“What does the word ‘feminism’ bring to mind? A granite faced spinster obsessed with a vote? Or a George Sand in cigar and bloomers, a woman against nature? Chances are that whatever image you have, it is a negative one. To be called a feminist has become an insult, so much so that a young woman intellectual, often radical in every other area, will deny vehemently that she is a feminist, will be ashamed to identify in any way with the early women’s movement, calling it cop-out or reformist or demeaning it politically without knowing even the little that is circulated about it.”
– Shulamith Firestone, The Women’s Rights Movement in the USA: A View, 1968
Shulamith Firestone was a central figure in the development of twentieth century radical feminism in the United States of America. In addition to her numerous essays, her canonical work is The Dialectic of Sex which was published in 1970 and set out the theory for radical feminism.
Shulamith was the second of six children and was born in 1945 in Canada to an Orthodox Jewish family. After her graduation from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, Shulamith moved to New York City in 1967 where she co-founded New York Radical Women along with Robin Morgan, Carol Hanisch and Pam Allen. The group was the first of its kind in the city. They were tired with the New Left, which they saw as still entrenched in patriarchal gender politics despite their activism in civil rights and the anti-war movement. Shulamith stated that she had experienced sexism in the New Left and at the National Conference for New Politics, she was told ‘cool down, little girl, we have more important things to talk about than women’s problems’.
At the beginning of her time with the New York Radical Women in 1967, Shulamith penned three essays on feminism. The Women’s Rights Movement in the USA: A View essay unpicked the history of the USA women’s movement as well as discussing how future women’s movements could develop from lessons learned. This essay was included in the anthology of women’s writing on radicalism feminism, edited by Shulamith, which was published in late 1968. Entitled Notes From The First Year, it also included Anne Koedt’s The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm.
On 7 September 1968, the NYRW held a demonstration at the Miss America 1969 pageant in New Jersey in order to expose the normative beauty standards imposed upon women. The protesters saw the Miss America contest as restrictive and damaging to women, but also recognised the role it had in American society and concluded that it would be the ideal place to gain attention for the women’s movement. The protesters set up a Freedom Trash Can into which they threw products which were symbolic of the construct of femininity such as false eyelashes and mops, and handed out their pamphlet titled No More Miss America. By unfurling a Women’s Liberation banner in the concert hall, the protest gained international media attention, thus fulfilling its aim of consciousness raising.
It was at this protest that the phrase ‘bra burning’ was born. One journalist who was covering the event drew the similarity between the feminist protestors with those who protested the Vietnam war who burned their draft cards, thus the phrase gained traction, and incorrectly attached to the protest.
In January 1969, Firestone and and Ellen Willis split from the NYRW and formed the radical group, Redstockings of the Women’s Liberation Movement. One of the group’s first protests was in March 1969 where Firestone organised the first abortion speak-out at Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square. Twelve women were invited to discuss their experience of abortion (which was still illegal at the time) as well as childbirth and adoption.
In 1970, when she was 25, Shulamith wrote The Dialectic of Sex in which she adapted the theories of Marx and Freud into a radical discussion on gender inequality. The central ambition of the book is to create a world where genital differences between humans would be culturally irrelevant; Shulamith wanted radical gender equality, which meant to eradicate all gender structures entirely. Furthermore, as only women were physiologically capable of giving birth to children, she suggested humans needed to devise ways of reproducing artificially to undo gender inequality.
The Dialectic of Sex was a bestseller and therefore attracted a lot of attention within the women’s liberation movement, but due to the radical proposals within it, it received negative attention from the media. Following the publication of The Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith left political activism and took up painting. In 1987, she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and she was repeatedly hospitalised over the following years. She found support in her friends and published her second book Airless Spaces, a collection of short stories on mental illness and poverty, in 1998.
Shulamith Firestone died in Manhattan in 2012 at age 67. At her funeral, her sister Tirzah Firestone ended her eulogy with a fitting epitaph: “Shulie was a model for Jewish women and girls everywhere, for women and girls everywhere. She had children — she influenced thousands of women to have new thoughts, to lead new lives. I am who I am, and a lot of women are who they are, because of Shulie.”