The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution

I’m continuing to work my way through the major hits of the 1970s Second Wave, and Firestone does not disappoint. Her intellectual energy is a clear blue light cutting through calcified structures of society. Originally put off by the continual undertone of “the revolution is right around the corner”, I was appeased when Firestone puts a more realistic timeline in place of 100 years. Perhaps she’s right, although it appears on many fronts that we’re backsliding and backlashed yet again. She begins by pointing out that the weakness in Marx/Engels was their not digging deep enough into psychosexual roots of class. While she credits Marx for being “onto something” with the observation that the family contains in miniature all the antagonisms that develop within society and state, she pushes further and analyzes class distinctions with biological division of the sexes: women saddled with birthing/raising children, men focused externally on adventure/earning. In a later chapter she eviscerates Freud and psychoanalysts, noting the confusion when asking those in therapy whether or not it actually helps (Firestone cites studies that show that in fact it harms). She puts particular slashes through Theodor Reik, the “prototype of the crackerbarrel layman’s Freud, exemplifying the crassness and insensitivity of psychoanalysts to the real problems of their patients,” by quoting him at length and summing up: “It reads like a Freudian jokebook.”
There’s a great chapter on the history of the women’s movement in America, detailing the hard push for suffrage and why it turned out to be a bugaboo – “Long channeling of feminist energies into the limited goal of suffrage depleted the [movement]… Three generations had elapsed from the time of the inception… the masterplanners all were dead. Women who joined the feminist movement to work for the single issue of the vote never had time to develop a broader consciousness: by then they’d forgotten what the vote was for.” Ok, so they got the vote. Then what happened? Firestone posits that the 1920s were the beginning of the cultivation of style & glamor (a “cultural disease still dissipating women today”). The search for a unique personal style replaced old emphasis on character development through responsibility and learning experience. The 1930s, Depression era, women get serious but can’t complain about things b/c they got the vote; joined the Communist party (“they empathize mightily with the underdog, unable to acknowledge that the strong identification they felt with the exploited working class came directly from their own experience of oppression”). 1940s – war effort and women got substantial jobs for the first time in decades. 1950s – disillusionment once women were let go from their jobs and whisked into diaper-land in the suburbs (Feminine Mystique). 1960s – “chicks” are “culturally immunized by the antifeminist backlash” and afraid to make any moves to reduce their own oppression, so they join the Peace movement (“harmless because politically impotent, it yet provided a vicarious outlet for female anger”). Firestone footnotes a 1968 women’s peace march of 5,000 women in DC that was totally ignored, “women’s claim to being an oppressed group is seldom taken even as seriously as that of any minority group, indeed women are not even on the political map: we are politically invisible.” She claims that women who went South to fight for civil rights were more likely to move toward radical feminism than the peace movement women, “the issue of slavery spurred on the radical feminism of the nineteenth century, so the issue of racism stimulated the new feminism: the analogy between racism and sexism had to be made eventually. Once people confront their own racism, they can’t deny the parallel.”
One of my pet peeves is the continuation of the grouping of “women and children” in everyday life. Firestone attacks it head on, stating that the special tie between the two groups is no more than shared oppression. Her chapter on childhood is enlightening, detailing the recent development of the patriarchal nuclear family with its special stage of childhood. In the Middle Ages, children were miniature adults, indentured servants headed off for an apprenticeship at early age. There were no special toys, games, clothes or classes designed just for children. (Most of her analysis is based on Philippe Aries’ Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life).
Firestone also takes on the subject of art, saying modern art was a “desperate, self-defeating retaliation for the evaporation of its social function, the severance of the social umbilical cord, the dwindling of the old sources of patronage. The modern art tradition… is not an authentic expression of modernity as much as it is a reaction to the realism of the bourgeoisie. Post-impressionism deliberately renounced all reality-affirming conventions to lead eventually to an art-for-art’s sake so pure, a negation of reality so complete as to make it ultimately meaningless, sterile, even absurd.”
On catcalling and demand for smiles:

Because the class oppression of women and children is couched in the phraseology of “cute” it is much harder to fight then open oppression. What child can answer back when some inane aunt falls all over him or some stranger decides to pat his behind and gurgle baby talk? What woman can afford to frown when a passing stranger violates her privacy at will? If she responds to his, “Baby you’re looking good today!” with “No better than when I didn’t know you,” he will grumble, “What’s eating that bitch?” Or worse. Very often the real nature of these seemingly friendly remarks emerges when the child or the woman does not smile as she should: “Dirty old scum bag. I wouldn’t screw you even if you had a smile on your face!” “Nasty little brat. If I were your father I would spank you so hard you wouldn’t know what hit you!” The violence is amazing. Yet these men feel that the woman or the child is to blame for not being “friendly.” Because it makes them uncomfortable to know that the woman or the child or the black or the workman is grumbling, the oppressed groups must also appear to like their oppression – smiling and simpering though they may feel like hell inside. The smile is the child/woman equivalent of the shuffle; it indicates acquiescence of the victim to his own oppression. (In my own case, I had to train myself out of that phony smile, which is like a nervous tic on every teenage girl. And this meant that I smiled rarely, for in truth, when it came down to real smiling, I had less to smile about. My “dream” action for the women’s liberation movement: a smile boycott, at which declaration all women would instantly abandon their “pleasing” smiles, henceforth smiling only when something pleased them… Many men can’t understand that their easy intimacies come as no privilege…. Imagine this man’s own consternation were some stranger to approach him on the street in a similar manner – patting, gurgling, muttering baby talk – without respect for his profession or his “manhood.”

Other notes:
* Learned about the Nelson Pill Hearings which looked into concerns about side-effects of the pill, but which only had men testifying about the safety of the pill (obviously none of the men had taken the pill)
* She cites Orwell’s 1984 and Technocracy to talk about “cybernation” that will eventually take jobs away from people; the alternative could be a return to “Single professions” – a single life organized around a chosen profession (they’re on the decline – celibate religious life, court roles of jester/musician/page/knight, cowboys, sailors, etc. The roles were never open to women; most single female roles (spinster, aunt, nun, courtesan) still determined by their sexual nature.
* “Only in Manhattan is single living even tolerable, and that can be debated.”
* Far-fetched idea that technology will eliminate the need for work, granted annual income from the state.
* Prescient about the internet – “Amount of rote knowledge necessary will be vastly reduced, for we shall have computer banks within easy reach.”
* She bemoans the lack of information about key suffrage players like: Myrtilla Miner, Prudence Crandall, Abigail Scott Duniway, Mary Putnam Jacobi, Ernestine Rose, the Claflin sisters, Crystal Eastman, Clara Lemlich, Mrs. OHP Belmont, Doris Stevens, Anne Martin, Fanny Wright, Harriet Stanton Blach, Charlotte Perkins Gilman