Thursday, 28 August 2014
Forgetting Shulamith Firestone (7 January 1945 - 28 August 2012)
Shulamith Firestone was found dead two years ago today. A key figure in the break out of radical Second-Wave Feminism during the 1960s and 70s, she was a founding member of the New York Radical Women, Redstockings, and the New York Radical Feminists. Though it transpired afterwards that she suffered from a severe mental illness, her evil work, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970), is still taken seriously today.
Shulamith Firestone was born Shulamith Bath Shmuel Ben Ari Feuerstein from Orthodox Jewish parents living in Ottawa, Canada. After moving to the United States, her parents Americanised her surname while she was still a child. Raised in Kansas City and St Louis, she attended the Yavneh Rabbinical College of Telshe, in Wickliffe, Ohio, a leading Haredi institution of Torah study. She then attended Washington University in St Louis, wherefrom she transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. There, after the requisite ovesters (semester is patriarchal), she obtained a BFA in painting. Though Firestone has gone down in herstory (history is also patriarchal) as a radical feminist, she saw herself primarily as an artist.
During her final year as an art student, a cinéma vérité documentary was made about her. Made in 1967, the documentary ended up collecting dust in a vault, unseen, but it was discovered many years later by postmodern feminist film-maker Elisabeth Subrin, who in 1997 made a revisionistic frame-by-frame re-shoot of the original, save for her erasing the latter's male narrator (patriarchal, again) and replacing it with her own voice. The film won awards, but no one seems to have watched it except the judges at the film festivals where it was screened, and no one at the IMDB has bothered to give it even one star out of ten. In the Chicago Reader, a declining alternative weekly for 'hip' singles in their 20s, disappointed Jonathan Rosenbaum gave it a lukewarm review. Firestone objected to the film and in 2012 Subrin pulled it from circulation.
After art school, Firestone moved to New York, intending to become an artist and writer. Unfortunately, we are made to understand that she found the art world cliquey and staffed by perverts—what we may imagine a politically Leftist underworld (not unlike Hollywood) in which women advanced in exchange for 'special' favours. In response, and together with other radical feminists—Robin Morgan, Carol Hanisch, and Chude Pamela Allen, all co-ethnics—she co-founded in October 1967 the New York Radical Women. For their intellectual ammunition, they drew from the ideas of the New Left, about whose titular founder we ran a profile not long ago. Aparently, like her associates, loud and opinionated gorgons, she was fed up with ideas of traditional womanhood and the fact that the Civil Rights and the anti-Vietnam War movements were male-dominated.
Around this time, Firestone attended the National Conference for New Politics, of which was, thankfully, only held once. Together with Civil Rights' activist Jo Freeman, she led a female caucus, only to be thoroughly patronised by the event's director, William F. Pepper, who dismissed them as hysterical and irrelevant. This only served to galvanise Firestone.
The New York Radical Women protested the 1968 edition of Miss America (admittedly, a silly pageant, nowadays parading dieting women with sixpacks), in what was the first major demonstration of the so-called 'Women's Liberation Movement'. They came with mops, pots and pans, Playboy magazines, false eyelashes, high-heeled shoes, curlers, hairspray, makeup, girdles, corsets, and brassieres, intending a conflagration, but had to content themselves with just throwing them in the bin, after health and safety concerns were expressed to them. They claimed these items were 'instruments of female torture'. Never mind that the high heeled shoe, for example, was invented by Catherine de' Medici, the most powerful woman in France for 30 years until her death in 1589, and an enthusiastic patron of the arts. Too much time reading Marx and Freud, too little time educating themselves in history, obviously.
The NYRW lasted 16 months before disintegrating in acrimony. Political feminists, like Robin Morgan, member of the anarcho-communist Youth International Movement along with sociopathic manic-depressive and petty criminal Abbie Hoffmann, went on to found Women's International Conspiracy from Hell (W.I.T.C.H.)—a very appropriate name indeed. Her comrades in bra-burning included Naomi Jaffe, who went on to join the terrorist organisation Weather Underground. In turn, radical feminists, like Firestone, founded Redstockings. The latter took its name from 'bluestocking', a pejorative term for intellectual women, derived from Elizabeth Montagu's 18th-century literary group, the Blue Stockings Society. 'Red' was substituted for 'blue' in deference to the group's association with the revolutionary Left. Firestone's co-founding comrade was Ellen Willis, whose critiques of authoritarianism relied on the theories of Wilhelm Reich, a convicted quack and UFOlogist, and on Freudian psychoanalysis, a pseudo-science. Such was the seriousness of this group that Firestone viewed a 'smile boycott' as the ideal protest.
Firestone left Redstockings within a few months, and, together with Anne Koedt, author of The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm (1970), founded the New York Radical Feminists. The NYRF was driven by a conspiracy theory, according to which men consciously subordinated women to boost their egos. The group was a propaganda mill.
During this entire period and beyond it, Firestone edited Notes from the First Year (1968), Notes from the Second Year (1970) and, with Koedt, Notes from the Third Year (1971). She also saw publication of her one and only book of feminist theory, The Dialectic of Sex.
Now, radical feminism gave birth to a litter of poisonous texts at this time, and this one of them. Firmly rooted in the Freudo-Marxian scholastic tradition, Firestone argued that the oppression of women had its origins in biology, which then provided a model for racial and socio-economic domination. She viewed pregnacy and childbirth as 'barbaric', and advocated destroying the nuclear family and using technology to separate them from sex and child-rearing. Her utopian vision was cybernetically incubated children who didn't know their parents and were raised by communes of random volunteers. This text set the tone for future efforts by radical feminists to 'liberate' women from womanhood.
