Sunday 21 October 2012

Womb Tanks and Revolution: Shulamith Firestone

For a generation of feminist activists Shulamith Firestone was at once an inspiration and a provocation. I was therefore sorry to hear about her death back in August.

Firestone's position as a key figure in the emergent Women's Liberation Movement of the early 70s was cemented on the basis of her seminal work, The Dialectic of Sex. The book proved to be a pivotal moment in the development of (radical) feminist politics and remains an important text for activists and students of social theory.

Her point of departure was the argument that sexual inequality could not be reformed away because it is the key foundational principle on which society is based. Engels in his Origin of the Family concurs with this point. As hunter/gatherer societies of prehistory settled into cycles of cultivation and domestication, Engels argues this marks the first time in history when human communities begin producing surpluses over and above what was necessary for the satisfaction of immediate material need. This revolution in social development coincided with a shift from matrilineal kinship groups to more and more discrete patrilineal family groups. This "world historic defeat of the female sex" saw the establishment of gendered privileges accruing to the male head of the household - most crucial of which was the control over sexual reproduction. For Engels, this expropriation reduced women to chattel. Gendered distinction became the first class relationship in human history, of where the labour of women in the household was directed and its social product appropriated by a power outside themselves. It is this set of kinship relations that set in train the subsequent development of the class societies of antiquity.

What Engels does not do is to provide an explanation why it was women and not men who became the original labouring class. Was it merely an accident of history? Firestone's answer was something deeper: biology. She located the stratification of the 'sex class' in biological difference. Because it is women who fall pregnant and give birth, the dependence of the infant on them means men and women were not equally privileged from the beginning. This dependence, which could be socialised to a degree in the environs of the hunter/gatherer band was 'privatised' when settled communities based around households started emerging. Child birth and the raising of children was now controlled by and subject to the interests of the first patriarchs. For Firestone, it follows that feminism needs to do more than concur with socialists in seeking to abolish class society, it must tackle the wellspring of male privilege to stop all the old crap from coming back. And that means the abolition of the sex distinction itself.

Firestone was particularly scathing of what she called 'conservative feminism' in the Betty Friedan mould, which was "content" to secure greater autonomy and rights for women within the existing set up, and she predicted that consumerism would remove only the superficial signs of gendered oppression. Similarly she had little time for Freudianism for whom, in common with many anti-psychiatry critiques of that period, psychological problems were diagnosed in terms of an individual's inability to cope rather than social pathologies stemming from how society is structured.

Firestone was critical of patriarchy within the then black power movement, likening the social situation of black men to white women, albeit one that allows for complicity with the existing order, an alliance against the 'father' represented by white men, or a relation of mutual contempt fuelled respectively by sexism and racism.

She was also extremely sceptical of the radical claims made for the sexual revolution. While 'free love' had broken down the gendered ties that stunted women as sexual beings, she observed that the new freedoms saw imitation of men's sexual behaviour. It also merely preserved the sex-class configuration in a new form.

Most intriguingly, and one reason perhaps why The Dialectic of Sex has hung around in the collective consciousness of social theory was Firestone's advocacy of advanced technologies to abolish the sex distinction. Toward the end of the book she portrays a future socialist society where the link between biological sex and reproduction is broken thanks to the development of, for want of a better phrase, artificial womb tanks. Sounds far fetched? They may be closer than you think. The raising of children is once again socialised, albeit on a higher and wider scale than possible in prehistory.

It might be tempting to treat Firestone's work as a curio from the late 60s explosion in radical ideas. But it would be a mistake to do so. There is Firestone's lasting theoretical contribution: as a revolutionary feminist manifesto, her message does not make clear how to make a revolution. But her engagement with Engels and the situation of her argument within a broad historical materialist framework is a vitally important argument to understanding how sex and class intertwine. And secondly, her emphasis on sexual reproduction and child-rearing has a contemporary resonance as abortion and arguments around women's reproductive freedoms continue to dominate US politics and, increasingly, becoming more of an issue here too. Despite the advances women have made since publication, child bearing and child rearing will not go away. Because of the fundamental role sexual reproduction plays in the structuring of gender relations, I'm sure this would come as no surprise to Firestone.

The Dialectic of Sex deservedly is a must-read classic of radical literature. To mangle Emma Goldman, if I can't have womb tanks I don't want your revolution.

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