in Africa that easily outstrip those of the rest of the world, probably end up as the dominant human racial group on planet Earth, at least numerically speaking, then the issue of the disparity noted above taken in combination with this is bad news for white heterosexual men in general and their genetic, reproductive, sexual, racial and ethnic interests.

  20. Yeh.. actually I'm a white man, but I believe its not so much white men as Western, Christian values based modern civilization that socialists and other godless totalitarians have a problem with.
    It comes down to actually a racist worship of the "noble savage" invented by Rousseau. Combines with a hatred of Christianity , even lukewarm.
    I don't have a problem with my race disappearing. I do have a problem with western civilization disappearing.

    It's delicious to watch leftist squirm when the likes of John Senematu, black archbishop, criticise the UK for being too progressive .

  21. In America, unemployment rates are highest for the darkest minorities and lowest for the oh-so-oppressed heterosexual white men.

    Some privilege those coloreds have.

  22. Laughter is the best medicine.

  23. I have never heard of Shula Firestone. Her name could be mistaken for a character in a William Faulkner novel. Perhaps her special nuttiness would have been more 'appropriate' in a Faulkner story.

  24. @ Anonymous, Thursday, 6 September 2012 11:59:00 AM AEST

    I can't talk from direct experience about America having only been there a few times.

    What I do know is that in the UK immigrants are often given preference by employers.

  25. For example, I myself am a white male and am unemployed despite applying for many jobs and going to many interviews.

    On the other hand, a local shop near me seems to employ a lot of African immigrants and other immigrants as well.

  26. In America, unemployment rates are highest for the darkest minorities and lowest for the oh-so-oppressed heterosexual white men.

    That's not true. Asian Americans do better than whites when it comes to eduction, employment and income.

    And anyway the issue is whether a well-educated, highly motivated and able black man is going to be held back in America. Given affirmative action pressures I highly doubt that that's the case. It's likely that such black men will do well relative to their white counterparts.

  27. I believe its not so much white men as Western, Christian values based modern civilization that socialists and other godless totalitarians have a problem with.

    Yes and no. It's true that serious Christianity represents a problem for liberal modernity, as Christianity asserts a substantive good, which threatens the liberal understanding that the good is to self-determine our own subjective good (and not to interfere in others doing the same thing - not to discriminate or judge).

    Serious Christianity does discriminate and so it offends against the liberal understanding.

    However, left-liberalism does set up the white heterosexual male as the cosmic enemy of mankind. It does so by explaining inequality and injustice on white heterosexual men establishing false categories (whiteness, maleness etc) in order to create an "other" who could then be oppressed.

    So there is an understanding on the left that the passing of white heterosexual men is a good thing for humanity and that any defence of their existence is an immoral attempt to uphold supremacy.

    That's why the well-known American political activist Tom Hayden spoke of "a long-term goal of mine: the peaceful, nonviolent disappearance of the white race."

  28. Mark, the actual data shows that such black men do worse than an identical-credential white guy. Affirmative action rewards people who meet two or more criteria for 'diversity', not one (most white women that rise due to affirmative action are not heterosexual or are disabled or claim fake minority status a la Elizabeth Warren).

    Darker men remain penalized heavily in America no matter how industrious they might or mightn't like to be. As Asian males are considered less and less feminine, they will probably come in for their share of penalty eventually as well.

  29. Anon,

    Even if that's correct, it means that black women get to benefit from affirmative action at the expense of others, including white men.

    One thing I'm not sure you recognise is that white men are not at the top of the hill when it comes to all this, but are in an exceptionally difficult position.

    We have been tagged with the "false category oppressor group holding back the progress of humanity towards its ultimate end of equal freedom" label, and as such it is assumed that we are a dominant group in need of taking down.

    It's possible that things will change as the disparities become more obvious, but at the moment males in general and white males in particular have been squeezed out of certain professions, with little thought of using affirmative action to redress the imbalance - as would happen if the disparity were the other way around.

  30. An example of white male underrepresentation: in England white males are 45% of the population but only 20% of the intake at veterinary colleges. This figure is declining so rapidly and the disparity growing so large that the colleges are thinking of treating white males as a "minority group" for the purposes of admission.

  31. And do English white males want the lower salaries that are increasingly typical for veterinarians?

    Mediocre white men have it hard, because they've been supplanted by mediocre white women and not-white women and a smaller pool of not-white men. But that is a different problem than the myth that industrious white guys are kept out of the top tier. They remain secure and comfortable, with no major signs of change.

    In America, for example, the highest paying jobs in the national Post Office remain held by white men. There are many lower paying jobs held by blacks, though, feeding a myth that blacks get high paying jobs through affirmative action when that isn't what actually happens.

  32. "claim fake minority status a la Elizabeth Warren"

    she got in harvard because of her gender.

    "And do English white males want the lower salaries that are increasingly typical for veterinarians?"

    We found that, for over half of woman doctors in our data, the NPV of becoming a primary-care physician was less than the NPV of becoming a physician assistant. In contrast, the vast majority of male primary-care physicians earned an NPV greater than the NPV earned by a male PA. That is, while the vast majority of male doctors are financially better off for having become a doctor, the median female primary care physician would have been financially better off becoming a PA.

  33. I always find it interesting that leftists insist that gender is merely a social construct or a state of being that must be eliminated, while at the same time insisting that homosexuals are born gay & should be accepted as such. Doesn't it follow that if gender is a social construct, so is homosexuality? How can someone be born "gay", but not "male" or "female"?