Firestone c. 1970
Shulamith Bath Shmuel Ben Ari Feuerstein
January 7, 1945
|Died||August 28, 2012 (aged 67)|
|Alma mater||Washington University (BA)|
Art Institute of Chicago (BFA)
|The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970)|
|Movement||Radical feminism, second-wave feminism|
|Parent(s)||Kate Firestone (née Weiss) and Sol Firestone|
Shulamith "Shulie" Firestone (January 7, 1945 – August 28, 2012) was a Canadian-American radical feminist. A central figure in the early development of radical feminism and second-wave feminism, Firestone was a founding member of three radical-feminist groups: New York Radical Women, Redstockings, and New York Radical Feminists.
In 1970, Firestone authored The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. Published in September of that year, the book became an influential feminist text. Naomi Wolf said of the book in 2012: "No one can understand how feminism has evolved without reading this radical, inflammatory, second-wave landmark."
Early life and education
Firestone was born Shulamith Bath Shmuel Ben Ari Feuerstein in Ottawa, Canada. She was born on January 7, 1945 and was the second of six children and the first daughter of Orthodox Jewish parents Kate Weiss, a German, and Sol Feuerstein, a Brooklyn salesman. In April 1945, when Firestone was four months old, her father took part in the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.[a]
When she was a child, the family Anglicized their surname to Firestone and moved to St. Louis, Missouri. Her father had converted to Orthodox Judaism when he was a teenager and, according to Susan Faludi, he exercised tight control over his children, with the zeal of a convert. One of her sisters, Tirzah Firestone, told Faludi: "My father threw his rage at Shulie." She railed against the family's sexism; Firestone was expected to make her brother's bed, "[b]ecause you're a girl", her father told her. Laya Firestone Seghi, another sister, remembers father and daughter threatening to kill one another.
Firestone attended Yavneh Teacher's Seminary in Cleveland (sister institution of Telshe Yeshiva), received a BA from Washington University in St. Louis and, in 1967, a BFA degree in painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). That same year, during her studies at SAIC, she was the subject of a student documentary film. Never released, the film was rediscovered in the 1990s by experimental filmmaker Elisabeth Subrin, who did a frame-by-frame reshoot of the original documentary, with Kim Soss playing the 22-year-old Firestone. It was released in 1997 as Shulie, winning two awards, including the 1998 Los Angeles Film Critics Association award.[b]
"Shulie", named after Firestone's lifelong nickname, is a 1997 documentary directed by Elisabeth Subrin that recreates another unreleased documentary that Firestone took part in during her time at SAIC. The role of Firestone is taken on by actress Kim Soss, who also served as the costume designer and property master for the film. The film highlights the journey of Firestone as a young student and her journey into becoming one of the most notable second-wave feminists and feminist authors of the 20th century.
"Shulie" and the creative team were honored with two awards for their cinematic achievement. In 1998, the film was honored with the Independent/Experimental Film and Video Award by the Los Angeles Film-Critics Association, receiving acknowledgement alongside films like "Saving Private Ryan", A Bug's Life, and Rushmore. Two years later, the documentary received the "Experimental Award" from the New England Film and Video Festival.
New York Radical Women
In October 1967, Firestone moved to New York City and co-founded New York Radical Women (NYRW). The first and only national convention of the National Conference for New Politics was held that year. Firestone attended and, with Jo Freeman, formed a woman's caucus, which tried to present its own demands to the plenary session. The women were told their resolution was not important enough for a floor discussion. They eventually managed to have their statement added to the end of the agenda, but it was not discussed. The director, Willam F. Pepper, refused to recognize any of the women waiting to speak and instead called on someone to speak about "the forgotten American, the American Indian". When five women, including Firestone, ran to the podium to protest, Pepper patted Firestone on the head and said, "Cool down, little girl; we have more important things to talk about than women's problems."
Firestone and Freeman called a meeting of the women who had been at the “free school” course and the women's workshop at the conference; this became the first Chicago women's liberation group. It was known as the Westside group because it met weekly in Freeman's apartment on Chicago's west side. After a few months Freeman started a newsletter, Voice of the Women's Liberation Movement. It circulated nationwide (and in a few foreign countries), giving the new movement its name. Many of the women in the Westside group went on to start other feminist organizations, including the Chicago Women's Liberation Union.
Redstockings, New York Radical Feminists
When NYRW formed "consciousness raising groups", Firestone and Ellen Willis co-founded the radical feminist group Redstockings, named after the Blue Stockings Society, an 18th-century women's literary group. Redstocking members included Kathie Sarachild ("Sisterhood is Powerful") and Carol Hanisch ("the personal is political"). Faludi writes that the Redstockings "fell apart" in 1970. Firestone then co-founded New York Radical Feminists (NYRF) with Anne Koedt.
