Dying was the best piece of publicity Shulamith Firestone ever generated. A name I did not hear much in 2012 seems to be making a comeback in 2013. I could not grasp what made her so rehabilitatable at first. “Radical feminism” is almost a slur nowadays, while hissing at and even physically attacking “radfems” is quite nearly applauded on the left. So when Laurie Penny tweeted about how fond she was of Firestone’s “The Dialectic of Sex” I had to finally raise my hand and ask why. The most memorable chapter I could recall was Chapter 5, “Rasicm: The Sexism of the Family of Man” which was one of the more shockingly racist things I’d ever read from a second wave feminist. Penny said her favorite was the chapter that comes after, on love, and that she could effectively divorce the underlying premises from the previous chapter. How? Even within that chapter we find abhorrent essentialism, totally unhelpful analysis based more on Firestone’s own life than on conditions women face.
The underlying theme to Firestone’s work – and part of why I think it’s been rehabilitated – is a very vicious somatophobia (fear of the body) that complements contemporary racist and classist feminism very well. On request, I emailed Penny to ask her what could be gleaned from such a feminism – she has not responded. This destruction of the female body – either from thinking sex work is “just like any other job” or from the surgical/chemical feminism that holds hands with liberal trans feminism – is rooted in a dangerous essentialism. The woman is unable to escape her body, therefore she must destroy it. Reminders of her body, e.g. birth, menstruation, voluptuousness etc, are considered traumatic.
Masculinity is being able to transcend the body by immersing oneself in the “world of the mind”, by utilizing technology, by challenging the mystification of the body, of reducing people to individuals and individuals to their individual parts. Federici writes on surgery theaters of the late middle ages, of women being cut open and their mysteries being laid bare as a kind of terrorism and disciplining of the female sex. The mystical experience of pregnancy and birth reduced to organs, the rearing of children (reproduction of labor force) reduced to individual events and biological needs, schedules and regimins. In Firestone’s technofetishistic fantasy of babies grown in vats and raised by the state we have made quite a leap. The oppression of woman under capital is found in her body that betrays her by swelling large with children, by losing its perkiness with age, by gaining wrinkles around the eyes. The betrayal trans people describe in the process of puberty is the same betrayal women face as they go through puberty, as they age. The solution to this oppression posited here (with Firestone) is to embrace the flesh and conquer it and shape it to our will using technology and surgery. By embracing masculinity-through-technology we too can escape our oppressive bodies. The hate is turned inward, festers like an ulcer. We blame ourselves, our lack of spirit, our lack of ability to change our own situations. It is atomizing and alienating.
In this, liberal and pink feminists willfully ignore the forces that assign such values to the body that make us hate them. Infuriatingly, they say there is nothing to be done about this. They say that men will always want to buy sex, they say that women are programmed in their brains to be the way they are, that gender is an essential biological condition as opposed to a system of active oppression under capitalism.
Birth is a powerful thing. Reproducing society is essential to our continued existence. There is no shame in breast feeding, no shame in menstruation, no shame in pregnancy or varicose veins. These are positions of great power for women, it is male technofetishism and capitalism that have turned these things into cause for shame and weakness. That Shulamith Firestone hates the body, hates weakness in the self is understandable, considering the pain that women go through on a daily basis in being women. However, she is misdirecting her hate and fear, putting the blame on women themselves. Her essentializing logic is dangerous, and the fact that her ideas have once again found traction in a “new generation” of “feminists” is troubling indeed. I hope that women are critical when they read these works, that they critically ask their friends to what end they are fascinated by fantasies of birthless, bloodless womanhood. We must make a decision of what we wish to transcend: capital or the flesh?