Almost fifty years ago there was an influential woman who called pregnancy “barbaric,” described childhood as “hell,” and said giving birth was “like shitting a pumpkin.” Shulamith Firestone was a radical activist and remarkably prescient thinker who helped define feminism as we know it. Yet today she remains largely—and unfairly—unknown.
Through her relentless activism and acerbic writing, Firestone played a key role in developing the so-called “second-wave” feminism. As a socialist feminist, she reinterpreted Marx, Engels, and Freud in her widely influential work The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970). In her book (which you can purchase here, or read online here) she embraced technology in its liberating potential, becoming the world’s first cyberfeminist two decades before cyberfeminism was even "a thing." At the time of The Dialectic, something now as commonplace as IVF was still dismissed as futuristic dystopia, yet in her book, Firestone advocated for reproductive technologies that we'd deem "visionary" even today.
According to her, the biological family unit constitutes “an inherently unequal power distribution” (1970: 9). The reproductive functions determined by our biology have in turn determined power imbalances within the family, and until we make these reproductive functions irrelevant, women will not be truly free.
Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex mirrors Marx’s dialectical materialism. She sees the division of labor within the family—where one sex bears the burden of reproduction for both—as fundamentally unfair. In the division of labor typical of traditional families, one half of the species sacrifices itself to perpetuate the entire humanity, while the other half goes about the “business of the world” (p. 205). This leads to a conception of the female gender as connected to the natural, while man is seen as the creator of culture. So, just as Marx and Engels called for a radical revolution whereby the underclass of proletariat should regain control of the means of production, so too should women revolt and seize control of the means of reproduction. And what’s more, just as the socialist revolution aimed to abolish not just the privilege of the bourgeoisie, but also the class distinction altogether, so should feminism eliminate sex differences completely.
“The heart of woman’s oppression,” Firestone decrees, “is her childbearing and childrearing roles” (p. 72). The overused phrase “women and children” is symptomatic of a relationship of codependence and mutually reinforcing oppression. Women won’t be truly free until they are released from the biological shackles of pregnancy and childbirth, and children won’t develop into autonomous and happy individuals as long as they’re considered the property of their parents.
The class structure and underlying power struggles are therefore not solely characteristic of male-female relationships, but also of the relations between parents and children. Childhood plays a central role in Firestone’s theory, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say she wanted childhood abolished just as much as she did motherhood. Firestone sees children as being fundamentally oppressed. The period we commonly refer to as “childhood” is a myth, and is in fact an often humiliating experience that should be eradicated if we want children to be happy and develop into fully functioning individuals.
In the chapter titled “Down with Childhood,” she reminds us that in the Middle Ages children weren’t even perceived as different from adults, as they worked and slaved just like everybody else. Children didn’t have a vocabulary of their own, but “shared the vocabulary of feudal subordination” (p. 77). With the advent of empirical science and the bourgeoisie, childhood developed into a state of its own, adjacent to the concept of "family." By the 16th and 17th centuries, thinkers such as Rousseau helped develop an ideology around childhood.
This new way of thinking added a layer of glorified innocence to childhood, but it also brought with it segregation and oppression. The forming of the concept of childhood can be traced in the development of a special industry around it, including special toys, games, baby food, children’s book, children’s fashion, media programs, and advertising "specially" designed for children. Segregation is a sign of domination and oppression, and kids have separate kindergartens, separate schools, separate food, separate parks—all spaces and institutions it would be inappropriate for adults to frequent if they’re not the children’s parents or instructors. This takes away children’s freedom: “Gone are the days of Huckleberry Finn:” Firestone writes, “Today the malingerer or dropout has a full-time job just in warding off the swarm of specialists studying him, the proliferating government programs, the social workers on his tail” (p. 92).
Quite remarkably, Firestone thought this extreme institutionalization and segregation is responsible for our desire to procreate. The differences between adults and children have been exaggerated, and since adults are so brutally and artificially separated from children they choose to have offspring just because they miss their company! “An absence of contact with the reality of childhood makes every young adult ripe for the same sentimentalization of children that he himself probably despised as a child” (p. 94). The decision to have children of one’s own is made out of desperation, as an attempt to fill the void created by the premature and unnatural disconnection from children.
Not only are women tied down to children on a practical, biological level, but they’ve also shared the same stereotypes and have historically experienced the same kind of discrimination. Both women and children
were considered asexual and thus “purer” than man. Their inferior status was ill-concealed under an elaborate “respect.” One didn’t discuss serious matters nor did one curse in front of women and children; one didn’t openly degrade them, one did it behind their backs … A man is allowed to blaspheme the world because it belongs to him to damn—but the same curse out of the mouth of a woman or a minor, i. e., an incomplete “man” to whom the world does not yet belong, is considered presumptuous, and thus an impropriety or worse. Both were set apart by fancy and nonfunctional clothing and were given special tasks (housework and homework respectively); both were considered mentally deficient (“What can you expect from a woman?” “He’s too little to understand.”). The pedestal of adoration on which both were set made it hard for them to breathe … In sum, if members of the working class and minority groups "act like children," it is because children of every class are lower-class, just as women have always been (88-90).