Aside from what are we to make of this weird self-hatred, one has to ask oneself how anybody could think that a single woman of 25, living in New York City, firmly within an tightly-knit ethnic milieu of angry feminist spinsters, knew anything at all about motherhood and child-rearing. On what basis was it thought that hers was an authoritative 'solution' to these 'problems'?
Fortunately, by the time the screed appeared, Firestone had become less politically active. By the mid 1970s, she had faded from view. And subsequently almost no one heard anything more until the late 1990s, when she resurfaced with a new book, Airless Spaces.
It turns out that Firestone suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. A recluse because of her illness, she lived in poverty in a book-lined single-bedroom unit, going in and out of mental institutions. Airless Spaces is a fictionalised account of her life as a regular mental patient. The book is short, but a sad and harrowing read. And though obscure, it is of much greater merit than the alleged 'magnum opus' of feminist theory, for it uncovers the grim reality of individuals whose struggles are known to very few.
Shortly after, Firestone retreated back into seclusion. She didn't keep in touch with anyone, and only one person—described as 'openly lesbian'—was trusted to visit her occasionally. It appears that for a while she worked on a science fiction novel, but decided to throw away the manuscript, claiming that she had showed it to a reader and been told she had plagiarised the reader's idea. She survived on state benefits and possibly with financial assistance from her family.
On 28 August 2012, her neighbour found her lifeless body on the floor of her apartment, having died more than a week earlier.
From this perspective, it seems clear that the The Dialectic of Sex, rather than a serious theoretical work, as many feminists insist on treating it, needs to be reclassified as a work of literature, perhaps a work of science fiction in the guise of a tract, more within Hans Prinzhorn's discipline than within the purview of a university's Women's Studies department. To do otherwise is pure evil. Not that mental illness is sufficient reason to discount a person's intellectual work: Cesare Lombroso showed in1891 that many a man of genius has been afflicted by one or more psychopathological conditions, and not because of that are they necessarily less meritorious. We must make our assessments on a case-by-case basis. And, when it comes to radical feminism, much of it is driven by plain and simple hatred of men. This becomes apparent when we examine the lives of some of the leading radical feminists. Valerie Solanas came from a profoundly dysfunctional home; she also suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and ended up shooting Andy Warhol, for which she was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. In her iconic The S.C.U.M. Manifesto she wrote, 'To call a man an animal is to flatter him; he’s a machine, a walking dildo'. (Incidentally, she appears in Airless Spaces, homeless and begging in order to eat.) Andrea Dworkin became a radical feminist after being severely abused by her first husband, Cornelius Dirk de Bruin, a fellow radical activist involved in the Vietnam War protest movement. Mary Daly had no real experiences with men, being a lesbian ( 'I don't think about men. I really don’t care about them'.) And Phyllis Chesler cites her experiences in the early 1960s with her Afghani husband in Kabul as inspiring her to become an ardent feminist. As was the custom for foreign wives in Afghanistan, she was required to surrender her US passport to the authorities and lived a virtual prisoner at her in-laws’ polygamous household.
Indeed, it's telling that Firestone asked for The Dialecting of Sex to be taken out of print not long after a new edition came out, but was happy for Airless Spaces to remain available.
Firestone's case must, therefore, be treated with compassion. Indeed, it is a tragedy that she had her mind poisoned by Freudo-Marxian and radical feminist ideas in the first place, because traditional womanhood may have at least yielded a more financially comfortable existence with the support of a loving spouse. Ironically, such a context could have offered better opportunities for her to pursue her artistic endeavours, and even, perhaps, to go off her medication for periods while working on projects (Firestone reported that the anti-psychotics dulled her mind). Firestone was, in reality, a victim, and radical feminism led to the only possible outcome: isolation. The scorn should be directed at the politicised gender hustlers who promote and pass as serious theory ideas that are literally insane in order to spread hatred in their bogus war of the sexes. Their militancy is called 'the loony Left' for a reason.
 William F. Pepper is nowadays associated with conspiracy theories, including the 9/11 Truth movement.
 David C. Saidoff, Stuart C. Apfel, The Healthy Body Handbook: A Total Guide to the Prevention and Treatment of Sports Injuries (New York: Demos Medical Publishing, 2004)
 Kerry Bolton, The Psychotic Left (London: Black House Publishing, 2013) 168 - 173.
 Kevin MacDonald, 'Freud's Follies', Skeptic, 4(3), 94–99.
 'Shulamith Firestone, wrote best-seller, 67', The Villager. 30 August 2012. Web. Retrieved 27 August 2014.
 Jennifer Baumgardner, 'On Firestone, Part 2', n + 1 magazine. 26 September 2012. Web. Retrieved 27 August 2012.
 The source is the obituary on the The Villager, reference in note  above. An anonymous commenter, claiming to having been Firestone's neighbour, corrected what she claimed to have been inaccuracies in the obituary, which stated that it was the landlord who found the body, alerted by odour, and that the Firestone had been dead for about a week. The commenter claimed there was no odour and that she'd been alerted by a rent check that hadn't left the crack on her door since 1 August. We will leave it for the reader to decide.