Shulamith Firestone, the author and gender theorist whose ideas deeply influenced the second-wave feminist and lesbian separatist movements, passed away earlier this week at age 67.
In her early twenties, Shulamith co-founded the New York Radical Women, a second-wave feminist group that drew nationwide media attention when they unfurled a banner inside the 1968 Miss America pageant displaying the message “Womens Liberation.” When NYRW dissolved in 1969, Shulamith went on to found the similarly political Redstockings as well as the New York Radical Feminists.
At the age of 25, Shulamith rose to national attention with the publication of her deeply influential text The Dialectic of Sex. In her obituary for Shulamith, Margalit Fox of the New York Times explains the text’s thesis, criticism, and lasting impact:
In [Dialectic], Ms. Firestone extended Marxist theories of class oppression to offer a radical analysis of the oppression of women, arguing that sexual inequity springs from the onus of childbearing, which devolves on women by pure biological happenstance.
“Just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself,” Ms. Firestone wrote, “so 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.”
In the utopian future Ms. Firestone envisioned, reproduction would be utterly divorced from sex: conception would be accomplished through artificial insemination, with gestation taking place outside the body in an artificial womb. While some critics found her proposals visionary, others deemed them quixotic at best.
Reviewing “The Dialectic of Sex” in The New York Times, John Leonard wrote, “A sharp and often brilliant mind is at work here.” But, he added, “Miss Firestone is preposterous in asserting that ‘men can’t love.’ ”
The book, which was translated into several languages, hurtled Ms. Firestone into the front ranks of second-wave feminists, alongside women like Betty Friedan, Kate Millett and Germaine Greer. It remains widely taught in college women’s-studies courses.
By the time of publication of Dialectic, Shulamith had largely withdrawn from political action in favor of focusing on her work as a painter. She also increasingly withdrew from the world around her as she started to struggle with schitzophrenia; by the late 1980’s, she was cycling in and out of mental hospitals. In 1998, she published a haunting account of her experiences with psychiatric medicine titled Airless Spaces, considered to be a masterpiece of experimental literature for its unsettling examination of the modern mental healthcare establishment.
Firestone was found dead in her New York City apartment on August 28, 2012 by the building’s owner; according to reports, Firestone had been living in a reclusive fashion and suffering with untreated physical illness. According to her sister, Laya Firestone Seghi, she died of natural causes. Besides her sister Laya, Firestone is survived by her mother, Kate Firestone Shiftan; two brothers, Ezra and Nechemia; another sister, Miriam Tirzah Firestone; and millions of readers who have been inspired, unsettled, and influenced by her work.