In her characteristic bluntness, Firestone wrote that “childhood is hell” (p. 103). A nightmare made of repressions, prohibitions, and humiliation. Children are repressed at school and repressed in the family, made to be economically and physically dependent on their parents, and then humiliated and mocked for their dependence and childish gullibility. Children are also naturally sexual beings (and this is where Freud hit the mark) but they are forced to repress their sexuality from a very early age. (As an interesting side note, Firestone thinks Freud was right in capturing the crux of all of our modern-life problems: sexuality. However, he based his observations on patriarchal societies, and so the only way his theory makes sense is if we understand it in terms of power. Chapter 3 of The Dialectic reinterprets the Oedipus complex in such terms, and in chapter 6 she uses the Freudian theory to explain how differently men and women experience and perceive love).
To the exaggeration of children’s dependence on their parents and the idealization of the child-like state we have added the glorification of motherhood and childrearing. Our society has masked the pain of childbirth with narratives of divine miracles and the mystical experience of childbirth. The trivial toil of childrearing—with the myth of its creativity. But in reality, Firestone reminds us, pregnancy is a terribly painful and inconvenient experience. In fact, it’s “like shitting a pumpkin” (p. 199).
Childbearing is a “temporary deformation of the body of the individual for the sake of the species” that “hurts and isn't good for you” (p. 198). As a result of the traumatic, “barbaric” experience of pregnancy, mothers educate their children in a way that is oppressive, possessive, and stifling. Displaying a type of psychological behavior that today we would call "effort justification," “a mother who undergoes a nine-month pregnancy is likely to feel that the product of all that pain and discomfort ‘belongs’ to her” (p. 232). Not only would breaking the ties between women and children liberate women, but they would also empower children and enable them to grow into freer and happier individuals.
The true liberation of women would mean being free from the tyranny of their own reproductive biology, and technology can help us do that. In 1970, Firestone wrote enthusiastically about artificial womb technology and how crucial it could be to the feminist revolution. More than four decades later, geneticists and ethicists have only begun to see ectogenesis (i.e., external wombs) and asexual reproduction as “great social equalizers.” Firestone believed the technology of external wombs would help diffuse the responsibility of childbearing to the society as a whole, making both men and women equally responsible for perpetuating the species. Ectogenesis would undermine the family unit as we know it, and help integrate women and children into all aspects of society. Ideally, this technology would make sex differences irrelevant. At the very least, it should enable us to have “an honest examination of the ancient value of motherhood” (p. 199).
Once the pressure of reproduction is lifted, women would be truly free to manifest their sexuality. As soon as we eradicate heteronormativity, Firestone believed we would revert to what Freud called “polymorphous perversity,” a free expression of our sexuality, which is, in her reading, pansexuality. Her post-revolutionary society includes single professions for women, people living together instead of being married, and polyamorous relationships and households that would also include children—although not necessarily biological ones. These children would be able to go in and out of these relationships as they please, sometimes benefiting from mediation by a court of law, in much the same way that divorces are settled.
Firestone seems to have written The Dialectic of Sex with an acute awareness of how "far-out" her ideas might seem. “Our revolutionary demands” she writes at the end of the book, “are likely to meet anything from mild balking ('utopian … unrealistic … farfetched … too far in the future … impossible …') to hysteria ('inhuman … unnatural … sick … perverted … communistic … 1984 … what? creative motherhood destroyed for babies in glass tubes, monsters made by scientists?, etc.')” (p. 209). But while it’s understandable to be afraid of technology and its radical implications, she says, our fear is also a sign that we’ve "hit a nerve," as these technologies can change our lives fundamentally.
Firestone’s post-revolutionary, technologically liberated society would make the division of labor obsolete (something she calls “cybernation”). Today, these ideas would fall under what we call transhumanism and its relative—cyberfeminism. While Firestone was aware of the dangers of transhumanist technologies, in The Dialectic of Sex she also predicted they would fundamentally change two things we tend to perceive as essentially human: the way we work and the way we reproduce.
Twenty-five years later, a baby goat was carried to term inside an artificial womb. Even more remarkably, only a few months ago a human embryo was developed inside an artificial womb for the legally allowed maximum of 14 days. While the name Shulamith Firestone may not be as famous as that of other feminists, in many ways our world is moving closer to the future that she imagined. We are closer to a postgender society than we’ve ever been, and further away from the “barbaric” realities of womanhood that she so candidly denounced.
Ana Sandoiu is a writer and researcher living in Brighton, UK. You can follow her on Twitter @annasandoiu