With others from New York Radical Feminists, Firestone created and edited a feminist periodical, Notes, producing Notes from the First Year (June 1968), Notes from the Second Year (1970), and, with Anne Koedt as editor while Firestone was on leave, Notes from the Third Year (1971).
The Dialectic of Sex
The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970) became a classic text of second-wave feminism. This was Firestone's first book and was published when she was just 25. In the book, Firestone sought to develop a materialist view of history based on sex: Also notable within the book is the ideal society Firestone creates, one void of the oppression of women.
Just as to ensure elimination of economic classes requires the revolt of the underclass (the proletariat) and, in a temporary dictatorship, their seizure of the means of production, so to assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction: not only the full restoration to women of ownership of their own bodies, but also their [temporary] seizure of control of human fertility—the new population biology as well as all the social institutions of child-bearing and child-rearing. ... [T]he end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.
Firestone synthesized the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, and Simone de Beauvoir into a radical feminist theory of politics. She also acknowledged the influence of Lincoln H. and Alice T. Day's Too Many Americans (1964) and the 1968 best-seller The Population Bomb by Paul R. Ehrlich.
Within her book, Firestone asserts that modern society could not achieve true gender equality until women’s biological traits are separated from their identity. She also makes the claim that Freud and Marx had ignored what she called the “sex class”, the domination of women given their biological differences. Gender inequality stems from the patriarchal societal structures imposed upon women because of their bodies, she argued, particularly the physical, social, and psychological disadvantages caused by pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing. Unlike many other feminists that argued the female existence is a superior one, Firestone only freely accepted that there are biological differences between men and women. However, she made it clear that these differences, though real, are not to be treated as a foundation for prejudice or superiority of one group over another. Firestone also insists that to be human is to outgrow nature, saying: "we can no longer justify the maintenance of a discriminatory sex class system on the grounds of its origin in Nature." The abolition of the sex class requires that women take control of the means of reproduction. She regarded pregnancy and childbirth as "barbaric" (a friend of hers compared labor to "shitting a pumpkin") and the nuclear family as a key source of women's oppression. Contraception, in vitro fertilization and other advances meant that sex would one day be separated from pregnancy and child-rearing, and women could be free. However, Firestone hoped to take reproduction one step farther and completely separate it from the female body. She urged the emergence of a new type of artificial reproduction, referred to as the “bottled baby.” Although in vitro is the closest option we have to such a phenomenon, we have not yet reached Firestone’s end goal.
Firestone also criticizes the dynamic that exists between heterosexual parenting and child development. She argued that children are hindered in their abilities to develop because of their education, pre-determined positions in the social hierarchy, and "lesser importance" in comparison to the adult figures in their lives. This, in turn, has increased maternal expectations and obligations, which is something Firestone desired for society to outgrow. This dependency of maternal figures makes the child(ren) more susceptible to physical abuse, and deprives them of the opportunity to work towards being economically independent and possess or feed into sexual urges.
By the time The Dialectic of Sex was published in 1970, Firestone had largely ceased to be politically active. She withdrew from politics in the early seventies, moved to Saint Marks Place, and worked as a painter. In the late eighties she became mentally ill.
In 1998 she published Airless Spaces, a collection of fictional short stories based on her experiences being hospitalized for schizophrenia. Inspired by personal experience, this work highlights the lives and struggles of different characters in New York City battling with mental illness and poverty. Each narrative in the book addresses the difficulties of mental disorder, as well as the feelings of "shame, humiliation, fear, loneliness, and anxiety" that accompany it. There is a consistent presence of instability in the lives of each character in regards to economic and social status, along with mental state. "Airless Spaces" is said to be a reflection of the marginalization Firestone experienced resulting from her radical feminist ideals and lifestyle, as well as the hardships of individuals to escape from the dehumanizing aspects of the mental health field.
Death and Legacy
On August 28, 2012, Firestone was found dead in her New York apartment by the building's owner. Alerted by neighbors, who had smelled an odor from her apartment, her superintendent peered in through a window from the fire escape and saw her body on the floor. Her landlord, Bob Perl, said she had probably been dead about a week. According to her sister, Laya Firestone Seghi, she died of natural causes. Her death was confirmed by the New York City Medical Examiner's Office; according to reports, she lived in a reclusive fashion and had been in ill health. In a commemorative essay by Susan Faludi published several months after Firestone's death, The New Yorker magazine further detailed the circumstances of her demise, citing her decades-long struggle with schizophrenia—along with speculation of self-induced starvation—as probable contributing factors. A memorial service was arranged in her memory.
The Dialectic of Sex is still used in many women's studies programs. Its recommendations, such as raising children in a gender neutral fashion, mirror the ideals Firestone set out to achieve in her heyday.
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- The film also won the Experimental 1999 US Super 8; a Film & Video Fest-Screening Jury Citation 2000 New England Film & Video Festival; and Best Experimental Film Biennial 2002.
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