Known for: radical feminist theory
Dates: born 1945, died August 28, 2012
Also known as: Shulie Firestone
Shulamith (Shulie) Firestone was a feminist theorist known for her book The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, published when she was only 25 years old.
Born in Canada in 1945 to an Orthodox Jewish family, Shulamith Firestone moved to the United States as a child and graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago. She was the subject of a short 1967 documentary called Shulie, part of a series of films made by Chicago art students. The film followed a typical day in her life with scenes of commuting, working, and making art. Although never released, the film was revisited in a shot-by-shot simulacrum remake in 1997, also called Shulie. The original scenes were faithfully recreated but she was played by an actress.
Shulamith Firestone helped create several radical feminist groups. With Jo Freeman she started The Westside Group, an early consciousness-raising group in Chicago. In 1967, Firestone was one of the founding members of New York Radical Women. When NYRW split into factions amid disagreement about what direction the group should take, she launched Redstockings with Ellen Willis.
The members of Redstockings rejected the existing political left. They accused other feminist groups of still being part of a society that oppressed women. Redstockings drew attention when its members disrupted a 1970 abortion hearing in New York City at which the scheduled speakers were a dozen men and a nun. Redstockings later held its own hearing, allowing women to testify about abortion.
Shulamith Firestone’s Published Works
In her 1968 essay “The Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S.A: New View,” Shulamith Firestone asserted that women’s rights movements have always been radical, and have always been strongly opposed and stamped out. She pointed out that it was extremely difficult for 19th-century women to take on the church, the entrenched law of white male power, and the “traditional” family structure that ably served the industrial revolution. Portraying suffragists as old ladies gently persuading men to allow them to vote was an effort to minimize both the women’s struggle and the oppression against which they fought. Firestone insisted the same thing was happening to 20th-century feminists.
Shulamith Firestone’s best-known work is the 1970 book The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. In it, Firestone says that a culture of sex discrimination can be traced back to the biological structure of life itself. She claims that society may have evolved to a point with advanced reproductive technology where women could be liberated from “barbaric” pregnancy and painful childbirth. By eliminating this fundamental difference between the sexes, sex discrimination could finally be eliminated.
The book became an influential text of feminist theory and is often remembered for the notion that women could seize the means of reproduction. Kathleen Hanna and Naomi Wolf, among others, have noted the book’s importance as a part of feminist theory.
Shulamith Firestone disappeared from the public eye after the early 1970s. After struggling with mental illness, in 1998 she published Airless Spaces, a collection of short stories about characters in New York City who drift in and out of mental hospitals. The Dialectic of Sex was reissued in a new edition in 2003.
On August 28, 2012, Shulamith Firestone was found dead in her apartment in New York City.